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    Pesach & the blood libel

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in Common Ground, Spring 1972 (Volume XXVI, no. 1), published by the Council of Christians and Jews UK.

    Depiction of Jews murdering Simon of Trent, by Hartmann Schedels, 1493

    Depiction of Jews murdering Simon of Trent, by Hartmann Schedels, 1493

    Pesach has a dual motif. The bitter and the sweet are intertwined throughout the festive ritual. The bitterness of slavery is recalled; the sweetness of redemption is recollected. The events of history have led us to emphasise now one, now the other. And one recurring experience that has so often added to the bitter is the blood libel or ritual murder accusation which brought untold misery and fear to Jewish communities at Pesach time, and left traces to this day in the Seder ceremonial.

    The accusation has taken various forms. These have usually involved allegations that Jews kill a Christian at this time of the year and use his blood in making wine and perhaps matzot for Pesach. Effective origin of this accusation dates from an incident in Norwich in 1144. There are vague signs, however, that the idea was known in earlier centuries. Apion accused the Jews of annually fattening a Greek, killing him, and offering his body as a sacrifice. Democritus said that every seven years the Jews caught a stranger and killed him by tearing his flesh to shreds. A fifth-century Church historian writes about drunken Jews accidentally killing a Christian lad in the course of Purim horseplay.

    The first modern instance is that of William of Norwich, a twelve year old tanner’s assistant who was found dead on Good Friday, 1144. According to one Theobald, a former Jew, this was murder committed by Jews for an annual Passover sacrifice. Apparently, the European Jews cast lots to decide where that year’s sacrifice would take place. The body was buried in the Cathedral, and it was later believed that miracles were worked at the graveside.

    In Fulda, in 1235, two Jews were accused of killing the five sons of a miller and collecting their blood in bags smeared with wax. Thirty-four Jews were slain in retaliation, though an enquiry by the Emperor exonerated them from blame.

    Another famous case is that of Hugh of Lincoln (1255), which gave rise to a widespread fabric of legend and cult. On it, or around it, were based a number of ballads, and Chaucer borrowed this or a similar story for his Prioress’ Tale. Almost every time the accusation arose it resulted in massacres and sometimes even expulsions of Jewish communities. The Jewish Encyclopedia in its article entitled “Blood Accusation” lists countless cases between 1144-1900.

    At least 42 cases occurred in the nineteenth century, the most famous being that of Damascus in 1840. Sir Moses Montefiore intervened to ensure that the Jews were treated justly, and to this day there hangs in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue a portrait of Sir Moses holding a proclamation issued by the Sultan of Turkey in which the blood libel is denounced. Twentieth century cases include Kishinev (1903), the Mendel Beilis case in Kiev (1913), the “Stürmer” revival in Germany (1934), and even more recently in Russian-inspired anti-Israel propaganda.

    The nature of the accusation was at first merely ritual murder. It may be that the light-hearted way in which Jews treated effigies of Haman on the festival of Purim was misunderstood and misconstrued by the Christian world which thought the Jews were renewing the agonies that they were alleged to have inflicted upon Jesus. Subsequently, the accusation developed to become a blood libel. Purim and Pesach were confused, presumably because of their proximity, and it was suggested that the reason for the ritual murder was that Christian blood was used in the Passover wine and matzot.

    Jews accused of these crimes were frequently tortured and sometimes “confessed” but there was never any valid evidence to substantiate their “guilt”. Certain it is that every aspect of that of which we were accused is repugnant to Jewish feeling and completely against Jewish law, which forbids both murder and the eating of blood. Manasseh ben Israel devotes considerable space in his Vindication of the Jews to a repudiation of the accusation. Cecil Roth wrote: “Even to the crassest mediaeval credulity, the extravagance of the hypothesis should have been self-evident. There is of course not the remotest authority for it in Jewish literature or law; and no impartial trial based upon it has resulted otherwise than in acquittal”. The Jewish Encyclopedia adds that had there been some Jewish ritual involving murder and the use of blood it would surely have been mentioned somewhere in Jewish literature! The accusers were frequently renegade Jews, though at times Jewish apostates solemnly rejected the accusation. A notable instance is a declaration in 1804 by 58 converts headed by Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem.

    The Roman Catholic Church generally comes out well when one considers their attitude to the accusation. It is true that some local clerics took the lead in arousing the mobs and local ecclesiastical authorities sometimes became involved. But Popes from the thirteenth century onwards repeatedly denied the validity of the charge and threatened to excommunicate any who promoted the blood libel. Hence the accusation was virtually unknown in Italy. In Poland in the eighteenth century there was an enquiry by Cardinal Ganganelli, later Pope Clement XIV, which strongly condemned the accusation.

    The theologian Hermann Strack, author of Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, was another notable defender of the Jews on this issue. In 1893, a Greek Archbishop declared at the International Congress of Religions in Chicago: “I as a Christian priest demand of this Congress that we record our conviction that Judaism forbids murder of any kind, and that none of its sacred authorities or books commands or permits murder or the use of human blood for ritual purposes or religious ceremonies… The good name of Christendom demands that I should beg this Parliament to declare that Judaism and the Jews are as guiltless of the crime imputed to them as were the Christians of the first centuries” (a reference to the fact that the early Christians were themselves the victims of a similar accusation!).

    At the Beilis trial in Russia early this century the defence mentioned Ganganelli’s report, and Lord Rothschild wrote to the Cardinal Secretary of State for an authentication of the report, which was duly sent to Kiev. However, the Russian authorities held it back until it was too late…

    Then on 1st May, 1934, there appeared a special twelve-page ritual murder issue of Julius Streicher’s notorious “Stürmer”. A reply volume, comprising Ganganelli’s report with translation and notes, was quickly but thoroughly prepared by Cecil Roth, and in 1935 the Pope formally and personally accepted a copy. In 1936-7 a Venetian paper in an onslaught against the Jews referred to the story of Simon of Trent (1475). The Rabbi of Rome took a copy of Roth’s book to Mussolini, who instructed the newspaper to cease its campaign.

    Thus the sorry story of the blood libel. It has left its mark on our Seder ritual. It is responsible for the rabbinic recommendation that one should use white wine where there might be a danger that red wine could be interpreted by our enemies as actual blood. Some say that the opening of the door towards the end of the Seder is intended as a challenge to those who accuse us of repulsive practices behind closed doors – let them enter and see how innocent and above board it all is in a Jewish home! Cecil Roth, however, suggests that this idea should not be taken too seriously: “We are told by the romantic school that this (custom of opening the door) became usual in the worst period of mediaeval persecution, when the blood-accusation was rife, in order to manifest conclusively to the outside world that the body of a Christian child was not concealed about the house. But assuredly the opening of the door would have given the Gentile mob the ideal opportunity (if so desired) of introducing evidence of the crime. Moreover, such procedure might well have been taken as proof of guilt rather than of innocence… for it is obvious that the proper time to demonstrate that Christian blood was not necessary for the Passover celebration was before the meal rather than after it.” Roth gives several other explanations for the custom (Soncino Haggadah, pages 53-55) which he finds more acceptable.

    The incidence of the blood libel has so often threatened to turn the joy of Passover into darkness, its sweetness into gloom. No wonder that generations of our people raised the goblet and said: Vehi she’amdah – “And it is this promise of the Almighty which has supported our ancestors and us, for not one alone has risen up against us, but in every generation there are those who rise up against us to destroy us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, has always delivered us from their hands.”

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