Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Fear of the Jew - Trachtenburg

 The striking feature of the Christian apprehension of Jewish sorcery is that it adhered not to certain specific Jews, who had aroused it by their actions, but rather to the entire people, en masse. Consequently every innocent Jewish act which by its strangeness laid itself open to suspicion was considered a diabolical device for working magic against Christians. The custom of throwing a clod of earth behind one after a funeral brought a charge of sorcery in Paris, in the early years of the thirteenth century, which might have had dire consequences if a certain Rabbi Moses b. Yeḥiel had not succeeded in persuading the king of its utterly harmless character. The practice of washing the hands on returning from the cemetery aroused the same suspicions of sorcery and provoked some bloody scenes.

 So onerous did these recurrent accusations become that the rabbis of the Middle Ages found it necessary—forced to this step, no doubt, by Jewish public opinion—to suspend some of these customs. In the case of the clod-throwing, though "many were obliged to disregard the usage for fear that the Gentiles would accuse them of sorcery," custom was proof against fear. But in other instances fear triumphed. The mourning rites of "binding the head" and "overturning the bed" lapsed during the Middle Ages for this reason. In Talmudic times fear of the same accusation had led Jewish authorities to excuse the head of the household from the rite of "searching out the leaven" on the eve of the Passover in places owned in common with a non-Jew; during the Middle Ages there was a strong but unsuccessful agitation to suspend this rite altogether, even indoors, "because we have Gentile serving-girls in our homes" who might spread the alarm. In Provence, however, the ritual cleansing of the public oven in preparation for Passover baking was neglected "because of the Gentiles’ suspicion of sorcery." When a fire broke out in a Jewish house its owner dared expect little mercy from the mob, for he was a sorcerer seeking to destroy Christendom, and his punishment was commonly simultaneous with his crime. The rabbis of the time were therefore unusually tolerant about violations of the prohibition to put out fires on the Sabbath and on the Day of Atonement. At the slightest danger they set this prohibition aside, "for this is a matter of life and death, since they accuse us and persecute us." We read of a lamb, slaughtered in fulfillment of a ritual obligation, which was cut up and buried secretly in sections, "so that the matter may not become known and they say, 'it was done for magical ends.'" To such measures were Jews driven by fear of arousing the suspicions of their neighbors.

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