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Destroying Hebrew Books

Lawrence Bush
May 27, 2017

On this date in 1731, searches in all Jewish homes throughout the Papal States (a major swath of Italy) resulted in the confiscation of all Hebrew books. Similar searches were conducted in 1738, 1748, and 1753, the last by order of Pope Benedict XIV, “who had learned that books were being smuggled into the ghettos in rolls of cloth and by means of other subterfuges,” wrote Richard Gottheil and William Popper in the 1906 edition of The Jewish Encyclopedia. They note that a period of sixty years had lapsed since Christian authorities had censored or revised Jewish books en masse, and “the Jews had undone the work of the censors by restoring the expunged or omitted passages. Though this was a dangerous thing to do, punishable not only by confiscation and large fines, but also by long imprisonment . . . yet the Jews could not resist the temptation. . . . The Hebrew books, without exception, were collected and divided into three classes: 1) those permitted without reserve, which were immediately returned; 2) those permitted conditionally, returned after having been revised and paid for; and 3) those absolutely unrevisable, which were confiscated. Whenever several copies of the same book had to be revised, the reviser corrected merely one copy, which he signed; the Jews were then obliged to correct all other copies by this one, and to bring them to the reviser for his signature.” For a full history of the pre-Holocaust confiscation and burning of Jewish texts in France, Italy, Poland, and the German states, by Roman emperors, Christian crusaders, and the Inquisition, among others, click here.

“In Rome, on a night in April, after the ghetto gates had been closed, officials entered houses previously marked as suspicious. Outside, at stated distances on the streets, wagons and carts were stationed under escort. As the books were taken from each house they were placed in one of the sacks with which each searching party had been provided, the sack was scaled in the presence of two Christian witnesses, and a tag bearing the owner’s name was attached. The books were then conveyed to an appointed official; and in this way thirty-eight carts were filled from the ghetto of Rome alone.” --Jewish Encyclopedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.