On January 17, 1670, a French Jew named Raphael Levy was strangled to death and then burned at the stake, in the town of Metz, after having been convicted of the kidnapping and ritual murder of a 3-year-old Christian child named Didier Le Moyne.
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Levy was a well-to-do livestock merchant from the village of Boulay, in the duchy of Lorraine, in eastern France. On the day of his alleged crime, several months earlier, on September 25, 1669, he had gone to Metz to purchase provisions for the celebration of Rosh Hashana, before hurrying home for the start of the holiday. The same day, young Didier, whose family lived in Glatigny, between Boulay and Metz, disappeared, while his mother was in town doing washing.
When a local resident claimed that he had seen someone matching Levy’s description – that is, with a black beard – riding a horse with a small child, Levy was asked to come to Metz for questioning. Although Boulay and Metz were in different jurisdictions, and only the latter was in the domain of France, Levy, at the urging of his Jewish neighbors, voluntarily presented himself before the local parlement, the regional governing body.
Once he was in custody, Levy was arrested and tortured, and tried and convicted. His prosecution, reported French historian Pierre Birnbaum, in a 2012 book on the affair, coincided with a general reawakening in the region of the suspicion that Jews were involved in host abuse, that is, acts of torture performed on eucharist wafers, which in Christian tradition are transubstantiated into the living body of Christ. At the same time Levy was arrested, a number of other Jews, prominent citizens of Metz, were also in prison on suspicion of host abuse.
By introducing elements of this other imagined outrage into the Levy case, his prosecutors were able to finesse the oddness of his being accused of a crime associated with Passover and the production of matza (killing a Christian child for his blood) during the Jewish new year. Even after Raphael Levy’s execution, the people of Metz petitioned the French king for permission to expel the Jews from their city. The request was denied.
Raphael Levy might have saved himself had he agreed to convert during his trial. But he didn’t, and while he was in custody, he received mail – confiscated by his captors – urging him to recite a particular formula about being a Jew and dying a Jew, if he was subjected to torture. Later, at the time of his execution, he was observed to tie two leather straps to himself, one on his forehead, the other on his forearm – tefillin, of course. When asked what they were, recorded one witness, “he answered that within the knot were the commandments of the Law and that Jews traditionally tied them about their head when at the point of death” (quoted by historian Susan L. Einbinder, in her book “Beautiful Death”). Fearing some sort of witchcraft, the court clerk then removed the phylacteries from Levy’s person.
Later, an official inquiry into the prosecution of Levy by the Royal Council, under King Louis XIV, in Paris, concluded that he had been the victim of a judicial murder.