Reprinted with permission of the publisher from The Jewish Holidays: A Journey Through History (Jason Aronson, Inc).
When Passover night arrives, the cups of wine are filled and the prayers and songs of the holiday are joyfully chanted. In today’s times, Passover has often become synonymous with vacation, as newspapers are filled with advertisements for Passover getaways to places ranging from the Canadian Rockies to Miami Beach to the French Riviera.
But that’s not how Passover was celebrated for the Jews of medieval Europe. For them, wine–traditionally a symbol of gladness and holiday celebration–also signaled a time for contemplation on Passover. When Passover arrived, Jews celebrated with extreme caution and fear, unsure of the violence that could be unleashed against them.
That time of the year coincides with the Easter season, a time when Christians commemorate the Crucifixion. Too often, Jews, who were blamed for the Crucifixion and resented for their rejection of Christianity, became targets of hatred and superstitions. Often it was their use of wine on Passover that prompted those attacks.
On Passover, the bizarre blood libel accusations were often leveled against the Jews. These accusations usually led to violent attacks against Jewish communities. There were hundreds of blood libels throughout history, resulting in the deaths of thousands. The blood libel theme rarely deviated. A child–almost always a young boy–was lost. Allegations then arose that the Jews murdered him and used his blood for ritual purposes. Usually those leveling the accusations had murdered the child themselves in order to accuse the Jews. Sometimes the child was a victim of an accident or later found unharmed. The cruelest methods of torture were often used to force confessions and the fabricated charges would serve as a pretext to slander and attack Jewish communities.
By the 14th century, ritual murder charges became common at Passover time. The fact that human sacrifice and the use of even animal blood for any purpose are strictly forbidden according to Jewish law did not matter to those perpetrators and believers of lies. Reason is abandoned when hatred and ignorance rule. Repudiations of blood libels by many popes throughout the ages did little or nothing to stop them.
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