DISTANT PRECEDENTS AND THE SAGA OF PURIM
Ritual murder accusations have been made against the Jews for thousands of
years. The murders were sometimes alleged to have been accompanied by ritual
cannibalism, but not always. In every case, it is rather improbable that the
testimonies which have come down to us from antiquity were known and
disseminated in the Middle Ages and could constitute a significant point of
reference for later accusations of crucifixion and ritual cannibalism
As early as the second century before Christ, the almost unknown Greek
historian, Damocritus, who probably lived in Alexandria, recorded a violently
biased anti-Jewish testimony, at that time referred to under his name in Suida's
Greek dictionary. According to Damocritus, the Jews were accustomed to render
worship to a golden head of an ass; every seven years, they abducted a foreigner
to sacrifice him, tearing the body to pieces (2).
This horrible rite is said to have taken place probably every seven years in
the Temple of Jerusalem, sanctuary of the Jewish religion.
Damocritus’s report is evidently intended to stress the barbarism of the
Jews, the "haters of mankind", who practiced superstitious and cruel cults. It
should nevertheless be noted that the Greek historian made no reference either
to any need to collect the victim's blood or other forms of ritual cannibalism.
A report only partly similar to that reported by Damocritus is found in the
polemical, Contra Apione, by Flavius Josephus, quoting the
tendentiously anti-Jewish rhetorician, Apione, who lived at Alexandria during
the 1st century of the Christian era. According to Apione, Antiocchus Epiphane,
entering the Temple of Jerusalem, is said to have been surprised to find a
Greek, stretched on a bed and surrounded by exquisite foods and rich dishes. The
prisoner's report was extraordinary and horrifying. The Greek said that he had
by the Jews and taken to the Temple and concealed from everyone, while they
force-fed him on all sorts of foods. At first, it the unusual circumstances in
which he found himself did not greatly displease him until the sanctuary
attendants revealed the fate waiting in store for him: he was fated to die, the
predestined victim of homicidal Jewish sacrificial practices.
"(The Jews) carry out this (rite) every year, on a pre-established date. They
catch a Greek merchant and feed him for a whole year. They later take him into a
forest, kill him and sacrifice him according to their religion. They then savor
the viscera, and in the moment of sacrificing the Greek, they swear their hatred
of all Greeks. They then dump the remains of the carcass into a ditch”
Flavius Josephus reports that the history recounted
by Apione was not invented by him, but was, rather, derived from other Greek
writers, an indication that its dissemination must have been much more
widespread than we are led to imagine based on the two only surviving accounts,
i.e., of Damocritus and Apion(4).
Compared to the first, the second describes a number of variants which are
undoubtedly important. The sacrificial ceremony is now annual, and held on a
fixed date, even if the account does not specify the Jewish holiday on which it
allegedly took place. Furthermore, ritual cannibalism is now stressed in an
explicit and brutal manner, even if there is still no mention of any need for
human blood, which, as we have seen, is said to have become the preponderant
element starting with the Middle Ages. On the other hand, that both Greeks and
Romans are alleged to have ended up as a meal for ravenous Jews is shown by the
fact that Dio Cassius, writing of their rebellion at Cyrene (115 of the
Christian era), hastened to mention, in disgust, that the Jews were accustomed
to feasting upon the bodies of Greek and Roman enemies slain in battle. Not
contenting themselves with the satisfaction of this alimentary predilection,
they painted their bodies with the blood of their enemies and used their
intestines as belts (5).
A more delicate matter than the above seems to relate to a passage in the
Talmud (Ketubot 102b) which might be interpreted as an indirect
confirmation of the phenomenon of ritual murder during an ancient epoch,
although we don’t know how widespread or how widely approved it may have been.
The passage concerns a so-called “outside” baraita, or
mishnah, i.e., one not incorporated into the codified and canonical
text of the mishnah (dating back
approximately to the third century A.D.) -- which seems to be one of the
oldest -- and may therefore be traced back to Palestine at the time of the
"A man is killed, leaving a son of a tender age in the care of his mother.
When the father's heirs approach up and say, 'Let him grow up with us', and the
mother say 'Let him grow up with me', he (the boy) should be left with the
mother, and should not be entrusted to the care of anyone entitled to inherit
from him. A case of this kind happened in the past and (the heirs) killed him on
Passover Eve (Hebrew: weshachatuhu ' erev ha-Pesach)"
We know that the Hebrew verb shachet has the meaning of "butcher",
"kill", as well as to "immolate", as, for example, as a sacrifice (as for
example, Exodus 12:21 "Thou shalt sacrifice the Passover lamb", we-shachatu
ha-pesach). If in the case in question were merely a question of a simple
murder committed by heirs for profit, the statement that the murder was
committed "on Passover Eve" would be quite superfluous. In fact, in support of
the law providing that the child should be entrusted to the mother instead of
persons entitled to inherit his property, it would have been sufficient merely
to state that, in the past, a child had been killed by his heirs. When and how
the murder occurred is in fact superfluous. Unless we recall to mind a
circumstance, presumably well known, in which the child murder, which deserved
to be condemned, actually occurred, but only for material and egotistical
At this point, it might be noted that the most ancient Christian authors
appeared to make no use of this Talmudic passage in their anti-Jewish polemics,
although the passage shows a relationship between the cruel killing of a child
and the Jewish Passover, which might have been used by them in support of the
ritual murder accusation. But perhaps their failure to do so was due to poor
knowledge of Talmudic literature and rabbinical literature in general on the
part of Christian polemicists, who were often ignorant of Talmudic and
rabbinical language and interpretive categories (7).
Be that as it may, it is advisable to stress that the reading "They killed
(or immolated) him on Passover eve" (we-shachatuhu 'erev ha-
Pesach ), appears in all the manuscript and ancient versions of the
Ketubot treatise in question, as well as in the first edition of the
Talmud, printed at Venice in 1521 by Daniel Bomberg. Later, no doubt
for the purpose of defending themselves against the ritual murder accusation
brought by those who had, in the meantime, discovered the potential value of the
embarrassing passage, the Jewish editors of the Talmud replaced the passage with
a more anaemic, less embarrassing reading: "they killed him on New Year's Eve
('erev Rosh Ha-Shanah), or "they killed him the first evening"
('erev ha-rishon) (8). The latter version might
suggest that the child's heirs got rid of him in a violent way as early as the
evening of the day upon he was entrusted to them, with the obvious intention of
getting their hands on the estate as soon as possible.
The editors of the famous Vilna edition of the Talmud (1835) justified their
decision to adopt the reading "they killed him the first evening" in a
glossa to Ketubot 102b, in which they rejected the preceding
version – but without explicitly mentioning it – containing the reference to
“Passover Eve”, as the circumstance under which the unhappy child is said to
have been cruelly killed. "Whoever preceded us in the Talmud", they stressed,
"fell into error and preferred a reading completely torn out of context"
That Christian Europe of the Middle Ages feared the Jews is an established
fact. Perhaps the widespread fear that Jews were scheming to abduct children,
subjecting them to cruel rituals, even antedates the appearance of stereotypical
ritual murder which seems to have originated in the 12th century. As for myself,
I believe that serious consideration should be given to the possibility that
this fear was largely related to the slave trade, particularly in the 9th and
10th centuries, when the Jewish role in the slave trade appears to have been
During this period, Jewish merchants, from the cities in the valley of the
Rhône, Verdun, Lione, Arles and Narbonne, in addition to Aquisgrana, the capital
of the empire in the times of Louis the Pious [Louis I]; and in Germany from the
centres of the valley of the Rhine, from Worms, Magonza and Magdeburg; in
Bavaria and Bohemia, from Regensburg and Prague - were active in the principal
markets in which slaves (women, men, eunuchs) were offered for sale, by Jews,
sometimes after abducting them from their houses. From Christian Europe the
human merchandise was exported to the Islamic lands of Spain, in which there was
a lively market. The castration of these slaves, particularly children, raised
their prices, and was no doubt a lucrative and profitable practice
The first testimony relating to the abduction of children by Jewish merchants
active in the trade flowing into Arab Spain,
comes down to us in a letter from Agobard, archbishop of Lyon in the years
816-840. The French prelate describes the appearance at Lyons of a Christian
slave, having escaped from Cordoba, who had been abducted from Leonese Jewish
merchant twenty four years before, when he was a child, to be sold to the
Moslems of Spain. His companion in flight was another Christian slave having
suffered a similar fate after being abducted six years before by Jewish
merchants at Arles. The inhabitants of Lyons confirmed these claims, adding that
yet another Christian boy had been abducted by Jews to be sold into slavery that
same year. Agobard concludes his report with a comment of a general nature; that
these were not considered isolated cases, because, in every day practice, the
Jews continued to procure Christian slaves for themselves and furthermore
subjecting them to "infamies such that it would be vile in itself to describe
Precisely what kind of abominable “infamies” Agobard is referring to is not
clear; but it is possible that he was referring to castration more than to
circumcision (13). Liutprando, bishop of Cremona, in his
Antapodosis, said to have been written in approximately 958-962,
referred to the city of Verdun as the principal market in which Jews castrated
young slaves intended for sale to the Moslems of Spain (14).
During this same period, two Arab sources, Ibn Haukal and Ibrahim al Qarawi,
also stressed that the majority of their eunuchs originated from France and were
sold to the Iberian peninsula by Jewish merchants. Other Arabic writers
mentioned Lucerna, a city with a Jewish majority, halfway between Córdoba and
Málaga in southern Spain, as another major market, in which the castration of
Christian children after reducing them to slavery was practiced on a large scale
by the very same people (15).
Contemporary rabbinical responses provide further confirmation of the role
played by Jews in the trade in children and young people as well as in the
profitable transformation of boys into eunuchs. These texts reveal that anyone
who engaged in such trade was aware of the risks involved, because any person
caught and arrested in possession of castrated slaves in Christian territories
was decapitated by order of the local authorities (16).
Even the famous Natronai, Gaon of the rabbinical college of Sura in
the mid-9th century was aware of the problems linked to the dangerous trade in
"Jewish (merchants) entered (into a port or a city), bringing with them
slaves and castrated children [Hebrew: serisim ketannim]. When the
local authorities confiscated them, the Jews corrupted them with money, reducing
them to more harmless advisors, and the merchandise was returned, at least in
But if one wishes to interpret the significance and scope of the Jewish
presence in the slave trade and practice of castration, it is a fact that the
fear that Christian children might be abducted and sold was rather widespread
and deeply rooted in all Western European countries, particularly, France and
Germany, from which these Jews originated and where the greater part of the
slave merchants operated. Personalities in the clergy nourished that fear,
conferring religious connotations upon it with an anti-Jewish slant, failing to
account for the fact that slavery as a trade had not yet gone out of fashion
morally and, as such, was broadly tolerated in the economic reality of the
period. On the other hand, the abduction and castration of children, often
inevitably confused with circumcision, which was no less feared and abhorred,
could not fail to insinuate themselves in the collective unconscious mind of
Christian Europe, especially the French and German territories, inciting anxiety
and fear, which probably solidified over time, and, as a result, are believed to
have concretized themselves in a variety of ways and in more or less in the same
places, as the ritual murder.
In the Hebrew calendar, Pesach, Passover, comes one month after the
feast of Purim, which commemorates the miraculous salvation of the
Jewish people in Persia during the reign of King Ahasuerus I (519-465) from the
threat of extermination linked to the plotting of the King’s perfidious
minister, Haman. The Book of Esther, which examines all these explosive matters
and exalts the saving function of the Biblical heroine as well as that of
Mordechai, Esther’s uncle and mentor, concludes with the hanging of Haman and
his ten sons, as well as with the beneficial massacre of the enemies of Israel.
Leon of Modena in his Riti, describes Purim in precisely this
manner, stressing a carnival-like atmosphere of celebrations and convivial
opulence in which restraint and inhibition were dangerously weakened.
"On the 14th of Adar, which is March, is the festival of Purim, in
memory of everything we read in the Book of Esther, which saved the people of
Israel from being exterminated through the machinations of Haman, and he and his
sons were hanged [...]. After the ordinary orations, with remembrance only of
the escape which occurred at the hour of death, we read the entire History or
Book of Esther, which were written on parchment in volume as the Panteuch, and
we call meghillah, i.e., volume. And some hearing Haman's mentioned,
beat as a sign to curse him [...] They make much rejoicing festivities and
banquets [...] an effort is made to serve the most sumptuous meal possible and
eat and drink more than usual, after which friends go out to visit each other,
with receptions, festivities and revelry" (18).
For a number of reasons, not least that of its not infrequent proximity to
Holy Week, Purim, also called the "festival of the lots", came, in
time, to acquire openly anti-Christian connotations and the related celebrations
became openly suggestive in this sense, both in form and substance, sometimes
audaciously and openly. Haman, equated with that other Biblical arch-enemy of
the Jews, Amalek (Deut. 25: 17-19), whose memory was to be blotted out from the
face of the earth, was transformed, over time, into Jesus, the False Messiah,
whose impious followers were once threatening the Chosen People with
Moreover, Haman was killed, hanged, as Jesus was said to have been, and there
was no shortage of exegetic material reinforcing this paragon. In the Greek
translation of the Septuagint as well as in Flavius Josephus (Ant. Jud. Xi, 267,
280), Haman’s gallows was interpreted as a cross, and the execution of King
Ahasuerus’s belligerent minister was described, in effect, as a true and proper
crucifixion. The equation between Amalek, Haman and Christ was self-evidently
obvious. Haman, who, in the Biblical text is referred to as talui, "the
hanged one", was confused with He who, in all anti-Christian Hebraic texts, was
the Talui by antonomasia [the replacement of a proper name by an
epithet], i.e., the crucified Christ (20).
The sensational trial of the most prominent members of the Ashkenazi
communities of northern Italy, accused of vilifying the Christian religion was
held in Milan in the spring of 1488. In reply to inquisitors demanding the name
used by Jews with reference to Jesus of Nazareth, Salomone da Como, one of the
accused, answered unhesitatingly: "Among ourselves we call him "Ossoays" ("that
man", from the Hebrew oto' ha-ish, according to the German
pronunciation), or Talui ("the hanged one", "the crucified one"),
while, when speaking to Christians, we always refer to him as ‘Christ’"
(21). It is not surprising that a text by 4th century writer
Evagrius describes the Jew Simone, in an argument with a Christian, Theophilus,
should have equated “the cursed and despised Passion of Christ" with Haman’s
‘crucifixion’ (22) .
