Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, April 21st, 2024
the Fourth Sunday after Easter
Take your personal ministry to the Next Level by helping StudyLight build churches and supporting pastors in Uganda.
Click here to join the effort!

Bible Encyclopedias
Confiscation of Hebrew Books

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Search for…
Prev Entry
Confiscation and Forfeiture
Next Entry
Conflict of Laws
Resource Toolbox

The first known decree directed against Hebrew literature is one of the emperor Justinian (553) forbidding the Jews to use "what is called by them 'The Second Edition'" (Secunda Editio, δευτέρωσις). Apparently this term was used to designate the Midrashic, traditional interpretation of the Scriptures. To what extent the decree was enforced is not known. Entirely unauthorized and without definite purpose was the action of the Crusaders six centuries later, when, in their march through Germany, they confiscated all the Hebrew books they could find in the various cities, and left behind them piles of burning Talmuds and prayer-books to mark their path.

In the thirteenth century France was the center of a series of deliberate attacks directed against Hebrew books. The typical order of procedure in nearly all such movements was as follows: the bringing of charges against the Talmud by a converted Jew; the issuing by the pope of a decree for its confiscation; the carrying out of the decree by the Inquisition; a disputation of the charges, including a defense of the work by the rabbis; finally, the condemnation and public destruction of the Talmud by burning. Very often other books were confiscated along with the Talmud.

Confiscation in France.

In 1232 Jewish scholars in France were divided into two hostile camps, consisting respectively of the followers and opponents of Moses ben Maimon's philosophy. Solomon ben Abraham of Montpellier was at the head of the latter—the Orthodox—party, and looked upon his opponents as heretics. In an evil moment he carried the quarrel outside the Jewish ranks, and invited the Dominican and Franciscan inquisitors, then busied with the enemies of the Catholic Church, to proceed against Jewish heretics also. In Provence his request met with an eager response; the papal cardinal-legate gave the command, and in Montpellier a house-to-house search was made for Maimonidean writings. All such as could be found were brought together, and in Dec., 1233, the first public official burning of Hebrew books took place.

This action on the part of Solomon ben Abraham led to results which he had not expected. The Inquisition did not long restrict its activity to the writings of Maimonides, and the Talmud itself soon became the object of attack. A little more than a month after the affair of Montpellier a public burning of Talmudic and other kindred works was held in Paris, at which 12,000 volumes were destroyed together. In 1239 the baptized Jew Nicholas (Donin) brought the charge against the Talmud that it insulted Christianity, and Pope Gregory IX. sent a general order on the subject to the temporal and ecclesiastical rulers in France, England, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal. He decreed that the Dominicansand Franciscans confiscate all copies of the Talmud, submit them to the heads of the two orders for examination, and, should the charges prove to be true, cause them to be destroyed (May, or June 1239). In Paris the decree met with a ready response from King Louis IX. and the Dominican Henry of Cologne. The Jews were forced, under threat of death, to surrender their books; and a commission was appointed to hear the defense of the rabbis. The Talmud was condemned to the flames; but a stay was secured and a second hearing accorded, in which R. Jehiel of Paris headed the defense. The Talmud was, however, again condemned (1240). Three years later the decree was carried out, under urging from the new pope, Innocent IV. A general confiscation took place throughout France, and on one day fourteen wagon-loads were brought into Paris. Later, six more wagon-loads were added, and all the books were publicly burned on June 17. 1244.

From the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century.

Similar confiscations took place in Rome about the same time; again in Paris, four years later, under the cardinal-legate Odo; in Barcelona and Tarragona under Pope Clement IV., the Archbishop of Tarragona, and the apostate Pablo Christiano of Montpellier, King James of Aragon, though he had at one time ordered the confiscation of Nahmanides' writings, showing himself now somewhat more liberally inclined; in Paris under Philip the Fair, in 1299, and again in 1309, when three wagon-loads of books were burned; in Toulouse, under the inquisitor Bernard Gui, aided by officials of King Louis in 1319. Before this last burning the books were carried through the streets of the city, while royal officers proclaimed publicly that their condemnation was due to the insults to Christianity which they contained. In 1320 the Archbishop of Bourges received orders from Pope John XXII. to confiscate all copies of the Talmud in his city. Finally, in Rome during the Feast of Weeks, 1322, occurred a confiscation and a burning of the Talmud, accompanied by robbery and murder on the part of the mob.

In the fifteenth century three confiscations were ordered: (1) of the Talmud in southern France, by Pope Alexander V., carried out by the inquisitor Pons Feugeyron, 1409; (2) of the Talmud and other "anti Christian writings like the 'Marmar Jeshu,'" (Toledot Yeshu?) in Spain, by the anti-pope Benedict XIII., 1415 (never carried into effect, owing to the pope's deposition); (3) of all Hebrew books in Portugal, 1497.

One of the most important of anti-Talmud movements occurred in Germany at the opening of the sixteenth century. Two converts, the Dominicans Victor of Carben and Johann Pfefferkorn, brought the customary charges against the Talmud, whereupon King Maximilian in 1509 authorized the confiscation of Hebrew books throughout Germany, and the destruction of such as contained anything contrary to the teachings of the Bible or of Christianity. In Frankfort, Worms, Lorch, Bingen, Laufen, Mayence, and Deutz such confiscations were held; that in Frankfort taking place on Sept. 28, when all books found in the synagogue were seized. A house-to-house search was to have been made on the following day; but the archbishop Uriel of Gemmingen forbade this, and together with several other Christians who showed themselves friends to Jewish literature, succeeded in inducing the emperor to order the return of the books to their owners. Later, this order was revoked; 1,500 books and manuscripts were again seized in Frankfort (April 11, 1510). The question in general was then submitted to the scholars of Germany for decision, and men like Reuchlin gave their answer in favor of the Talmud and kindred works, though naturally against Lipman's anti-Christian writings and the "Toledot Yeshu" (History of the Birth of Jesus of Nazareth)—works condemned by the Jews themselves. The weight of opinion, including that of all the large universities except Heidelberg, was against the Talmud, however; and Reuchlin was charged with heresy. After further vacillation on the part of the authorities, Reuchlin's case was carried to Rome, and finally decided against him; but the Talmud question seems to have been dropped for a while.

Action of the Inquisition.

The question was reopened in Italy in 1553 by Cardinal Caraffa, leader of the Italian Inquisition, and from this time on down to the nineteenth century the attacks on Hebrew books continued almost without interruption. The usual apostate charges preceded the confiscation orders issued by Pope Julius III. in 1553, and were eagerly carried out by the inquisitor-general. In Rome the "familiars," dread servants of the Holy Office, forced their way into synagogues and homes, and returned laden with booty to their superiors. A defense was allowed the rabbis, a formality the uselessness of which history had already made evident. On an appointed day all the copies of the Talmud were carried to the Campo di Fiori, and once again, as the flames arose, Rome rang with mingled shouts of glee and cries of anguish (Sept., 1553). And not Rome alone; for the Inquisition's decree had reached all places where the Catholic Church was supreme. Barcelona obeyed first; then Venice, where the apostate Eleazar ben Raphael wished to include many other books in the condemnation, and a commissionfinally decided partially in his favor. On a Sabbath the sentence was carried out, and Judah Lerma has narrated that he alone lost 1,500 volumes. Romagna, Urbino, and Pesaro held burnings before the end of the year; and early in 1554 books were burned by hundreds of thousands in Ancona, Ferrara, Mantua, Padua, Candia (an island belonging to Venice), and Ravenna.

In the catalogue of prohibited books ("Index Librorum Prohibitorum") published in 1554 by order of the pope, in Milan and Venice, the "Talmuth" appeared in the list for the first time, and thereafter was prohibited by the indexes published in various parts of the Catholic world, with the modifications, on two occasions, mentioned in the article Censorship. In 1557 the baptized Jew Andrea del Monte directed another confiscation in Rome, sparing not even the prayer-books; and in the following year the inquisitor-general Cardinal Ghislieri ordered still another. In Milan the Spanish general Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordua, after resisting the Inquisition for some time, finally agreed that the Talmud should be burned, and ordered his Spanish soldiers to aid in the work. Other books were not spared, however, and between 10,000 and 12,000 volumes formed a pyre over which Sextus Sinensis presided in April or May, 1559. Other confiscations took place in Cremona and Lodi (July, 1566); Romagna and Bologna (1567); Vercelli, in Piedmont-Savoy (1592); Avignon and neighborhood (1593); Pavia and Lodi (1597); and Rome (1601). In Cremona and Lodi, however, the books were later returned by order of the Senate of Milan.

In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Meanwhile Prague had become the scene of violent anti-Talmud movements. As early as 1560 a confiscation, including even the prayer-books, had taken place under the Dominicans, but the emperor Ferdinand, when appealed to, had ordered the return of the books. Toward the end of the century the movement was carried on even more energetically by the Jesuits, and on Dec. 7, 1693, the Jesuit Father Wolfgang Preissler, charging that the Talmud and kindred works were dangerous to civil and religious authority, secured permission for a confiscation. A search through the Jewish schoolhouse and the synagogues resulted in the discovery of more than 200 works. The movement then spread to other parts, and after the customary charges against the Talmud, a confiscation took place in Friedeberg (Neumark), but King Frederick I. ordered the return of the books seized.

Fürth, in Bavaria, was the scene of the next confiscation. A certain Mordecai (Marx) ben Moses, who had embraced Christianity, assuming the name "Philip Ernst Christfels," brought charges of blasphemy against Jewish prayer-books(1702). In company with several others he visited some of the Jewish houses in Fürth, and seized eighteen books. Most of these were prayer-books of various editions, but among them were also the Yorch De'ah and two commentaries to the Earlier Prophets (Abravanel's and the "Leb Abaron"). Christfels made a list of the so-called blasphemous words contained in these works, and this was used at the sittings (March 27-April 4, 1702) of an inquisition appointed by the margrave Georg Friedrich of Brandenburg-Onolzbach to examine into the charges. The head of the commission was Rudolf Martin Meelführer, who took during the trial a position in regard to Hebrew literature very similar to that which Reuchlin had taken; and the commission was discharged without having accomplished anything. A similar result followed in 1712, when the matter was reopened in connection with charges of blasphemy brought against a certain Elkan Fränkel. Meelführer, however, fell into disfavor this time at the court of Georg Friedrich's successor, Wilhelm Friedrich, and was charged with having had a secret understanding with Fränkel in bringing about the discharge of the former commission. About this same time another series of house-to-house searches was instituted in the city of Prague by a permanent Inquisition commission of Dominicans which had been established there. Certain books were found in the homes of forty-two families and were seized (1711). Still another search took place twelve years later under the Jesuit Franz Haselbauer.

During the next thirty years a series of confiscations occurred in Italy. The first took place in Ancona in 1728, though the books seized were afterward returned. In 1731 the Dominican Giovanni Antonio Costanzi directed searches in all the Jewish quarters throughout the Papal States; these searches were repeated in 1738, 1748, and finally in 1753, the last by order of Benedict XIV., who had learned that books were being smuggled into the ghettos in rolls of cloth and by means of other subterfuges. In Rome, on a night in April, after the ghetto gates had been closed, officials entered houses previously marked as suspicious. Outside, at stated distances on the streets, wagons and carts were stationed under escort. As the books were taken from each house they were placed in one of the sacks with which each. searching party had been provided, the sack was scaled in the presence of two Christian witnesses, and a tag bearing the owner's name was attached. The books were then conveyed to an appointed official; and in this way thirty-eight carts were filled from the ghetto of Rome alone. Similar confiscations took place in Lugo (Ravenna), Pesaro, Ferrara, Urbino, Ancona, Sinigaglia; and the next year in Avignon, Carpentras, Cavaillon, and Lille.

Trouble arose next in Poland, consequent on the Frankist disturbances in 1757. The charge was made that as a result of Talmudical teachings Jews were accustomed to use the blood of Christian children in their ceremonies. All books except the Bible and the Zohar were confiscated, and about 1,000 copies were thrown into a ditch and burned. The search was then continued, and repeated in Lemberg, but after the leader of the Frankists had been convicted of intrigue and deception the whole movement was allowed to lapse in Poland; and though severe edicts were yet to be issued in Italy (1775 and 1793) the Napoleonic era brought to a general close the History of measures directed against Hebrew books.

  • Grätz. Gesch.5:28,436, 7:46,113,128,463;
  • 9:87-162,382;
  • 10:347,427;
  • Berliner, Censur und Confiscation, pp. 4, 13, 59, Frankfort-on-the-Main. 1891;
  • Vogelstein and Rieger, Gesch. der Judenin 1:11,156,236;
  • Joseph ha-Kohen, 'Emeḳ ha-Baka, pp. 86, 128, 138, 180, Leipsic, 1838;
  • Rev. Etudes Juives, 1:247-261, 2:248-270, 3:39-57, 23:148, 29:254. 30:257;
  • Reusch, Index der Verbotenen Bücher, 1:46, Bonn, 1883-85:
  • Ibn Yahya, Shalshelet ha-Kabbalah, p. 96a;
  • G. Wolf. in Hebr. Bibl.6:35;
  • Gorten, Ankläger des Talmuds, p.6;
  • Lea, A History of the Inquisition, 1:54,555;
  • 3:614, New York, 1888;
  • Kaufmann Gedenkbuch, pp. 457 et seq.;
  • Monatsschrift, 1900, :114-126,167-177,220-234.
W. P.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Confiscation of Hebrew Books'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​c/confiscation-of-hebrew-books.html. 1901.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile