Notre Dame on Fire!
The Burning of the Talmud – 
On April 15, 2019, soon before Pesach, at 6:20 in the evening Paris time, the news broke that the Notre Dame, a large cathedral in Paris, was burning.
Paris, the capital city of France, is divided into half by the River Seine which flows through it. In the middle of the Seine, there are two islands. On the larger of the two lies, a medieval cathedral called the Notre Dame.
A cathedral is a prominent and central church in a city with a large Christian population. Every large city had a cathedral headed by a bishop and many smaller churches, each under the command of the priests. “Notre Dame” is French for “our lady” or “our mother,” a reference to the mother of the founder of Christianity, ym”sh.
As the cathedral burned, news agencies the world over rushed to cover the event. Peculiarly enough, 777 years earlier, in front of this very cathedral, the infamous burning of the Talmud transpired. It was an incident of such note that Rabbeinu Meir from Rottenburg wrote the special kinah (elegy) about it that we read each Tisha B’Av, “Shaali Srufa Ba’aish.” Included in the kinah are the ominous words, “Therefore, praised is the one who will give you what you deserve…and in the end a fire will burn where they tread.” In our own times, we have witnessed the fulfillment of this prediction.
The Burning of the Talmud
We have heard the story of the burning of the Talmud before, but let’s try to pinpoint some of the details and see what emerges.
First, let’s look at the Magen Avraham (O.C. 580:29). He quotes the sefer Tanya as follows:
Some have the custom to fast on the Friday of Parshas Chukas. On that day, twenty wagons full of holy books were burned in France. A fast day was not designated for a specific day in the month because the question about the date was asked via a dream, and the answer was that the day of the week (Friday) caused the decree on the Torah. ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah’ means that there was a decree on the Torah (that it would be burned).
The sefer Tanya he quotes is an early halachic work, also referred to as Tanya Rabbasi. We sought the first edition of this sefer to see what exactly the Magen Avraham saw there. There were two printings of this Tanya before the times of the Magen Avraham. The first was in the city of Monitava in the year 1514, and the second in Cremona in the year 1565.
In the section of “The Four Fasts” it states the following:
In Shebulei Haleket it is written: Now that we are discussing the subject of fast days and the burning of the Torah, we write in commemoration of what occurred due to our sins that Hashem’s Torah was burned in the year 4 on Friday, Parshas ‘Zos Chukas HaTorah.’ It was known that twenty-four wagons full of holy books of Talmud, Halachah and Aggadah were burned in France. We also heard that the sages then sought to ascertain by way of a dream whether this was a decree from Heaven and the reply was that indeed it was. From that time on, Friday of Parshas Chukas was designated for individuals as a fast day (and not on the day of the month).
So the source of this information is not the Magen Avraham itself, nor is it the Tanya Rabbasi. Rather the Shibulei Haleket is where it all begins. The first edition of Shibulei Haleket was an abridged version which appeared in print for the first time in Venice in the year 1496 and again in 1546. In this edition, however, the above passage does not appear. It is only mentioned in the long version which was printed many years later in Vilna in the year 1887 by Shlomo Buber from Lemberg, long after the time of the Tanya.
Here in London, there are original manuscripts from the author himself, the great Rav Tzidkiyah the son of R’ Avraham HaRofeh, who wrote it in the year 1260, as is clearly written on the last page of the manuscript:
I have completed the work Shibulei Haleket in the year 20 (1260), on the thirteenth day of the third month. I, Tzidkiyah ben R’ Avraham, send this sefer to R’ Yoav ben R’ Meshulem. May Hashem give him the merit to learn this sefer and also his children and grandchildren until the end of time, amen.
In this manuscript, on page 301, which is page 363 in the printed text, all the information brought in the Tanya in the name of the Shibulei Haleket is there, along with some specific details about the nature of the Heavenly response.
In any event, here we have a report written less than sixteen years after the incident occurred. On Friday of Parshas Chukas in the year 1244 in France, they incinerated twenty-four wagons full of books of Talmud, Halachah, and Aggadah.
The date was 1244, 775 years ago, not the commonly accepted 777 years.
The Pope’s Involvement
On June 20, 1239 (Monday of Parshas Pinchas, the eve of the 17th of Tammuz), on the day that Apostemos burned the holy Torah (see Taanis 4:6), the Pope wrote a letter addressed to the bishops of the Dominican and Franciscan brothers in Paris.
