This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Text Inscribed in Blood*

A passage in the Talmud records a grisly incident concerning a fatherless child who was left in the custody of his late father's family. The unfortunate lad was murdered by his guardians who stood to inherit his share in the estate of the deceased.

Subsequent Jewish law learned the lessons of this tragedy, decreeing that under such circumstances children should henceforth be assigned to the care of their mothers.

The original Talmudic report contained an indication of when the incident occurred. However if one relies on the standard editions of the Talmud, the well-known Vilna printings produced at the beginning of the present century, it is hard to decipher what is being said there.

Where the date should appear, an ambiguous Hebrew abbreviation is employed, to which an anonymous marginal gloss comments: "This should be read as `on the first evening,' and the printers of previous editions misinterpreted the abbreviation in a manner that is inappropriate to the context."

A comparison with earlier printings, manuscripts and medieval citations makes it clear that the original reading of the phrase was "on Passover eve." The traditional commentators were somewhat puzzled over the importance of this detail. Some claimed that it was simply an incidental fact that had no particular significance to the legal or religious issues. Others suggested that the Talmud was emphasizing the perverseness of the crime, in that it was perpetrated at a time when Jews ought to be purifying themselves from corpse-related defilement in preparation for the pilgrimage to the Temple.

The question remains: Why did the recent editions of the Talmud take the trouble to alter the text and remove its connection to Passover?

My own initial investigation of this puzzle did not meet with immediate success. One leading contemporary Talmudic scholar noted the emendation, adding cryptically that "Many futile things have been written concerning the reading `the eve of Passover,' none of which I consider satisfactory."

Indeed, it turns out that the "many futile things" were not written in the context of traditional talmudic commentaries, but relate to incidents that were taking place at the time of the printing of the Vilna Talmud editions.

In 1891-2 a series of articles and pamphlets were published in German journals (including one with the transparent name `Antisemitische Corrospondenz'), from the pen of an individual named Augustus Rohling. These articles bore titles like "A Talmudic Source for Ritual Murder." In all these articles Rohling cited a garbled and distorted version of our Talmudic passage as irrefutable evidence that Jews slaughter children--when necessary, even their own-- as part of the religious observance of their Passover.

This absurd reading of the text was fully consistent with the other activities of Herr Rohling. He held the post of "Professor of Semitic Languages" at the German University in Prague, an appointment that owed more to pressures exerted by the church than to any legitimate academic credentials. His best known publication was the infamous Der Talmudjude, a vitriolic collation of twisted misquotes from Jewish sources (much of it plagiarized from earlier antisemitic anthologies) that claimed to prove the murderous character of Jews and Judaism. Rohling's rantings were cited in the prosecution of several European "Blood Accusations," including the notorious trial in Nyíregháza, Hungary, in 1883. Similar works are still in widespread circulation among his disciples in Alberta.

Rohling's pseudo-scholarship was repeatedly denounced and ridiculed by virtually all the contemporary Christian authorities on Hebrew and Jewish religion, including such distinguished experts as Hermann Strack, Franz Delitsch and Theodor Nöldecke. Strack in particular, though an active missionary, had sufficient scholarly integrity and respect for the truth that he composed a special treatise to refute Rohling's slanders.

Eventually the wave of denunciations by a veritable "who's who" of European Orientalists, coupled with a series of lawsuits and countersuits, led to the antisemite's dismissal from his University post.

It is against the background of Rohling's dangerous libels, and the bloody pogroms that they were kindling in central and eastern Europe, that we can appreciate why the Jewish publishers tampered with the text of the Talmud in order to obscure its connections to Passover.

This can serve as a reminder of the days, unfortunately not completely bygone, when fear, rather than joyous anticipation, would often mark the approach of the "season of our liberation."

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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