Jewish History Blog

The Burning of the Talmud

King Louis IX of France forced the Jewish communities under his control to give up their copies of the Talmud and in 1242 had 24 cartloads worth of Jewish books burned in the square in front of the Louvre in Paris. For his efforts, the Church canonized him as a saint in 1297.

One of the surest patterns in Jewish history is that Jews who convert to Christianity become the worst enemies of the Jews.

Around 1240, a Parisian Jew named Nicholas Donin, who had converted to Christianity, convinced the king of France, Louis IX, that he would be able to prove the truth of Christianity through the Talmud. This is the same claim that Pablo Christiani, another converted Jew, would make in Spain in 1267 in his famous debate with Nachmanides.

The Church was always partial to converted Jews. Donin was very ambitious and had visions of rising high in the Church. Convincing the authorities that you could prove Christianity through the most authoritative book unique to the Jews was a sure path up the ladder to success in the Church for a Jewish convert. By winning such an argument, all the Jews would convert it was believed.

King Louis’s actions were not lost on future generations. Wherever the Nazis came to power they burned Jewish books (and later Jewish people). For instance, the great library of the academy in Lublin, Poland, which had over 55,000 volumes and was one of the great Jewish libraries of the world, was burned by the Nazis immediately upon their arrival in Lublin.

Louis ordered the rabbi of Paris, Rabbeinu Yechiel — mentioned many times in the Tosafos commentary of the Talmud — to debate Donin. All of the debates in Europe were losing propositions for the Jews. If they won they lost and if they lost they lost. There was no freedom of speech. Only Nachmanides succeeded in winning the right to free speech, and even after he won the debate he and his community faced intensified persecution for his efforts. In all other debates, one could say nothing that would be critical of the Church or Christianity, effectively making it not a debate at all.

Nevertheless, Rabbeinu Yechiel made such a skillful defense that the king agreed that it was true that one could not prove Christianity through the Talmud. Nevertheless, he said that the Talmud was an insult to the Christianity.

Therefore, in 1242, he ordered the burning of 24 cartloads of priceless Hebrew manuscripts. We have to bear in mind that in the Middle Ages each book to be hand-written. The Talmud alone is, in today’s format, about 2,300 pages. They wrote using quill pens and manufactured ink on parchment (or vellum paper that then began to be produced). The pure physical labor of sitting and writing that volume of words alone boggles the mind.

The 24 cartloads amounted to some 12,000 volumes. Louis had all the copies of the Talmud he could get his hand on collected and burned them. For his efforts, the Church canonized him as a saint in 1297. (He is the famous Louis after which the American city and baseball Cardinals are called after.)

That event effectively marked the end of the Jewish community in France. The king followed it up with an expulsion of the Jews from France — after despoiling them, and taking away their money and property, of course. The Jewish community in France never really recovered. It never again became the great seat of learning or even the great seat of Jewish tradition as it was in the 11th through 13th centuries.

Today, the majority of Jews in France are Sephardic Jews who came from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco within the last century. It is not a scholarly or a particularly strong Jewish community. It certainly never again looked like Rashi’s community, after they burned the Talmud.


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Posted in:
Medieval Jewish History, Modern Jewish History
Rabbi Berel Wein

2 Responses to “The Burning of the Talmud”

  1. Daniel Freedman says:

    Nice article, although disappointed with the comment at the end. This an opinion and I think is unjustified. It seems that the French community boasts a revitalized community with many immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe, and while it is not of the same order as it was during the times of the Rishonim, it is nostalgic to point to the current community as somehow trying recapture that golden age. It is opinion without substantiation. There are many Kollelim and Chedarim and the like in France, and the Gedolei Yisrael repeatedly visit the community for Chizuk and support. To suggest that it is neither scholarly or strong, is to complain about mule that has just recovered from almost being drowned after falling into a river, that it cannot lift heavy weights. Unhelpful, opinion, and counter-productive.

  2. zade says:

    I agree with the article, especially with the last paragraph!!!