The Roots of the Passover Blood Libel

When did the libel of Jews using Christian blood on Passover make its first appearance?

The Church’s position toward the Jews in medieval times is well known and documented: the presence of the deniers of the Christian Gospel was to be tolerated, their skills and abilities utilized, damage to their bodies or property avoided and their degrading and humiliating status preserved. But if this was the case, how then was the blood of thousands of Jews still spilled across Europe throughout both the Middle Ages and the modern era?

In the year 1150, the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth, who resided at Norwich Cathedral Priory, began collecting documents and testimonies for a book. According to the chronicle he compiled, a boy named William from the English town of Norwich, an apprentice leatherworker, was persuaded to leave his home with the promise of work. He stayed for a few days at the home of a wealthy Jew. On orders of the homeowner, one of the leading bankers in the city, William was kidnapped, subjected to “all the tortures of Christ,” and finally murdered, the text claims. Then, the Jews carried his body to the nearby forest, where a crown of thorns was placed on his head, a rope was wound tightly around his neck and a gag placed in his mouth. He was left hanging from a tree for many days until his body was discovered. Thomas argued that because the murder was an exact imitation of Christ’s passion, 12-year-old William should be recognized as a saint. And so he was.

A depiction of the crucifixion of William of Norwich according to “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” Holy Trinity Church, Luddon, England

Thomas’ book, completed twenty years after the alleged event, which became known as “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” was published and distributed in England after which it was copied and sent to France and the rest of the continent. Assisting Thomas in his research was a converted Jew by the name of Theobald of Cambridge, who supposedly provided Thomas with insider knowledge of the secret activities of the Jews. Theobald told Thomas that every year a Jewish council would meet to select a country where a Christian child would be murdered around Easter, in the belief that this would hasten the coming of the Messiah. In 1144, the year of William’s death, England was chosen.  Thanks to this false testimony, Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative received something akin to a seal of approval and the blood libel about the ritual murder of Christian children perpetrated by the Jews became firmly rooted in the collective European psyche.

With the spread of the blood libel in medieval Europe, a pattern emerged: Every time the body of a Christian child was discovered, suspicion would fall on the local Jews. Generally, these accusations tended to surface during the week before Easter, as the Jews were celebrating Passover, and sometimes also around the festival of Purim. The British historian Cecil Roth linked this to the Jewish custom of “hanging” an effigy symbolizing Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Roth argued that this custom was interpreted by Christian observers to be a reenactment of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Other historians have explained the timing of the episodes by linking them to the thawing winter snows – dead bodies that had been hidden all winter would be uncovered and discovered around the beginning of spring time. Either way, the connection between Passover and the blood libel about the use of the blood of Christian children to make matzo can be traced back to the story of William of Norwich, even if it does not appear in Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative in its full form.

The “success” of the blood libel forced Jewish leaders throughout the ages to come up with ways to combat the phenomenon. One in particular that comes to mind is the precaution suggested by Rabbi David, one of the arbiters of the Shulchan Aruch, who argued that drinking red wine on Passover should be avoided “because of the libelous claims of our many transgressions.”

The 16th century legend of the first Jewish superhero developed from this blood libel – the Golem of Prague, conjured by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, to protect the Jews of the city from the yearly blood libel and mayhem that came with it.

The Golem and the Maharal, by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

The official position of the Church has generally been opposed to blood libels, and most popes objected to these false accusations. The majority of the blood libels were private initiatives, but they were often backed by local authorities. The last blood libel to receive the official backing of a European government emerged during “the Beilis affair”, an episode that began with the discovery of the body of a murdered 12-year-old, Andrei Yushchinsky, in a cave outside Kiev in April, 1911.

After a hasty investigation, the Kiev police arrested the manager of a brick factory located near the cave where Yushchinsky’s body was discovered. Although the evidence against Beilis was shaky and the boy’s real killers were found not long after Beilis’ arrest, the authorities refused to release him. Only at the end of October 1913 – after more than three years during which Beilis languished in the Tsar’s prison – did a jury acquit him of the charges.  In response, Jewish publishers in Warsaw rushed to publish The Album of the Beilis Trial.

The murdered boy Andrei Yushchinsky and the “cave” where his body was discovered, from  The Album of the Beilis Trial

Even in Nazi Germany – where blood libel allegations were once again raised in newspapers and children’s books – this poisonous accusation never materialized in an actual trial. The persecution of the Jews and their systematic murder in the Holocaust was explained in racial-biological terms.

“Haven’t you heard about the ritual murders of the Jews?” from the Nazi children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (Der Giftpilz)

The blood libel about the Jews’ use of Christian blood for matzo on Passover has not completely disappeared and echoes of it are heard from time to time (today mainly in Arab countries), and will probably continue to reverberate for many more years to come. However, we can take some comfort from Gerd Mentgen’s assessment in his article on the subject, that, “in our time, only the most incorrigible antisemites believe in the fictitious truths of the blood libel.”


Further reading:

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Gerd Mentgen, “The Origins of the Blood Libel”, Zion, The Historical Society of Israel, 1994, p. 343-349 (Hebrew).


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The Last Resort: The Man Who Saved the World from Two Pandemics

What if you found a vaccine for a deadly disease and no one believed you? What if your only option was to inject yourself with a weakened strain and hope for the best?

Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine

Scandal, anti-Semitism, and experiments on human beings – when we opened this fascinating archive to have a look at the documents contained within, we could not have imagined how this incredible tale would unfold – the story of a Zionist scientist who was determined to save the world from the plague and cholera against all odds. Introducing Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine.

Haffkine was born in the Russian Empire in 1860 in what is today the Ukraine. His life trajectory was determined as soon as he completed his studies in Switzerland in the late 19th century, when he decided to dedicate his life to the study of tiny organisms. At the time, Louis Pasteur was one of the best-known scientists in the field, and Haffkine decided to seek work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was accepted but was given a job as a librarian, as that was the only available opening at the Institute. Bureaucracy, what can you do?

While Haffkine was working with experts like Pasteur and Ilya Mechnikov, cholera outbreaks in Russia and India emerged as a serious threat. Haffkine felt his time had come, and after tireless research, he managed to develop a cholera vaccine based on attenuated bacteria. People may have been dying in masses of a rampant pandemic, but no one stepped up to support Haffkine’s research. He decided to take a drastic step – a last resort to prove the vaccine’s credibility: Haffkine picked up a syringe full of an attenuated strain of cholera, inserted the needle into his arm, and injected the disease straight into his bloodstream. How many would have done the same?

Written plans of Haffkine’s tour with a government delegation, during which he would inoculate villagers, the National Library of Israel

After several days of suffering from fever and worrisome symptoms – the long-awaited turnaround arrived, and on July 30th, 1892, Haffkine reported his findings and the success of the vaccine to the Biological Society in France. But France and other European countries remained skeptical and suspicious of his methods, and refused to accept his results. At the time, European official medical establishments weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea of vaccines in general.

Haffkine refused to believe that a drug, which could cure millions, would not see the light of day. He decided to try his luck in England, where a successful demonstration of his ideas finally gained him access to the outbreak’s epicenter – India. Soon enough, Haffkine was working on the subcontinent. The widespread outbreak of cholera in India led the desperate Bengali government to officially authorize Haffkine to vaccinate the residents of its territory.

אישור מהממשלה של בנגל לחבקין לבצע חיסונים בהודו
The Bengali government’s letter of authorization, the National Library of Israel

An outbreak of another disease, the bubonic plague in Mumbai, impelled the Indian authorities to turn to Haffkine to help them find a vaccine. In January 1897, after three months of intensive work, Haffkine once again inoculated himself with an experimental vaccine for the plague – because hey, it worked once, what could go wrong, right? Well, it worked again! Haffkine very quickly started to experiment on other people, apart from himself. He worked with a number of volunteer prisoners, who agreed to take part in the experiment, dividing them into two groups. Haffkine compared the results between the two groups in order to ensure the vaccine was truly effective. During this period, he set up a laboratory in the neighborhood of Byculla. “The Haffkine Institute” would later be named after him.

A letter from an Indian citizen, C.H. Dady, who wrote to Haffkine and asked him vaccinate his family, the National Library of Israel

The success of the vaccine among the Indian population was phenomenal. By 1900, Haffkine had saved four million people thanks to his treatments. Even the Russians contacted him through secret channels and requested vaccines for cholera. Nevertheless, just as some people enjoy seeing a rising star, there are always those who love seeing that same star crash and burn, and Haffkine barreled toward the incident that would tarnish his name and cost lives.

In 1902, Haffkine arrived at the village of Mulkowal in order to inoculate the villagers. Several days after the treatment was given, 19 villagers died from tetanus. Accusatory fingers immediately pointed at Haffkine, with complaints emerging that something had gone wrong with one of the vaccine bottles.

Some of Haffkine’s cholera vaccination records from India, 1908, indicating children aged 9, 13, and 16 received cholera vaccines, the National Library of Israel

Rumor spread like wildfire that the vaccine was infected with tetanus. A commission of inquiry was appointed which found Haffkine guilty. Soon after, he was deported back to England in shame. The episode came to be known as the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” and was accompanied by an air of anti-Semitism, which Haffkine was familiar with from his life in Russia.

