It was in 1242. Nicolas Donin, an apostate Jew, put the Talmud on trial.
The lawyers were the greatest Jewish luminaries, Rabeinu Yechiel (the son of Rosh), Moïse de Coucy and other Tossafists. Rabeinu Yechiel made the biggest mistake a Jew can make; in an “ecclesial debate”, he won. The King of France, Louis IX, ordered the burning of all copies of the Talmud. On June 17, 1242, 24 cartloads of elaborately handwritten gemorahs were burned in a courtyard where the Louvre Museum stands today. The Louvre, home to some of the most exquisite works of art, carries with it an ugly image. Hours of learning from the pages of gemorah, sweet divine pleasure, consumed by the flames of ignorance and hatred.
Maharam Mirotenburg wrote a lamentation upon learning of this event which became part of the kinnos we say on 9 Av. The Louvre fire marked the decline of Torah Jewry in France and Germany. In the years to come, the Torah took its staff from exile to Eastern Europe, never to regain its former glory in the cities of Worms, Paris and Cologne. This is where the real story begins.
The shibolei haleket tells a mystical dimension of our historical tragedy. The Baalei Hatosfos shaken by the reality that the basic materials for learning Torah have been destroyed, performed a dream request. (A kabbalistic ritual where a person begs Gd for an answer to a riddle, where a piece of vellum is placed under the supplicant’s head and the answer appears in the morning). The answer was “this is the decree of the Torah”. You see, the fire took place on Erev Shabbos Parshah Chukkas. The Magen Avrohom in Siman 580 marks a day of fasting instituted every Erev Shabbos Parshah Chukkas specifically for individuals as an atonement for the Torah decree. Even though these questions are high in nature, let’s try to internalize some of the concepts available to us.
The commandment of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer) contains an interesting paradox. On the one hand, it is a commandment that belies the explanation. On the other hand, Moshe Hadarshan clearly explains how the Parah Adumah is a rectification for the (sin of the golden calf). Perhaps the answer lies in the words: “This is the decree of the Torah”. The word “Torah” means to guide. Orientation must be given with the utmost clarity. The word “decree” means to fix in place – it requires no explanation. That’s a fact.
How to reconcile this oxymoron? Reb Hirsh Ziditchoiver described how he would learn. “I force my mind to go to the limit of its abilities and when I understand the difficulty, I start again. I repeat the cycle until I can no longer understand; this is where knowledge begins. The Cologne Mahri said, “After learning all the sifrei kabbala, I became like a little child.” The Torah is the source of all wisdom. Once a person has exhausted the confines of Torah, he exists in knowledge itself. Existence is not something to think about, it is life itself.
On a court in Paris a lesson was learned. The Torah is not a fancy pastime or a religious obligation. We must reach the peak of our abilities in order to truly bond with our dear treasure. Rabbi Menachem Schach writes in his magnum opus, Avi Ezri, that he asked the Brisker Rov a question. How could there be a mitzvah of faith, it’s simple that a beautiful and complex world cannot appear without a creator? The Brisker Rov said he asked his father, Rav Haim, the same question. His father replied, “You are right, the apparent presence of a creator is not faith. Faith is where my mind cannot grasp Hashem’s presence. We live in a time when our mind cannot grasp the vagaries of our times. We live the paradox of the decree and the Torah. jn
Rabbi Shafir Roizman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohr Hatorah in Phoenix.