The Disputation of Paris took place in 1240 in the court of the reigning king of France, Louis IX (St. Louis). The forced disputation had four rabbis defending the Talmud against the accusations of a Franciscan Order member.
Nicholas Donin represented the Christian side of the debate and four of the most distinguished rabbis of France, Yechiel of Paris, Moses of Coucy, Judah of Melun, and Samuel ben Solomon of Château-Thierry, represented the Jewish side of the debate. Donin was a member of the Franciscan Order and a Jewish convert to Christianity. He had persuaded Pope Gregory IX to issue a bill ordering the burning of the Talmud. Louis IX, who sponsored the debate, was a sworn enemy of Judaism, at one time mentioning that the best way to conduct a disputation with a Jew was to plunge a sword into him.
The terms of the disputation demanded that the four rabbis defend the Talmud against Donin’s accusations that the Talmud contains blasphemies against the Christian religion, attacks on Christians themselves, blasphemies against God, and obscene folklore. The attacks on Christianity were from passages referencing Jesus and Mary. There is a passage, for example, of someone named Jesus who was sent to Hell to be boiled in excrement for eternity. The Jews denied that this is the Jesus of the Bible, stating “not every Louis born in France is king.”
A commission of Christian theologians condemned the Talmud to be burned and on June 17, 1244 twenty-four carriage loads of Jewish religious manuscripts were burnt in the streets of Paris.
Rabbi Meir was an eyewitness to this public, and he bewailed this tragedy in his celebrated “Kina” (elegy, mournful poem) Shaali serufah which we say on Tisha b’Av.
Prayer: Lord, have mercy on your church, and may your people Israel forgive. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.
When confronted with tragedy, a person usually responds with strong emotions. These feelings can make it difficult to organize one’s thoughts and think logically. The solution in such a situation would be to write down one’s thoughts. Similarly, On Tisha b’Av, a day of national tragedy, it is difficult to recall and lament the many different misfortunes that befell the Jewish people throughout the generations. Therefore, throughout the ages, different paytanim have composed the kinos that we recite on Tisha b’Av in order to help us direct our emotions.
This kinah, Shaali Serufah B’Aish, was composed by R’ Meir ben Baruch who was also known as the Maharam of Rothenberg. During his lifetime, Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle, an apostate who was quite vicious in his hatred towards the Jews, suggested to the French king, King Louis IX, that the way to eradicate the Jews was to destroy the Talmud and its commentaries. He lodged a formal complaint against the Talmud, arguing that it contained sacrilegious statements towards Christianity. On March 3, 1240, the Pope ordered all of the copies of the Talmud to be collected from the Jewish homes and for a public debate to be held between Donin and four eminent rabbis of the time in order to determine the validity of these charges. The fate of these holy sefarim was sealed even before the debate began, and two years later, twenty four wagon loads of sefarim were burnt. This occurred two centuries before the invention of the printing press, so these copies of the Talmud were quite expensive and took years to write. In addition, many of the commentaries were one of a kind as they had not yet been disseminated around the world. It would take years to replenish this loss, and this tragic incident left France bereft of any written Torah. The Maharam actually witnessed this terrible tragedy and composed this kinah commemorating it.
The Gemara in Moed Katan states that one who is in the presence of a Jew who has died is obligated to rend his garment. Similarly, one who witnesses the burning of a Sefer Torah must also tear kriah. The Ramban, in his work Toras Haadam, explains that a person’s soul in his body is analogous to Hashem’s name on the parchment of a Sefer Torah. We are eternally connected to the Torah, it is what gives our lives meaning and purpose. Without the Torah, we are simply bodies without souls. Ironically, being an apostate, Donin knew the value of Torah, and recognized its destruction as a catalyst towards the obliteration of Jewish life in France.