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Diabolical Passion:
Ariel Toaff’s Blood Passovers


Francesco Oradini, Martyrdom of Simon of Trent, bas relief, 18th century, Palazzo Salvadori, Trent

4,211 words

German translation here [2]

The Jewish festival of Passover begins today at sundown. Outside Israel it lasts for eight days.

In the Christian calendar, today is Good Friday, the anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion, immediately preceding Easter Sunday.

In the Passover story, the Jews smeared lamb’s blood on their dwellings so that God, in the process of killing the first-born Gentile children of Egypt, could identify, and thus pass over or spare, Jewish children. (It is curious that even God requires a sign to distinguish Jews from non-Jews.)

Pasque di sangue: Ebrei d’Europa e omicidi rituali (Blood Passovers: European Jews and Ritual Murder) (Bologna, Italy: Il Mulino, 2007), by Israeli medievalist Ariel Toaff, is the story of this festival among medieval German Jews (Ashkenazim), the bizarre rite of alleged crucifixion and cannibalism (technically, ritual hematophagia—consumption of human blood) associated with it from medieval times to at least the time of the Mendel Beilis trial in Russia in 1911.

Blood Passovers was written and published in Italian. Only a pirated English translation is available. Extensive original source quotations in the footnotes are in Latin, but large portions of these, in brackets, have been translated into English in the pirate copy. The English edition contains some spelling and grammatical errors.

The book’s mainstream Italian publisher currently sells a revised, bowdlerized edition [3] with a new Afterword [4] (in English, online) that Toaff issued in 2008 after swiftly suppressing the original edition under intense pressure after the initial run of 1,000 copies sold out in a single day. Even the American Jewish Committee’s hostile reviewer had to use a pirated copy to write his review.

This review relies upon the unauthorized online translation of the 2007 first edition made by Gian Marco Lucchese and Pietro Gianetti, available in PDF and text formats on various websites. I found the book easy to read on my Kindle. A PDF version is obtainable at the website of Israel Shamir, a Jewish convert to Christianity, here [5].

At the time of the book’s initial publication, Toaff, born in 1942, was professor of Medieval and Renaissance History at Bar Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel.

His previous books include The Jews in Medieval Assisi, 1305-1487: A Social and Economic History of a Small Jewish Community (1979), The Mediterranean and the Jews (1989), The Jews in Umbria (1993), and Mostri giudei: L’immaginario ebraico dal Medioevo alla prima età moderna (Italian; Jewish Monsters: The Jewish Imaginary from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era) (1996).

Subsequently he has published Il prestigiatore di Dio: avventure e miracoli di un alchimista ebreo nelle corti del Rinascimento (Italian; The Magician of God) (Milan: Rizzoli, 2010), about a 16th century Italian Jewish alchemist, Abraham Colorni.

Furious Reaction

A single positive review of Blood Passovers appeared before the roof fell in. Italian Jewish historian Sergio Luzatto praised it in Italy’s prestigious Corriere della Sera newspaper as a “magnificent book of history.” Toaff, wrote Luzatto, established that “from 1100 to about 1500 . . . several crucifixions of Christian children really happened . . . Neither in Trent in 1475 nor in other areas of Europe in the late Middle Ages were Jews always innocent victims.”

But the hostile international reaction to the publication of Toaff’s book was violent and instantaneous.

Toaff is the son of Elio Toaff (b. 1915), the former Chief Rabbi of Rome known as “the Pope of the Jews.” In 1986 Pope John Paul II prayed at the Synagogue of Rome with Elio —reportedly the first-ever visit by a Pope to a synagogue. The visit is said to have paved the way for the subsequent establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Vatican.

Toaff’s 92-year-old father told the Italian newspaper la Repubblica after the publication of his son’s controversial book: “The criticism that everyone has expressed about his book was justified. His arguments were an insult to the intelligence, to the tradition, to history in general and to the meaning of the Jewish religion. It saddens me that such nonsense was put forward by my son of all people.”

Bar Ilan University came under massive pressure from the ADL, wealthy Jewish fundraisers in the US, members of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), and virtually everyone else, to fire Toaff.

The university quickly buckled under the pressure and condemned his work. Toaff offered to resign, but according to newspaper accounts was scheduled to resign at the end of 2007 anyway. Whether he remains associated with Bar Ilan as a professor, emeritus professor, or in some other capacity is unclear. His publisher’s website implies that he still teaches there, which seems doubtful.

The Medieval Ashkenazim

Haaretz claimed, disingenuously or ignorantly, that Italian Jews were disturbed that Toaff highlighted “blood libel” accusations “within Italy itself—as if the objective were to spit in the community’s face by impugning it with the worst accusation of all.”

But no reader of Toaff’s book could possibly mistake it as an attack against the Italian Jewish community (unless it is predominantly Ashkenazic today). If anything, it is an Italian apologia. The author distinguishes sharply between Italian Jews and the Ashkenazim of northern Italy accused of ritual murder. As Hillel Halkin put it [6]:

This was a community that was Ashkenazi and Yiddish-speaking, composed of relatively recent immigrants from the Germanic lands beyond the Alps, and throughout Pasque di Sangue, Toaff contrasts it with the “real” Italian Jews to the south of the Po River who had lived in the country for centuries or more and were well-integrated. Unlike the southerners, the Ashkenazim of the north . . . were, in Toaff’s description, insular, conspiratorial, hostile toward Gentiles, highly competitive in their business practices (many engaged in banking and money-lending), and extreme in their religious beliefs.

The dichotomy between the relaxed, at-home-in-the-world Italian Jew and the rigid, xenophobic northerner is central to Toaff’s book. . . . (Although Italian Jewry was never, strictly speaking, “Sephardi,” it was closer in its rituals and liturgy to the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean than to those of the European interior.) Toaff’s “real” Italian Jews are the “good Jews” of his story as opposed to the “bad Jews” from beyond the Alps, with their “aggressive economic entrepreneurship” and “lack of respect for the laws of the country.” Jews south of the Po, Pasque di Sangue repeatedly stresses, never suffered from the blood libel that was repeatedly hurled against the Jews of German-speaking lands, and they had none of the fascination with suffering, martyrdom, and blood that runs through the religious culture of late-medieval German Jewry.

The Ashkenazim of northern Italy were deeply enmeshed in assassinations, disobedience to the law, fraudulent dealing, high-level political intrigue, and what today would be called white-collar crime. Mention is made of Jewish bankers in Padua lending at usurious rates in excess of 40%. Indeed, some individuals profiled by Toaff differ not one whit from contemporary “leading citizens” such as Robert Maxwell [7].

Despite their high status, wealth, literacy, and many social, financial, and political advantages, the Ashkenazim were imbued with deep anti-Christian hatred, and perversely primitive and benighted in their fundamentalist, cultic religious beliefs and practices.

Indeed, much of their behavior sounds all too familiar. Mention is made of an imprisoned Jewish physician (note his high-status occupation) under indictment in 1452 for vilification of the Christian religion and attempted bribery:

His Christian fellow prisoners accused him of serious offenses and blasphemies against the Christian religion. According to the denunciation, Abba, in his cell, was alleged to have unhesitatingly placed his filthy piss-pot right below the crucifix. Soundly rebuked by the other prisoners, the intemperate Candiota was said to have replied with profanity, insulting them and shamelessly ridiculing Jesus the Messiah and the blessed Holy Virgin. His condemnation was inevitable and well-deserved: one year’s additional prison time, in addition to the payment of a fine of one thousand lire.

Shades of Larry David, Family Guy, and South Park!

Quite apart from anything Toaff says about ritual murder, his book is valuable for the overall picture it paints of medieval Ashkenazic Jewry (a subject to which much of his text is devoted). Though centered in Germany, Ashkenazim also comprised the medieval Jewish populations of France, northern Italy, northern Europe, Eastern Europe, and even England. In medieval times, Toaff writes, their overall numbers were significantly smaller than those of the Sephardim (Iberian Jews) and Italian and Oriental Jews.

Since the people (both rabbinic and secular) implicated in the Trent and other ritual murder cases were high status, wealthy, powerful members of their communities, Toaff’s at times exculpatory comments (especially following the almost-immediate suppression of the first edition of his book) to the effect that only a few marginal, extremist Ashkenazi sects or individuals were involved is constantly belied by his own evidence.

Nor were the numbers of defendants small. Over 100 people were allegedly involved in the murder of Hugh of Lincoln in 1255, 20 of whom were executed. The Jewish community of Lincoln had supposedly been chosen that year in a Europe-wide conclave of Ashkenazim that met annually in medieval times to decide by lottery which community was responsible for obtaining the year’s child sacrifice.

Thus, it would be more truthful to say, as the author does at one point, that some Ashkenazim strongly opposed ritual murder and Passover blood ceremonies.

Ritual Crucifixion

Jews have been accused of committing ritual murders for centuries.

Ritual murder accusations have been made against the Jews for thousands of years. The murders were sometimes alleged to have been accompanied by ritual cannibalism, but not always. In every case, it is rather improbable that the testimonies which have come down to us from antiquity were known and disseminated in the Middle Ages and could constitute a significant point of reference for later accusations of crucifixion and ritual cannibalism. (Chapter Eight, “Distant Precedents and the Saga of Purim.”)

The earliest medieval charge of a ritual Passover crucifixion pertained to the mutilated body of 12-year-old William of Norwich in England in 1144. Some years afterward Thomas of Monmouth recorded details [8] of the crime. Jews refer to his account as the “source” of the “blood libel.”

Interestingly, Toaff believes that Christian fear of child abduction in Europe predated the earliest cases of ritual crucifixion.

Perhaps the widespread fear that Jews were scheming to abduct children, subjecting them to cruel rituals, even antedates the appearance of stereotypical ritual murder which seems to have originated in the 12th century. As for myself, I believe that serious consideration should be given to the possibility that this fear was largely related to the slave trade, particularly in the 9th and 10th centuries, when the Jewish role in the slave trade appears to have been preponderant.

During this period, Jewish merchants, from the cities in the valley of the Rhône, Verdun, Lione, Arles and Narbonne, in addition to Aquisgrana, the capital of the empire in the times of Louis the Pious [Louis I]; and in Germany from the centres of the valley of the Rhine, from Worms, Magonza and Magdeburg; in Bavaria and Bohemia, from Regensburg and Prague—were active in the principal markets in which slaves (women, men, eunuchs) were offered for sale, by Jews, sometimes after abducting them from their houses. From Christian Europe the human merchandise was exported to the Islamic lands of Spain, in which there was a lively market. The castration of these slaves, particularly children, raised their prices, and was no doubt a lucrative and profitable practice.

It has been maintained that allegations of ritual crucifixion preceded charges of ritual cannibalism (hematophagia) by a century. Gruesome ritual mutilations and crucifixions of Christian boys at Passover were done in mockery of Christ’s crucifixion. Charges of ritual cannibalism, on the other hand, did not arise until a child murder that occurred in Fulda, Germany in 1235. Toaff, however, believes the two practices were probably associated from the beginning. (Chapter Seven, “Crucifixion and Ritual Cannibalism: From Norwich to Fulda.”)

Ritual Cannibalism

To fully understand the anthropological context of ritual cannibalism, see my short summary of the general, non-Jewish background of human cannibalism here [9] (scroll down to the appropriate sub-heading). Magical cannibalism has frequently been engaged in by primitive peoples against their enemies.

To Israel Wolfgang, a defendant in the Trent ritual murder case (the main case studied by Toaff),

it was clear that the Torah and later rabbinical regulations presupposed two different moral codes, one applying to the Jewish world, and the other applicable to the surrounding Christian world, which was different and often hostile and menacing. Therefore, that which was prohibited between Jews was not necessarily prohibited in relations between Jews and Christians. . . . With a bold analogy, which we decline to believe was extorted by [the] judges . . . , Israel Wolfgang maintained that even the Biblical prohibition against human blood was absolute for Jews, and rigid when it involved blood extracted from the veins of Jews, but was permitted and even recommended when originating from the body of Christians, or Christian children in particular.

Essentially, the idea is that the Ashkenazim dissolved in wine and kneaded into the unleavened bread consumed during the Passover celebration small quantities of dried, pulverized blood. The blood, extracted from the veins of baptized Christian children, was supplied by Jewish merchants.

The blood of the Christian child

was extracted during the course of a memorial ritual of the passion of Jesus, as a sign of contempt and scorn for the Christian religion. Over the course of this counterritual, the innocent boy, who had to be less than seven years old and had to be a boy, like Jesus [the blood of a girl, even if younger than 7, would not suffice], was crucified among torments and expressions of execration, as had happened to Christ. Another praiseworthy addition was circumcision, to make the symbolic similarity more obvious and significant.

Understandably, blood of this kind was extremely expensive, and because the temptation to defraud was so high, purchasers demanded certificates of authenticity issued by trusted rabbinical authorities, analogous to kosher food certificates today.

The use of the blood of Christian children in the celebration of the Jewish Passover was apparently the object of minute regulation, at least according to the depositions of all the defendants in the Trent trials. These depositions describe exactly what was prohibited, what was permitted, and what was tolerated, all in meticulous detail. Every eventuality was foreseen and dealt with; the use of blood was governed by broad and exhaustive [Jewish] case law, almost as if it formed an integral part of the most firmly established regulations relating to the ritual. . . .

The obligation to procure blood and to use it during the Passover ritual was the exclusive responsibility of the head of the family, i.e., a responsible male with a dependent wife and children. Bachelors, widowers, guests and employees, all those without dependent family, were exempt. In view of the difficulty of procuring such a rare and costly ingredient, it was anticipated that the wealthiest Jews would provide blood for the poorest Jews, an eccentric form of charity benefiting heads of families disinherited by fate.

Goi katan, ‘little Christian’, the expression used in referring to the ritual murder victim, who was usually nameless, is said to have been used during the act of adding his blood to the symbolic foods to be exhibited and consumed in the Seder dinner.”

The use of Christian blood in this way constituted an “anti-ritual”—”an upside-down memorial to the Passion of Christ.”

The Passover Seder also incorporated violent invectives against Christians: “Vomit your anger onto the nations . . . Turn your anger upon them, reach them with your scorn; persecute them with fury, cause them to perish from beneath the divine heaven.” “The meaning was obvious,” Toaff writes. “Messianic redemption could only be built upon the ruins of the hated Gentile world.”

In Chapter Six, “Magical and Therapeutic Uses of Blood,” Toaff describes additional cannibalistic customs. They involved drinking drops of blood dissolved in wine of newly circumcised Jewish infants and, more bizarrely, the consumption by women without male offspring of the circumcised infants’ foreskin in the magical belief that it would enable them to become pregnant. The latter custom, Toaff says, was “highly widespread” among the medieval Ashkenazim, likening it to contemporary competitions after weddings to seize the bride’s bouquet.

The women present at the circumcision ceremony but not yet blessed with progeny of the male sex, anxiously awaited the cutting of the foreskin of the child. At this point, throwing inhibition to the winds, as if at a pre-established signal, the women hurled themselves upon that piece of bloody flesh. The luckiest woman is alleged to have snatched it up and gulped it down immediately, before she could be mobbed by the competing females.

Interestingly, Toaff refers to the consumption of Haman pastries at Purim as being “symbolically cannibalistic”—something to recall the next time you hear some Jew sneer about consuming “the body and blood of Christ” in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

While Toaff mentions various ritual murder accusations over the centuries, the focus of his book is the murder of little Simon in Trent, Italy.

The Case of Simon of Trent


Castello del Buonconsiglio outside

The Catholic Church, which long ago beatified Simon of Trent, withdrew the child’s status as a religious martyr in 1965 as part of Pope Paul VI’s Nostra Aetate proclamation at the notoriously philo-Semitic Second Vatican Council.

It appears that saints can be “de-sainted,” just as “Holocaust deniers” can retroactively lose their academic degrees. As a consequence, Simon no longer appears in the Roman Martyrology, or on any modern Catholic calendar.

On March 23, the eve of Passover 1475, the mutilated body of Simonino, the two-year old son of tanner Andrea Lomferdorm, was found in the waters of a ravine by-passing a wealthy Jew’s cellar. The discovery triggered an inquest that led to the charges brought against the Jews of Trent for the child’s abduction and murder. They were interrogated in Buonconsiglio Castle [11], confessed, and were condemned. Following the verdict, the convicted Jews were publicly executed and their property was confiscated.

The extensive trial documentation in the Trent case enabled Toaff to undertake a detailed examination of the confessions of the accused. “The transcripts of the Trent trials for the murder of Simon,” he writes, “are said to constitute the most important and detailed document ever written on the ritual murder accusation, a precious document retaining the words of the Hebrew defendants.”

Toaff refers sporadically to “depositions” of the defendants, “an authenticated copy” by a notary, documents “signed, sealed, and dated,” the “dossier” of the trial records, and letters in Yiddish preserved in the trial records—”the most ancient remaining documents in Yiddish.” In addition, extensive quotations in Latin from the various documents are printed in the footnotes. Toaff observes:

It should be obvious that only someone with a very good knowledge of the Seder ritual, an insider, could describe the [precise] order of gestures and operations as well as the Hebrew formulae used during the various phases of the celebration, and be capable of supplying such [a wealth of] detailed and precise descriptions and explanations. The judges at Trent could barely follow these descriptions, forming a vague idea of the ritual, which was so foreign to their experience and knowledge that they could only reconstitute it in [the form of] nebulous and imperfect images. The Italian notaries, then, had their work cut out for them in [attempting] to cut their way through this jungle of incomprehensible Hebrew terms, pronounced with a heavy German accent. . . . Imagining that the judges dictated these descriptions of the Seder ritual, with the related liturgical formulae in Hebrew, does not seem very believable.

According to the testimony of the defendants, on the Sabbath immediately after Simon’s murder, “when the child’s body was placed on the almemor [a desk in the synagogue on which the Torah is placed while being read to the congregation], the Jews of Trent, gathered in the synagogue, abandoned themselves to excessive gestures absolutely without inhibition or restraint.” The rabbi, “after concluding his fiery anti-Christian sermon against Jesus and His Mother, rushed up to the almemor, and, after ‘doing the fig'” [an obscene hand gesture signifying sexual intercourse performed before the eyes of the dead child], slapped the corpse of the 2-year-old in the face and spat upon it. Other members of the congregation (women were also present) followed suit, slapping, biting, and spitting upon the mutilated body, making faces and obscene gestures. One man, “coarsely raising his caftan, displayed his buttocks [and genitals] shamelessly.”

According to Toaff, the dead Christian child in Passover rituals “and the Crucified Christ were one and the same person.” Thus, “Simon did not exist—if he had ever existed—and, in his place, they saw the Talui, Jesus the hanged, and the Teluiah, the hanged or crucified woman, as Mary was called . . . Almost trance-like, they cursed and swore, performed contemptuous and obscene gestures.”

The Jews of Italy were not cowed by the gruesome charges brought against their coreligionists. Rather, they rallied around the defendants, conniving and scheming endlessly to free them. They bribed powerful Christian officials to interfere in the proceedings, pressured Archduke Sigismund of Austria to free the defendants (he did temporarily suspend the judicial proceedings), won the release of the female defendants by applying pressure to Pope Sixtus IV, criminally schemed to break the prisoners out of jail, and attempted to hire the most prominent and successful Christian lawyer of the day.

