June 17, 1242, is the day that, at the orders of both the pope and the French king, all the known existing copies of the Talmud in Paris were burned.
The process that led to the setting of the bonfire, in which it is said that 24 wagons piled with copies of the multi-volume work of Hebrew law and lore, took place over several years.
The whole thing began with accusations against the religious work by an apostate Jew, called Nicholas Donin, of La Rochelle, France.
Donin had been excommunicated by his Jewish community around the year 1229 for his heretical views. In 1236, he traveled to Rome and presented Pope Gregory IX with a list of complaints about the Talmud.
Forfeiting the Church's protection
Among Jews, the Talmud - which is comprised of the Mishna, the 3rd-century C.E. compendium of law, as interpreted by the Rabbis; and the Gemara, the 6th-century work of commentary on the Mishna and other subjects – is also referred to as the Oral Law. And indeed, it is understood to be no less divinely inspired – or binding – than the Torah, the Five Books of Moses.
According to the historian Jeremy Cohen, Nicholas Donin’s principal concern was that the Talmud had begun to supersede the Bible for the Jews. If so, however, it constituted a theological problem for Christians.
According to Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine, who died in the year 430), the Jews bear the responsibility of upholding the “Old Testament” so as to provide living proof of the truth of the New Testament offered by Jesus. If the Jews were to give precedence to the Oral Law, and allow themselves to reinterpret the Bible, they were no longer fulfilling their historic role, and were no longer candidates for conversion – and hence no longer warranted the protection of the Church.
In 1239, Pope Gregory I sent to other church leaders, and to the kings of Spain, England and Portugal, a list of 35 arguments against the Talmud compiled by Donin.
The charges made against the Talmud included the claim that it blasphemed Jesus and Mary, and attacked non-Jews, among other things.
The missive concluded with an order to confiscate the book on the first Sabbath in Lent, in this case March 3, 1240, while the Jews were at prayer.
Donin himself traveled back to Paris with the pope’s letter, which also ordered that “those books in which you find errors of this sort you shall cause to be burned at the stake."
Talmud on trial
The next stage in the process, at least in France, was a “trial” for the Talmud, ordered by King Louis IX, in what turned out to be the first so-called disputation between Jews and Christians, which was held in Vincennes in May and June of 1240.
Again, it was Donin who argued the case against the holy book; speaking on its behalf were four distinguished rabbis, led by Rabbi Yechiel ben Joseph of Paris.
Not surprisingly, the Talmud was found to be blasphemous, and the consequence was its public burning two years later, on this date. One estimate is that the 24 wagonloads included up to 10,000 volumes of Hebrew manuscripts, a startling number when one considers that the printing press did not yet exist, so that all copies of a work had to be written out by hand.
Subsequently, Pope Innocent IV, who became pontiff in 1243, ruled that the Talmud should be corrected, rather than outright banned, making it possible to censor offensive passages while Jews were able to continue studying the work.
Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the Maharam, is said to have witnessed the Paris burning, which took place at the Place de Greve. In a lamentation he wrote, he described how “My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon. Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?”
The original version of this article was published on June 17, 2013.