the Passover Blood Libel
Two Stories © By Dovid Rossoff
Passover is the holiday of our liberation from the bonds of the wicked Egyptians. We celebrate the exodus as our forefathers did - with matzah, bitter herbs, and wine. The wine, of course, is of the finest vintage. The four cups we drink span the whole Seder service from beginning to end, and act as a catalyst to really feel the sense of freedom. Our drinking, however, is not used as a meaning of breaking the chains of decent behavior; rather it is a vehicle to elevate our spirit in true praise of G-d for all the goodness He has done for us - as individuals and as a people.
Yet, just at this moment of our spiritual ecstasy, negative forces try to undermine our triumph by perpetrating a blood libel!. For generations we have had to suffer the threat of persecutions by being falsely accused of drinking the blood of heathens instead of red wine on this holy night of Passover. How absurd! Yet, jealous people with warped minds can even convince the naive members of society that it is a fact.
Although records of blood libels span the continents, we will tell two stories which happened in the Holy City. Both tales are well documented, and, to save the reader the pain of suspense, both ended happily.
The first story concerned a bottle of wine innocently kept in the Elijah Prophet Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. Every Saturday night at the end of Shabbat, the rabbi would conduct the havdalah ceremony (parting from the Shabbat) and drink the wine. Later that night, the keeper of the synagogue, a simple, God-fearing, Sephardic Jew, would refill the bottle and return it to its place in the Holy Ark.
Late one Thursday night, after arranging the tables and siddurim for Shabbat, he returned home and went to bed. His sleep was interrupted by a loud voice near his bedside. He immediately sat up and saw a complete stranger standing in front of him.
"Go quickly to the synagogue," the man uttered urgently. "Don't waste a minute! There are blood-red flames burning in the Holy Ark. If you don't hurry, Heaven forbid, the fire could spread to the whole synagogue and from there to the rest of the city!"
The experience was surreal, a dream, but its vividness and urgency compelled him to action.
Although it was dangerous to walk outside late at night in those times (17th century), the shamash (caretaker) rushed to the synagogue, unlocked the door, and entered. In the dark, he quickly walked over to the Holy Ark and opened it. There was no fire. He felt around. All the Torah scrolls were in place. In one corner was the bottle of wine used for kiddush and havdalah. He himself had placed it there last motzei Shabbat. But to his surprise, the bottle was not in the right place. His suspicion grew when he held it up to the moonlight and realized that it was not the same bottle which he had placed there. Gingerly, he poured some of the contents into a glass. It was blood. The dream had been a Heavenly message. He went outside and poured the blood on the ground and covered it with dirt. After disposing of the bottle, he replaced it with a bottle of superb, red wine.
The next morning, the morning prayer service jarred to a standstill, as the Turkish mayor entered together with a Greek Orthodox priest. The two grim figures were followed by other priests, a Greek citizen, and armed Moslems. There was a mute silence, and a shiver of fear ran across the faces of the Jewish congregants.
"A Christian child was murdered yesterday," announced the mayor. "We have come to search for his blood, which the priests claim you use for sacrificial purposes."
Soldiers searched under the tables and behind the benches, turning over cushions and taking books off the shelves.
"Open up the Holy Ark," called out a priest.
As soon as one of the soldiers picked up the bottle, one of the Greek civilians excitedly yelled, "See! Here is the blood of the child!"
The Greek Patriarch asked the rabbi what was in the bottle.
"It is a bottle of wine which we use on the Sabbath Kiddush and havdalah."
The Patriarch opened the bottle and poured some of its contents into a glass, and behold - it was fragrant wine! He passed the glass to the mayor, who passed it on to another priest. The aroma filled the synagogue, and it was obvious to all that there was only wine in this bottle.
"I apologize," said the Patriarch to the rabbi. "It seems that this Greek citizen intended to provoke a blood libel against the Jews. He is obviously unsound and fabricated the whole story."
Turning to the mayor he said, "The Jews are completely innocent."
In a fit of anger, the mayor drew his sword and raised it to smite the Greek man.
"No!" shouted the Patriarch. "Don't spill blood in a synagogue. Wait until we are outside."
Outside, before being run through by the vengeful sword of the mayor, the Greek citizen confessed to everything.
The Jews, after hearing the tale of how the simple shamash had miraculously been warned and had acted decisively to save hundreds of Jews, proclaimed that day as one of celebration.
This next story is nothing less than the tale of a miracle worker. It took place sometime in the sixteenth century by the hand of an Ashkenazic Jew by the name of Rabbi Kalonimus, son of Rabbi Yaakov, who lived in Jerusalem. He was a saintly man as well as a Torah scholar of repute. Everyone in the community respected him and honored him accordingly.
One Shabbos morning, the congregants of the Talmud Torah Synagogue, which stood next to the Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai Synagogue, were shocked by the sight that greeted them in their house of worship. A Moslem child lay dead on the floor! Before they could assess the situation, a squad of Arab soldiers sent by the Turkish judge arrived. The Jews were accused of kidnapping the youth and murdering him. Obviously, the premeditated crime was due to the Jewish lust for blood for the Passover feast.
Within minutes Jews were being rounded up and arrested. An Arab mob started gathering, the Moslems darkly murmuring and yelling out, "Murderers!" The tension mounted, and violence threatened to erupt. Jewish women cried out, "My husband is innocent." Men tried to escape, some into the synagogue, some down the alleyways. The serene beauty of Shabbat had been shattered to the core.
As a number of suspects were dragged off for interrogation, the crowd dispersed from the courtyard of the shul. Quickly, Rabbi Kalonimus entered the synagogue and approached the corpse that was lying in the aisle. He turned to the few people in the synagogue and asked them to leave him alone with the dead child. He walked over to a cupboard, and took out a pen and paper. He wrote some holy Names on the paper, and through a kabbalistic (mystical) meditation, he was able to revive the child. He spoke to the Arab boy and got him to admit who killed him. He then made the child swear to tell the truth to the kadi, the Turkish judge.
Rabbi Kalonimus took the boy by his hand and led him through the streets of the city to the house of the kadi. An angry mob of Arabs stood outside the kadi's house, demanding death to all the Jews. When they saw the blood-stained child walking by the side of an old Jew, they froze in silence.
Rabbi Kalonimus entered the house and stood before the kadi.
"What is this?" demanded the kadi dumbfounde.
"Here is the dead boy!" Rabbi Kalonimus's voice rang ou. "Ask him yourself who raised a knife and killed him last night!"
The kadi, shocked by presence of the dead boy before him, weakly managed to command the boy to speak.
The child's parents and other Arabs had entered the house and were watching. Speaking in a low voice, the boy described the events of the previous night, and how in a fit of anger, so-and-so, aMoslem, had hit him and stabbed him to death. Turning slowly, he pointed to the murderer and cried out in a chilling voice, "He killed me!"
The Arab tried to escape from the house, but was immediately apprehended by the kadi's soldiers. With his hysterical confession, the spell over the boy was broken, and once again he left the land of the living. Immediately, the k ordered the release of all the Jews.
With his quick and decisive action, Rabbi Kalonimus had successfully diverted what might have been a genocide of the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem. However, whereas the Jews felt that they had been miraculously saved, Rabbi Kalonimus was upset and agitated. In order to save the community, he had had to profane the Shabbat by writing. True, the imperative of saving a life overrides the laws of Shabbos, but the necessity of having to break those laws bothered him for the rest of his life.
When he passed away, he was buried at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Shortly before his death, he requested that for the next hundred years, anyone passing his grave should throw stones on it. By voluntarily forsaking his honor and submitting himself to such a degrading and contemptuous act, he hoped to atone for his "sin."
Over the generations a custom developed concerning the stones over his grave, that anyone going overseas should take one of them with him. It was a segulah (charm) that he would have a safe journey and would return to the Holy City.
When we think of the senselessness of these blood libels and the imminent danger that the Jewish community was wedged into, we can only turn to the Creator of the universe and thank Him a thousand times over for saving us in the nick of time.
Really, that is the message of Passover. When we feel cornered and under unreal duress, we must remain courageous and know that the saving hand of God is close by. That is what our forefathers felt in Egypt, and that is what the Jews of Jerusalem experienced in these two incidents. Though we should never pray for such dangerous confrontations, should they befall us we should recall the four cups of wine and proudly lift up the cup of salvation.
© by Dovid Rossoff The author, Dovid Rossoff, resides in
Jerusalem over twenty-five years. He has written Land of Our
Heritage, Safed: The Mystical City, and The Tefillin Handbook,
among others. He is currently writing a Jewish history of Jerusalem
from the Crusader period until the present.
from the April 1998 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine