The Trial of the Talmud

Anti-Judaism and the Talmud in Medieval French Society

The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240, ed. John Friedman, Jean Connell Hoff, and Robert Chazan. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2017, 182 pp., $19.95

The thirteenth century was a tumultuous time for the Jews of France. New regulations limited Jews’ ability to charge interest on loans and take pledges. Jewish migration became subject to tight control, while heavy taxes sapped the wealth of Jews trapped in lands directly ruled by the French king. Accusations of ritual murder, supposedly confirmed by confessions made under torture, and attacks on synagogues undermined the safety and security of Jewish bodies.

Later policies forbade Jews from lending at interest at all, jeopardizing their ability to support themselves. Jews were forced to wear distinctive badges and forbidden to build new cemeteries or synagogues, or even repair old ones. Expulsion in 1306 sent French Jews into exile; although they were permitted to return, a series of subsequent expulsions made it clear that Jews could no longer live securely under the French crown. No single event highlights this growing insecurity in the thirteenth century more than the Trial of the Talmud.

On June 9, 1239, Pope Gregory IX sent a series of letters to the most illustrious clergy of the kingdom of France in which he encouraged them to address the recently discovered problem of the Talmud. For Jews, the Talmud represented the “Oral Law,” handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the “Written Law,” the Torah or Five Books of Moses. The two texts complemented one another, and medieval Jews considered the combination of the two essential for Jewish practice. Gregory saw the Talmud very differently. Within the text of the Talmud, he claimed,“are contained so many falsities and offensive things that they are a source of shame to those who repeat them and horror to those who hear them.”

Gregory’s letters set into motion the series of events that have been termed “the Trial of the Talmud.” Nicholas Donin, a convert to Christianity who had received an extensive Jewish education, claimed that the Talmud was a human creation that the Jews valued over the Torah, and that it moreover contained blasphemous and anti-Christian teachings. If proved true, such accusations would justify banning the Talmud—a major blow to Jewish religious practice. Despite the efforts of Rabbi Yehiel of Paris, a scholar who acted as the chief Jewish representative, Donin proved his charges to the satisfaction of a hostile Christian jury, and copies of the Talmud were burned in 1241 or 1242.

The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240 brings together in English translation the primary source texts essential to understanding this series of events.These sources include a series of Latin letters, sent by and addressed to two popes, the Latin text of the accusations brought forth against the Talmud, and Latin records of the testimony of two learned Jews, as well as the substantial Hebrew account penned by Rabbi Yehiel and a Hebrew lament on the burning of the Talmud.

As a collection of primary sources in translation, the volume is of particular use as a teaching tool. Robert Chazan’s introductory historical essay helps to frame the text for students unfamiliar with the medieval context, while also providing an analysis of the documents presented in the volume. He begins with background information on the central role of the Talmud in medieval Jewish religious practice and on the history of medieval Christian responses to the Talmud. The analytic portion of the essay addresses the nature of the sources, the chronology of events, the biographies of the individuals involved, the nature of the Christian charges, and the Jewish defense strategy, before concluding with an assessment of the impact of the trial on Jewish life in medieval Europe in general, and medieval France in particular.

Chazan’s analysis of the trial attempts to reconcile two occasionally divergent accounts, one in Latin representing the Christian perspective, and the other in Hebrew representing the Jewish perspective. Although he limits his remarks on methodology to a few sentences, Chazan relies on the same approach he employed in a lengthier study of another Jewish-Christian polemical confrontation—the 1263 Disputation of Barcelona, also recorded in competing Latin and Hebrew accounts. Attempting to avoid the pitfalls of previous approaches, which typically characterized one account as the truth and the other as a lie, Chazan sought to understand each of the Disputation accounts on its own merit and to utilize both sources in order to present the fullest possible picture of events. He attributed contradictions between the two sources to a combination of alternative perceptions of events—still common today in reactions to political debates—and propagandistic exaggerations on both sides. This methodology also serves him well in his account of the Trial of the Talmud, which employs a critical reading of both accounts in order to reconstruct the events of the trial.

Despite the complexities presented by the sources, reconstructing the events of the trial itself proves simpler than addressing its aftermath.

Extant sources are far less explicit about how the trial and condemnation of the Talmud affected Jewish life in medieval France. Sensibly, Chazan emphasizes the “symbolic value” of the event, rather than its direct impact. The Trial of the Talmud matters because of what it tells us about the changing face of medieval anti-Judaism, not because it single-handedly effected fundamental change in the quotidian lives of medieval French Jews.

