Blood Libels

The accusation that blood was used to make wine or matzah for Passover

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The First Accusation

The first ritual murder accusation in history against the Jews goes back to Egypt at about 40 BCE when a propagandist named Apion, intent upon inciting the masses against the Jews of Alexandria, slandered them with a blood libel accusation. Not until over one thousand years later did the accusation resurface. On Passover 1144, in Norwich, England, a young man named William, a tanner's apprentice, disappeared during the week of Easter, which coincided with Passover that year. Charges immediately arose that the Jews killed him as part of a ritual murder. According to the accusation, the Jews "bought a Christian child before Easter and tortured him and on Long Friday hanged him on a rod. Since no body was found, the Sheriff of Norwich ignored the charges and granted the Jews protection. But the story was not forgotten, and the missing boy, William, became a martyr amongst the town's people. A short time later, the Jews of Norwich were attacked by mobs seeking vengeance and were forced to flee.

Eleven years later, the blood libel resurfaced bringing horrific consequences to Jews attending a wedding in Lincoln, England. A Christian boy named Hugh was found in a cesspool where he apparently had fallen. After subsequent forced, tortured confessions, 19 Jews were hanged. Soon, the anti-Semites of England accused all of England's Jews of participating in ritual murder. The many accusations that followed were often accompanied by violent attacks against Jewish communities.

In 1171, the blood libel reached France. In the city of Blois, rumors spread that Jews committed murder in order to extract blood for Passover matzot. On May 26, 1171, two months after Passover--without the recovery of a corpse--the 33 members of the Blois Jewish community, which included seventeen women, were burned at the stake after they refused the chance to save themselves by accepting Christianity. French Jewry were shocked and horrified by the event. The rabbinical scholar Rabbeinu Jacob Tam proclaimed the day of the massacre, the 20th day of Sivan, a fast day to commemorate the tragedy.

Tragically, many more such horrors would follow. Ten years later, the accusation reached Spain at Saragossa. (Historically, blood libels were not as pervasive in Spain.) The merchants of hate and perpetrators of lies found a new frontier for their poison and more countries lay in their path.

In the 17th century, catastrophe struck Polish Jewry as Cossack troops attacked and massacred entire Jewish communities during the Chmielnicki Revolt. Rabbi David Halevy Siegel, who lived during that era and authored a commentary on the Shulhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law) entitled the Turei Zahav, issued a ruling intended to protect Jews from the blood libel. He ruled that the traditional red wine used at the Seders be substituted with white wine in lands of persecution in order not to arouse suspicion. "In lands where false accusations are made, we refrain from using red wine. On Passover night, white wine was consumed thereafter. In his own life, Rabbi Siegel managed to flee from the Chmielnicki massacres, but he was not spared great personal suffering when two of his sons were murdered in a pogrom in Lvov, Poland, in 1654.

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Larry Domnitch

Larry Domnitch is a freelance writer and Jewish educator. He has a master's degree in Jewish history from Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School.