Passover and the Blood Libel

    April Passover 2004 Edition            
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Passover and the Blood Libel


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Opinion & Society


The Color of Wine

by Larry Domnitch

Have you ever taken a really close look at the wine on the table at the Passover Seder table? It doesn't speak volumes it's ordinary Kosher holiday wine very common to Passover. To the Jews of Medieval and modern era Europe, the presence of ordinary red Passover wine in Jewish homes could bring grave consequences.

The Jews once celebrated Passover in an environment of absolute terror. It was a season when forces of violence could be unleashed against Jews in an instant on the pretext of the most absurd accusations. In an instant, a Jewish community could be immersed in holiday celebration, the next, amidst a horrid living nightmare. The time of Passover often coincides with the Easter season when Christians commemorate the crucifixion. Too often, the Jews, who were blamed for the crucifixion and bitterly resented for their rejection of Christian beliefs, became targets of hatred and superstitions. Often, it was their use of wine on Passover that triggered those attacks.

On, or around the time of Passover, blood libel accusations where often leveled against the Jews. These accusations often led to violent attacks against Jewish communities. There were hundreds of blood libels throughout history resulting in countless deaths. The blood libel theme rarely deviated.

A child –always a young boy – somehow was lost. Accusations soon arose that the Jews murdered the boy and used his blood for ritual purposes. Often those issuing the accusations murdered the child themselves in order to level the charges. 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 fourteenth century, ritual murder charges became common at Passover time. The fact that human sacrifice and the use of animal blood for any purpose is strictly forbidden according to Jewish law, did not matter to the perpetrators and believers of lies. Reason is abandoned when hatred and ignorance rules. Repudiations of blood libels by many popes throughout the ages occasionally helped to protect some communities but by and large did little to stop them.

The first case of a ritual murder accusation in history against the Jews goes back to Egypt about 40 BCE when an anti-Semitic grammarian and propagandist named Apion, intent upon fomenting the masses against the Jews of Alexandria, publicized a blood libel accusation. Josephus Flavious records that Apion accused the Jews of slaughtering a gentile boy in order to use the remains for ritual purposes and cannibalism.

Over one thousand years later, the accusation resurfaced. On Passover 1144, in Norwich, England a young man named William, a tanner's apprentice, disappeared during the week of Easter. 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 among 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 in England bringing horrific consequences to a group of Jews attending a wedding in the city of Lincoln. A Christian boy named Hugh was found in a cesspool in which he apparently had fallen. After subsequent forced tortured confessions, nineteen Jews were hanged. Soon, the anti-Semites of England accused all of England's Jews of participating in ritual murder.

On May 26, 1171, two months after Passover, the blood libel reached France. In the city of Blois, rumors spread that Jews committed a murder in order to extract blood for Passover Matzot. The Blois Jewish community of thirty-three, which included seventeen women, were burned at the stake after they refused the chance to save themselves by accepting Christianity. French Jewry was shocked and horrified. The rabbinical scholar Rabbeinu Jacob Tam proclaimed the day of the massacre, the 20th of Sivan, a fast day to commemorate the tragedy. Tragically, many more such horrors would follow. Ten years later the accusation reached Spain at Sargasso. The blood-libel spread like a wildfire in Europe.

Catastrophe struck Polish Jewry in the mid-seventeenth century as Cossack troops under the leadership of Bogdan Chmielnicki attacked Jewish communities. During three years of horrific attacks, a significant portion of Polish Jewry was wiped out. Rabbi David Halevy Siegel, lived during that era and authored a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) entitled the Turei Zahav, (Taz) issued a ruling intended to protect Jews from the blood libel.

He ruled that the traditional red wine used at the Seder should 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 thereafter, white wine was used. In his own life, Rabbi Siegel managed to flee the horrors of the Chmielnicki massacres, but was not spared great personal suffering when two of his sons were murdered in a Pogrom in Lvov, Poland in 1654.

Over the next three hundred years, as the modern era approached, blood libels continued, still used as a pretext for incitement. In 1840 the Damascus blood libel drew protests from Jews worldwide, and signified the entry of blood libels in the Middle East. The infamous Kishinev pogrom of 1903 began on the last day of Passover as the result of a blood libel. In 1911, the well-publicized case of the blood libel against Mendel Beilis in Russia set opposing camps in Russia between his supporters and detractors.

Over time, the rhetoric of blood libels helped to set the stage for new conspiracy theories. With the approach of the era of modernization and the industrial revolution, accusations arose of the 'Jewish conspiracy' for world domination, which became the new theme for the hate propagandists. The weekly publication of Nazi Germany 'Der Sturmer' made frequent use of the blood libel as part of its propaganda.

As Jews celebrated Passover in bygone eras, they were aware of the risks. At the Passover Seder, they drank the four cups of wine that symbolized freedom, but not in the traditional color. When they gazed at the white wine, which adorned their holiday tables, they were reminded of their own sufferings and of their precarious existence.

They lived in hostile environments and they suffered, but celebrated the freedom experienced by their ancestors as they had exited Egypt and they could nonetheless sit and recline in the manner of nobility and drink white wine and celebrate their legacy as Jews. Today, Jews no longer facing blood libels, can sit at their Seders and drink red wine, and ponder the plight of their ancestors of Europe as well as Egypt, and their trials and triumphs.

Larry Domnitch is the author of, "The Cantonists; The Jewish Children's Army of the Tsar", recently released by Devora Publishing.


from the April Passover 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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