However, he was not going to give up easily. A number of famous friends and scientists published a letter in The Times supporting Haffkine. They argued that their fellow scientist was entitled to the benefit of doubt, and that it was impossible to establish that he was personally responsible for the deaths. This half-hearted acquittal helped Haffkine return to India and continue his work against cholera and the plague. He proved himself such an effective scientist that, after returning to Calcutta in 1907, the Indian authorities issued a report that wholly acquitted him in relation to the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” stating that his innocence did not rest only on reasonable doubt and that he deserved to be fully exonerated.

The report exonerating Haffkine, featuring a typo on the cover: The Mulkowal (India) Tetanu[s] SAccident of 1902, the National Library of Israel

But saving the world wasn’t enough for Haffkine. After retiring in 1914 and returning to France a year later, he continued to invest his time in scientific work and in matters of Judaism and Zionism. Haffkine supported Zionist organizations and provided aid to Jewish war victims during and after WWI. Following the war he founded the Haffkine Foundation which fostered Jewish education in Eastern Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, he even met with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in an attempt to persuade him to sell lands in Ottoman Palestine to Jews. The Sultan wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea.

Haffkine’s enthralling story and even his archive, continues to fascinate us to this day. Perhaps it’s too bad that Haffkine isn’t here with us today during the current challenging period, with a new pandemic spreading across the globe. Who knows, maybe he would’ve saved the world for the third time? He certainly would have jumped at the opportunity.


Thanks to Rachel Misrati from the National Library’s Archives Department for her help with this article.

The Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.  

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A Digital Geniza: The National Library of Israel Is Collecting in the Age of COVID-19

The National Library of Israel is asking you to send us examples of digital ephemera which convey a sense of the times

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning, 

  • Please don’t delete that email from the Rabbi offering to Zoom the Shabbat service straight into your lounge
  • Save the Whatsapp message from the kosher shops assuring customers that there will be enough matzah for Pesach
  • Download your synagogue’s poster offering support for vulnerable people in the community
  • Forward messages from community leaders offering psychological support

These ephemeral digital fragments are documenting Jewish history in real-time. And they are also ephemera –   in ordinary times they might be items such as a synagogue timetable, a kosher restaurant menu, wedding invitation or Jewish film festival poster – items people would not necessarily think to keep, but that will later define our communities and our culture for future generations.

An example of digital ephemera, appearing with the kind permission of Pagoda Online Learning,

In these extraordinary times, they include a whole range of materials reflecting halachic innovations, new forms of ‘socially distanced’ communal life, educational creativity, Jewish irony and unthinkable situations of mourning our lost ones.   These items deserve to be collected as they will tell a story of resilience, creativity and also tragedy .

A classic example of ephemera – an Israeli ad for Ephedion cough syrup from Assea Labs, the Eri Wallish Collection, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Fortunately, the National Library of Israel (NLI) is creating  the COVID-19 Jewish ephemera collection, the perfect central repository ‘ a digital time capsule’ for this information.

A “Prayer for the Suppression of the Plague in Bombay” at the Shaar Harahamim Synagogue, October, 1896; the Valmadonna Trust, the National Library of Israel Ephemera Collection

Future students of sociology, anthropology, medical history, Jewish communal life, mass marketing, computer science and rabbinic responsa will be tremendously grateful.   Consider the NLI as a library without borders – with links to Jewish communities, people and libraries wherever they may be, drawing on the cyber revolution to enhance community engagement, digital preservation, open access, and collaborative projects globally.

We all hope that one day soon COVID-19 will be history – help us record this unique and historic time.

Drop your COVID-19 digital ephemera here or email it to


See also:

Gesher L’Europa

Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe


This article is based on a longer one published on the Times of Israel website, here.

No Friend of Bacteria: A Letter from Louis Pasteur

This is the story of a promising young student who became the “father of microbiology”, but it didn’t happen by accident; a personal tragedy spurred Louis Pasteur to search for cures for infectious diseases

Louis Pasteur was not born into a family of means. Growing up poor, he received a Catholic education and did not particularly excel at his studies. No one imagined that he would become one of the most prominent scientists of all time for his contribution to the field of medicine.

In his early teens, Louis’ interest in reading grew and he eventually became his own schoolteacher’s assistant. At sixteen, he moved to Paris for his studies, but an acute case of homesickness led him to return home. He enrolled in a local college and successfully completed his bachelor’s degree in science in 1840 and master’s in science in 1842. The next year, he fulfilled his lifelong dream of attending the prestigious École Supérieure Normale (after having failed his first attempt at acceptance).

A portrait medal of Louis Pasteur, the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

In 1846, Pasteur began his research in the field of crystallography (the scientific study of crystals), for which he was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1853 for his discovery of the differences in the crystal structure of the two enantiomers of tartaric acid. At age twenty-seven, Pasteur was appointed professor of chemistry at the University of Strasbourg.

An autographed photograph of Louis Pasteur, 1891, the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

While teaching at the university, the brilliant young scientist met Marie Laurent, the daughter of the university’s rector. They married on the 29th of May, 1849 and began working together, with Marie assisting in scientific experiments. Their future seemed very bright, until tragedy struck. Three of the Pasteur’s five children died from typhoid, not unusual for that time, but Pasteur swore he would do everything in his power to find a cure for communicable diseases.

In 1854, he was appointed dean of the faculty of sciences at the University of Lille, the same year he began his study of fermentation. In the framework of his research, he came up with a solution to the problem of bacteria. His idea eventually led to a process that would significantly reduce the presence of bacteria in milk, wine, beer, fruit juices and honey.  In this process, liquid (milk, for example) is heated rapidly – almost to the boiling point, and immediately cooled. The purpose is to kill harmful viruses and organisms such as bacteria, protozoans and fungi that are present in the liquid without compromising the liquid’s nutritional value or taste. Beyond extending the shelf life of the liquid, the process helps to prevent disease. This process, which we call pasteurization, was named for its inventor – Louis Pasteur. For his work, Pasteur was awarded the prestigious Rumford Medal in 1856.

Louis Pasteur

The National Library of Israel is in possession of a rare letter sent by Pasteur himself to an unknown recipient, referred to simply as “Monsieur,” which was written, in French, at some point between 1868 and 1869, and which reveals that at that time of its writing, Pasteur was deeply engaged in the further development of the pasteurization process:

“[B]efore anything, and as I mentioned in my last message to you, I ask that you take note of the necessity of performing the heating of the bottles inside the large-scale heating containers; and remember the fact which the professional committee finally agreed upon at the last wine tasting, that the color of the wine that was heated when protected from air was stronger and even somewhat darker than that of the same wine when it remained unchanged and unheated. One can get an idea of the speed of the oxygenation of the wine by looking at the exact experiments appearing in my publications. Do not forget that the wine in bottles or in any other vessel, after it has been sealed a few days before, and after moving it from vessel to vessel to remove the sediment, will, during its decomposition, contain only nitrogen or carbonic acid and no trace of oxygen, but will contain oxygen the very moment it comes into contact with air. Furthermore, bear in mind that the solubility of gases is proportional to pressure.

Finally, it is best to remember that the wine, at the first removal of sediment after the end of fermentation, is saturated with only carbonic acid gas; also on this point refer to my publication “Etudes sur le vin” – the amount of dissolved carbonic acid, at this moment, is so great and so ready to be released that it might resist the intake of air in your device.

I am far from being against cooling after heating. Here again, one must take into account the oxidation process. With the reduction in volume in a barrel, air will penetrate, however it is perfectly clear, from the point of view of preservation principles, that it is safer to fill while heating; but the germs of the wine development process are many and much more active than those created by the air. Through heating, the wine has acquired such features of preservation as to allow, in most cases, even further maneuvering at a later date without great danger to its preservation. In short, with regard to the practice of immediate cooling after heating it will be possible to formulate an opinion after the accumulation of [data from] experiments. In the current state of affairs, I am far from doubting the wisdom of this practice. When heated in a bottle it is clear that the process is more or less natural and certainly not harmful here…”

The four-page letter Pasteur wrote to an anonymous recipient on October 20th (no year is recorded), the Sidney Edelstein Collection at the National Library of Israel

Pasteur did not stop there. His contributions spanned a variety of fields and even included the development of a vaccine for rabies. The first successful experiment with the vaccine was performed on a sick child on July 6th, 1885. Following the experiment’s success, he received inquiries from across Europe from people who had been bitten by wild animals.

In 1887, Pasteur founded the medical research institute which bears his name to this day, and which he headed until his death in 1895. Long after his passing, his name is still familiar thanks to his discoveries relating to the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization. The Pasteur Institute continues the work he began: developing vaccines and drugs to fight disease, including current research being conducted in the hopes of developing a vaccine for the Covid-19 virus.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Friedman and Sharon Assaf for their assistance with translation.


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