You will notice that it seems as though the Pope is repeating what he was told and that he had not seriously considered the issue. Here is an excerpt from the Pope’s letter, translated from the Latin:1The Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century, New York 1966, No. 97, Page 243.
If what was said about the Jews of France and other lands is true, this would explain why the Jews stand by their principles. We, via our correspondence, order you with legal authority to force the Jews living in France, England, Aragon, Navarre, Castille, and Portugal, to give up their books. If you should discover that they do not comply, you should see to it that they are burned in a public venue in a show of strength of Christianity and the church. Only then will you have quieted all those who oppose us. Please keep us apprised of your progress in this particular situation. July 20, Year 13.”
The kings in the countries mentioned above at the time were:
25-year-old Ludwig IX of France
- 32-year-old Henry of England
- 26-year-old Jacob of Aragon
- 38-year-old Theobald I of Navarre
- 39-year-old Ferdinand of Castille
- 30-year-old Sanko II of Portugal
In a letter from the pope a few days earlier, he divulges that he had the help of another in coming up with this plot. The letter is dated June 9th, eleven days earlier than the first letter mentioned and is addressed to the bishop of Paris:2Ibid., No. 95, Page 239.
By our authority, we are ordering you to receive our letter, which was given to us via Nicholas, who was once a Jew and the courier of this letter. Please study the correspondence about the situation of the Jewish literature and then pass it on to the archbishop and our beloved sons, the kings of France, England, Aragon, Navarre, Castille, Lyon, and Portugal. Written on the 5th before the Ides of June, Year 13.
So the official correspondence mentioning the burning of the seforim was in 1239, but the Shibulei Haleket writes about the incineration of the Talmud in 1244. When did it actually occur?
“Shaali Srufa Ba’aish” – 12th or 13th Century?
The kinah of “Shaali Srufa Ba’aish” is attributed to the Maharam of Rottenburg and is supposed to be about the terrible fire that destroyed the Talmud in Paris. The question is, however, did the Maharam of Rottenburg truly compose it? There is no mention in the old kinnos books regarding which R’ Meir wrote the kinah, only that this kinah was composed by a R’ Meir regarding the burning of the Torah.
It does not elucidate who R’ Meir was and if it was someone other than the Maharam. Now, 800 years later, we only know of one R’ Meir from that era, the Maharam, but surely there were many R’ Meirs that we don’t know about, living in those times. Who decided that the author in fact was R’ Meir ben R’ Baruch, the Maharam of Rottenburg?
The answer to that would be Yom Tov Tzunz, an emancipated Jew, better known by his secular name, Leopold Tzunz. He wrote that the R’ Meir who was the author of the kinah was none other than the Maharam of Rottenburg, but gave no proof for his claim.3Synagogale Poesie des Mittelalters, Berlin 1855, page 310. On the other hand, R’ Wolf Heidenheim, in his Seder L’Tisha B’Av, writes that the kinah regarding the burning of the Torah was composed by R’ Meir Shatz. R’ Meir Shatz was the renowned R’ Meir ben R’ Yitzchok, the Shatz of Worms. This is astounding because that R’ Meir lived quite a few years prior to the burning of the Talmud.
So, was the “Shaali Srufa Ba’aish” composed in commemoration of the burning of the Talmud in Paris, or was it from an earlier period in history?
1,200 Manuscripts or 24 Wagons Full?
It is interesting to note that we have a detailed report from a Torah giant in regard to the burning of the Talmud in Paris. His name was R’ Hillel of Verona, a talmid of R’ Yona of Girondi, author of the Shaarei Teshuvah. He wrote in a letter to R’ Yitzchok HaRofeh that at the burning of the Talmud, 1,200 manuscripts were also incinerated. “Was it worth the 1,200 books of the Talmud and Aggadah because of the ‘Moreh’?”
Were 1,200 manuscripts burned or was it twenty-four wagon loads? A wagon may contain a bit more than fifty manuscripts, but it seems possible that we are talking about two separate incidents.
The “Madah” and the “Moreh”
R’ Hillel blames the burning of the Talmud on the scandal that occurred not much prior and in the exact same place, the burning of the seforim of the Rambam. He writes, “Don’t ask who knows if those decrees happened due to the burning of the ‘Madah and Moreh.’ I will answer that there is a sign. There were not even forty days between the burning of the Rambam’s seforim and the (burning of the) Talmud and it took place in the same location, with the ashes of the seforim of the Rambam mixing with the ashes of the Talmud. This was true and known by Jew and gentile alike and soon everyone will be aware that it was decreed from Heaven. From above a fire was sent because the Rambam’s seforim were destroyed.”4Igros Kana’os, Lypcha 1859, page 14.
R’ Hillel describes the scandal that occurred with the Rambam’s seforim, where some Jewish leaders criticized them, and others went so far as to burn them. The seforim that were under scrutiny were the sefer Moreh Nevuchim and the Sefer Hamadah of the Mishneh Torah. Moreh Nevuchim is a guide in philosophy created to aid those who have drifted away from Judaism. Sefer Hamadah discusses various subjects that the leaders were not pleased about. This was besides the Mishneh Torah which contains halachos without their sources or the reasons why they were ruled that way. In Paris, the anti-Rambam group recruited the local bishop in their feud. Like R’ Hillel related, the burning of the Talmud took place forty days after the burning of the seforim of the Rambam, and he used this as a sign that in Heaven they were upholding the honor of the Rambam. He doesn’t give an exact date of when this occurred other than that it happened forty days after the burning of the Rambam’s seforim and in the same location in Paris.
Let’s recap the information we have gathered until now:
- The burning of the Talmud took place in the year 1244, according to the Shibulei Haleket.
- There is an elegy, “Shaali Srufa Ba’aish,” about the burning of the Talmud, but no exact date for it.
- There is a report about the burning of the Talmud forty days after the burning of the seforim of the Rambam.
- There is an order from the Pope to burn the Jewish books in the year 1239, and the one responsible for it was an apostate named Nicholas.
- Finally, the burning of the Talmud took place 777 years ago in year 1242.
So now let us go to the very beginning and see if we can piece everything together.
Tela Ignea Satanae
In the year 1681, a non-Jew named John Christopher Wagenseil wrote a book with the title Tela Ignea Satanae. (Translated from the Latin this means “Satan’s Fiery Arrows.”) On the one hand, John criticized the Christians for their mistreatment of the Jews but he faulted the Jews as well for charging high usury rates. He also saw a problem, especially after reading the history of the birth of Christianity, in that the Jews mock the religion’s founder and all things the Christians consider holy. He recommended that the non-Jews get along with the Jews, and in return, the Jews would reduce their mockery. This book was a compilation of writings on such topics, translated into Latin, in addition to a book entitled “The Debate of R’ Yechiel with Nicholas.”
Who was this apostate Nicholas who is mentioned in the pope’s letter and held a debate with R’ Yechiel?
Donin the Karaite
In Paris in the year 1225, there was a rosh yeshivah and Tosafist, R’ Yechiel the son of R’ Yosef Halevi of Meaux, who was renowned as “Sir Vives.” He was a talmid of the famed Tosafist Rabbeinu Yehudah “Sir Leon” from Paris.
There was an individual in his yeshivah named Donin. Donin was born in the French city of La Rochelle, a port city in the west of France. There is not much else known about him aside from the fact that Donin had a problem understanding the Gemara, or more likely, he had a problem with wanting to understand. It seems that he followed the Karaite mindset in that he did not believe in the validity of the Oral Torah. When his Rebbe R’ Yechiel saw what Donin was doing, the wayward student was excommunicated so that everyone would know to stay far away from this dangerous person and his toxic ideas. R’ Yechiel spread a black tablecloth over the table, lit black candles and then blew them out, brought black shofaros, and enacted the cherem. They believed that if Donin was in cherem they would no longer have any trouble from him. For fourteen years they didn’t hear from him, but then he resurfaced as a different person. While in cherem, having no connection to the Jewish community, Donin befriended the Christian community. It took a while for Donin to make his final decision and he converted a few years later in the year 1236.5Alexander Fidora & Ulisse Cecini, ״Nicholas Donin׳s Thirty-Five articles Against the Talmud״, Ex Oriente Lux, Cordova-London 2016, page 191. We don’t know what went on in his head in the interim years but one thing is clear, he was bent on eradicating the Oral Torah. His goal wasn’t to convert to Christianity initially but to live as a Karaite. But living as a Karaite was the first step down a slippery slope that ended in conversion. Since he knew that the only way he could succeed in erasing the Oral Torah from Judaism was to bring the Pope into the picture, Donin converted and chose a new name, Nicholas.
