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    Burning the books

    The liturgy for Tishah B’Av is built around melancholy dirges that lament an age-long series of calamities.

    They include a 13th-century poem by Me’ir of Rothenburg. Titled Sha’ali S’rufah BaEsh – “Ask, O you who have been burnt by fire”.

    It does not weep for the Temple or even for the martyrs who lost their lives for the sanctification of the Divine Name. It is simply concerned with the burning of books.

    Of course Jewish tradition always regarded books as living beings, to be treated with respect, never destroyed but to be given honoured burial when their life came to an end. So mourning for books came naturally to Jews. Yet why bother to think about burnt books when there were so many burnt bodies?

    On one level, the books destroyed by rapacious enemies were themselves martyrs. Generally their authors were too, because when human life is cheap, no-one is going to want to save authors or artists.

    Me’ir of Rothenburg took upon himself the sacred task of memorialising the books destroyed in his time when on 17 June, 1242, the mobs – incited by Nicholas Donin, an apostate Jew, and approved by Pope Gregory IX and the King of France – threw 24 cartloads of Hebrew manuscripts onto the flames in a Paris square.

    Sha’ali S’rufah BaEsh could equally have been written for the seven centuries of holocausts of Jewish books that extended to the Nazi attack on Jewish religious and cultural treasures in which at least three million Jewish books were destroyed.

    Not merely because they were martyrs, though that was ample reason for mourning. Not merely because in a cold, hostile world, books were often a Jew’s only friends. But because our enemies feared these books.

    They represented independent, even deviationist thinking. They represented defiance. They were a threat to the a-morality in which nothing was sacred – neither conscience, nor life itself. These books passed judgment on the enemy. They had to be eliminated.

    Yet the Talmud tells a story which offers the best eulogy for the burnt books.

    Rabbi Chananya ben T’radyon was martyred by the Romans. Wrapped in the Torah scroll from which he had been teaching, he was thrown onto the flames. His pupils, powerless to save him, called, “Master, what do you see?” His answer was: “Burning parchments, but letters flying upwards!”

    Centuries of book-burners may have destroyed the parchments, but the message of the books is indestructible.

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