“O (Talmud), that has been consumed by fire, seek the welfare of those who mourn for you…”

These searing words were written by Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293), a brilliant Jewish student who’d recently travelled from his home in northern Germany to Paris to study a renown yeshiva there, after he witnessed the mass burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1240 on the orders of King Louis IX. A peripatetic king, Louis IX was one of the few Medieval Christian thinkers to willingly engage in debate with Jews - but his legacy is one of pain and suffering for thousands of Jews in France.

“He was a splendid knight whose kindness and engaging manner made him popular,” the Encyclopedia Britannica describes King Louis IX. Crowned at the age of twelve in 1226, King Louis IX instituted legal reforms across France and often personally judged cases in his magnificent Great Hall in the Palais de la Cite in Paris, where he handed out judgments and punishments to his subjects. A staunchly religious Catholic, King Louis IX was seemingly preoccupied by Jews. He issued the Ordinance of Melun in 1230, forcing Jewish into “honest” jobs - in reality manual labor. (Forbidden from virtually all professions by the Lateran Council of 1215, life for France’s Jews became more difficult than ever.) He also had an appetite for debating Jews about religion and Judaism’s holiest texts.

In the 1230s, King Louis IX finally got his chance to show off his powers of argument and his piety and debate Jews about the very validity of the Jewish faith.

In 1236, Nicholas Donin, a Parisian Jew who had turned his back on the Jewish community and publicly embraced Catholicism, penned a damning letter to Pope Gregory IX. In it, Donin attacked the Talmud, the written discussions of the Oral Law that was given to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Law that makes up the Five Books of Moses. He enumerated 35 complaints about the Talmud, including that it attacked the Catholic Church. If there were no more Talmud, Donin asserted, then Jews would be more likely to abandon their Jewish faith and convert to Christianity, as he himself had done.

Pope Gregory IX took Donin’s letter seriously, and he sent a letter to all Catholic institutions in France demanding that they seize copies of the Talmud from Jewish communities in their midst. Similar letters were sent to Catholic leaders in Italy, Spain and Portugal. The Talmud was going to be put on trial, the Pope announced, and all copies had to be confiscated before this began.

King Louis IX

The date for taking the precious Talmud volumes from synagogues, homes and Jewish schools was set for Shabbat, March 3, 1240. On that day, officials burst into synagogues across Europe where Jews were gathered for Shabbat services, loading volumes of the Talmud that had been painstakingly written by hand, as well as other Jewish books, away. Any Jew who tried to prevent his or her holy books could be killed with impunity.

Two months later, the Talmud was put on trial. King Louis IX oversaw the arrangements: the proceedings were to be public, and he personally promised to guarantee the personal safety of the Jews who were to be charged with defending the Talmud. However, there were strict ground rules that any Jew defending the Talmud had to adhere to: they could not criticize Christianity in any way. Nothing derogative about Christians or Christian belief could be uttered. Blasphemy, as defined by the Catholic Church, would not be tolerated. The conclusion of this infamous trial, or disputation, was a foregone conclusion.

King Louis IX ordered four prominent rabbis to defend the Talmud: Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, Rabbi Moses of Coucy, Rabbi Judah of Melum and Rabbi Samuel ben Solomon of Chateau-Thierry. They faced off against Nicholas Donin, the Christian convert who’d initiated the entire dispute.

The trial raged for days. Rabbi Yechiel led the Jewish team, and even his opponents agreed that he argued brilliantly, given the strict limitations on what he was allowed to say. When Donin accused the Talmud of treating Christian figures less than kindly, Rabbi Yechiel responded that it was possible that two people might have the same name, pointing out that “not every Louis born in France is king.” His flattery seemed designed to sooth the mercurial monarch, who watched every stage of the debate with great interest.

At one point King Louis IX’s temper got the better of him as he followed the intricate arguments. Rabbi Yechiel advanced a particularly effective argument and Louis IX became enraged, shouting that instead of discussing matters of faith with a Jew, a good Christian should plunge his sword into him instead. So much for assurances that the rabbis would be safe. Rabbi Yechiel fled for his life, and the three other rabbis continued the dispute without him. Despite the rabbis’ best efforts, the trial had been decided before it began. The Talmud was found “guilty” and condemned to be burned.

King Louis IX oversaw the “sentence” two years later, in 1242. Officials throughout France had scoured the countryside looking for copies of the Talmud and other Hebrew books, taking them by force from Jews across France. Not a single volume of the Talmud remained in Jewish hands. On the morning of June 17, 1242, 24 wagons piled to the top with thousands of volumes of the Talmud and other Jewish books made their way slowly through Paris to the Place de Greve, near Notre Dame Cathedral. The collection was enormous. At a time when every book was painstakingly written by hand, this represented generations of Jewish learning and work. It’s estimated that the wagons held about 10,000 books.

One by one, each of the two dozen wagons disgorged their books, dropping the precious texts onto the ground. By the end of the day, an enormous pile of Jewish writings covered the plaza. A crowd gathered to watch the conflagration as Louis IX’s officials set the books on fire.

“My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon,” Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who was present at the scene, recalled later about that day. “Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?” Sages designated a minor fast day in memory of this tragedy: the Friday before the Torah Portion Chukat is read in synagogue. This year’s fast day in memory of the Talmud’s burning is Friday, July 3, 2020.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis, which stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum, memorializes the city's namesake.

The fast day this year comes amid renewed attention about King Louis IX. After his death, he became a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. The city of St. Louis is named after him and some people are protesting his statue in that city. In addition to putting the Talmud on trial, King Louis IX also signed legislation to expel Jews from France (this was carried out by his successor King Phillip IV) and led the Seventh and Eighth Crusades, which also targeted Jewish communities. His legacy is a complex one.

Yet, as many people around the world debate Louis IX’s legacy, some Jews will recall his reign in a much more personal way, fasting and praying and recalling the Trial of the Talmud that he oversaw, and the incalculable loss of Jewish scholarship that resulted.