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    The books in the flames

    One of the hardest things Jews ever had to witness was the burning of the volumes of the Talmud in a number of European cities.

    In northern France in the 13th century, a former Jew – Nicholas Donin, possibly a follower of Karaite doctrines – led to measures to confiscate copies of the Talmud and in many cases to burn them publicly.

    The French rabbis had excommunicated Donin because of his relentless attacks on the authority of the Talmud. He now turned to Christianity, became a Franciscan and urged the pope to ban the Talmud which, he said, was full of blasphemies which prevented the Jews from becoming Christians.

    He spearheaded the famous Disputation of Paris, 1240, which led to the Talmud being found “guilty”. It stands to the credit of two of the bishops that the destruction of rabbinic manuscripts was not fully enforced.

    In Italy it was former Jews who also spearheaded the war against the Talmud, but friction amongst the Jews themselves added to the problem.

    In Venice two rival Jewish printers had issued editions of Maimonides’ Code and other works and their conflict led them to allege to the Christian authorities that the books which the other printer had produced contained libels against Christianity.

    Jewish renegades came to the support of both sides, notably two grandsons of the Hebraist Elijah Levita (“Eliyahu Bachur”).

    One of the two brothers, Solomon Romano, eventually became a Jesuit under the name of Giovanni Baptista Eliano. Their efforts led to Pope Julian III authorising the Inquisitor General to destroy the Talmud and other books, including the Hebrew Scriptures.

    The decree was, probably deliberately, slated for implementation in Rome on Rosh HaShanah 1553, though in the north of Italy the burning was staved off for some time. In Italy as elsewhere there were some Christians who protested.

    The story of the burning of the books is recorded in “Emek HaBacha” –”The Valley of Weeping” (the name derives from Psalm 84:7), by the historian Joseph HaCohen. The Tishah B’Av liturgy also contains poems commemorating the tragic events.

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