Popelier than the Pope
In the year 1239, Nicholas went to Rome to meet with Pope Gregory IV. In his request to the pope, he said:6Letter from Odo of Châteaurouxto the Pope, The Jews in Christian Europe; a Source Book, 315-1791, Hebrew Union College Press, University of Pittsburgh Press 2015, page 128. “The Jews are not happy with the old laws that G-d sent written via Moshe and they totally ignore them. They rely on another law that is called Talmud, which means learning, which was given to them from G-d via Moshe orally, and it was planted in their minds.”
You have to understand what was happening to the Christians in the year 1239 that they suddenly remembered the Talmud. Where were they for the first hundred years of their religion? The Jews actually had a bit of respite from the Christians then. Christians or any other non-Jew were uninterested in what a Jew learned in yeshivah. It never occurred to them that there was something there that would give them an opening to torture the Jews. That all ended in the year 1240 after Nicholas informed the Pope about the Talmud and the golden opportunities that this presented for them.
Nicholas’ Request from the Pope
We can read the words of Nicholas’ request in the following letter from the Pope. This was written the same day as the previous letter and was also sent out to the archbishop of France:7The Church and the Jews, No. 96, Page 241.
“If what was said about the Jews of France and other lands is true, then there is no punishment great enough for this crime. Because they are not happy with the old text that G-d gave to Moshe in writing, and they totally ignore it and declare that G-d gave them a new version that they call Talmud, which means learning, that was given over to them orally via Moshe. They falsely claim that it has become embedded in their minds and although it is not written, they followed and treasured it until sages and scribes recorded it all in the written word for fear it would be forgotten from the minds of their people. The Talmud is a more lengthy text than the Bible and contains material that is so insulting and unmentionable that it shames those that cite it and fear in those that hear it. Therefore, it appears to be the reason that the Jews are lodged in their principles, and we thought you should be warned and aware. We are ordering your decision that Shabbos morning of the coming spring when the Jews are gathered in their shuls, you should confiscate all the books of the Jews who live in your borders. The books should be guarded on the property of the Franciscan and Dominican brothers.8Throughout our research, we find these two Christian groups singled out in more than once. In the sefer Daas Zekeinim of the Tosafists, we find an explanation on the verse in the Shiras Haazinu, “They have vexed me with a non-G-d, they have angered me with their foolishness, and I will vex them with a non-nation, and anger them with a foolish nation.” The Daas Zekeinim says this verse is fulfilled by the “Chovlim-Yakopens” because they tortured the Jews at every opportunity and they are therefore called a “non-nation,” as they are an embarrassment to mankind. The Chovlim-Yakopens, a non-nation, ostracized because of their lack of humanity and etiquette, is the subject of this pasuk. Who are these Chovlim-Yakopens that the Daas Zekeinim is describing? Well, chovlim is a Hebrew word meaning “those who tie a rope.” This is a reference to the Franciscan priests who wore rope belts around their waists. (A chevel is a rope in Hebrew.) “Yakopens,” on the other hand, is from the French word, “Jacobins.” The Jacobins were the Dominican friars, thus called at the time for their first church was located in Saint-Jacques in Paris. The religious behavior of these two groups was a simple one. They dressed cheaply in long robes and a rope used as a belt. As the Daas Zekeinim wrote, “Their species are a low class of mankind.” These Chovlim-Yakopens were the ones who carried out the orders and burned the holy Talmud. If need be, and you require additional help, you may call in the civilians to assist you. You may also publicize the ex-communication against all those that go against your righteousness and refuse to give up the Hebrew books in their ownership which is in violation of the laws of the church.
Shabbos of the coming spring was Shabbos Zachar of 1240. The Pope’s order was not followed in England or in Aragon, Navarre, Castille, Lyons, or Portugal. There was one more place the Pope’s law was ignored and that was right under his nose in the Papal States. In fact, the only place it was actually carried out was in France and the seforim were placed in the cellars of Notre Dame in Paris.
