Ronnie Po-chia Hsia

The real blood of Passover

By Ronnie Po-chia Hsia

On Easter Sunday 1475, the dead body of a 2-year-old Christian boy named Simon was found in the cellar of a Jewish family's house in Trent, Italy. Town magistrates arrested 18 Jewish men and five Jewish women on the charge of ritual murder - the killing of a Christian child in order to use his blood in Jewish religious rites. In a series of interrogations that involved liberal use of judicial torture, the magistrates obtained the confessions of the Jewish men. Eight were executed in late June, and another committed suicide in jail.

Then the pope intervened and suspended the trial. Appeals from the Venetian and Jewish communities moved Sixtus IV to appoint the Dominican Baptista Dei Giudici, Bishop of Ventigmiglia, as the apostolic commissioner to investigate the affair.

The trial in Trent was highly irregular. The 1247 Decretum of Pope Innocent IV had prohibited ritual murder trials on account of the judicial abuses involved and the violence against the Jews. Dei Giudici's task, therefore, was precisely to see whether abuses and excessive violence were involved in the judicial procedure in Trent.

Skeptical of the evidence he saw and disapproving of the popular cult that had arisen around the dead boy's body, Dei Giudici quickly headed into a collision course with the ruler of Trent, the prince-bishop Johannes von Hinderbach, who had taken upon himself the promotion of the cult of Little Simon in his native Germany. The case of Simon of Trent quickly became politically explosive - a scandal for some, a cause celebre for others. To preempt opposition, Hinderbach ordered the trial resumed in October, executing another six Jewish men in January. The magistrates also put the women under judicial torture, putting four on the rack between November and March. Strongly rebuked by the pope in April 1476, Hinderbach sent legates to Rome to plead his case. Sixtus appointed a commission of cardinals to adjudicate the acrimonious mutual accusations between Hinderbach and Dei Giudici. A final papal decision was rendered on June 20, 1478, after much legal wrangling, behind-the-scene lobbying and a widespread publicity campaign in Italy and Germany in support of the trial.

The cardinals' commission concluded that the trial was conducted in keeping with legal procedure. Thus Sixtus cleared Hinderbach of all suspicions of judicial abuse, but explicitly forbade Christians from killing or mutilating Jews, extorting money from them or preventing them from practicing their rites as permitted by law, without papal judgment. In effect, Sixtus IV accepted the fait accompli and his own powerlessness vis-a-vis the prince-bishop of Trent - who owed his appointment directly to the Holy Roman Emperor - while morally censuring his actions.

The testimonies from this notorious trial apparently persuaded Professor Ariel Toaff that "within Ashkenazi Judaism there were extremist groups that could have committed such an act [i.e. the murder of Christian children in order to obtain their blood for Passover] and justified it." Furthermore, Professor Toaff stated, "[He] found there were statements and parts of the testimony that were not part of the Christian culture of the judges, and they could not have been invented or added by them. They were components appearing in prayers known from the [Jewish prayer book]." These arguments formed the basis of his controversial book "Bloody Passover," which has just been published in Italy.

Professor Toaff is an expert on the history of medieval Italian Jewry, and I shall look forward to reading his latest work. But even before examining it, there are several comments that can be made to clarify this debate.

First, the testimonies of Jews to which Professor Toaff refers. To my knowledge, different copies of these testimonies, obtained under judicial torture, existed in three depositories: The Vatican Library in Rome and the Archivio di Stato in Trent had copies in Latin, and New York's Yeshiva University has a German version. Professors Diego Quaglioni (Trent) and Anna Esposito (Rome) have published the first volume of an exemplary scholarly edition on the Latin versions.

I examined the German manuscript and the Trent documents while writing a book on the subject. Some of these testimonies indeed contain long passages about the use of Christian blood in the preparation of matzah and in Passover rituals. The testimonies of Tobias of Magdeburg, a physician, are notable in this regard. During his fifth interrogation on April 17, 1475, under torture on the rack, Tobias broke down and "confessed" to the ritual killing. He responded to the magistrates' question about the various gestures and words in the Passover celebration, spelling out the Haggadah curses against the Egyptians. Under further torture, Tobias "acknowledged" that Jews had used Simon's blood for their Passover, that he himself had purchased dried blood in the past, including once in 1468-69 from a Jew traveling from Candia, selling blood and sugar. These details, so it seems, have convinced Professor Toaff of the existence of an extremist group among the Ashkenazim, fueled by their hatred of Christians due to the persecution inflicted upon them.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest hatred between Jews and Christians, as many scholars have demonstrated regarding the Middle Ages. It is, however, quite a leap of imagination to take testimonies obtained under torture and to construct a hypothetical reality based on unrelated circumstantial facts. It may be true that dried blood or other exotic ingredients were used in popular medicine, Jewish or Gentile - not being an expert on the history of medicine, I remain open-minded on this; but it is sheer blind logic to jump to the conclusion that Jewish groups might have used Christian blood for ritual practices.

It appears as though Professor Toaff based his argument on the fact that the judges in Trent seemed to know a great deal about Jewish rituals, the implication being that if the Jews had not done it, how could they have concocted such a detailed narrative? The answer is in fact quite simple: The Jews, under interrogation and judicial torture, told the magistrates what they wanted to hear.

The authorities who presided over the trial were Giovanni de Salis, a native of Brescia, and Jakob von Sporo, from the Tirol; the prince-bishop, Hinderbach, as we know, was German. The Jewish community in Trent was, with one exception, entirely Ashkenazi. Most were recent immigrants to a city with a large German-speaking minority.

The belief that Jews killed Christian children in order to obtain their blood for Passover (among other reasons) had existed in German-speaking Central Europe for at least a century. Just five years before Trent, there was a ritual murder trial in the small town of Endingen, in the Breisgau, then under Austrian Hapsburg rule. Four Jews were accused of ritual murder and executed before the Holy Roman emperor intervened to stop the trial from spreading. Bishop Hinderbach knew of this trial and of others in South Germany, for he sent an envoy to collect copies of testimonies from these places in 1476, when the trial in Trent faced heavy opposition.

We also know, from the testimonies used by Professor Toaff, that the Christian authorities were intensely interested in Jewish liturgy. During the interrogation of Anna, who was married to Israel, son of Samuel, the leader of the Jewish community, on March 9, 1476, the authorities specifically directed her to pinpoint the passage in the Haggadah that contains the maledictions against the Egyptians. In sum, the Christian authorities were already convinced of the reality of ritual murder and expected the Jews to fill in the details. Convinced that such a crime did exist, they applied excessive torture to obtain precisely the bits of narratives that would make a horrendous tale plausible to those predisposed to the suspicion of Jews.

The Christian authorities also had a Jewish informant, the young painter Israel of Brandenburg, a German Jew who was staying in Trent when he was caught in the dragnet. To save himself, Israel converted in April 1475 and became the informant for the Christian authorities, organizing the Hebrew books confiscated from the three families. The convert Israel played a double game, first as the informant for the Trent authorities and then as a secret messenger between the imprisoned Jewish women and the Apostolic Commissioner in the summer of 1475. He was arrested in October, put under severe torture, and during a November 2 interrogation, Israel, hanging on the rack, denounced the Christian faith.

The judge asked Israel whether he believed it was right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said. Israel replied that "he believed firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and drink their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter; even now that he is baptized, he wants to die a Jew." Here, at last, is the kernel of truth in Professor Toaff's convoluted argument: Torture creates hatred!

Professor Toaff, however, is utterly misguided when he confuses the defiant words of a helpless man with the fantasized reality of the Christian authorities. For the Jews of Trent, and for other communities throughout the ages, Passover was indeed bloody, but it was the blood of the Jews that bore witness to a violent fantasy born out of intolerance.

Prof. Ronnie Po-chia Hsia is a historian, author of "Trent, 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial" (Yale University Press, 1992)

Haaretz 18/2/2007

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