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June 17: The Talmud in Flames

Lawrence Bush
June 17, 2010

talmudOn this day in 1242, two dozen cartloads of the Talmud (all handwritten in this pre-Gutenberg era) were burned in Paris at the order of Pope Gregory IX and King Louis IX of France. This followed a disputation, two years earlier, between rabbis and Christian clerics, the first such debate forced upon the Jewish community by the Church. The conflagration was compared by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg to the destruction of the Temple in an elegy that he wrote, Sha’ali Serufah, which is part of traditional Jewish observances on the fast day of Tisha B’Av. In an attempt to preserve the Talmud, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, the main Jewish debater in the 1240 disputation, worked with a group of 300 students to commit its many volumes to memory, and also attempted to memorize and record all the writings of the Tosafists (Talmudic commentators who were centered in France), which were also burned. Subsequent assaults on the Talmud and other Jewish religious writings were held in France in 1247, 1248, 1284, 1290, and 1299, and in other European countries in subsequent centuries right up until 1757, when nearly 1,000 copies of the Talmud were put to fire in Poland.
“Since this [Talmud] is said to be the most important reason why the Jews remain obstinate in their perfidy, we, through apostolic letters, order your Discretion to have the Jews . . . forced by the secular arms to give up their books . . . to be burned at the stake.” —Pope Gregory IX

​​​​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.