The Pure Fear of Hashem Endures Forever
Before we go further we have to explain an important point. Why should the pope care about what a Jew does, how he thinks, how he learns Torah, and precisely what he learns? Let us see what the Radak says:
King David says in Psalms (19:10): Yiras Hashem tehorah omedes la’ad—“The pure fear of Hashem endures forever.” The Radak explains that the words “endures forever” refers to the entire Torah. Hashem did not give the Torah for a limited time, rather forever and permanently. The Christians say that the Torah was to be followed until the time of their “saviour,” but then Hashem decided that the Torah should be merely a spiritual guide and need not be actually performed. Their words are foolish, says the Radak. They claim that the commandments are mere parables and cannot be understood the way they are written. We know the truth: Hashem does not change His mind. He commanded us to do these mitzvos explicitly and not as parables. All mitzvos are straightforward; if they were given as parables, people would have their own take on their intended meaning and do whatever they see fit. Like the verse says (Devarim 30:11), “For this mitzvah that I command you today is not hidden from you and not far from you.” If mitzvos had hidden things in them, we wouldn’t be able to understand them and they would be far from us.
If the Christians believe in the written text, why don’t they have peyos, eat kosher or keep Shabbos? What do they believe about the Torah? From the Radak we see that they only had to keep the mitzvos until Christianity was born. Then it became a spiritual symbol with spiritual ideas and did not have to be kept physically. Therefore, the Radak quotes Dovid Hamelech in contrast to the twisted understanding of the non-Jews that the Torah is forever: “The pure fear of Hashem endures forever,” physically and spiritually.
So why do we care what they think of the Torah? Let them think whatever they want! The problem is that the Christians have appointed themselves as the owners and defenders of the Torah. When they heard thirty-five different excerpts from the Talmud showing the very opposite of their understanding of the Torah and also mocking their founder and “saviour,” the Church decided that the Jews are the ones who twist the Torah and they couldn’t allow this “heresy” to go on any further.
The Scene of the Debate
After Donin introduced the Pope to this new problem, the Pope ordered the burning of the Talmud in all his lands. As mentioned before, none of the countries followed through except France. A year after the letters were written, King Louis IV of France ordered a number of Jewish rabbis to a debate with the Christians to see if they would be able to deny the complaints Donin had on the Talmud. The report was given by a Jew in “The Debate with R’ Yechiel“ where he recorded the date as Monday of Parshas Balak and it took place in the garden of the king. Although it was called a debate, it was more like an investigation. The four rabbanim who were called to the debate were not given any advance notice.
The four rabbis were:
- Rav Yehudah ben Rabbeinu Dovid of Melun
- Rav Shmuel ben Rabbeinu Shlomo of Château-Thierry, who was called “Sir Morel”
- Rav Yechiel of Paris
- Rav Moshe of Coucy, known as the Smag
On the Christian side, lehavdil, there was:
- Walter, archbishop of Sens
- William, Bishop of Paris
- Brother Geoffrey of Belleville, Chaplain to the King
- Adam de Chambly, bishop of Senlis
- Nicholas Donin of Paris
Also attending the debate was the French king’s mother, Blanche from Castille, although she was not so invested in the debate.
In the introduction, we find Donin described as follows:
Because of this the land is mourning, from the south evil is coming, from him comes the destroyer of fences and gates, with a sharp utensil he rasps, he gnashes his teeth and blinks his eyes, and his language is mocking, and with his disregard of mankind, he brings upon us a foul odor which he attempts to associate with our sweet and holy Torah and our great sages.
His voice is like a snake and his mouth should be silenced. His tongue is like a stab of the sword and he bends the truth into lies. He portrays the sinner as pure and is a snake in the grass. This sinner came from us unfortunately and has since wandered to the other nations. His name is Nicholas, may he die and become weak. His name was Donin, may he never have progeny, the name of evildoers should rot because he brought shame upon us and gossip to the king and to the Dominicans, Franciscans, priests, and lawmakers. All the heads of the priests in the city of Paris he gathered, a gathering of fools who are silent and allowed him to put words in their mouths for his own agenda.
Stay tuned for the next installment where we will continue this fascinating journey into our history.
To be continued…