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Soot And Embers In The City Of Light

Aharon Granevich-Granot

It was 769 years ago this week that Dominican priests incited frenzied masses as thousands of Talmudic manuscripts were seized and tossed into the flames in the center of Paris. Although the mob assumed they had destroyed every painstakingly handwritten copy of the Talmud they could get their hands on, some folios survived the inferno. Those pieces of scorched parchment from 1242 are hidden away in the private archives of the Alliance library in Paris – but with a little pull, anything can be revealed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Paris, 9 Tammuz 5002 (1242 CE) Bloodcurdling, hate-filled cries echo through the streets of Paris. “Bring the books!” shouts the frenzied mob. Over twenty wagons, filled with close to 12,000 handwritten manuscripts of the Talmud, are brought to a stake that has been set ablaze in a public square. The proceedings are overseen by the priests, who have front-row seats to view the event. Royal guards lift the seforim from the wagons and cast them into the raging fire.

Paris, which would eventually be nicknamed the City of Light, is now illuminated by flames of darkness, the light of evil. The fire consumes the seforim, as well as the hearts of the Jews looking on in horror.

The pain of those days has remained forever ingrained on the collective soul of the Jewish People, commemorated in the elegy Sha’ali Srufah Ba’eish, written by the Maharam of Rothenburg and recited each Tisha B’Av morning:

“Those who yearn for the earth of the Land and are pained and astonished by the burning of your scrolls, they have gone into the darkness where there is no light. They hope for the light of day to shine upon them and upon you. [Inquire also about] the welfare of the men who sigh and weep with broken hearts, always mourning the pain that has beset you.”

This book burning was the first of its kind, and it would eventually be replicated in many other countries across Europe. It took place on a Friday, after which the Jews of the community, enveloped in pain and sorrow, had to prepare for Shabbos.


Paris, 2011. Seven hundred sixty-seven years later, accompanied by the av beis din of Paris, Rav Yirmiyahu Cohen, I find myself standing in the very spot where the Talmud is assumed to have been burned, in the Île de la Cité on the River Seine, near the sprawling municipal headquarters of Paris, not far from the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The boulevards surrounding it are traversed by tens of thousands of people every day, and automobiles speed along the wide lanes. The squares, the elegant gardens, and the sprawling, picturesque homes, built in the style of Louis XIV and in other time-honored architectural styles, broadcast classic French culture. But when Rav Cohen approaches the area, such pain is evident on his face that he looks as if he personally witnessed those manuscripts crackling in the fire.

“In those days, books were not a common commodity,” Rav Cohen explains, painting the historical context of the tragic burning of the Talmud. “The printing press had not been invented yet. Every book had to be copied by hand, which made volumes of the Talmud quite rare. When those wagons of the Talmud were burned, years of painstaking work, of precious time spent copying the Gemara from one volume to the next, were lost. It was one of the most devastating expressions of anti-Semitism of the era.”

Rav Cohen paints the picture so vividly that, standing there, one can virtually see the smoke obliterating thousands of sacred texts, to the sounds of a jeering crowd.

The burning of the Talmud took place after an extended debate between Christian clergy and Jewish scholars. Led by two of the great Tosafists, Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris and Rabbeinu Moshe of Coucy, the Jewish sages engaged in “the Disputation of Paris” against the Christian scholars, led by apostate Nicholas Donin, who had studied under Rabbeinu Yechiel of Paris before converting. The disputation revolved around whether the Talmud commands Jews to despise non-Jews and Christians. The results of the debate were predetermined, and although Donin wasn’t able to prove his position, the Talmud was condemned to burn.

The Jews were shocked, never imagining that the Church would commit such an act.

Eventually, a fast day was established in commemoration of this tragedy, but unlike all other fast days, which are linked to the day of the month, this fast is linked to the specific day of the week in which the burning occurred. The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayim 580:9) explains that through a sheilas chalom (a way of determining Divine intentions through dreams, which can only be carried out by righteous individuals), it was determined that the events were linked to the words of Parashas Chukas — “Zos chukas HaTorah.” Onkelos translates these words as “Da gzeiras Oraysa,” which can mean “This is the decree of the Torah.”

In other words, it was the parshah of the week that determined when the tragedy would take place, rather than the calendar date, and the fast was therefore established on Erev Shabbos of Parashas Chukas rather than on the ninth day of Tammuz.


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