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Christian-Jewish Relations: Burning of the Talmud

Despite the mass of restrictions imposed on the Jews by the Church in the political, social, and economic spheres, and the attacks on the Oral Law by Christian theologians, the campaign to proscribe Jewish literature was not launched until the 13th century.


An attempt had been made to prevent teaching of the “second tradition” (δευτέρωσις) by Emperor Justinian in 553 (novella 146), and in 712 the Visigoths in Spain forbade converts to Christianity to read Hebrew books. The first condemnation of the Talmud to burning was preceded by a period in which new forces of rationalism had made their appearance in Western Europe as well as an upsurge of sectarian movements such as the Cathari or Albigenses. Such trends were countered with strong measures by the Church.

In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared that since Scripture contained lessons too profound for the layman to grasp, Christians should rely wholly on the clergy for its interpretation. The Church also directed its attention to Jews as potential subversive elements. One outcome of the suppression of rationalistic tendencies was the burning of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed at Montpellier, southern France, in 1233. The Guide was originally denounced to the Dominican inquisitors by Jewish leaders who opposed the study of Maimonides’ works. Although the connection between the burning of the Guide and the subsequent burning of the Talmud is tenuous, it set a dangerous precedent.


In 1236, a Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin, submitted a memorandum to Pope Gregory IX listing 35 charges against the Talmud. These included allegations that it contained blasphemies of Jesus and Mary, attacks on the Church, pronouncements hostile to non-Jews, and foolish and revolting tales. They asserted that the Jews had elevated the Oral Law to the level of divinely inspired Scripture, and that this impeded the possibility of their conversion to Christianity. Gregory thereupon ordered a preliminary investigation and, in 1239, sent a circular letter to ecclesiastics in France summarizing the accusations and ordering the confiscation of Jewish books on the first Saturday of Lent (i.e., March 3, 1240), while the Jews were gathered in synagogue. Any other persons having Hebrew books in their possession who refused to give them up were to be excommunicated. He further ordered the heads of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders in Paris to ensure that “those books in which you find errors of this sort you shall cause to be burned at the stake.” Similar instructions were conveyed to the kings of France, England, Spain, and Portugal.

It was in response to Gregory’s circular that the first public religious disputation between Jews and Christians was staged in Paris on June 25–27, 1240. The chief Jewish spokesman was R. Jehiel of Paris, the most eminent French rabbi of the period. An inquisitorial committee condemned the Talmud two years later. In June 1242, 24 wagon loads of books totaling thousands of volumes were handed to the executioner for public burning. Copies may also have been seized and destroyed in Rome.

Subsequently, the burning of the Talmud was repeatedly urged by the popes as well as various kings. In France, Louis IX ordered further confiscations in 1247 and 1248 and upheld the principle in an ordinance of December 1254. It was confirmed by Philip III in 1284 and Philip IV in 1290 and 1299. A further burning was ordered in Toulouse in 1319 by the inquisitor Bernard Gui and in Perpignan. In his manual for inquisitors Gui also singled out the works of Rashi, David Kimḥi, and Maimonides for condemnation.

The conflagration in Paris was compared by the contemporary scholar Meir b. Baruch of Rothenberg to the destruction of the Temple in an elegy Sha’ali Serufah (“Ask is it well, O thou consumed in fire”) included in the kinah of the Ninth of Av. Jonah Gerondi, who had led the anti-Maimonists, is said to have connected the burning of the Talmud with the burning of the Guide in Montpellier and to have bitterly repented his attacks on Maimonides.

Outside France little action was taken in response to the papal appeals. Confiscations may have taken place in England and were ordered in Sicily. There seems to have been widespread destruction in southern Italy in 1270. After the disputation of Barcelona in 1263, James I of Aragon ordered the Jews to delete all blasphemous references to Jesus and Mary from their copies of the Talmud under penalty of burning the work. Condemnations of the Talmud were issued by Popes Innocent IV in his bull of 1244, Alexander IV, John XXII in 1320, and Alexander V in 1409. The restrictive legislation imposed on Aragonese Jewry after the disputation of Tortosa, 1413–14, contained a condemnation of the Talmud. Pope Eugenius IV issued a bull prohibiting Jews from studying the Talmud following the Council of Basle (see Church Councils ), 1431–43.

Although the orders of the popes were not effectively upheld by the secular authorities, copying of the Talmud and its study could not be conducted openly and proceeded with difficulty. However, in the new spirit of liberty engendered by the Renaissance, the great German humanist Johann Reuchlin defended Jewish learning and the Talmud, which had again been condemned to destruction by the emperor in 1509 because of charges leveled against it by the apostate Johann Pfefferkorn. The polemical battle which ensued between supporters of the humanists and the obscurantists involved leading Christian scholars, and was a prelude to the Reformation.


It was during the Counter-Reformation in Italy in the middle of the 16th century that the attacks on the Talmud had the most far-reaching consequences. In the reactionary climate, a quarrel broke out between rival Christian printers of Hebrew books in Venice. One of them, with the connivance of certain apostates, denounced the works produced by his competitor as containing matter offensive to the Holy Catholic Church. It developed into a wholesale attack on Hebrew literature. After a council of cardinals had examined the matter, the pope issued a decree (August 1553) designating the Talmud and related works as blasphemous and condemning them to be burned.

On September 9, 1553, the Jewish New Year, a huge pyre was set up in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome of Hebrew books that had been seized from Jewish homes. Subsequently the Inquisition ordered all rulers, bishops, and inquisitors throughout Italy to take similar action. The orders were obeyed in the Papal States, particularly in Bologna and Ravenna, and in Ferrara, Mantua, Urbino, Florence, and Venice, the center of Hebrew printing and, also in 1559 in Cremona. Representations by the rabbis gained a reprieve of the indiscriminate destruction.

A papal bull issued on May 29, 1554, specified that while the Talmud and works containing blasphemies of Christianity were to be burned, other Jewish works were to be submitted for censorship. The Talmud was included in the first Index Expurgatorius in 1559. The ban against publication of the Talmud, with certain excisions or without them, under a different name, was temporarily lifted (March 24, 1564) by Pius IV. However, confiscation of Hebrew works continued in Italy, especially in the Papal States, down to the 18th century. The same was the case in Avignon and the papal possessions in France. Renewed interdictions were issued by Popes Gregory XIII (1572–85) and Clement VIII (1593). The burning in Rome was commemorated by an annual public fast day observed on the eve of Sabbath of ḥukkat (Shibbolei ha-Leket 263).

The events in Italy were described by the contemporary chronicler Joseph ha-Kohen in Emek ha-Bakhah and by a number of other writers. Mattathias Delacrut, who managed to escape with his own books to Brest-Litovsk, relates that in Venice over 1,000 complete copies of the Talmud, 500 copies of the code of Isaac Alfasi, and innumerable other works were burned. Judah b. Samuel Lerma lost all the copies of his newly printed Leḥem Yehudah in Venice and had to rewrite it from memory.

The burning also aroused protest in Christian circles. The Hebraist Andrea Masio openly voiced his resentment of the pope’s ruling, saying that the cardinals’ report condemning a literature of which they knew nothing was as valueless as a blind man’s opinion of color. The proscription of the Talmud in the main center for Hebrew printing was felt throughout the Diaspora. The Jewish centers in Poland and Turkey were prompt to answer the challenge, and printing of the Talmud commenced in Lublin in 1559 and, shortly afterward, in Salonika. Scholars in Italy subsequently turned to other branches of Jewish learning, and the study of Kabbalah in particular spread rapidly in Italy after the Talmud had been condemned.

The last auto-da-fé of the Talmud took place in Poland, in Kamenets-Podolski in the fall of 1757, following the spread of the Frankist movement in Podolia. Bishop Nicholas Dembowski intervened in the controversy between the Frankists and Jewish leaders and ordered a disputation to be held between them. He subsequently condemned all copies of the Talmud found in his diocese to be seized and burned after they had been dragged through the streets in mockery. A search was made with the aid of the clergy, the police, and the Frankists for the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. Nearly 1,000 copies of the Talmud were thrown into a pit at Kamenets and burned by the hangman.


Loeb, in: REJ, 1 (1880), 247–61; 2 (1881), 248–70; 3 (1881), 39–57; J.D. Eisenstein (ed.), Oẓar Vikkuḥim (1928), 81–86; A.M. Habermann (ed.), Sefer Gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Ẓarefat (1945), 183–5, 263–4; Roth, Italy, 289–94; R.N. Rabbinovicz, Ma’amar al Hadpasat ha-Talmud, ed. by A.M. Habermann (1952); Rosenthal, in: JQR, 47 (1956/57), 58–76, 145–69; A. Ya’ari, Meḥkerei Sefer (1958), 198–234; Baer, Spain, 1 (1961), 155; 2 (1966), 15–16, 224–9; Baron, Social2, 9 (1965), 55–96; S. Grayzel, Church and the Jews in the XIIIth Century (1966), 29, 241; Merhavya, in: Tarbiz, 37 (1967/68), 78–96, 191–207 (and Eng. summary).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.