According to the great English anthropologist James George Frazer, Christ
died while playing the role of Haman (the dying god) in a drama of Purim
in which (Jesus) Barabbas, the double of Jesus
of Nazareth, played the part of Mordechai (the god that resurges). In the
model of the god that dies and is reborn -- which is common in the Near East --
Haman is said to have played the part of death and Mordechai that of life, while
the celebration of Purim is said to constitute the Hebraic ritual of
death and resurrection. Based on this consideration, one might hypothesize that,
in the past, the Jews, at the culmination of the festival, might have been
accustomed to putting a man to death in flesh and blood reality, and that Jesus
was crucified in this context, playing the role of Ahasuerus’s tragic minister,
the arch-enemy of Israel (23).
There is no shortage of testimonies of the celebration of rituals, within the
framework of the carnival of Purim, intended to vilify and outrage the
image of Haman, reconstituted in the semblance of Christ hanging from the cross.
First, the emperor Honorius (384-423) and, in his footsteps, Theodosius
(401-450), prohibited the Jews from the provinces of the Empire from setting
fire to effigies of Haman crucified in contempt of the Christian religion.
Probably to be associated with the preceding prohibitions is the report,
mentioned by the late chronicler Agapius [10th century] and dating back to
404-407 A.D., during the reign of Theodosius II [Flavius Theodosius, Roman
Emperor of the East, 401-450 A.D.], that certain Jews of Alexandria, forced to
submit to baptism, are said to have rebelled, giving rise to a sensational
protest, stating that, in their eyes, such a ceremony possessed the fascination
of a certain originality. They are said to have taken an image of the crucified
Christ, heaping insults upon the Christians, mocking them with the words: "This
is our Messiah?" (24). It is not impossible that the episode
formed part of the framework of the Hebraic Purim celebrations.
Before 1027, at Byzantium [Constantinople, now Istanbul], baptized Jews were
required to curse their ex-fellow-Jews "who celebrated the festival of
Mordechai, crucifying Haman on a beam of wood, in the form of a cross, and then
setting fire to it, accompanying the vile rite with a torrent of imprecations
directed at those faithful to Christ". Again, in the very early 13th century,
Arnol, prior of the monastery at Lübeck, censured the wickedness of the Jews in
bitter terms "in crucifying the figure of the Redeemer every year, making him
the object of shameless ridicule" (25).
Even the Hebrew texts do not seem to be sparing on information in this
regard. The Talmudic dictionary Arukh, consisting of the rabbi Natan b.
Yehiel of Rome in the second half of the 11th century, contains reports that the
Jews of Babylon were accustomed to celebrate the festival of Purim in a
"It is the custom among the Jews of Babylon and the rest of the entire world
for the boys to make effigies shaped like Haman and hang them
on the roofs of their houses for four or five days (before the festival). In
the days of Purim, they prepare a phallus and throw it among these
images, while they stand around singing songs" (26).
The above mentioned rites were culinary, even symbolically cannibalistic in
nature. The effigies of Haman-Christ were of sweet pastry, to be destroyed,
avidly consumed by youngsters and children during the days of carnival
During the Middle Ages, the sweet delicacy enjoying absolute primacy in the
sumptuous banquets of Purim was a typical biscuit, once again bearing
the pathetic figure of Haman as a gastronomic butt of ridicule. The so-called
"Haman's ears" (onze' Aman), presented in a variety of versions
according to the various traditions of the Jewish community, gained a position
of great importance in the feast of Purim. In Italy, they were strips
of puff pastry shaped like ass's ears, fried in olive oil and powdered sugar,
which quite resembled the Tuscan cenci and Roman frappe
prepared during carnival time. Among Oriental and north African Jews, the
puff pastry was roasted and covered with honey and sesame seeds
The Italian Ashkenazim did not much care for the overly-Mediterranean taste
of these [latter] biscuits, which they called "galahim frit" in
contempt, "fried priests" (literally "people with the tonsure"), confirming the
detestable relationship between Haman, Israel’s bitter enemy, and the arrogance
of Christianity, with its priests. Their version of the "ears" were called
Hamantaschen or "Haman's pockets", and was more elaborate. These
consisted of a large triangle-shaped cake of egg pasta filled with a sweet
brownish mixture based on poppy seeds (29). Nor should we be
surprised to find that, even in the relatively recent past, there was no
shortage of people in Germany who shared the belief, curious even if not very
original, that the Ashkenazi stuffed their Hamantaschen with the
coagulated blood of Christian boys martyred by them (30).
Modern anti-Semites gather and disseminate this cannibalistic fable today from
their university chairs, particularly in the Arab countries, making it the
subject of ridiculous pseudo-historical research (31).
Turning back centuries, however, we must note, following Frazer, that the
ritual of Purim did not always conclude with the bloodless hanging of a
mere effigy of Haman. Sometimes, the “effigy” was a flesh-and-blood Christian,
crucified for real, during the wild revelry of the Jewish carnival. One of
these sources of which we can attain with regards it Socrates Scolasticus,
history of the Church in the 5th century, which, from its Historia
Ecclestiastica (VII, 16) refers to a case occurring in 415 at Inmestar,
near Antioch, in Syria (32). The local Hebrews, in their
debaucheries and intemperate revelry to celebrate Purim, after getting
suitably drunk, according to the prescriptions of the ritual, which provided
that they must drink so much wine that they can no longer distinguish Haman from
”…took to deriding the Christians and Christ Himself in their boasting; they
ridiculed the cross and anyone trusting in the crucifix, putting the following
joke in practice.
“They took a Christian child, tied it to a cross and hanged him. Initially
they made him the object of jokes and drollery; then, after a while, they lost
control of themselves and mistreated him to such a degree that they killed him."
The report, which makes no mention of miracles occurring at the site of the
relics of the martyred child, seems to possess all the indications of
truthfulness. Moreover, as we have seen above, there are people who have viewed
the immoderate celebrations of Purim, accompanied by anti-Christian
insults and violence, as the core from which the belief in Jewish ritual
homicide of Christian children is thought to have developed during the Middle
Ages, as an integral part of a ritual centered around on the festival of
Pesach, considered the ideal culmination of Purim
The case of Inmestar is not an isolated one. A Jewish source, the memoires of
rabbi Efraim of Bonn, takes us to France, to Brie-Compte Robert, in 1191 or 1192
(34). A servant of the Duchess of Champagne was found guilty of
the murder of a Jew and was held in prison for that offense. The other Jews of
the village decided to rescue the prisoner in exchange for money and executed
him during the festival of Purim , hanging him (35).
“A perfidious Christian killed a Jew in the city of Brie, which is in France.
Then the other Jews, his relatives, went to the lord of the region (the Duchess
of Champagne), and implored her (to hand over) the murderer, who was a servant
of the King of France. They therefore bribed her with their money in order to be
able to crucify the killer (36). And they crucified him on the
eve of Purim" (37).
The vengeance demanded in a
loud voice by the Christians of Brie, headed by Philippe II August, King of
France (1165-1223), was not long in coming.
The entire adult Jewish population of the city, totaling about eighty
persons, were tried and condemned to be burnt at the stake ("wealthy persons,
rich and influential, some of them famous rabbis and people of culture, who
refused to sully themselves [in the baptismal waters] and to betray the One God,
were burnt alive proclaiming the unity of the Creator"). The children, who were
Jews and circumcised, were taken en masse to the baptismal font to be made
Christians. No festival of Purim ever concluded in a more tragic manner
for the Jews, overturning and thwarting the saving and hope-giving meaning of
the Biblical account of Esther and Mordechai.
The blasphemous parody of the Passion of Christ sometimes had the most tragic
consequences. But this obvious fact did not always suffice to cool hot heads and
restrain fanatical, agitated minds. The Christians were not too subtle about it,
since they certainly didn't need excuses or pretexts to perpetrate
indiscriminate massacres of Jews or to plunge Jewish children into the
beneficial waters of baptism by force. The spiral of violence, having due regard
to the discrepancies between the relative power and size of the two conflicting
societies, could not be extinguished. The serpent bit its own tail, leaving its
imprint of blood on the sand. Each society was, in a sense, its own victim, but
To give a few examples, on 7 February 1323, a few days before the festival of
Purim, a Jew in the Duchy of Spoleto was condemned for striking and
insulting the cross (38). On 28 February 1504, precisely
coinciding with the festival of Purim, a beggar from Bevagna accused
the local Jews of the place, transformed into evil spirits, of having cruelly
crucified him (39). It was still in the days of Purim,
in February 1444, that the Jews of Vigone, in Piedmont, were accused of having
pretended to butcher an image of Christ Crucified as a joke (40);
again, it was in the month of February, this time in 1471, that a Jew
from Gubbio brought a legal action to "scrape" the image of the Virgin Mary from
the outside wall of his house (41).
Purim was followed by Pesach, but the story, during that
violent month, was no different, even without any strict need to play cruel and
lethal cruel tricks on Christian boys, or to stone Jews and their houses en
masse during the "holy hailstorm of stones". On 21 March 1456, a Jew of Lodi
entered the cathedral of San Lorenzo at nightfall with a drawn sword, directing
himself without hesitation, where he walked straight up to the main altar and
proceeded to make log wood and splinters out of the image of Christ
Crucified, with the evident intention of chopping it to bits. His fate was
sealed. The culprit was lynched on the spot, amidst the rejoicing of a jubilant
crowd, and vengeance was wreaked. 21 March 1456 corresponded to the 15th of the
Month of Nissan of the Jewish year 5216 and the first day of Pesach.
The matter was thus described by the commander of Lodi to the Duke of Milan:
"In our dear city of Lodi, on the 21st day, 17 hours, of the present month
[March], according to the common reports, a Jew entered the cathedral with sword
in hand to cut the crucifix of Christ to pieces, for which offense the whole
territory rose up against him and they ran to the Jew’s house [...] and killed
the above-mentioned Jew and dragged him on the ground" (42).
In the early modern age, the carnival-like festivities of Purim
finally lost those qualities of aggressiveness and violence which had been
characteristic since the early Middle Ages, but never renounced the clearly
anti-Christian meaning it possessed according to tradition. Thus wrote Giulio
Morosini, known as Shemuel Nahmias at Venice when he was still a Jew, a shrewd
former disciple of Leon da Modena:
"During the reading [of the megillah of Esther], whenever Haman is
named, the boys beat the benches of the synagogue with hammers or sticks with
all their might as a sign of excommunication, crying in a loud voice 'May
his name be blotted out and may the name of the impious rot. And
they all cried 'Be cursed, Haman, Be blessed, Mordechai, Be blessed Esther,
Be cursed Ahasueruss.' And they continue like that until evening, just as
on the morning of the first day, never ceasing to express their justified
contempt for Haman and the enemies of Judaism at that time, covertly spreading
poison against Christians, under the name of Idolaters [...] they therefore cry
out in a loud voice Be Cursed all the Idolaters (43).
But at an even earlier time, the illustrious jurist Marquardo Susanni,
protected by Paolo IV Carafa, the fervent and impassioned founder of the Ghetto
of Rome, mentioned the wild hostility of the Jews towards Christianity as well
as the peculiar carnival-like characteristics of Purim . According to
him, "during the feast of Mordechai", the Jews did not hesitate to greet each
other by saying, in contemptuous tones:
'May the King of the Christians go down to ruin immediately, the way Haman
went down to ruin" (44).
NOTES TO CHAPTER EIGHT
1. Cfr. G.L. Langmuir, Thomas of Monmouth. Detector of Ritual
Murder, in "Speculum", LIX (1984), p. 824.
2. Cfr. Th. Reinach, Textes d'auteurs grecs et romains relatifs au
Judaisme, Paris, 1895, p. 121, no. 60.
3. Josephus, Contra Apion, II, 7-1: "et hoc illos facere singulis
annis quodam tempore constituito. Et comprehendere quidem Graecum peregrinum,
eumque annali tempore saginare et deductum ad quamdam silvam occidere quidem eum
hominem, eiusque corpus sacrificare secundum suas solemnitates, et gustare ex
eius visceribus, et iusiurandum facere in immolatione Graeci, ut inimicitas
contra Graecos haberent, et tunc in quandam foveam reliqua hominis pereuntis
abjicere", Cfr. Rheinach, Textes d'auteurs grecs et romains, cit. pp.
131-132, no. 63.
4. For an examination of the story of Damocritus and Apione on the ritual
homicides committed by the Jews in the Temple of Jerusalem, see, among others,
J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, 1934, p. 16;
D. Flusser, The Blood Libel against the Jews According to the
Intellectual Perspectives of the Hellenistic Age , in Studies on
Hellenistic Judaism in Memory of J. Levy, Jerusalem, 1949, pp. 104-124 (in
Hebrew); Id., Moza 'alilot ha-dam ("The Origins of the Blood
Accusation") in "Manhanaim", CX (1967), pp. 18-21; J.N. Sevenster, The
Roots of Pagan Anti-semitism in the Ancient World , Leyden, 1975,
5. Cfr. Reinach, Textes d'auteurs grecs et romains relatifs au
Judaisme, Paris, cit., pp. 196-197, no. 112.
6. Thus, the final passage of this haraita is translated by rabbi
Dovid Kamenetsky, in the recent edition of the Babylonian Talmud, with a version
in English (Talmud Bavli, Schottenstein Edition, Tractae Ketubos, III,
New York, 2000, c. 102b and no. 32): "for it once occurred that a boy was
entrusted to those fit to inherit him, and they butchered (or: slew) him on
7. "In the Latin translation of extracts from the Talmud contained in Latin
manuscript 16558 B.N., which is the principal source of knowledge of rabbinical
literature in the Christian world in the 13th century, the Ketubot
treatise is not explicitly mentioned there [...]. It does not contain the
passage which interests you (Ketubot 102b). I have never found it used
in polemics; nevertheless, the link made between Pessach might very
well have encouraged belief in 'ritual murder'; but the authors of the
anti-Jewish accounts on this subject obviously know nothing about Jewish
literature. [...]. Among the number of accusations made of ritual murder, I do
not recall ever having found an argument based upon this Talmudic passage"
[written communication dated 2 August 2001 from Professor Gilbert Dehan, to whom
I wish to express my deepest thanks).
8. A. Steinzaltz notes, in this regard, that "in some later editions (of the
Talmud), the Rosh Ha-Shanah (New Year's) version appears instead of
Pesach, in the fear that this expression might constitute evidence to
be used by those who accuse the Jews of ritual murder". (Talmud
Bavli, Ketubot , Jerusalem, 1988, vol. II, p. 457). And
nevertheless, the first writer to use the text of Ketubot in this sense
seems to be the famous Augusto Rohling, University professor and one of the more
caustic Austrian anti-Semitic polemicists, author of Der Talmudjude
(Munster, 1871). The passage of Ketubot 102b was revealed by him and
publicized with ill-concealed satisfaction in a brochure entitled Ein
Talmud fur rituelle Schächten , which saw the light in 1892.
Hermann L. Strack replied to him, arguing passionately but only somewhat
convincingly, in the fourth edition (London, 1892), of his classic essay on Jews
and human ritual sacrifice (The Jew and Human Sacrifice. Human
Blood and Jewish Ritual , pp. 155-168).
9. Talmud Bavli, Vilna, Menachem (Mendele) Man e Simcha Zimel, 1835.
It should be noted that this edition preceded by more than half a century the
"revelations" of Rohling, in a act of surprising self-censorship. It is not
impossible that the editors of the Vilna Talmud intended to respond to doubt and
embarrassment within the Jewish world on the interpretation of this text in the
original version, rather than reply to the external attacks which were still
long yet to come.
10. In this regard, see Ch. Verlinden's now famous classic, L'esclavage
dans l'Europe medievale, Brugge, 1955, vol. I, pp. 702-716. For a rather
over-simplified interpretation of the role of the Jews in the slave trade, see
B. Blumenkranz, Juifs et Chrétiens dans le monde occidental
(430-1096), Paris 1960, pp. 18-19, 184-211, to which the same Verlinden
replied (A propos de la place des juifs dans l'économie de l'Europe
occidentale au IXème siècles. Agobard de Lyon et l'historiographie
arabe, in Storia e storiograph. Miscellanea de studi in onore di E.
Dupre -Theseider, Rome, 1974, pp. 21-37).
11. Cfr. Verlinden, A propos de la place des juifs, cit., pp. 32-35.
12. "Et cum precedens scedula dictata fuisset, supervenit quidam homo fugiens
ab Hispanis de Cordoba, qui se dicebat furatum fuisse a quoda Judeo Lugduno ante
annos IIti IIIor, parvum adhuc puerum, et et venditum. Fugisse autem anno
presenti cum alio, qi similiter furatus fuerat ab alio Judeo ante annos sex.
Cumque huis, qui Lugdunesis fuerat, notos quereremus et invenirem dictum est a
quibusdam et alios ab eodem Judeos furatos, alios vero eptos ac venditos; ab
alio quoque Judeo anno presenti alium puerum furatum et venditum; qua hora
inventum est plures Christianos a Christianis vendi et comparari a Judeis,
perpatrarique ab eis multa infanda que turpia sunt ad scribendum" (Epistolae
Karolini aevi, in "Monumenta Germaniae Historica", III, Hannover, 1846, p. 185).
For an analysis of this text, see, in particular, B. Blumenkrantz, Les
auteurs chrétiens latins au Moyen Age sur les Juifs et le Judaisme, Paris,
1963, pp. 152-168; Id., Juifs et Chrétiens dans le monde
occidentale , cit., pp. 191-195; Verlinden, A propos de la place des
juifs, cit., pp. 21-25.
13. For a useful discussion of this topic, see Blumenkrantz, Juifs et
Chrétiens dans le monde occidental, cit., pp. 194-195, no. 142; Id.,
Les auteurs chrétiens , cit., p. 163, no. 53.
14. "Carzimasium autem greci vocant amputatis virilibus et virga puerum quod
Virdunenses mercatores ob immensum lucrum facere et in Hispaniam ducere solent "
["Virgin boys whose genitals have been amputated are referred to by the Greeks
as 'eunuchs'. These boys are castrated by merchants at Verdun at an immense
profit and are usually taken to Spain "], cit., in Verlinden, A propos de la
place des juifs, cit., p. 33).
15. On the Arab sources attesting to the role of Jewish merchants in the
eunuch trade, cfr. Verlinden, L'esclavage dans l'Europe médiévale,
cit., p. 716; Id., A propos de la place des juifs, cit., pp. 22.
16. On the rabbinical responses relating to the trade in castrated young
slaves and on the role of Lucena [outside Córdoba] as a center for the
castrations, see A. Assaf, Slavery and the Slave-Trade among the Jews during
the Middle Ages (from the Jewish Sources), in "Zion", IV (1939), pp. 91-125
(in Hebrew); E. Ashtor, A History of the Jews in Moslem Spain,
Jerusalem, 1977, vol. I, pp. 186-189 (in Hebrew).
17. The text of Natronai Gaon is reported in Assaf, Slavery and the
Slave-Trade, cit., pp. 100-101.
18. Leon de Modena, Historia de' riti hebraici, Venice, Gio.
Calleoni, 1638, pp. 80-81.
19. The first to have linked the rise of the Christian stereotype of ritual
murder to the feast of Purim and to the hanging/crucifixion of
Haman/Jesus was Cecil Roth in his now classic study (C. Roth, Feast of Purim
and the Origins of the Blood Accusations, in "Speculum", VIII, 1933, pp.
520-526).Recently following in Roth's footsteps have been Elliot Horowitz and
Gerd Mentgen, adding further documents attesting to phenomena of anti-Christian
violence during the celebration of Purim (cfr. E. Horowitz, And It
Was Reversed. Jews and Their Enemies in the Festivities , in
"Zion", LIX, 1994, pp. 129-168, in Hebrew; Id., The Rite to Be Reckless. On
the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence , in
"Poetics Today", XV, 1994, pp. 9-54; G. Mentgen, The Origins of the Blood
Libel, in "Zion", LIX, 1994, pp. 341-349; Id., Über den Ursprung der
Ritualmordfabel, in "Aschkenas", IV, 1994, pp. 405-416). On the status
quaestionis, see the precise summary of I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in
Your Womb": Perceptions of Jews and Christians, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 179-181
(in Hebrew), and the recent stimulating monograph of E. Horowitz, Reckless
Rites. Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, Princeton, (N.J., 2006.
20. On this subject, see T.C.G. Thornton, The Crucifixion of Haman and
the Scandal of the Cross, in "Journal of Theological Studies", XXXVII
(1986), pp. 419-426; A. Damascelli, Croce maledizione e redenzione. Un' eco
di Purim in Galati 3, 13, in "Henoch", XXIII (2001), pp. 227-241.
21. "Quomodo (judaei) vocant Iesum de Nazaret quem adorant christiani? [...]
Dicit quod (inter se) vocant Ossoays et Talui et quando locunt cum Christianis
vocant Christo" [“How do the Jews speak of those who adore Jesus of Nazareth ?
[…] [Amongst themselves] they call him Ossays and Talui but when they are
speaking to Christians, they call him Christ”] (cfr. An. Antoniazzi Villa,
Un processo contro gli ebrei nella Milano del 1488 Milan ,
1986, p. 111).
22. The expression used in the text is "maledicta et ludibriosa passio"
[“cursed and filthy passion”] (cfr. Damascilli, Croce, maledizione e
redenzione , cit.).
23. Cfr. J.G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, London, 1913, IX, pp.
359-368, 392-407 (translated as Il ramo d'oro. Studio sulla magia e
la religione , Turin, 1991).
24. Cfr. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, cit.,
25. Cfr. H. Schreckenberg, Die christlichen "Adversos Judaeos".
Texte und ihr literarisches und historisches Umfeld, Frankfurt am Main
- Bern, 1982, p. 543; Mentgen, The Origins of the Blood Libel, cit.,
pp. 341-343. This last essay stresses the link between Purim, known as
the "feast of the lots", and the date upon which the annual lottery of the
Jewish community to establish the location of which to carry out the annual
ritual murder (Norwich, Valreas, etc.).
26. Natan b. Yechiel, Arukh, Pesar, G. Soncino, 1517, cc. 162v-163r
(s.v. shwwr). See also Shoshanat ha' amaqim. 'Emeq ha-Purim.
Ozar minhagin we-hanhagot le-chag Purim ("Treasure of the
Rites and Customs of the Feast of Purim"), Jerusalem, 2000, pp.
27. The custom is reported in the ritual scripts of rabbi Chaim Palagi,
Mo'ed le-chol chay ("A Time Established for Every Living Thing?"),
Smyrna, B.Z. Rodit, 1861, c. 243rv.
28. In this regard, see my Mangiare alla giudia. La cucina
ebraica in Italia dal Renascimento all'età moderna , Bologna, 2000, pp.
29. Cfr. ibidem, p. 166. On the Haman-taschen in particular, see
N.S. Doniach, Purim or the Feast of Esther. An Historical Study.
Philadelphia (Pa.), 1933, p. 103.
30. The reference occurs in J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews,
Philadelphia (Pa.), 1961, p. 154, no. 43.
31. To give an example, the 13 March 2002 Saudi daily newspaper "Al-Ryad"
carried an article on the Jewish feast of Purim, authored by a zealous
professor at the university named after King Faysal. The historian Umaya Ahmed
Al-Jalahama, his article, claimed that in the preparation of the Jewish sweets
known as "Haman's ears", Jews must provide themselves with the coagulated blood,
in the form of lumps or powder, of a Christian boy, or even a Moslem boy. As we
have seen, this addition is as bold as it is unhistorical, which nevertheless
seems fully understandable, considering the scope of the essay as established by
the author, and the public for whom he was writing.
32. For a description and evaluation of Socratesù text on the facts of
Inmestar, see, among others, Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit.,
p. 176; J. Juster, Les Juifs dans l'Empire romain; leur condition
juridique, economique et sociale; Paris, 1914, vol. II, p. 204; Parkes,
The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue , cit., p. 234;
Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, cit., pp. 127-128; Blumenkranz,
Les auteurs chrétiens , cit., p 58; M. Simon, Verus
Israel. Etude sur les relations entre chrétiens et juifs dans l'Empire
romain (135-425), Paris, 1964, p. 160.
33. The hypothetical derivation of the stereotype of the blood accusation at
Pesach based on Jewish behavior at Purim, maintained by Roth
(cfr. Roth, Feast of Purim, cit. p. 521; "It would not have been
altogether unnatural had the coarser spirits among the Jews themselves
introduced into the proceedings a spirit of mockery of the [Christian]
religion", and of the many who follow Roth, among them, recently, Mriri Rubin,
with reference to the accusation of the desecration of the Host (cfr. M. Rubin,
Gentile Tales. The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews ,
New Haven, Conn, 1999, p. 87: "That Jews, roused by festivity and fellowship,
may have played about, even played a practical joke on their neighbors and their
beliefs is all to believable"), is rejected with disdainful presumption by
Langmuir. The affair of ritual murder, in both its variants of the crucifixion
and the consumption of blood, is said to have been a brilliant, entirely
ecclesiastical and medieval Christian invention. Those historians, in
particular, those Jewish historians, attempting to link these accusations with
real Jewish behavior, even if misinterpreted, are said to have fallen into error
intentionally, for fear of facing Christian historiography openly, which is
believed to be incapable of understanding the power of the irrational in the
human mind, or, worse, because these historians have become befuddled by the
fanciful presumption that the Jews play a role of some weight in history (cfr.
Langmuir, Toward a Definition of Anti- Semitism, Berkely - Los
Angeles - Oxford, 1990, pp. 209-296: "Whether they were insensitive to the
powers of irrationality, reluctant to attack Christian historiography too
openly, or concerned to attribute an active role in history to Jews, they were
predisposed to believe that something Jews had done - however misinterpreted by
Christians - must have been a major cause of the change [...] exuberant Jewish
conduct at Purim cannot be used to explain the accusation.").
34. The village in question is Brie-Compte-Robert in the Isle-de-France, as
shown in the works by William C. Jordan and Shim'on Schwarzfuchs, referred to in
the note below, and not Bray-sur-Seine, as claimed by the majority of preceding
35. The episode is discussed, not only in the works by Roth, Horowitz and
Trachtenberg, already cited, but by W.C. Johnson, The French
Monarchy and the Jews. From Philip Augustus to the Last Capetians
, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1989, pp. 36, 270-271; Id., Jews, Regalian Rights
and the Constitution in Medieval France , in "AJS Review", XXIII
(1998), pp. 1-16; Sh. Schwarzfuchs, A History of the Jews in Medieval
France , Tel Aviv, 2001, pp. 155-156 (in Hebrew).
36. The text uses here the verb talah (li-tlot, wa-yitlu),
which, as we have seen, may be indifferently translated as "to hang".
The quotation is taken from the Sefer Zechirah di Efraim of Bonn. Cfr.
A.M. Haberman, Sefer ghezerot Ashkenaz we-Zarfat ("Book of Perscutions"
in Germany and France"), Jerusalem, 1971, p. 128.
38. Manuele da Visso was accused and condemned "super eo quod dicebatur
dixisse et fecisse aliqua illicita de Cruce" (cfr. A. Toaff, The
Jews in Umbria, I: 1245-1435 , Leyden, 1993, p. 76-77).
39. "Quod omnia eius brachia et etiam genua sibi dicti spiritus asperuissent
et devasstassent cum quibusdam stecchis" (cfr. Toaff, The Jews in Umbria. III:
1484-1736, Leyden, 1994, pp. 1116-1118; Id., Il vino e la carne,
Bologna, 1989, p. 171-172).
40. The Jewish defendants were held guilty “de jugulatione Christi in formam
crucifixi” (cfr. R. Segre, Jews in Piedmont, Jerusalem, 1986, vol. I,
41. Cfr. M. Luzzati, Ebrei, chiesa locale, principe e popolo. Due episodi
di destruzione di immagini sacre alla fine del Quattrocento, in "Quaderni
Storici", XXII (1983), no. 54, pp. 847-877; Toaff, Il vino e la carne,
cit., pp. 156-158.
42. Simonsohn, The Jews in the Duchy of Milan, Jerusalem, 1982, vol.
I, pp. 199-200.
43. Cfr. Giulio Morosini, Derekh Emunah, Via della fede mostrata agli
ebrei, Rome, Propaganda Fede, 1683, p. 836.
42. "Et in festo Mardochai quod adhuc (Judaei) celebrant XV Kalendas martii,
ubi conterunt ollas in Synagogis, dicentes: sicut contritus est Aman, sic
contetatur velociter regnum Christianorum" [“And during the feast of Mordechai,
which the Jews still celebrate on the 15th of March, they smash jars in the
synagogue, saying: thus Haman was destroyed, thus may the kingdom of the
Christians rapidly be destroyed”] (Marquardo Susanni, Tractatus de Judaeis
et aliis infidelibus, Venice, Comin da Trino, 1558, cc. 25v-26r).
SACRIFICE AND CIRCUMCISION: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF PESCHACH
The celebration of the festivals of the Jewish calendar marking the life of
the people of Israel from ancient times has assumed primarily the character of
historical-ritual repetition and “renewal of memory” (zikkaron) of the
divine interventions in the history of the nation. In this sense,
Pesach, the Jewish Passover, is celebrated as a “memorial”,
zikkaron, in the sense of being a ritual representation of the past
(1). More precisely, at Pesach, the events linked to
slavery in Egypt, the persecutions suffered on the banks of the Nile, the
miraculous exodus from the land of oppression, the divine vengeance on the
enemies of Israel, and the laborious pathway towards the Promised Land and
Redemption, are reviewed and projected into the present day. This is a pathway
which has not yet been completed and perfected, pregnant with unknown factors
and hazards, the happy outcome of which may be brought nearer by the actions of
Man and the miraculous interventions of God in the history of Israel. What is
more, the Jewish community, wherever it is located, is able to request the
active involvement of the Divinity, intended to hasten the coming of Redemption,
moving God through the sight of the sufferings of His Chosen People and
impelling Him to act, defend, protect and wreak vengeance.
Blood is a fundamental and indispensable element in all the memorial
celebrations of Pesach: the blood of the Passover Lamb and the blood of
circumcision. In the Midrash, this relationship is continually stressed
and demonstrated. God, having seen the door-posts of the doors of the children
of Israel in Egypt, bathed with the blood of the Passover lamb, is said to have
recalled his Pact with Abraham, signed and sealed with the blood of
circumcision. "Thanks to the blood of the Passover lamb and that of
circumcision, the children of Israel were saved from Egypt". In fact, the Jews
are said to have circumcised themselves for the first time precisely in
concomitance with their exodus from the lands of the Pharaoh. And in this
regard, adds the
Midrash , "the blood of the lamb is mixed with that of circumcision"
The German rabbis, for their part, placed particular importance upon the
importance of that magnificent and fateful event, stating that the Jews
transfused the blood of their circumcision into the same glass into which the
blood of the Passover Lamb to be utilized in painting the door-posts of their
doorways had been poured, according to God's orders, so that, together, they
might, together, become the distinctive symbols of their salvation and
redemption. This is why the prophet Ezekiel is said to have twice repeated the
wish, "And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I
said unto thee, when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when
thou wast in thy blood, Live." (Ezekiel 16:6), intending to refer both to the
blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision. In the Midrash,
the German rabbis found the references necessary to establish beyond any
doubt the close relationship between blood (of the Passover lamb and that of
circumcision) and the final redemption of the people of Israel. "God has said: I
have given them two precepts so that, fulfilling them, they may be redeemed, and
these are the blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision"
In the Sefer Nizzachon Yashan, a harsh anonymous anti-Christian
polemical publication compiled in Germany at the end of the 13th century, the
themes of which are repeated in the liturgical invocations of Rabbi Shelomoh of
Worms, the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt is taken as a pretext to
outline a dispute intended to contrast the saving blood of the Passover blood
and of circumcision to the powers of the cross.
"It is written: 'And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood
(of the Passover lamb) that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two
side posts with the blood that is in the basin’ (Ex. 12:22).
"The Christians distance themselves even further from this passage and claim
to find a reference to the Cross in it, since it recalls three places (the
lintel and the two door-posts). This therefore tells us: It is thanks to the
Cross that (your fathers in the exodus from Egypt) gained their salvation
"One must reply to them by rejecting an interpretation of this kind. In fact,
the truth is in these words of God: 'Through the merit of the blood, poured into
different occasions, I shall remember you, when I see your houses tinted with
blood. This is the blood of circumcision of Abraham, of the blood of the
sacrifice of Isaac, when Abraham was about to immolate his son, and of the blood
of the Passover lamb". It is for this reason that the blood returns three times
in the verse of the prophet Ezekeiel (16:6). 'And when I passed by thee, and saw
thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto that when thou wast in thine own
blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.'"
The reference to the sacrifice of Isaac would appear out of place,
considering that, in the Biblical account, Abraham did not really immolate his
son, as he was prepared to do, but was stopped by the miraculous Divine
intervention which stayed his hand, holding the sacrificial knife.
But this conclusion should certainly be revised. The Midrash even
advances the hypothesis that Abraham really shed Isaac's blood, sacrificing him
on the precise spot upon which the Altar of the Temple of Jerusalem was later to
be built. The pious patriarch is then believed to have proceeded to reduce the
body to ashes, burning it on the pyre which he is said to have previously
prepared for that purpose. Only later is God supposed to have rectified
Abraham’s action, returning Isaac to life (6). Elsewhere, the
analogy between Isaac, who bears the burden of the bundles of wood intended for
his own holocaust on Mount Moriyah, and Christ, bent under double the weight of
the Cross, is clearly shown (7). Explaining the verse of Ex.
12:13 ("And I when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall
not be upon you, and the plague shall be upon you to destroy you, when I smite
the land of Egypt"), the Midrash asks us which blood God is to see on
the doors of the Children of Israel, and unhesitatingly responds: "God will see
the spilt blood of the sacrifice of Isaac". On the other hand, the Jewish month
of Nissan, during which the festivity of Pesach falls, in the tradition
of Midrash, is considered the month of the Isaac’s birth, as well as
that of his immolation (8).
Isaac was sacrificed for the love of God and his blood gushes onto the altar,
coloring it red. This is the historical-ritual memory, transfigured and updated,
which the Judaism of the German lands, reduced in numbers by the suicides and
mass child murders committed during the Crusades "for the sanctification of the
Lord's name" wished to preserve, situating it at Passover and in relation to the
exodus from Egypt. In one of his elegies, Ephraim of Bonn described not only the
ardor and the zeal of Abraham in immolating his son, butchering him on the
altar, but also the abnegation of Isaac, happy to serve as the holocaust
(9). After which the saintly boy was carried back to life by
God himself, Abraham is said to have sought to sacrifice him a second time in an
overflowing backwash of fervent faith. It was precisely these the elements
which, according to the Jews of the Franco-German communities, placed in
relationship with the prayer for the dead (zidduk hadin) with the
sacrifice of Isaac.
"The verse ‘When He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side
posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to
come in unto your houses to smite you’ (Ex. 12:23), recalls the sacrifice of
Isaac, while the verse 'I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea,
I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live!' (Ez . 16:6) possesses the
same numerical value
(ghematryah ) as the name Isaac, Izchak. For this reason was
introduced into the text of the prayer for the dead, ziddu, ha-din, the
following wish: 'Through the merit of He who was sacrificed like a lamb (Isaac),
Thou, oh God, lend an ear and act accordingly'. In fact, Isaac, was killed and
appears at the sight of the divined presence (schechinah). Only after
he was already dead did the angel cure him, restoring him to life"
In conclusion, the German Jews, who, during the first crusade in 1096,
sacrificed their sons to avoid forced baptism, intending to imitate the
sacrifice of Isaac by the hand of Abraham, his father. Deliberately ignoring the
Biblical conclusion of the episode, which stressed God’s aversion to human
sacrifice, they preferred to refer to those texts of the Midrash in
which Isaac actually met a cruel death on the altar. The German Jews thus
conferred new life upon these new texts in search of moral support for the their
actions, which appeared unjustifiable and might easily be condemned under the
terms of ritual law (halakhah) (11).
The Biblical account of Jeptha was generally interpreted in this sense as
well. The exegetic tradition of the Midrash has no hesitation of any
kind in stating that the brave judge of Israel who solemnly promised to
sacrifice the first creature he met upon victorious return from the battle
against the Ammonites (Judges 11:31), actually kept his vow, sacrificing on the
altar his only daughter, who ran out to celebrate the happy outcome of the epic
battle with him (Judges 11:35) (12). Nor did the Medieval
exegetics of the German territories show any kind of embarrassment in dealing
with this problematical tale, since they were all intent on minimizing the
seriousness of the action of this Jewish leader from Galahad
(13). It is, however, a fact that, while reference to the
sacrifice of Isaac is frequently made, heavily charged with significance in the
historical-ritual memory of Ashkenazi Judaism, that of the Jeptha’s daughter
never rose to the rank of moral precedent of reference.
As we have said, the memorial celebration of Pesach was indissolubly
linked with the sacrifice of the lamb and the blood of circumcision.
The latter arose as a symbol of the pact between God and the people of
Israel, signed in the flesh of Abraham, while the blood of the Passover lamb was
the emblem of salvation and redemption. As Yerushalmi notes, the Passover dinner
or Seder has always constituted the exercise of memory par excellence
of the Jewish community, wherever it existed.
"Here, during the meal around the family dining table, ritual, liturgical and
culinary elements were orchestrated in such a way as to transmit the most vital
sense of the past from one generation to another. The entire Seder is
the symbolic staging of an historically founded scenario, divided into three
main sections, corresponding to the structure of the Haggadah (the
account of the stories of Pesach and about Pesach), which are
to be read aloud: slavery, liberation, final Redemption. [...] words and
gestures which are intended to awaken, not simply memory, but a harmonious
merging of the past and present. Memory is no longer something to be
contemplated from afar, but represents a true and proper representation and
The wine drunk during the Seder symbolizes the blood of the Passover
lamb and the circumcision, and it is not therefore surprising that the
Palestinian Talmud associates the four glasses of wine, which absolutely must be
drunk during the Seder, with the four phases of Redemption. What is
more, the text presents the charoset, the fruit preserve kneaded with
the wine, intended to bring to mind the past, as "blood memorials" of the clay
and mortar used by the Jews when engaged in slave labor during their long
captivity in the land of the Pharaohs (15).
If the blood of the Passover lamb was distilled from a sacrifice, so, in a
certain sense, is the blood of circumcision. The Midrash states that "a
drop of the blood (of circumcision) is as pleasing to the Holy One -- may His
name be blessed -- as that of sacrifices" (16). But it was the
rabbis and the medieval exegetics, particularly, those of the Franco-German
territories, who developed and broadened this concept. The Provençal Aharon di
Lunel (13th century) did not hesitate to affirm that "He who offers his own son
for circumcision is similar to the priest who presents the farinaceous offering
and sacrifices a libation on the altar". His contemporary, Bechayah b. Asher of
Saragoza, a famous moralist, also stressed the close relationship between
sacrifice and circumcision: "The precept of circumcision is equivalent to a
sacrifice, because a man offers the fruit of his loins to blessed God for the
purpose of fulfilling His command (to circumcise the son); and, just as
sacrificial blood is used for expiation, thus the blood of circumcision heals
wounds [...] It is, in fact, thanks to this obligation, that God promised Israel
salvation from Gehenna" (17).
Even more explicit is Yaakov Ha-Gozer ("the Cutter") who lived in the 13th
century in Germany, in his essay on the rite of circumcision.
"Come and consider how pleasing is the precept of circumcision before the
Holy One, may His name be blessed. In fact, every Jew who sacrifices by means of
circumcision in the morning is considered as if he had presented the daily
holocaust of the morning. Before God, the blood of circumcision is as valuable
as the sacrifice of the lamb on the altar every day: one in the morning and the
other in the evening, and his son is perfect and immaculate like the lamb of one
Circumcision is therefore considered equal to the sacrifice and the blood
poured out during this holy act of surgery thus came to assume the same value as
the uncorrupted blood of the perfect and innocent lamb, butchered on the altar
and offered to god. This sacrifice was at the same time individual and
collective, because, as Bechayeh b. Asher observed, it was considered capable of
providing automatic and infallible salvation from the torments of gehenna
[inferno], regardless of the conduct of the individual and the community.
It was a kind of sacramental mystery of certain efficacy and proven power
In this sense, circumcision came, with time, to assume the character of an
apotropaic [warding off evil] and exorcistic rite. The blood of the circumcised
child and the providential cutting of the foreskin provided protection and
salvation, as taught in the Biblical account -- which is otherwise short on
detail -- of Moses, mortally assailed by God and miraculously saved by virtue of
his own circumcision and that of his son.
This was said to have been performed immediately, although a bit crudely, by
Moses’ wife Zipporah. "And it came to pass by the in the inn, that the Lord met
him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the
foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband
art thou to me. So He let him go; then she said, A bloody husband thou art,
because of thy circumcision" (Ex. 4: 24-26).
Circumcision defended and liberated from danger, and the blood shed on that
occasion possessed infallible exorcistic significance. The Gheonim ,
heads of the rabbinical academies of Babylon, "circumcised in the water", i.e.,
they taught that the bloody foreskin was to be thrown into a recipient
containing water perfumed with spices and myrtil [a red flower]. The young males
present at the ceremony hastened to wash the hands and face in the
sweet-smelling fluid as a counter-spell intended to bring good luck and serve as
a propitiatory sign of stupendous success in love and numerous and healthy
In the Middle Ages, particularly, in the German-speaking territories,
circumcision came to assume, with particular clarity, the value
of an apotropaic and exorcistic rite, which, in the synagogue, was free to
express itself without hindrance of any kind against the background of community
life. As we have seen, during the ceremony, the blood of circumcised foreskin
was mixed with the wine and tasted by the mohel himself, by the child
and his mother, and the libation was accompanied by the prophetic wish "Thanks
to your blood, you live!" The famous German rabbi Jacob Mulin Segal (1360-1427),
known as Maharil, who also lived at Treviso for some time, in his
weighty handbook of customs in use in the Ashkenazi communities of the valley of
the Rhine, reported that it was a widespread custom to pour whatever remained in
the cup, together with the wine and the blood of the circumcised child, under
the Ark with the rolls of the Law, located in the synagogue. This act was
intended to exorcise the exterior dangers hanging over the Jewish world and the
tragedies threatening its existence.
