Censored and Banned Jewish Books

Both internal and external books have been banned from Judaism throughout history.

Censorship is the control of Jewish books to make sure that they do not contain material considered by those exercising the control to be injurious to religion and morals or harmful to the reputation of the Jewish people. In considering the question of censorship in Judaism, it must first be noted that there has never been anything like a universally recognized body of rabbis responsible for controlling the kind of literature that Jews produce. This is not to say that individual rabbis never sought to ban certain books but their power to do so was limited by the willingness of authors, publishers, and readers to obey the dictates of these rabbis.

The censorship that did exist was of two kinds–external and internal. External censorship was exercised by governmental bodies who ordered the excision from Jewish publications of passages held to be attacks on Gentiles or on the Christian faith. The Jewish authorities, too, anticipated this type of intervention by themselves deleting or altering such “dangerous” passages.

For instance, the words oved avodah zarah (“a worshipper of strange gods”) in the Talmud was altered to read oved kokhavim u-mazalot (“a worshipper of stars and planets”), usually abbreviated to akum, an obviously safe reading since neither in the Roman Empire nor Babylon in Talmudic times nor in Christian Europe in the Middle Ages were Gentiles star worshippers. It is ironic that some Christian would-be censors read the word akum itself as an abbreviation of oved Christus u-Miriam (“worshipper of Christ and Mary”). The Talmudic saying (Yevamot 62b): “Any man without a wife lives without joy and without blessing” was changed to: “Any Jew without a wife,” presumably to avoid giving offence to Christian celibates.

Internal censorship was imposed by rabbis who had the necessary power over books believed to contain heretical or immoral ideas. Whatever the meaning of the statement in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10: 1) that one who reads external books has no share in the World to Come (it probably referred to treating the books of the Apocrypha as sacred Scripture by reading them in public in the synagogue), it was extended by some in the Middle Ages and beyond to include all manner of books they held to be unwholesome.

The standard commentary to the Mishnah by the 15th century Italian scholar Obadiah Bertinoro remarks on “external books”: “By this is meant the works produced by heretics, for example, the works of the Greek Aristotle and his associates. This prohibition extends to anyone who reads the histories of Gentile kings, love poems, and erotic writings, works which contain neither wisdom nor advantage but are simply a waste of time.”

When the Italian historian Azariah de Rossi (1511-1578) claimed, in his book Meor Eynayyim, that the Talmudic rabbis were sometimes ill informed in matters of history, Rabbi Joseph Karo, author of the Shulhan Arukh, tried unsuccessfully to have the book burned. Karo writes in the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim, 307. 16): “It is forbidden to read on the Sabbath the mocking poems and parables of secular works, and erotic works such as the book of Immanuel [of Rome]. The same applies to works of military exploits. Even on a weekday it is forbidden on the grounds of ‘sitting in the seat of scoffers’ [Psalms I: I] … In the case of erotic works there is further the offence of inciting the evil inclination. The authors of such works, and those who make copies of them, and, it goes without saying, those who print them, are guilty of causing the public to sin.”

A more liberal view is stated in the gloss to this passage by Isserles, who permits the reading of secular works even on the Sabbath provided they are written in Hebrew. But in his gloss elsewhere (Yoreh Deah, 246. 4) Isserles, too, comes down heavily against the reading of heretical works.

It was chiefly in this area of supposed heresy that numerous attempts at banning books were made. Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed was proscribed by many rabbis opposed to the sage’s rationalistic approach. The books of the followers of Shabbetai Zevi were banned by the rabbis for their mystical heresy. The tendency emerged to treat kabbalistic works as taboo for immature readers even among the kabbalists themselves.

The Burning of Books

Hasidism was condemned as heresy by its opponents, the mitnaggedim, and there are reports of the public burning of the first Hasidic work to be printed: the early master Jacob Joseph of Polonnoyc’s Toledot Yaakov Yosef.

With the rise of the Haskalah movement, many rabbis banned the writings of Moses Mendelssohn and the commentary to the Torah known as the Biur, produced by the members of his circle, because of their rationalistic and untraditional tendencies. The works of Reform rabbis had been banned by the Orthodox. The prayer book edited by Mordecai Kaplan, from which references to the resurrection and the chosen people had been deleted, was symbolically burned (set alight, it is said, on a silver tray) at a meeting of Rabbis at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in 1945.

It is consequently quite incorrect for Jewish apologists to maintain that Judaism knows nothing of the censorship or burning of books. However, apologists are probably correct when they point to the fact that Jews, compared with the adherents of Christianity and Islam, have been rather less tempted to condemn works compiled by other Jews.

Especially after the burning of books by the Nazis, most Jews have acquired a horror at the notion of burning books; cold comfort perhaps, but a measure of comfort nevertheless. Certainly most modern Jews have been influenced by the idea of religious tolerance that has emerged in Western society through the writings of Milton, Spinoza, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, and other thinkers in the liberal mode.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.


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