Painting of blood libel in Sandomierz Cathedral in Sandomierz, Poland. (Wikimedia)

Passover and Blood Libel in the Middle Ages

The joy of the holiday is overshadowed by anti-Semitic violence.

Discussions among the sages continued for centuries until the content and format of the seder became relatively established and universally accepted. By the 11th century, the text — a combination of biblical passages, material from midrash [works that interpret Torah and Talmud], and liturgical poems — was virtually the one we use today, and in the next century appeared in a separate publication called the Haggadah.

Jews in the medieval European ghettos loved Passover, finding inspiration in the events of the past and eternal hope for the future. Unfortunately, the joyous anticipation generated by the approach of the holiday gave way to abject terror, beginning in the latter part of the Middle Ages with the spread of malicious blood libels at Passover time, which occurs around the date of Easter. In 1144, the first accusation, in Norwich, England, maintained that the Jews had killed a Christian child, repeating the crucifixion of Jesus.

The ridiculous and slanderous lie, enhanced with the claim that the murdered child’s blood was needed for the baking of matzah, spread all over Europe, inciting massacres against innocent Jews. Christians in Arab lands in the 19th century and Nazis in the 20th century kept the lie alive. The trumped-up cases and murderous rampages even spread as far as America in the 1920s. Recently, the libel has resurfaced in post-Soviet Russia. [It has also arisen in modern Arab states.]

The sad reality inspired fictional accounts, the best known being Heinrich Heine’s The Rabbi of Bacherach and Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, based on the 1911 Menahem Mendel Beilis case in Russia, which also served as background for Sholom Aleichem’s The Bloody Hoax. The legendary Golem — the clay automaton said to have been created by Rabbi Yehudah Lavi of Prague (the Maharal) in the late 16th century — existed primarily to guard the community against attacks spurred by the false charges.

Despite the threats, the Jews never ceased observing Passover, believing with the indomitable faith for which we are famous (and despised) that the story needed to be told, and deriving renewed strength from it. The only major change was the addition, between the 14th and 16th centuries, of a number of songs following the service, although these were not universally adopted.

The messages of Passover continued to inspire oppressed Jews throughout the world. Based on the description of Passover in the prophetic books of the Bible to which they had access in the Christian version, the marranos (hidden Spanish and Portuguese Jews forced to renounce Judaism during the 15th-century Inquisition and their descendants) continued to observe Passover.

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission of the publisher ( Jason Aronson Inc).

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