The Jews also instituted legal proceedings against the prime mover behind the trials, the Prince-Bishop of the independent Bishopric of Trent, an ecclesiastical state of the Holy Roman Empire in what is now northern Italy, called Giovanni Hinderbach by Toaff, and Johannes Hinderbach or John V von Hinderbach by other sources, accusing him of attempting to misappropriate the defendants’ property.

When all of these subterfuges failed, the Jewish community arranged for a Jewish convert trusted by Hinderbach to kill the Prince-Bishop by poisoning his food, in spite of Hinderbach’s precaution of employing three food tasters. The would-be assassin was caught and executed.

Did Such Things Really Happen?

Jewish partisans doggedly assert that accounts of ritual crucifixions and hematophagia are “blood libels” against eternally innocent, victimized Jews committed by irredeemably evil Christians.

As the ADL states for the benefit of its audience, which it considers stupid: “The accusation was made out of whole cloth and reflected the tendency in Medieval Europe, based on Christian anti-Jewish doctrine, to demonize Jews and blame them for problems in society.”

Such dim-witted posturing requires one to accept not only that Jews are excessively moral, which they decidedly are not, but that whites across the millennia falsified outlandish accusations against Jews for no reason whatsoever. The charge is preposterous on the face of it, enitrely out of character. In fact, such accusations are the specialty of Jews. That’s why governments eradicate freedom of inquiry and impose “Holocaust denial” and “hate speech” laws. Malevolent fabrications cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and Jews and governments know it.

Toaff, however, is quite cagey, never outright saying that ritual crucifixions and cannibalism actually took place. Yet, through an array of rhetorical devices and narrative techniques he certainly implies that, at least at times, they did. A credulous adherent of the Persecution Myth—the belief that Gentiles, especially whites, Europeans, and Christians, mindlessly persecute innocent Jews for no reason—Toaff seems to feel that Ashkenazic fanaticism was perhaps an understandable response to persecution.

Toaff’s endless dodges, evasiveness, and recantations under pressure remind me a lot of David Irving’s scholarly and PR handling of lethal “Holocaust denial” accusations. Nevertheless, both men have clearly slipped outside the barbed wire enclosure where run-of-the-mill intellectuals, historians, academics, and journalists contentedly graze.

Toaff’s critics like to focus on the alleged use of torture as automatically negating ritual murder charges. Thus, Jewish apologists [12] write that “Toaff’s citing the ‘testimony’ of Jews allegedly admitting to the use of Christian blood for Jewish ritual purposes is absurd on its face since these Jews were tortured and anything they said was under duress and not to be taken seriously.”

Toaff indicates that some (not all) of the testimony of the defendants in the Trent case was obtained through torture. Curiously, however, he provides no historical background about the use of torture in late-15th century Italian legal proceedings, or even evidence of the specific tortures allegedly employed in this case. This is a significant oversight.

In his 2008 Afterword, the author takes aim at the torture excuse by citing contrary scholarly treatment of different confessions obtained by similar means in Inquisitorial and witchcraft trials.

Frankly, Jews lack grounds for credibly objecting to the reliability of confessions obtained by torture. Today, in pursuit of Zionist objectives in the Middle East Israel, the US, and European governments routinely torture prisoners on the grounds that it is necessary and effective. They use it, they say, to extract the truth.

Israel Shamir consequently pointed out that such “arguments” against Toaff are implicitly anti-Zionist (and hence anti-Semitic) because, if taken seriously, they would release Palestinian prisoners from Jewish jails, are anti-American because the US recognizes the value of torture and practices it, and amount to Holocaust denial since they would invalidate many of the verdicts handed down at Nuremberg.

Given the absence of objective, unrestricted inquiry into Jewish matters past and present, it will be some time, if ever, before significant progress will be made in unraveling the mystery of Jewish ritual murders—or alleged murders.