August 7, 2018

Book burning and collective loss (Chukat)

This Shabbat we read Parshat Chukat which begins with the law of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) whose ashes purified the impure, and ‘impurified’ the pure.

Interestingly, according to the Magen Avraham (Orach Chaim 580:9), the Friday before Shabbat Parshat Chukat also conjures up images of ashes. However, in this case the ashes only have negative connotations. Below is a summary of the Magen Avraham to which I have added a few additional details:

On the 6th of Tammuz 1242, Erev Shabbat Parshat Chukat, twenty (and some say, twenty-four) wagonloads of Talmud manuscripts and commentaries were burnt in Paris by agents of the Church and King Louis IX.

The loss of these writings, many of which were original novellae, devastated the community with their absence continuing to be felt till today. Desperate to understand the significance of this tragedy the rabbis of the time enquired of Heaven by means of a dream, and the reply that they received was ‘דא גזירת אורייתא’ which is the Aramaic translation of the opening words of Parshat Chukat which read ‘זאת חקת התורה – these are the decrees of the Torah’ (Bemidbar 19:2). The rabbis understood from this reply that the burning of the Talmud was indeed a heavenly decree connected to the Parsha, and it is for this reason that some people fast on the Friday before the Shabbat Parshat Chukat. To recall these tragic events the Maharam of Rothenburg wrote a moving Kinah titled שאלי שרופה which we read on Tisha B’Av.

However, there is another side to this story as recorded by Rav Hillel of Verona – an eyewitness to these terrible events – who believed that the burning of these Talmudic manuscripts was an act of divine retribution against previous book burnings.

Around that time there were some Jews in France who strongly disagreed with many of Rambam’s theological and halakhic positions, and to prove their point they sent his writings to Dominican monks to verify his supposed blasphemous and heretical remarks.

Unsurprisingly the Dominican monks agreed and they publicly burned the Rambam’s books in Montpellier in 1234, and then, in Paris in 1242. As Rav Hillel later explained: ‘God looked down from heaven and avenged the honour of our holy master Rambam and his works’, and he the wrote that,

‘if you ask, who can be sure that the Talmud was burned because of the burning of the Rambam’s works? I will answer you… Not even forty days passed between the burning of the works of our master, and the burning of the Talmud. On the very spot where the Rambam’s works were destroyed, the Talmud was later burnt! The ashes of the Talmud mingled with the askes of the Rambam’s volumes… This served as a clear lesson for one and all.’

Beyond this, the Magen Avraham also adds that two entire cities of Jews were brutally decimated on Erev Shabbat Parshat Chukat during the Cossack massacres led by Bogdan Chmielnitsky in 1648 which provided a further reason for some people to fast on this day.

But aside from the fact that these tragedies occurred on the Friday before Parshat Chukat, and beyond the association with fire and ashes, is there really any meaningful connection between these events and the Parsha itself?

To answer this I’d like to offer the following explanation. As we know the word ‘Chukat’ is often translated as ‘decree’ and it refers to laws that defy rational explanation. But while the greatest divine Chok may be the Parah Adumah, perhaps the greatest human ‘Chok’ is, in fact, the unfathomable and unexplainable way in which we treat those with whom we disagree which, as Rav Hillel of Verona explained, led to the Jewish people being treated so badly.

In short, what we learn from the events and the fast of Erev Shabbat Parshat Chukat is that if we ‘impurify’ the pure – or in this case, treat the teachings of good Jews with whom we theologically and halakhically disagree with profound disdain and disregard – then we will all lose out in the long run.

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