The 20th of Sivan is the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Jews of Blois, victims of the first ritual murder accusation in France, more than 800 years ago.
Blois is a city in France, on the river Loire, not far from Orleans. It is not a large city (its present population is about 25,000), but it has the “distinction” of being one of very few cities in France, or for that matter in all of Europe, where there has been no Jewish community for the past 800 years. Jews simply shunned that horrible place, where the Jewish community was so cruelly destroyed as a result of a false ritual murder accusation in 1171.
Many have been the false accusations made by the enemies of the Jews as an excuse for killing and robbing them. But none was more wicked than the accusation that Jews require Christian blood for the Passover matzoth or for other bizarre, fictitious rituals. The first such accusation was made in Norwich, England, in 1144. It was repeated in several other British cities in later years. From there it spread to continental Europe, where the blood libel in Blois was the first of many to follow from time to time, down to the latest times (Beilis case in 1911), in practically all Christian lands. This vicious slander cost the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent Jewish men, women, and children. But the hatred it bred among the Christians towards the Jews was one of the main causes of Jewish suffering and persecution in Christian lands throughout the centuries.
The story of the burning of over thirty Jews (forty, according to some accounts), men and women, at Blois was recorded by Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, a great Talmudic scholar (he was one of the Tosafists) and paytan (religious poet), who lived at that time. Rabbi Ephraim ben Yaakov (born in 1132 and died about the year 1200) witnessed also the terrible massacres perpetrated against the Jews by the Crusaders. He recorded all those tragedies and the heroism of the martyrs, and composed penitential prayers and lamentations in their memory. The following account of the Martyrs of Blois is taken from his historical work.
It happened in the year 4931 (1171). At that time there lived in Blois about forty Jews. One of them, Isaac ben Eleazar, rode up to the river one Thursday, toward evening, shortly before Pesach. It so happened that a stable servant rode up at the same time to water the horse of his master. The Jew bore on his chest an untanned hide, but one of the corners had become loose and was sticking out of his coat. When, in the gloom, the servant’s horse, saw the white side of the hide, it was frightened and sprang back, and it could not be brought to the water.
The Christian servant was a simple peasant, who had often heard the priest preach in church that Jews used Christian blood for their Passover matzoth and wine, warning all his flock to keep a watchful eye over their children during the Passover season. Now, when his horse took fright, he hastened back to his master and said: “Hear, my lord, what a certain Jew did. As I rode behind him toward the river in order to give your horse a drink, I saw him throw a little Christian child, whom the Jews have killed, into the water. When I saw this I was horrified and hastened back quickly for fear he might kill me too. Even the horse under me was so frightened by the splash of water, when he threw the child in it, that it would not drink!”
The servant knew that his master would rejoice at the misfortune of the Jews, because he hated a certain Jewess, influential in the city. He was not mistaken, for his master said, “Now I can have my vengeance on that woman and the rest of the Jews.”
The next morning the master rode to the ruler of the city, Theobald, son of Theobald, Count of Blois (son-in-law of King Louis VII of France). The Christians called him “the Good,” but he was a wicked, cruel man.
When the ruler heard the accusation he became enraged and had all the Jews of Blois seized and thrown into prison, where they were all put into iron chains. The only exception was that influential Jewish woman, Dame Pulcelina, whom the count admired for her wisdom and beauty. She had often been able to get favors from the ruler for the Jewish merchants of Blois. But now, the Count’s wife (Alix, daughter of the king) gave strict orders to the servants not to allow her to speak to her husband for fear she might get him to change his mind.
The ruler had no evidence against the Jews, except for that half-wit stable servant. The Count was ready to make a deal with the Jews and free them for a large sum of ransom money. He sent a Jew to the neighboring communities and asked them how much they would give to free their brethren. The Jews consulted with the imprisoned hostages, and the latter advised offering only one hundred pounds, in addition to their uncollected debts from Christian debtors amounting to the sum of one hundred eighty pounds. The Jews in the dungeon told their brethren in other communities not to pay a high ransom for their lives, lest the Christians should find it profitable to imprison Jews for ransom.
However, nothing came of the negotiations, because the Bishop arrived on the scene and insisted that the Jews should be condemned to die, and that he would “prove” their guilt.
The priest told the Count to have the witness tested by the ordeal of water, to discover if he had told the truth. The test was to be arranged as follows: A huge tank would be filled with water, and the servant who “saw” the Jew throw the child into the river would be put into it. If he floated, his words were true; if he sank, he had lied.
The Count of Blois commanded that the test be carried out forthwith. Now the priest had so arranged in advance that the servant should not sink in the water. Such was justice in those days. The Jews were found guilty on the basis of that water test, and condemned to be burned alive.
At the wicked ruler’s command they were taken and put into a wooden house around which were placed thornbushes and faggots. As they were led forth, they were told, “You can save your lives if you will leave your religion and accept ours.” The Jews refused. They were beaten and tortured to make them accept the Christian religion, but still they refused. Rather, they encouraged each other to remain steadfast and die for the sanctification of G‑d‘s Name.
At the Count’s command two of the leading Jews, both kohanim, Rabbi Yechiel the son of Rabbi David haKohen, and Rabbi Yekuthiel the son of Rabbi Judah haKohen, were taken and tied to a single stake to be burned in front of the others, so as to make the others convert. They were both saintly and pious men of great Torah learning, being the disciples of Rabbeinu Yaakov Tam and Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Meir, the grandson of Rashi. A third prominent Jew, Rabbi Judah the son of Aaron, was also tied with them to the stake. At the ruler’s command, fire was set to the faggots. The fire spread to the cords on their hands so that they snapped. The three Jews came out of the fire, and called to the Christians who had assembled to watch them die: “By your own laws you should let us go free, for you see that we came out alive from the ordeal by fire!” They struggled to get out, but they were overpowered and pushed back into the house, and the house was set on fire. They came out again and seized one of the executioners and dragged him along with them towards the fire. When they were right at the fire, the armed soldiers pulled themselves together, rescued the Christian from their hands, killed them with their swords, and then threw their bodies into the fire.
A certain Jew by name of Rabbi Baruch ben David haKohen was there and saw all this at that time with his own eyes. He lived in the territory of that ruler and had come there to arrange terms for the release of the Jews of Blois, but unfortunately did not succeed. However, a settlement was made by him for one thousand pounds to save the other jews of that accursed ruler. He also saved the scrolls of the Torah and other sacred books.
This terrible atrocity happened on Wednesday, 20th of Sivan, in the year 4931 (May 26th, 1171). All the facts were written down by the Jews of Orleans, a city close by to that of the martyrs, and made known to Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Rabbi Meir, Rashi’s grandson and greatest Rabbi of his time.
It was also reported in that letter that as the flames mounted high, the martyrs began to sing in unison a melody that began softly but ended with a full voice. “The Christians came and asked us, ‘What kind of a song is this, for we have never heard such a sweet melody?’ We knew it well, for it was the hymn Oleinu — “It is our duty to praise the L-rd of all… for He has not made us like the nations of the lands…'”
Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn records the amazing fact, as, witnessed by the said Rabbi Baruch, that the bodies of the martyrs were not consumed by fire; only their souls were released. When the crowd saw it, they were amazed and said to one another, “Truly these are saints.” For a long time, the thirty one (or thirty two) martyrs of Blois were not allowed to be buried. They were left at the bottom of the hill on the very spot where they were burnt. It was only later that Jews came and buried their bones.
Rabbi Ephraim adds the anguished lament, “O daughters of Israel, weep for the souls that were burnt for the sanctification of the Name, and let your brothers, the entire House of Israel, bewail the burning.”
All the communities of France, England, and the Rhineland took upon themselves to observe the 20th of Sivan as a day of mourning and fasting. This was also confirmed by Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Meir, who wrote letters to them informing them that it was proper to fix that day as a twenty-four hour fast day. (Rabbeinu Yaakov Tam died in the third week after the Kiddush Hashem in Blois.)