Undoubtedly, the event had a significant emotional impact on those Jews living in Paris in the 1240s, who witnessed the trial and subsequent burning of copies of the Talmud. A lament by Meir of Rothenburg highlights the trauma experienced by these Jewish witnesses, whom he describes as “mourners” of a personified Talmud. He refers repeatedly to the fire that consumed the Talmud before their eyes, transforming into text the persistent memory of that fire in the minds of mourners. The sight of Hebrew letters malformed and destroyed by flame would have been an affecting experience even for those members of the community not learned enough to have personally studied the text.

However, the condemnation and burning of the Talmud resulted in little real change in Jewish religious practice. As Chazan notes, rabbinic Judaism centered on the Talmud continued, as did Jewish intellectual activity linked to Talmudic exegesis. Given that Pope Innocent IV referred to the continued Jewish use of the Talmud as late as 1244, Jews outside of Paris, and certainly outside France, still had copies of the Talmud. Enterprising or lucky Parisian Jewish scholars may even have preserved a few copies despite repeated searches and burnings. The most important practical change wrought directly by the trial, Chazan argues, was a new impetus toward Jewish self-censorship. Previously, Jews had felt confident that use of the Hebrew language would keep their texts safe from prying Christian eyes.The Trial of the Talmud made it very clear that the use of Hebrew would no longer protect them.

Learned converts from Judaism and Christian Hebraists among the Franciscans and Dominicans could now understand Jewish texts and use them to their advantage. In order to protect themselves from future accusations, Chazan suggests, Jews eliminated passages that arguably referred to Jesus Christ, and quietly countered charges of Jewish anti-Christian behavior by replacing the word goy, which referred simply to non-Jews, with the word ‘akum, which referred specifically to pagans who worshiped the stars and planets. Statements that had seemed to insult all non-Jews now conveniently excluded their Christian neighbors.

Chazan also speculates that the trial “reinforced negative popular perspectives on the Jews,” in particular affirming the common belief in Jews’ virulent hatred of Christians. However, such claims remain in the realm of speculation, and numerous other factors contributed to the persistence of popular anti-Judaism.

The trial can more usefully be studied as a symptom, rather than as a cause, of growing anti-Jewish sentiment.

In the political context of thirteenth-century France, it was the harbinger of harsh anti-Jewish legislation. In The French Monarchy and the Jews, William Chester Jordan argues that the trial demonstrates the French crown’s new interest in its Jewish subjects. Louis IX—the future Saint Louis—and his mother Blanche took the charges against the Talmud seriously, and considered it their religious duty to investigate them. This sense of religious duty directed against the Jews characterized the rest of Louis’ reign; subsequent policies required Jews to wear a distinguishing badge and forbade Jews from lending money at interest. Cecilia Gaposchkin tied Louis’ sanctity to his anti-Judaism, noting that one of his early hagiographers lauded this persecution of Jews as part of his ideal Christian kingship. Although the trial may have heightened anti-Jewish sentiment in France, even a more favorable outcome probably would not have mitigated Christian resentment of Jewish moneylenders, especially once popular animosity became legitimized by royal policy.

While the trial and burning of the Talmud may have been traumatic, it probably had less of an impact on the everyday realities of Jewish life than, for example, Louis’ anti-usury legislation. The French Jewish community indeed weathered both these challenges, more or less successfully, until the expulsion of 1306 shattered the community and scattered its members across Western Europe and beyond. In her book No Place of Rest, Susan Einbinder traced the memory of the 1306 expulsion among medieval French Jews—both those who returned to France, only to be expelled once again, and those who lived in exile in Provence, Italy, and Africa. The cultural resilience of the exiled French Jews demonstrates that neither the Trial of the Talmud nor Louis’ anti-Jewish policies destroyed the community’s sense of self. Nevertheless, the trial marked the beginning of a shift in the relationship between the French crown and its Jewish subjects.

Although Chazan provides essential background on the broader European context, I would have liked to see his essay more deeply root the trial in the particular social and political milieu of thirteenth-century Paris. Medieval society, including medieval anti-Judaism, was hardly monolithic; it varied substantially over both time and place. A comparison between the different strategies adopted in the 1240 Trial of the Talmud, on the one hand, and the 1263 Disputation of Barcelona, on the other, reveals the distinct forms anti-Judaism could take in different European cities, even in two superficially similar events. Both the 1240 trial and the 1263 Disputation were highly publicized confrontations between a Jewish rabbinic authority and a convert from Judaism to Christianity, held under the supervision of a local monarch. Both took place in important urban capitals with large Jewish communities during the mid-thirteenth century. And both were centered on the text of the Talmud.

In both cases, a convert from Judaism sought to use his firsthand knowledge of Jewish texts against his former coreligionists. However, these two converts—Nicholas Donin in Paris and Pau Crestià in Barcelona—took very different approaches. Donin sought to denigrate the Talmud to the point that Christian authorities would demand it be removed from Jewish hands. He charged that the Talmud was a book filled with blasphemies against Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and God himself. Jewish adherence to the Talmud, he claimed, was in itself blasphemous, as they treated this text with greater reverence than the written Torah. Crestià, in contrast, claimed that the Talmud proved the truth of Christianity. Were the Jews not so persistently stubborn, they would realize that their greatest sages knew that the Messiah had already come. This strategy represented an expansion of an older form of Christian exegesis, which interpreted the biblical text as predicting the coming of Christ. Crestià sought to use the Jews’ own Talmudic exegetical tradition against them by claiming that rabbinic exegesis supported Christian beliefs.

For Donin and his ecclesiastical supporters, a resounding success would deprive Jews of a text essential to their religious practice. This aim seems largely vindictive; indeed, Rabbi Yehiel suggested that Donin acted out of “personal animosity” toward the Jewish community, which had excommunicated him when he rejected the Oral Torah. Donin’s strategy aimed at conversion only obliquely, insofar as it sought to make Jewish life in France intolerable. Similarly, Louis IX’s subsequent anti-Jewish policies encouraged conversion primarily by making it harder than ever before to live in France as a Jew. The anti-Judaism on display at the Disputation of Barcelona, in contrast, aimed explicitly at conversion. Had Pau Crestià and his allies, largely Dominican friars, achieved a complete success, they would have convinced many Jews to follow Crestià’s lead in converting to Christianity. It is tempting to link these distinct forms of anti-Judaism to the different levels of social and economic integration experienced by Jews in northern Europe and in the Iberian Peninsula. Conversion out of conviction rather than necessity may have seemed a more realistic possibility in Catalonia, where the Jews had closer ties to Christian society than their counterparts further north. Regardless, greater attention to local context could help explain why anti-Judaism took the form of the Trial of the Talmud in this particular time and place.

The Hebrew accounts of these two events also highlight the very different relationship between the Jews and the monarchy in the France of Louis IX and the Catalonia of Jaume I.  In Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, David Nirenberg pointed out that either protection or persecution of Jews could enhance royal power. Medieval monarchs approached the Jewish communities of their kingdom strategically, and different moments or locales called for different strategies. Louis IX was a creative and innovative monarch in the arena of anti-Jewish policy. Jaume I, in contrast, piously supported the Dominicans’ missionizing endeavors, but also sought to protect his Jewish subjects. In the Hebrew account of the Barcelona Disputation, composed by the Jewish representative Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), Jaume upholds the rules put in place by Pau Crestià and the Dominicans but at the same time acts as a just arbiter. He even congratulates Nahmanides for having so effectively defended his wrongheaded cause. Despite remaining a committed Christian, Jaume displays no animosity toward his Jewish subjects.

Yehiel’s Hebrew account of the 1240 Trial of the Talmud renders Louis entirely invisible. Instead he emphasizes the role played by Louis’ mother Blanche, who appears as surprisingly supportive of the Jewish cause. Chazan takes Yehiel’s account at face value and suggests that Louis delegated his mother to represent him and remained largely absent during the proceedings. More intriguingly, Jordan argued that the Hebrew account deliberately omitted hostile remarks made by Louis and instead exclusively recorded the more positive comments made by Blanche. Might Yehiel have made certain authorial choices designed to cast a monarch as an impartial arbiter? Louis would not have been believable in this role; moreover, Yehiel might have hesitated to misrepresent statements made by the reigning king. Blanche may have treated the Jewish representatives with less hostility, or at least she may have seemed a more credible ally. Notably, as the daughter of the king of Castile, she was familiar with Iberian royal policies that tended more toward protection than persecution of Jews. The fraught relationship between the Jews of France and Louis IX would have deeply affected the Jewish community’s own perception of how the trial might impact their lives and religious practice.

The Trial of the Talmud reveals the changing face of Jewish life in northern France. As an assault against Jewish religious practice, it symbolizes the increasing insecurity of French Jewish communities. It belongs to a set of policies that made it more and more difficult for Jews to live and work in France, culminating in the expulsion of 1306. The trial almost certainly encouraged greater Jewish self-censorship and perhaps contributed to their worsening relationship with the local populace. Yet it is most important not as a catalyst of change, but as a symbol of the growing challenges faced by French Jews. This volume makes the texts associated with the trial more accessible to a wide audience than ever before. Hopefully, it will inspire future studies that will further illuminate both the Trial of the Talmud and its aftermath.


Sarah Ifft Decker, Visiting Scholar, Borns Jewish Studies Program, Indiana University, is a social and economic historian of medieval Europe, with a particular focus on the Western Mediterranean. Her research explores how gender and religious identity shaped the legal, social, and economic options available to medieval women, particularly in medieval Iberia, which was home to thriving Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities.