Page 16 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 3

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erature was tracked down, condemned, burned, destroyed. From
the thirteenth century down to the nineteenth, censors, ecclesias-
tical and lay, devoted their hateful attention to every work printed
with Hebrew characters or dealing with Jews. From 1240 onwards,
there was a long series of autos-da-fe, in which Jewish literature
was the victim. There were periods when it was a crime for a man
to possess any Jewish book whatsoever, excepting the Bible and
censored editions of the prayer book; and sometimes even these
reservations were overlooked. Down to the close of the eighteenth
century, there were frequent searches in ghetto after ghetto, and
the few volumes that, in spite of everything, the Jewish house-
holder had been able to bring together were dragged out, submitted
to ruthless examination, and in the end committed to the pyre.
These holocausts were mourned by the Jews no less bitterly than
the loss of their own kith and kin; for they realized that here it
was the soul and not the body that was imperilled. This long
persecution is largely responsible for the fact that so many Hebrew
books once known to exist are now lost, that Hebrew incunabula
(that is, works printed before 1500) are so few that the complete
text of the Talmud, for example, is preserved in only one single
ancient manuscript. Yet such was the tenacity of our fathers that
more than this was needed to eradicate from their hearts the pas-
sion for their ancestral lore. The persecution served indeed only
to strengthen their devotion. In the words of the ancient martyr-
Rabbi who was burned wrapped in a Scroll of the Law: “The parch-
ment is consumed in fire, but the characters inscribed on it form
themselves together anew in the heavens.”
The Redemption of Books
In that dark age (not so far past, alas, as one had once hoped),
when the redemption of fellow-Jews enslaved by land and sea
was considered to be among the prime good actions that a man
could perform, there was associated with that Mitzvah, the Re-
demption of Captives, the allied one of the Redemption of Books
— the repurchase of volumes of Hebrew literature carried off when
corsairs raided some Synagogue, or captured a ship in which
studious Jews were sailing peacefully from port to port. Document
after document, of the Middle Ages and after, deals with this
question. Let us quote one instance only, of special Anglo-Jewish
interest. At the time of the terrible massacre in York Castle in
1190, we are told by the contemporary chronicler: “The enemy
spoiled gold and silver and beautiful books, of which the Jews of
York had written many — more precious than gold or fine gold,
and not to be equalled in all the world for beauty. These they
brought to Cologne and to other places in Germany, and sold to
the Jews.”
In what light did this persecution of literature appear to con-
temporaries? I should like to cite a couple of passages which
illustrate it as vividly as is possible. The first instance comes from
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