In the 17th century, this custom was still in force in the Jewish community
of Worms. "Soon after the mohel has completed the operation [...]
whatever remains of the content of the glass, together with the wine and blood
of the circumcised child, is poured onto the steps before the Ark with the rolls
of the Law in the synagogue" (21). Among Ashkenazi Jews
therefore, on a popular level, the salvation represented by the blood of
circumcision was essentially understood, by both the individual and the
collective, in a magical sense. That blood was able to provide protection from
the constant threat of the Angel of Death, while functioning as an antidote to
the ills of this life and serving as a health-giving potion during the rites of
passage, charged with unknown dangers (22).
Another curious testimony in this regard may be found in the writings of the
so-called “Cutter, the mohel Yaakov Ha-Gozer. The German rabbi
described the custom of his Jewish contemporaries (obviously, in the 13th
century) of hanging the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands from
the lintel of the entranceway to the synagogue upon completion of the operation.
"Therefore, the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands and
mouth, which are full of blood, is placed on the door to the synagogue. The
meaning of the custom of hanging the cloth in the entrance to the temple was
explained to me by my uncle, rabbi Efraim of Bonn. In effect, our elders told us
that the children of Israel left the land of Egypt thanks to the blood of the
Passover sacrifice and the blood of circumcision.
On that occasion, the sons of Israel colored the lintels of their doorways
with blood so that the Lord would prevent the Angel of Death from striking their
houses and for the purpose of manifesting the miracle. For this reason, the
circumcision cloth, stained with blood, is hung in the door of the synagogue
to indicate the sign linked to circumcision and to make manifest to all the
precept, as is said, 'It shall be a sign between thee and me'"
The custom of hanging the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands
and mouth of blood of the child in the synagogue doorway also appears in the
so-called Machazor Vitry, written around the 12th century. This ancient French
liturgical text in fact states that, in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the
cloth used by the mohel to clean off the blood "shall be hung at the
entrance to the synagogue" (24).
Jewish mystical texts also stress the relationship between the blood of the
Passover lamb and that of circumcision and the meanings of Pesach . The
Zohar "the blood of splendor", the classical text of the Cabbalah
attributed to rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and set in Palestine of the 2nd
century of the Christian era, but, in reality, composed in Spain at the end of
the 13th century, stresses, in its peculiar language, the centrality of the
motif of blood in the ceremonial commemoration of the exodus of the Jews from
"The blood of the circumcision corresponds to the divine quality of absolute
piety, because the Holy One, may His name be blessed, upon seeing the blood of
the circumcision, feels compassion for the world; the blood of the Passover
lamb, on the other hand, indicates the divine quality of judgment, because the
sacrifice of the Passover is performed with the lamb, which corresponds to the
Zodiacal sign of the ram, the god of Egypt [...] therefore, the blood of the
circumcision and that of the Passover lamb, which are to be seen on the door,
corresponded to the two sefirot (the divine attributes) of piety and
power (or justice), which had awakened to dominance in the heavens at that
moment. In fact, the blood of circumcision represents the divine quality of
compassion, while the blood of the Passover lamb represents the qualities of
justice and power. Therefore, piety was kindled to pity the children of Israel
so that they wouldn't die [...] while justice was kindled to wreak vengeance on
the first born of the Egyptians (25).
For the Cabballah, the blood of circumcision and that of the Passover lamb
therefore possessed opposite meanings. The first indicated the piety of God,
ready to show compassion towards the Jews and save them from dangers and death.
The second, on the other hand, represented the power and severity of Divine
justice, which wreaked vengeance on the peoples of Egypt, killing their
children. The motif of the blood of the circumcision, capable of protecting the
Israel, effectively removing the threats to its existence, annulling the
instinct of evil and hastening the hour of Redemption, returns, further along in
the Zohar, in connection with the memorial of Pesach.
"When the Holy One, may His name be blessed, having come down from Egypt to
smite the first born, saw the blood of the Passover sacrifice marking the doors
(of Israel), and also sees the blood of the pact (of circumcision) and that both
are found on the door [...] To drive away the influx of evil spirits he
sprinkled it (in those places) using a hyssop branch. In the future, in the hour
of Israel’s redemption, sublime and complete, the Holy One, may His name be
blessed, shall take unto himself the instinct of evil and shall butcher it, thus
removing the spirit of impiety from the earth (26).
For the Zohar, God, passing by the doors of the children of Israel,
dubbed with blood, is not only said to have saved the Jews from the Angel of
Death, but He is said to have cured the wounds of their circumcision,
collectively performed by the Jews for the first time.
"It is written: 'God smote Israel, he smote it and he cured it' (Is. 19:22),
wishing to signify that he smote Egypt and cured the Israelites, i.e., not only
that Israel’s salvation only occurred simultaneously with the slaying of the
first born (of the Egyptians), but that Israel’s healing occurred at the same
time. If one were to wonder what the children of Israel were to recover from, we
shall respond that, after being circumcised, they needed to be healed, and were
cured through the appearance of the Divine Presence (ghilui
schechinah). While the Egyptians were being smitten, at that exact same
moment, the children of Israel were being cured of the wound caused by
circumcision. In fact, what does the verse: 'And God passed by the door' (Ez.
12:23) mean? [...] the answer is that He passed by the door of the body. But
what is the door of the body? And we shall respond: the door of the body is the
place of circumcision. We shall conclude by saying that when the Holy One, may
His name be blessed, passed by the door (of the children of Israel), in Egypt,
they were cured of the wound of circumcision (27).
The symbolic meaning of the Passover lamb offered in sacrifice is stressed by
the Zohar, which places it in relationship with a significant,
corresponding sacrifice performed in the secret and sublime world of the reality
of God. When the children of Israel shall have immolated the Passover lamb, only
then shall God in his firmament sacrifice the corresponding Lamb of Evil,
responsible for the tragedies of Israel on earth and for the repeated exiles
afflicting the Jews throughout history.
“Sayeth the Holy One, may His name be blessed, to the children of Israel:
carry out this action below (on earth) and go and take the lamb and prepare it
for sacrifice on the 14th of this month [of Nissan]; then I on high (in my
heaven) shall destroy his power [...] Observing the precept of the sacrifice of
the Passover lamb below (on earth), the children of Israel have caused to be
reduced to impotence the slag of evil (kelippah) of the lamb on high
(in the divine firmament), which is responsible for the four exiles suffered by
the children of Israel (in Babylon, in Media, in Greece and in Egypt). Thus it
is written: 'I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from generation to
generation' (Ex. 17:14), has this significance: You, children of Israel, shall
blot out the memory of Amalek below (on earth) through the sacrifice of the
Passover lamb, as it is written: 'Thou shalt cancel out the memory of Amalek',
and thanks to this your action I shall blot out its memory on high (in my
The sacrifice of the Passover lamb therefore came to assume a cosmic
significance in the texts of Jewish mysticism. Its blood, poured on the altar
and applied to the door-posts of the houses, are intended to impel God to
sacrifice the Lamb of Evil in His world, responsible for the successive troubles
and misfortunes marking the history of Israel.
The link between the blood of the circumcision and that of the Passover lamb
came to assume additional meanings during the Middle Ages, particularly in the
German-speaking territories, and no longer alluded merely to the blood by virtue
of which sin is expiated. The latter blood came to be added to the blood shed by
Jewish martyrs, who offered their own lives and those of their dear ones "to
sanctify the name of God” ('al kiddush ha-Shem ), rejecting the waters
of baptism. Thus, the blood of circumcision, that of the Passover lamb, and that
of those killed in defense of their own faith became mixed together and became
confounded, hastening the final redemption of Israel and persuading God to wreak
His atrocious vengeance on the children of Edom, the Christians, responsible for
the tragedies suffered by the Jewish people. The Jews in Germany who, during the
first crusade, sacrificed their own children 'as Abraham sacrificed Isaac his
son', were perfectly convinced that their own blood, together with that of the
two other sacrifices -- circumcision and the Passover lamb -- all offered to God
in abnegation, would not be lost, but would constitute the powerful fluid from
which the well-deserved and predicted revenge and the much-desired Redemption
would ferment (29).
Thus, in a distorted logic borne of suffering and distorted by passion, one
might even arrive at aberrant analogies which might nevertheless appear
justifiable from the point of view of the persons concerned. In the ceremony
of the milah, a few drops of blood from the circumcised child,
poured into wine, possessed the power to transform the wine into blood;
therefore, the wine was drunk by the child, his mother and the mohel
himself, with propitiatory, well-auguring and counter-magical meanings
By the same logic, during the Passover ceremony of the Seder, a few
drops of the child’s blood, the symbol of Edom (Christianity) and of Egypt,
dissolved in the wine, had the power to transform the wine into blood, intended
to be drunk and sprinkled onto the table as a sign of vengeance and as a symbol
of the curses directed at the enemies of Israel as well as a pressing call to
Again, in connection with Pesach, vengeance on the children of Edom
– Christianity – representing Edom renewed, at Rome, the city of impurity -- was
also eagerly sought in the Zohar, even if in deliberately convoluted language:
"It is written 'Who is He who comes from Edom, with the garments tinted red
from Bozrah?' (Is. 63:6). The prophet predicts that the Holy One, may
His name be blessed, shall wreak vengeance against Edom, and that the minister
who represents the reign of Edom on high (in the celestial firmament) shall be
the first to die. The prophet is in fact speaking with the language of ordinary
people, observing that when they kill someone, blood squirts upon their
garments. For this reason, he refers to them as if they asked: 'Who is he who
comes from Edom, with his garments tinted with blood; that is, from the armed
city (Hebrew: bezurah, a pun, recalling the name Bozrah of the
verse of Isaiah, which is he great metropolis of Rome? This is, therefore, the
meaning of that which is written: in the future, the Holy One, may His name be
blessed, shall reveal his powers of judgment and of blood in all their
obviousness to wreak his vengeance on Edom" (31).
The fact that this fragment of the Zohar -- which contains not one
explicit reference to the memorial of Passover -- is found in the section
dealing with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, clearly indicates that blood --
linked to the vengeance against Edom, the symbol of arrogant and triumphant
Christianity -- was a major element in the updated historical-ritual celebration
of the Pesach.
As we have seen, the preserve of fresh and dry fruit (apples, pears, nuts and
almonds), kneaded with the wine, intended to represent the building materials
used by the people of Israel during their captivity in Israel, and which was to
be eaten and drunk during the Passover dinner of the Seder, took the
name of charoset and was considered a memorial of the blood
(32). In other words, the clay and mortar with which the Jews
had built the city on the banks of the Nile
were mixed with the blood flowing from their bodies, covered with sores and
suffering. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Jews, in their history (yet
again, we are speaking of Ashkenazi-origin Jews) have sometimes been accused of
murdering Christian children to eat the body and drink the blood in the
charoset during a repulsive cannibalistic repast.
In 1329, in the Duchy of Savoy, a Jew, Acelino da Tresselve, and a Christian,
Jacques d'Aiguebelle, were accused of abducting Christian boys in numerous
cities of the region, such as Geneva, Rumilly and Annecy. Several other Jews in
the Duchy were involved in the inquiry, including a certain Jocetus (Yoseph) and
Aquineto (Izchak). The inquiry finally forced them to confess, at least
partially under torture, to sacrificing five children to knead their heads and
viscera into the charoset (indicated in the confessions under the
correct term of aharace), which they are then alleged to have been
eaten, presumably during the Seder dinner. According to their
statements, this collective ritual constituted a surrogate Easter sacrifice, and
was, as such, able to bring closer the hour of Redemption (33).
In relation to these facts, it might be noted that some of the Jews expelled
from England in 1290 in the times of Edward I emigrated to Savoy, reinforcing
the Jewish community of the Duchy from a demographic, cultural and religious
point of view. Jews from Norwich, Bristol and Lincoln were now to be found at
Chambéry, Bourg-en-Bresse and Annecy, bringing with them traditions and
stereotypes charged with implications (34). The accusation of
preparing the charoset of Pesach with the blood of Christian
children was repeated with regards to the Jews of Arles in 1453
Another child murder, that of Savona, the particulars of which were revealed
around 1456 to Alfonso de Espina, confessor to the King of Castille, by one of
the participants in the cruel ritual, desiring to obtain pardon and baptism,
appears to have revolved around the preparation of the charoset for the
celebration of the Pesach (36). The victim’s blood,
gathered in the cup ordinarily used to collect the blood of Jewish infants
following circumcision, was said to have been poured into the kneaded dough of a
pastry consisting of honey, pears, nuts, hazelnuts and other fresh and dried
fruits, which all persons present at the ceremony were alleged to have gulped
down hastily with an appetite born of religious zeal (37).
The charoset, according to these reports --the reliability of which
we would not be inclined to swear upon -- was thus transformed into a kind of
sacred human black pudding, capable of wonderfully enriching the list of the
foods of the Passover dinner and, at the same time, of bringing to the table the
exotic savor of Redemption, soon to come. It is therefore
plausible that, whoever placed the charoset in the forefront of the
ritual murder accusations was quite aware of the fact that tradition considered
it a memorial of blood. In this sense, it constituted an element perfectly well
suited to serve as a basis for arguments alleging that the Jews used the blood
of children in their Passover rites.
Circumcision, Passover lamb, sacrifice of Isaac, martyrdom for love of God,
memorial of the charoset. A true and proper river of blood flowed
towards Pesach, both on the table of Seder and in the pages of
the Haggadah, the liturgical-convivial celebration of the stories of
the exodus from Egypt. But that was not all. In addition, the first and the most
characteristic of the ten plagues smiting the lands of the Pharaoh, guilty of
culpably holding the Jews captive against their will, was linked to blood,
dam. Moses and Aronne smote the sacred waters of the beneficial Nile
with their staff and, by the will of God, the waters were transformed into
venomous serpents (Ex. 7:14-25). These waters, now toxic and no longer potable,
gave birth to abandonment, desolation and death.
In popular culture, carried along by a thousand rivulets within the
traditions and customs of Jews in the Western word, the troublesome phenomenon
of the waters of the rivers and the lakes, basins of water, fountains, and
mountain fountains capable of transforming themselves without warning into
lethal agents, were an unfortunately recurrent theme. At least four times a
year, with every change in the season (tekufah), for four days, blood
was said to be have become mixed with the potable water (i.e., this cannot refer
to the waters of the sea, but rather, to rivers, wells and fountains),
menacingly jeopardizing the health of men. The uncertainty and dismay which
accompanied the moments and the phases of passage, such as the approach of the
seasons, once again evoked the obsessive menace of blood. Blood at birth, blood
at circumcision, blood in matrimony, blood at death, blood at each change of the
seasons. Superficial carelessness or inadvertent negligence were fraught with
danger. Once again, the classical references to Isaac’s cruel sacrifice (i.e.,
the sacrifice actually carried out), the transformation of the Nile into blood
and Jeptha’s tragic vow, became both customary and mandatory, finding
well-considered, welcome acceptance in the texts containing the most ancient
traditions of Franco-Germanic medieval Judaism, from the Machazor Vitry
to the late 17th century writings of Chaim Chaike Levi Hurwitz, rabbi of
In the Sefer Abudarham, famous liturgical compendium based on the popular
traditions of the Sephardic world, both Sephardic, Provençal and
Ashkenazim, makes open reference to the dangers threatening man whenever one
season replaces another. David Agudarham, rabbi at Seville, who compiled his
heavy handbook in 1340, advised, although with some hesitation, against the
drinking of water during the days of the change of seasons (tekufah),
for fear of its contamination by blood.
"I have found it written that one must be careful during any of the four
changes of seasons, so as to avoid harm and danger. In the season of Nissan
(spring, the Passover period), the waters of Egypt were actually transformed
into wine; in the season of Tamuz (summer), when God commanded Moses
and Aaron to speak to the rock, so that waters might flow forth from it, and
they disobeyed, striking the rock instead [Num. 20:8-12], they were punished,
and blood flowed forth from the rock [...]; in the season of Tishri
(autumn), because then Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac and from his knife
fell drops of blood, which alone were sufficient to transform all waters; and in
the season of Tevet (winter), because it was then that the daughter of
Jeptha was sacrificed and all the waters became blood [...]. It is for this
reason that the Jews, living in the lands of the Occident, completely abstain
from drinking water during any change of the seasons" (39).
Even at the end of the 16th century, the Marranos of Bragança, in northern
Portugal, on trial before the Inquisition of Coimbra, proved themselves
perfectly well aware of the dangers lurking in the night air upon the approach
of any change of season. It was then that, according to the ancient traditions
of the Judaizers [Christians who believe in circumcision ], rays and veins of
blood (rai e veie de sangue) penetrated the waters of wells and
fountains at the setting of the sun. A wonderful and extraordinary phenomenon
was observed at this point, because the "waters turned into wine"; and anyone
drinking of them would undoubtedly lose his life in the cruelest way. It then
became necessary to have recourse to particularly effective and powerful
antidotes, identified by tradition in the ceremony of "tempering", which
consisted of throwing three glowing-hot coals into the polluted waters; or of
"ironing" the same waters by dipping a red-hot horseshoe into them.
Neglecting these precautions was said to cause certain death to anyone
drinking those toxic and pestiferous potions. Death was said to fall upon the
victim at the first onset of winter, "when his vines lose their last leaf"
Sabato Nacamulli (Naccamù),
a Jew of Ancona who later converted to Christianity under the name of
Franceso Maria Ferretti, provided a critical summary of the rites relating to
the change of seasons (tekufah), when the waters were capable of
dangerously transforming themselves into deadly blood.
"Four times in the year, they pray that God might, at any moment, [at any]
points or minutes [of the compass], turn all the waters into blood; they
therefore abstained from drinking water at such times, because they firmly
believed that if anyone drank the water at that moment, his abdomen would
certainly swell, and he would die a few days afterwards; they, therefore, keep
bread, a piece of iron, or something else in those waters at such times, and
this, in their vanity, they called tecufà" (41).
Perhaps linked to these popular beliefs was the custom among relatives in
mourning to pour out, onto the ground, all water contained in recipients kept in
the house of a dead person. In German-ritual Jewish communities, they actually
believed that the Angel of Death intended to immerse his deadly sword in those
waters, transforming them into blood, and thus threatening the lives of the
relatives and all persons known by the deceased (42).
In the German-language territories, rivers, lakes, rivers and torrents
possessed an ambiguous and disturbing fascination. Many of the presumed ritual
murder victims had emerged from those very same waters, cast forth onto the
river banks of Saxony by floods and currents.
The muddy waters of the Severn and the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube, the
Main and Lake Constance, with their ebb and flow, revealed that which was
intended to remain hidden, becoming the fulcrum of many tales awaiting
Moreover, even the Christian populations of the regions traversed by these
waterways were convinced, from ancient times, as Frazer tells us, that the
spirit of the rivers and lakes claimed their victims every year, particularly
during precise periods, such as the days around Assumption Day
(43). People considered it dangerous to bathe in the waters of
the Saale, the Sprea and the Neckar, and even Lake Constance, for fear of
becoming involuntary sacrifices to the cruel gods of the river. Thus, on St.
Johns’ Day, at Cologne, Schaffhausen, Neuburg in Baden, as well as at Fulda and
Regensburg in Swabia, as well as in the Swiss valley of Emmenthal, there was
wide-spread fear that new victims of the lethal waters of the rivers and lakes
would be added to those of previous years, to satisfy the demands of the
imperious spirits hovering over the waves. Jews and Christians observed the ebb
and flow, fearful and simultaneously bewitched, possessed by an overwhelming
fascination. No ritual homicide ever occurred, nor could it occur, at the
NOTES TO CHAPTER NINE
1. In this regard, see A. di Nola, Antropologia religiosa, Florence,
1971, pp. 91-144; R. Le Deaut, La nuit pascale, Rome, 1963, p. 281.
2. Midrash Shemot Rabbah 17, 3-5, 19, 5; Ruth Rabbah 6; Shir
Ha-shirim Rabbah 1, 35; 5; Midrash Tanchumah 55, 4; Pesiktah
de-Rav Kahah 63, 27.
3. In this regard, see Haggadat ha-midrash ha-mevor. Haggadah shel Pesach
by Z. Steinberger, P. Barzel and A.Z. Brillant, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 65-69;
N. Rubin, The Beginning of Life. Rites of Death, Circumsciscion and
Redemption of the First-Born in the Talmud and Midrash , Tel Aviv,
1995, pp. 102, ss (in Hebrew); I.G. Marcus, Circumcision (Jewish), in
J.R. Strayer, Dictionary of the Middle Ages. III:
Cabala-Crimea , New York, 1983, pp. 401-412; Sh. J.D. Cohen,
Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in
Judaism, Berkely (Calif.), 2005, pp. 16-18.
4. A useful argument, intended to link the meanings of redemption,
implemented through the sign of the blood of the Passover lamb on the doors of
the house of the Jewish people of Egypt, with the saving meaning of the Cross,
may be found in Justine Martyr (Triphone, 111).
5. Cfr. Sefer Nizzachon Yashan (Nizzahon Vetus). A Book of
Jewish-Christian Polemic, by M. Breuer, Ramat Gan, 1978, p. 50 (in Hebrew).
For the same argumentation on the links between the blood of circumcision,
that of the sacrifice of Isaac and that of the Passover lamb, see also Shelomoh
di Worms, Siddur ("Book of Prayers"), Jerusalem, 1972, p. 288.
6. Cfr. H.E. Adelman, Sacrifices in the History of Israel,
http://www.achva.ac.il/maof.2000_9.doc (google), pp. 5-6. See also the chapter
dedicated to this argument in the thesis presented by my assistant in the
Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, I. Dreyfus, Blood,
Sacrifice and Circumcision among the Jews of the Middle Ages , Ramat Gan,
2005, pp. 11-16.
7. In this regard, see J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the
Synagogue, London, 1934, pp. 116-117. The paragon between Isaac and Jesus
was known, among the Fathers of the Church, by Origin: "and his use of it
suggests that he knew it was quoted in the synagogue".
8. Midrash Mechiltah, Pascha 7, 11: Shemot Rabbah
12, 13, 15, 11.
9. Cfr. Sh. Spiegel, Me-haggadot ha-'akedah: piyut 'al shechitat Izchak
we-te-chiyato' le-R. Efraim mi-Bonn ("Of the Story of Sacrifice of
Isaac: A poetical composition on the immolation of Isaac and this resurrection,
written by the rabbi Efraim of Bonn"), in M. Marx, Alexander Marx Jubilee
Volume, New York, 1950, pp. 493-497 (in Hebrew). It is significant that Yiddish
theater traditionally represents the sacrifice of Isaac as a drama of death and
resurrection (cfr. M. Klausner, The Sources of Drama, Ramat Gan, 1971,
p. 186 ([in Hebrew]).
10. Tosofot ha-shalaem 22, 14. The term “tossaphists” [rabbinical
commentators], the rabbi to whom the establishment of this liturgical custom is
attributed, refers to the learned of the Talmudic academies in the Franco-German
lands between the 12th and 14th centuries.
11. On this argument, see in particular, S. Spiegel, The Last Trial,
New York, 1967; I.G. Marcus, From Politics to Martyrdom. Shifting
Paradigms in the Hebrew Narratives of the 1096 Crusade Riots , in
"Prooftext", II (1982), pp. 40-52; I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in Your
Womb". Perceptions of Jews and Christians , Tel Aviv, 2000, pp.
173-175 (in Hebrew); H. Soloveitchik, Religious Law and Change. The
Medieval Ashkenazic Example , in "AJS Review", XII (1987), pp.
205-221; Id., Halakhah, Ermeneutics and Martyrdom in Medieval
Ashkenaz, in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", XCIV (2004), pp.
12. Midrash Beresit Rabbah 60, 3; Wairah Rabbah 37, 4;
Kohelet Rabbah 10, 15; Midrash Tanchumah (Bechukkutai) 7. See
also, Josephus, Ant. Jud . 5, 10.
13. In this regard, see J. Berman's recent study, Medieval Monasticism
and the Evolution of Jewish Interpretation to the Story of Jepthah's
Daughter in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", XCV (2005), pp.
228-256; E. Baumgarten, "Remember that Glorious Girl". Jepthah's
Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture , in "The Jewish Quarterly
Review", XCVII (2007).
14. Cfr. Y.H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor. Storia ebraica e memoria ebraica,
Parma, 1983, pp. 57-58.
15. In this regard, see L.A. Hoffmann, Covenant of Blood. Circumcision
and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, Chicago (Ill.), pp. 95-135.
16. Midrash Tachumah 57, 6.
17. Aharon b. Yaakov Ha-Cohen, Orchot Chayim ("The Paths of Life"),
Berlin, 1902, vol. I, p. 12; Bechayeh b. Asher, Kad ha-kemach ("The
Amphora of Flour"), Venice, Marco Antonio Giustinian, 1546, s.v. milah
(circumcision); Id., Beur 'al ha-Torah (Comment on the Penteuch"),
Naples, Azriel Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser, 1492, on Genesis 17:24.
18. Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit ha-rishonim ("On Circumcision"),
by Yaakov Glassberg, Berlin-Cracow, 1892, p. 5.
19. Cfr. M. Klein, 'Et la-ledet. Mihagim we-masorot be- 'edot
Israel (" A Time to Give Birth. Traditional Customs and Uses of the
Community of Israel"), Tel Aviv, 2001, pp. 157 ss.; A. Gross, Taame' mizwat
ha-milah. Zeramim we-hashpa' ot historiot biyme' ha'benaym ("The Motives
for the Precept of Circumcision. Historical Currents and Influences in the
Middle Ages"), in "Da' at", XXI (1989), pp. 93-96; I.G. Marcus, Tikse'
yaldut. Chanichah we-limmud ba-chevrah ha-yehudit biyme' ha-benaym ("The
Ceremonies of Girlhood. Initiation and Learning in Jewish Society of the Middle
Ages"), Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 20-21, 34; Dreyfus, Sacrifice and
Circumcision, cit., pp. 11-16; Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women
Circumcised, cit., pp. 31-32.
20. Anon, Sha'are' Zedeq, cit., c. 22v; Aharon b. Yaakov Ha-Cohen,
Orchot chayim, cit., pp. 13-14; Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit
harishonim, cit., pp. 14-21; Izchak b. Avraham, Sefer ha-eshkol. Hilkot
milah, yoledot, chole' we' gherim ("Book of the Precepts of Circumcision,
etc"), Halberstadt 1868, p. 131. In this regard, see also H.L. Strack, The
Jew and Human Sacrifice. Human Blood and Jewish Ritual, London,
1909, pp. 136-137.
21. Jacob Mulin Segal (Maharil), Sefer ha' ha-minhagim.
The Book of Customs , by Sh. Spitzer, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 482 ss
(in Hebrew); Yuspa Shemesh, Mihage' Warmaisa ("The Customs of Worms"),
Jerusalem, 1992, vol. II, p. 71. In this regard, see also J. Trachtenberg,
Jewish Magic and Superstition. A Study on Folk Religion , Philadelphia
(Pa.), 1939, pp. 154; 170; Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women
Circumcised ?, cit., pp. 32-40.
22. In this regard see Hoffman, Covenant of Blood, cit., pp. 96-135.
23. Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit-ha-rishonim, cit., p. 61. See
also in this regard S. Goldin, The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom, Lod, 2002
24. Machazor Vitry, by H. Horovitz, Jerusalem, 1963, p. 626.
25. Zohar (parashat Bo),c. 35b.
26. ibidem, c. 41a.
27. Ibidem., c. 36a.
28. Ibidem, cc. 39b-40a
29. In this regard, see Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", cit., pp.
109-150; Blood and Sacrifice, cit., pp. 28-30.
30. On this point, see in particular Hoffman, Covenant of Blood,
cit., pp. 96-135.
31. Zohar (parashat Bo), c. 36a.
32. On the meaning and origins of the charoset, understood as
"memorial of blood", see in particular Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb",
cit., pp. 258-264.
33. On the rather extensive bibliography on ritual murders of 1329 in the
Duchy of Savoy, linked to the preparation of the charoset, see, among
others, Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 190; J.
Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1961, pp. 130
ss; M. Rubin, Gentile Tales. The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval
Jews, New Haven (Conn.), 1999, p. 108; M. Esposito, Un procès contre
les Juifs de la Savoie en 1329 , in "Revue Historique", XXXIV
(1938), pp. 785-801. According to the text of their confessions, the Jews of
Savoy had carried out that rite consuming the human charoset "loco
sacrificii" [at the sacrifice location] at Pesach, considering that
they were approaching Redemption in so doing ("credunt se esse salvatos").
34. The arrival in Savoy of the English Jews expelled in 1290 is documented
by R. Segre, Testimonianze documentarie degli ebrei negli Stati
Sabaudi (1297-1398), in "Michael", IV (1976), pp. 296-297. In the
lists of Jews of the Duke, there appears the name of "Manisseo Menasheh)
anglico, Crestecio (Ghershon) anglico, Elioto (Elahu) anglico, etc.". See O.
Ramírez's recent study, Les Juifs et le crédit en Savoie au XIVe
siècle , in R. Bordone, Credit e società: le fonti, le techniche e gli
uomini. Secc. XIV-XVI, Asti, 2003, pp. 55-68.
35. In this regard, see R. Ben Shalom, Un' accusa di sangue ad Arles e la
missione francescana ad Avignone nel 1453, in "Zion", XVIII (1998), pp.
397-399 (in Hebrew).
36. Alphonsus de Spina, Fortalitium fidei, Nuremberg, Anton
Koberger,10 October 1485, cc. 190-192.
37. Ibidem, c. 192: "Copiosissime vivus sanguis Infantis effundebatur in
predicto vase (in quo Judaei consueverunt recipere sanguinem Infantium
circumcisorum [...] et deinde fructibus diversis, scilicet pomus, piris,
nucibus, avelanis et ceteris, que habere potuerunt, in partes minuitissimas
dividentes, sanguinem illius Infantis Christiani in predicto vase miscuerunt et
de illa confectione horribili omnes illi Judaei comederunt" [Approximately: “The
living blood of the child flowed copiously into the vessel (in which the Jews
were accustomed to capture the blood of their circumcised children [...] and
then they mixed various fruits, like apples, pears, nuts, hazelnuts, etc.,
whatever they might have had on hand, cut into extremely fine bits, into the
vessel containing the blood of the Christian child and then all the Jews ate of
that horrible confection”].
38. On the tradition of the tekefot (literally, "seasons"), rooted
among the Jews of the German-speaking lands, above all starting in the years
following the First Crusade, see in particular Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic
and Superstition, cit., pp. 275-258; E. Baumgarten, Mothers and
Children. Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe , Princeton
(N.J.), 2004, p. 238, no. 130; Ead., "Remember that Glorious Girl",
cit. (which examines a broad range of Medieval Ahkenazi sources, in large
part manuscript, on this topic).
39. Abudarhamha-shalem, b A.J. Wertheiemer, Jerusalem, 1963, pp.
311-312. On the religious texts of Ashzenazi Judaism, which include the
tradition of the tekufot, from the Machazor Vitry to the
manuscript of the work Kevod ha-chuppah ("The Honour of the Nuptials")
by Chaike Hurwitz, see ibidem, p. 413.
40. On the testimonies of the Marranos of Bragança relating to the
tekufot, recorded in the protocols of the Inquisition of Coimbra, see
in detail the pioneering study by my excellent student C.D. Stuczynski, A
"Marrano Religion"? The Religious Behaviour of the New Christians of
Bragança Convicted by the Coimbra Inquisition in the Sixteenth Century
(1541-1605), Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University, 2005, pp. 32-35 (cum laude
41. Francesco Maria d'Ancona Ferretti, Le verità della fede christiana
svelate alla Sinagoga, Venice, Carlo Pecora, 1741, pp. 342-343.
42. Cfr. Y. Bergman, Ha-foklor ha-yehudi ("Jewish Folklore"),
Jerusalem, 1953, p. 38; Ch. B. Goldberg, Mourning in Halachah.
The Laws and Customs of the Year of Mourning , New York, 2000, pp.
56-59 ("It is customary that people pour out all the water that is in the house,
where the deceased is dying, because the Angel of Death whets his knife on
water, and a drop of the blood of death falls in").
43. Cfr. Frazer, The Golden Bough, cit., VII, pp. 26-30.
BLOOD, LEPROSY AND CHILD MURDER IN THE HAGGADAH
Over the course of the first two evenings of Pesach, during the ritual dinner of the Seder, all persons at the table read the Haggadah,
a liturgical text containing the account of the exodus of the people
of Israel from Egypt based on the Biblical narration and rabbinical
materials, together with the benedictions concerning the foods symbolic
of the Jewish Passover, among them the unleavened bread (mazzot), charoset , bitter herb (maror), and lamb's foot. The text of the Haggadah is
often ornamented by miniatures, tables and woodcuts illustrating the
salient stages of the history of the Jews in the land of the Pharaohs,
as well as to the events linked to their miraculous salvation and the
perilous journey undertaken towards the Promised Land. The
illustrations were not selected by accident; in addition to reflecting
the artistic tastes of the Jews of various epochs and localities, the
illustrations were intended to stress and focus upon particular
historical or legendary events and underlying messages made indirectly
perceptible through these images, while updating their content (1).
Very rarely do the illustrations distance themselves from the text of the Haggadah and refer to legends of the Midrash presenting
a few similarities with the Passover. One of these passages, which is
anomalous insofar as it concerns the matter under discussion, but was
surprisingly widespread despite its difficult and delicate nature, is
the passage describing the Pharaoh, stricken with leprosy and cured
by the blood of Jewish boys, cruelly killed for that very purpose. The
Midrash Rabbah in fact reports that the Pharaoh was punished
with leprosy by God, and that his physicians advised him to cure
himself by means of health-giving baths in the blood of Jewish
children. One hundred and fifty children of the nation of Israel are
said to have been killed every day, from morning till night, to supply
the Egyptian despot with the precious medicament. Cries of pain and
desperation of the children of Israel, as well as of their fathers and
mothers, bereaved of their tender offspring, are said to have risen
to high heaven, accompanied by prayers for redeeming vengeance (2).
The anonymous Sefer Ha-Yashar, an ethical text composed in
the 13th century, illustrated the tragic legend with a plethora of
detail, extending the dimensions of the massacre and transforming it
into authentic history.
"When God smote the Pharaoh with the illness, the latter turned to
his magicians and wise men so that they might cure him. The latter, so
that he might be cured, prescribed that the sores be covered with the
blood of children. At this point, the Pharaoh, heeding their counsel,
sent his functionaries to the land of Goshen so that they might
abduct Jewish children. The order was carried out, and the infants
were taken by force from their mother's laps to be presented to the
Pharaoh every day, one by one, it was then that his physicians killed
them and, with their blood, bathed the sores on his body, repeating the
operation for days at a time, so that the number of butchered children
reached the number of three hundred seventy five" (3).
The grisly legend of the massacre of the Jewish children sacrificed
to restore health to the monarch of Egypt, while it remained almost
ignored by Iberian, Italian and Oriental Judaism, met with predictable
success and a warm reception among Jews of the Franco-German
territories and the Ashkenazi communities of northern Italy. As early
as the 11th century, the famous French exegetist Rashi (R. Shelemoh
Izchaki) of Troyes reminded his readers that the Pharaoh "contracted
leprosy and (to get well) killed the children of Israel to take baths
in their blood" (4). This account was followed by
later, other well-known rabbis and commentators, such as Yehudah Loeb of
Prague and Mordekhai Jaffe of Cracow. The topos [traditional theme or motif] was definitively established and was to enjoy a long life in Hebrew and Yiddish (5).
Finally, and this is hardly surprising, the legend of the Pharaoh
bathing in Jewish blood became very closed linked to the ritual of Pesach.
The texts of Medieval Ashkenazi Judaism therefore hastened to place
this innocent blood in precise relationship with the tradition of
mixing the red wine into the dough of the charoset, the fruit preserve eaten during the Seder dinner as a "memorial of blood" (6).
Izchak ben Moshe, 13th century Austrian ritualist, explicitly stated
that "The precept to drink wine of a red color (during the Seder dinner)
is in remembrance of the leprosy said to have struck the Pharaoh, to
cure himself of which he immolated suckling infants (of the Jews) and
moreover in remembrance of the blood of the Passover lamb and the
blood of circumcision (7).
After the blood of the circumcision, the Passover lamb, the sacrifice
of Isaac, the sacrifice of martyrs for the faith, the pure and
innocent blood of Jewish children sacrificed to the therapeutic
requirements of the enemies of Israel, an open path, safe and
promising, led to the ritual celebrations of the Seder of the Jewish Passover. But to enable the topos to
become even more deeply rooted, in all its mysterious and disturbing
aspects, in the popular mind, conveying messages which were in fact
alternative messages, accompanied by polemics of burning contemporary
interest, the legend needed to be cemented in place through the crude
force of images, fantastic and unreal in outward appearance only.
These were the origins of the woodcuts of the Jewish victims of
perverse infanticide in the illustrations of the Haggadah (8) .
The first testimonies to this iconographic topic are handed down to
us in five Hebrew manuscripts, all originating in Bavaria and the
centers of the Rhineland (Nuremberg in particular) and may be
chronologically situated in the second half of the 15th century, i.e.,
the period of the most widespread dissemination of ritual murder
accusations in the German-speaking lands. The miniatures are of crude
workmanship, restricted to reproducing, often only suggesting, the
essential elements of the tale, which was presumed to be well known to
the reader (9).
A rather more detailed and revealing example of the iconography of the leprous Pharaoh appears in the most famous and oldest Haggadot with
printed illustrations: that of Prague in 1526 (there is a second
edition with important variants, dating back to the end of the
century), of Mantua in 1560 (republished in 1568) and Venice in 1609 (10). In the Haggadah of
Prague, the image is used to illustrate that section of the text
which describes the sufferings and laments of the children of Israel
forced to perform forced labor in Egypt. The woodcut depicts a scene
of amazing crudity (11). On the right the crowned
Pharaoh, curled up in a large tub of wood with staves, is enjoying a
bath of fresh blood, poured in by an obliging domestic servant by
means of a suitable recipient. On the left and in the center of the
panel, some armed thugs, monstrous and cruel, dressed as soldiers and
German peasants, are shown massacring innocent children, decapitating
them, quartering them, and skewering them like thrushes on pikes and
swords. Other children await their tragic fate with resignation. The
points of the lances emerge from the open gash of the circumcision
wound, while dismembered little bodies litter the ground.
In the so-called " second Haggadah" of Prague, the scene is repeated with some redundant and lachrymose added touches. In the center
of the picture, a desperate mother, with her breasts exposed,
attempts hopelessly to flee, carrying her unhappy infants with her (12).
The butchery of the preceding edition is further confirmed with an
abundance of detail. I believe there can be little doubt that this
image is modeled after the Massacre of the Innocents during King
Herod’s reign in Palestine (Matthew 2:16), as depicted in a woodcut of
the Ultraquist Passional, published in Prague in 1495. The latter was
a Bohemian adaptation of the Passional Sanctorum of Jacopo de
Voragine (1230-1298), while the scene in question is very similar, in
terms of both crudity of detail and persons depicted (with the natural
exception of the Pharaoh engaged in these cruel ablutions), to that
in the Haggadah, published in that same Bohemian city decades later (13).
In the Haggadah of Mantua (1560 and 1568), the image of the
Pharaoh's bath is not so crude and is better organized; in some ways,
it is rather more interesting and instructive (14).
The woodcut is divided into three sections; the scene takes place in a
sumptuous palace, illuminated by large windows and divided by portals
and columns. In the right-hand panel, some soldiers and functionaries
are taking babes in arms away from anguished mothers, while, in the
left-hand panel, the Pharaoh is seen taking his bath of blood in a
wooden tub, assisted by two servants. The central section of the
scene, the most detailed, depict the hall of the palace, resembling a
place of worship. Here, the children are shown being brought in by
solders, and delivered to a personage responsible for butchering the
victims. These persons butcher them with a knife, placed on an altar
standing at the end of the room, causing the blood to gush forth in
streams, collected in a suitably prepared vessel (15).
The analogies with the classical iconography relating to ritual
murder are surprisingly precise here, and certainly intentional.
The scene of the bath of blood appears with a few major differences in the Haggadah of Venice published in 1609 (16).
On the left, armed soldiers take children by force from the Jewish
mothers, while on the right, a crowned Pharaoh with his pock-marked
body, emerges erect from his wooden bathtub. This time, the butchers
cut the throats of the children in such a way that the blood flows
directly onto the diseased body of the Egyptian monarch, without
bothering to collect it in vases or recipients kept ready for the
purpose. The important novelty in this scene consists of the fact that
assassins are shown dressed like Turks, their heads covered with
typical turbans. The artist, presumably working at Venice, where the Haggadah was
printed, obviously considered it preferable, out of justifiable
prudence, to associate the authors of this savage crime with Islam and
the Koran of Mahomet, with the soldiers of the Great Turk and the
unpopular Ottoman Empire, rather than depict them as good Christians
subjects of the Serenissima.
But the message of these images is substantially identical, and
provides an answer to the question of why Ashkenazi Judaism should
have chosen precisely this legend, out of so many in the Midrash,
as its very own, linking it by force to the rites of the Passover. It
is certainly true that the account presupposes the same ambiguous
attraction to the mysterious and fascinating curative powers of blood,
and children’s blood in particular, as did surrounding Christian
German society. This attraction and fascination often developed into a
true and veritable obsession. Those writers attempting to stress the
love-hate relationship (or, more cautiously, a hostility-intimacy
relationship) linking Jews and Christians in this context are
therefore correct. We refer to those writers who lived side by side in
the Alpine valleys and along the river banks furrowing the regions in
which German was the mother tongue and the Jews spoke Yiddish (17).
But that is not all. These images were intended to provide a
response, of irrefutable historical obviousness and vivid
suggestiveness, to the ritual murder accusation linked with the
celebration of the rituals of the Pesach. The accusation was
therefore turned on its head, or generally subordinated to the crime
of child murder for ritual or curative purposes, which was then
demoted in the scale of seriousness, as an aberration of which the
enemies of the Jews (including the Christians) were also guilty.
Circumcised children of Israel had also been sacrificed by superior
order so that their blood might be drained from their bodies in their
hour of martyrdom and thus be capable of ensuring Redemption.
One intention of analogous indication emerges in all its obviousness
from the illustration accompanying the aggressive invocation against
nations refusing to accept the God of Israel (Shefoch, "Pour
out your wrath against the peoples who do not recognize you..."), a
characteristic liturgical formula, with openly anti-Christian
meanings, recited after the Passover meal, which we shall dwell upon
further along. In this case, the scene contained in the Haggadah of Venice of 1609 (18) depicts a group of necromancers, dressed as Moors, with their typical oriental turbans,
surrounded by crowds of demoniacal, dancing Negroes, while magicians
and enchanters attempt to raise the dead on the other hand. The
caption, written in rhyme, is significant, and revelatory of the
underlying message: "Consumed be the ignorant kingdoms/ which serve
demons and believe in necromancy" (19).
Now, the accusation made against the Jews of practicing magic and
necromancy, often confused with the practical Cabbalah and assimilated
to it, was public knowledge, as was the close relationship, often
uncritically presupposed, between necromancy, ritual murder and the
magical uses of blood. Even Pope Pius V Ghisleri, when he decided to
expel the Jews from the Pontifical State by the bull Hebraeorum gens in
1569, making an exception for those of Rome, Ancona and Avignon,
accused them of practicing divinatory and magical rites with
pernicious and diabolical consequences for Christians (20).
The illustration accompanying the invective against the nations who
refused to accept the God of Israel, the Goyim, was intended to turn
the accusation around: it was not the Jews who were the necromancers
and magicians, the spell-weaving charlatans of prodigious potions, the
seductive soothsayers and macabre exorcists, but also, and above all,
the other nations and peoples who did not accept the God of the
Israelites. In any case, Jews were not the only people who practiced
vain and dangerous sciences of this kind; on the contrary, the Jews
were in authoritatively good company, together with the Moslems and
Once again, the iconography of the Haggadah implied the
emergence, from the narrative and liturgical texts, of every possible
debating point useful in analyzing the message of the Pesach, prudently camouflaged within a historical framework. Its readers must have understood this.
Another tragedy inflicted upon the children of Israel emerges from
the Biblical text of Exodus. The cruel order of the Pharaoh to drown
all new-born Jewish males in the Nile so that their people might not
multiply (Ex. 1:22) promptly found easily recognizable equivalents in
the iconography of the Haggadah. In the edition of Prague of
1526, the scene is depicted on a bridge with turreted piers and
typically German and medieval architecture, like many bridges on the
Rhine, the Rhône and the Danube. Here, a few peasants are depicted
flinging defenseless infants into a few the waters below, while a
mother, also on the bridge, is depicted as seized with desperation (21). The broad panel depicting this episode from the Haggadah of
1560, shows infants being thrown from the bridge into the waters of
the river while a few mothers rush down onto the exposed gravel
riverbed in a hopeless attempt to reach the bank and save their children
from the rapids, while others give way to despair, raising their arms
to Heaven (22).
The Haggadah of Venice of 1609 contained two interesting
illustrations of this episode. The first scene depicts the inside of a
Jewish home, in which the husband and wife sleep in separate beds to
avoid sexual relations, precursor of tragedy: the birth of a son
might, in fact, lead to his inevitable killing by the Egyptians. In
confirmation of their justifiable concern, the merest glimpse of an
exterior scene is depicted, showing a few figures on the river bank,
while the waters sweep away the bodies of drowned infants (23).
In the second scene, which takes place in the presence of the
Pharaoh, seated on the throne, a few servants on the river bank throw
poor nursing infants into the river, torn from their mother's bosom,
while the heads of the miserable drowned babes are seen protruding
from the raging waters (24).
The reminder of the problematical relationship between waterways and
human sacrifice and the many victims of mysterious child-killings
revealed by the ebb and flow of the rivers, propelling the bodies of
the victims onto the banks, and the miracles performed by the holy
martyrs of ritual murder, [alleged to be] capable of floating upriver,
against the current, in a stupendous manner and returning
miraculously to the surface, was certainly present, in this case, in
both the minds of the person illustrating the images and the readers
looking at them, repeatedly, each succeeding year, during the
convivial and liturgical Pesach celebration. The underlying
message was dazzlingly obvious, and often of immediate current
interest. The Children of Israel, too, had been martyred, torn from
their mothers and thrown into the mysterious and deadly waters of the
Nile, the river par excellence, the river of paradigmatic
significance. The role of the victims and butchers was anything but
fixed and established in a clear and definitive manner.
The iconography of the Haggadah obviously could not fail to
contain a scene depicting the sacrifice of Isaac, who was thus closely
connected to the ritual of Pesach. In fact, in the Haggadah published
in Venice of 1609, young Isaac is depicted as down on his knees
before the pyre, with his arms folded, as if in silent and resigned
prayer, waiting for Abraham, with his knife raised above his body, to
carry out the inevitable sacrifice (25). A similar
attitude towards death may be found in a miniature taken from a Jewish
code, originating in Germany, and dating back to the third decade of
the 15th century (26). Here, the scene, located in a
forested countryside, shows a Jew (probably a rabbi) with a thick head
of hair and flowing beard, in patient submission, waiting to be
executed. Behind him, the executioner is preparing to strike off his
head with his sword. The victim, like Isaac, in the scene of the
Haggadah , in depicted as down on his knees with his hands
joined in prayer, prepared to die "for the sanctification of the name
of God" (27).
It is interesting to note that another illustration taken from the
same code depicts the same scene, presumably located in the same
place, of another young Jew, this time with a thick head of hair but
beardless, placed on a wooden table to be tortured by fire. The
executioner is at his side and is heating the pincers red-hot (28).
The victim’s body is nude and blood gushes forth from the stumps of
his legs, which are cut off at the feet, and his arms, which are now
without the two hands. More blood flows from the place of
circumcision, which the young man hopelessly attempts to hide with the
stumps of the hands, indicating that he has been cruelly castrated. Of
similar workmanship, certainly cruder than the depiction of the
sacrifice of Isaac in the Haggadah of Venice, is a woodcut
unexpectedly contained in the first edition of the responses of the
medieval German ritualist, Asher b. Yechiel, published in 1517 (29).
Here, Abraham, with a grim expression and a dark, stiff-brimmed hat
pressed down on his head, like a brigand, and wearing a cloak with
long fluttering hems, brandishes a huge butcher's knife and looms over
poor Isaac, prepared to slaughter his son for the love of God. The
boy, nude on an enormous stack of wood, appears anything but resigned
to his sad fate, raising his legs in a terrified one last hopeless
effort at self-defense. The iconography in this case is obviously
German, crude and pitiless (30).
Nor is there any shortage of representations of poor Simon of Trent,
of equal crudity, on the Christian side. One little-known woodcut,
contemporary with the Trent crime and probably manufactured in Alpine
Italy, the poor child, disheveled and stretched out on his side on a
crude table, is being pitilessly butchered as if he were a hog --
which he actually resembles, right down to his features. Around him, a
group of Jews, with sinister, gory faces, with the distinctive sign
on their clothing, within the folds of which the image of an
abominable sow is visible, appear intent upon cruelly vivisecting him.
The butchers are wearing eyeglasses to protect their vision during the
cruel operation, protecting the eyes from the victim’s spurting
blood. The overall image is frankly repulsive, and not at all likely
to arouse sentiments of piety and compassion (31).
It should be noted that, in the concept of the Christianity of the
German territories during the Middle Ages, the circumcision of Christ,
his crucifixion and the ritual murder, were considered symmetrical
It should not surprise us that sacred art would assimilate this
vision, translated into images. Thus, in one painting depicting the
circumcision of Jesus, originating in Salzburg or the central
Rhineland and dated 1440, the amputation of the Messiah's foreskin is
depicted as an odious and almost lethal surgical operation. Around the
Christ child, engaged in a helpless effort to escape the mortal
incision, press several bearded and coweled Jews. The mohel, his head covered with the ritual mantle (tallit)
is depicted as a cruel and menacing. Similarly, in an altar painting
in the Liebfrauenkirche in Nuremberg, dating back to the half of the
16th century and depicting the same subject, the godmothers, with
caricature-like Jewish faces, crowd around the poor child with the
terrorized face. The Jews wear the ritual mantle, bearing Sybillene
writings in the holy language, while the mohel, dressed in black, resolute and pitiless, is about to lower the knife on the defenseless body (33).
An iconography of the circumcision of Jesus of this type may be
observed to be similar, in both design and execution, to the
representation of the martyrdom of Little Simon of Trent in a painting
of the Alto Adige school, dating back to the first half of the 16th
century. Here as well, a large group of bearded, big-nosed Jews, with a
grim appearance and caricature-like features, crowd around the naked,
glorious body of the little martyr, the new Christ, intent on
performing their cruel Passover rite on his miserable body (34).
The themes of blood, circumcision, the crucifixion and ritual murder
were closely linked in the collective imagination, are eagerly
reflected in the artistic expressions of the Germanic world of the late
Middle Ages, among both Jews and Christians (35).
NOTES TO CHAPTER TEN
1. On the illustrations of the Haggadahin the manuscripts and printed editions, there is an exceptionally extensive bibliography. See, among others, C. Roth, The Illustrated Haggadah, in "Studies in Bibliography and Booklore", VII (1965), pp. 37-56; B. Narkiss, Medieval Illuminated Haggadot , in "Ariel", XIV (1966), pp. 35-40; M. Metzger, La Haggadah enluminée, Leyden, 1973; Y.H. Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History , Philadelphia (Pa.), 1975.
2. Shemot Rabbah, 1, 34. In this regard, see L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1946, vol. II, pp. 296-304.
3. Anon., Sefer Ha-Yashar, Furth, 1768, c. 94a.
4. Rashi (R. Shelomoh Izchaki di Troyes), Perush la-Torah ("Comment on the Pentateuch"), with reference to Esther 2:23.
5. It should be noted that none of the classical Biblica exegetists
of Sephardic Judaism, from Abaham Ibn Izra to Moshe ben Nachman, from
Levi ben Gherson to Izchak Arama, to Izachak Abravanel, paid any
attention to this legend.
6. See, in particular, the arguments of I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb". Perceptions of Jews and Christians, Tel Aviv, 2000, p. 258- 264 (in Hebrew).
7. Izchak b. Moshe, Or Zarua, Zhitomir, 1862, c. 117b. See also M.M. Kasher, Haggadah Shelemah, New York, 1961, p. 95.
8. See, in particular, the excellent and well-documented argument of D.J. Malkiel, Infanticide in Passover Iconography, in "Journal of the Warburg and Courteauld Institutes", LVI (1993), pp. 85-89.
9. Cfr. ibidem, p. 88-89.
10. Haggadah shel Pesach, Prague, Ghershom Cohen, 1526; Haggadah shel Pesach, Mantua, Giacomo Rufinelli, 1560, Seder Haggadah shel Pesach , Mantua, Ya' akov Shalit Ashkenazi, 1568; Seder Haggadah shel Pesach, Venice, Giovanni De Gara, 1609. On the second Haggadah of Prague, see C. Abramsky, Two Prague Haggadahs, Verona, 1978.
11. See fig. 1
12. See fig. 2. One rare copy of the second Haggadah of Prague is conserved at the Valmadonna Trust Library in London.
13. Utraquist Passional, Prague, Jan Camp, 1495, c. 24a. Cfr. Ch. Wangrow, Haggadah and Woodcut, New York, 1967, pp. 109-110. See
14. See fig. 4
15. See fig. 6.
16. This is the thesis advanced by Malkiel, Infanticide in Passover Iconography, cit., pp. 96-99.
17. See fig. 7.
18. The caption of the scene is in Italian in Hebrew characters.
19. The caption of the scene is in Italian in Hebrew characters.
20. "Omnium perniciosissimum est, sortilegiis, incantationibus
magisque superstitionibus et maleficiis dedititi (sc. Judaei)
quamplurimos incautos atque inforos Satanae praestigiis inducunt"
[Approximately: “The worst thing of all is that the Jews are dedicated
to spells, incantations and great superstitions, leading many
incautious persons to be deceived by the wiles of Satan”] The bull Hebraeorum gens was promulgated on 26 February 1526 (Bullarium Romanum, Turin, 1852-1872, vol. VII, pp. 740-742). See in this regard K.R. Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy (1555-1593), New York, pp. 34-36.
21. See fig. 8
22. See fig. 9
23. See fig. 10
24. See fig. 11. In this regard, see Yerushalmi, Haggadah and History, cit., plates 25, 51-52, B. Narkiss, The Passover Haggadah of Venice 1609, Jerusalem, 1974, p. 12.
25. See fig. 12.
26. Hamburg, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Hebr. 37. The manuscript is dated 1427-1428.
27. See fig. 13.
28. See fig. 14.
29. Ahser b. Yechiel (Rosh), Sheelot w-teshuvot. Responsa, Constantinople, 1517.
30. See figures 15 and 16. This woodcut of the sacrifice of Isaac was
reprinted in the second half of the Sixteenth Century in the editions
of Isac Prossnitz at Cracow (cfr. A. Yaari, Hebrew Printers' Marks, Jerusalem, 1943, pp. 29, 141.
31. See fig. 17. The image is reproduced by A.M. Hind, Early Italian Engraving II: Florentine Engravings and Anonymous Prints of Other Schools . Figs. 1-171, New York - London, 1938, fig. 74, and subsequently reproduced in Occhiali da vedere. Arte, scienze e costume attraverso gli occhiali, Carl Zeiss Foundation, Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Cataloghi di mostre, Firenze, 1985, vol. II, p. 30, no.
G1, in H. Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art, Göttingen, 1996, p. 280, fig. 6j.
32. In this regard, see L. Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, New York, 1983, pp. 57-65.
33. See figure nos. 19 and 20. The two images are reproduced in Schreckenberg, The Jews in Christian Art, cit., pp. 144-145, figures 1 and 3.
34. See fig. 22. The table is conserved at the Museo provinciale d'Arte di Trento. Cfr. L. Dal Pra, L'immagine di Simonino nell'arte dal XV al XVIII secolo , in L. Rogger and M. Bellabarba, Il principle vescovo Johannes Hinderbach (1465-1486), fra tardo Medievo e Umanesimo, Atti del Convegno promosso dall Biblioteca Communale di Trento, 2-6 October 1989, Bologna, 1992, pp. 445-481, table 19.
35. On the relationship between the circumcision of Christ, blood and
ritual homicide in late Medieval Christian iconography in the
German-speaking territories, see B.Blumenkranz, Juden und Judentum in der mittelalterlichen Kunst, Stuttgart, 1965, p. 85; W.P. Eckert, Motivi superstiziosi nel processo agli ebrei di Trent , in Rogger and Bellabarba, Il principe vescovo Johannes Hinderbach, cit., pp. 390-391.
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