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The celebration of the festivals of the Jewish calendar marking the life of the people of Israel from ancient times has assumed primarily the character of historical-ritual repetition and "renewal of memory" (zikkaron) of the divine interventions in the history of the nation. In this sense, Pesach, the Jewish Passover, is celebrated as a "memorial", zikkaron, in the sense of being a ritual representation of the past. [1]

More precisely, at Pesach, the events linked to slavery in Egypt, the persecutions suffered on the banks of the Nile, the miraculous exodus from the land of oppression, the divine vengeance on the enemies of Israel, and the laborious pathway towards the Promised Land and Redemption, are reviewed and projected into the present day.

This is a pathway which has not yet been completed and perfected, pregnant with unknown factors and hazards, the happy outcome of which may be brought nearer by the actions of Man and the miraculous interventions of God in the history of Israel.

What is more, the Jewish community, wherever it is located, is able to request the active involvement of the Divinity, intended to hasten the coming of Redemption, moving God through the sight of the sufferings of His Chosen People and impelling Him to act, defend, protect and wreak vengeance.

Blood is a fundamental and indispensable element in all the memorial celebrations of Pesach, the Jewish Passover

Blood is a fundamental and indispensable element in all the memorial celebrations of Pesach: the blood of the Passover Lamb and the blood of circumcision. In the Midrash, this relationship is continually stressed and demonstrated. God, having seen the door-posts of the doors of the children of Israel in Egypt, bathed with the blood of the Passover lamb, is said to have recalled his Pact with Abraham, signed and sealed with the blood of circumcision.

"Thanks to the blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision, the children of Israel were saved from Egypt". In fact, the Jews are said to have circumcised themselves for the first time precisely in concomitance with their exodus from the lands of the Pharaoh. And in this regard, adds the Midrash , "the blood of the lamb is mixed with that of circumcision". [2]

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The German rabbis, for their part, placed particular importance upon the importance of that magnificent and fateful event, stating that the Jews transfused the blood of their circumcision into the same glass into which the blood of the Passover Lamb to be utilized in painting the door-posts of their doorways had been poured, according to God's orders, so that, together, they might, together, become the distinctive symbols of their salvation and redemption.

This is why the prophet Ezekiel is said to have twice repeated the wish,

"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee, when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live." (Ezekiel 16:6),

intending to refer both to the blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision. In the Midrash, the German rabbis found the references necessary to establish beyond any doubt the close relationship between blood (of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision) and the final redemption of the people of Israel.

"God has said: I have given them two precepts so that, fulfilling them, they may be redeemed, and these are the blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision". [3]

In the Sefer Nizzachon Yashan, a harsh anonymous anti-Christian polemical publication compiled in Germany at the end of the 13th century, the themes of which are repeated in the liturgical invocations of Rabbi Shelomoh of Worms, the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt is taken as a pretext to outline a dispute intended to contrast the saving blood of the Passover blood and of circumcision to the powers of the cross.

"It is written: 'And ye shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood (of the Passover lamb) that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin’ (Ex. 12:22).

"The Christians distance themselves even further from this passage and claim to find a reference to the Cross in it, since it recalls three places (the lintel and the two door-posts). This therefore tells us: It is thanks to the Cross that (your fathers in the exodus from Egypt) gained their salvation. [4]

"One must reply to them by rejecting an interpretation of this kind. In fact, the truth is in these words of God:

'Through the merit of the blood, poured into different occasions, I shall remember you, when I see your houses tinted with blood. This is the blood of circumcision of Abraham, of the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac, when Abraham was about to immolate his son, and of the blood of the Passover lamb".

It is for this reason that the blood returns three times in the verse of the prophet Ezekeiel (16:6).

'And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto that when thou wast in thine own blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.'" [5]

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The reference to the sacrifice of Isaac would appear out of place, considering that, in the Biblical account, Abraham did not really immolate his son, as he was prepared to do, but was stopped by the miraculous Divine intervention which stayed his hand, holding the sacrificial knife.

But this conclusion should certainly be revised. The Midrash even advances the hypothesis that Abraham really shed Isaac's blood, sacrificing him on the precise spot upon which the Altar of the Temple of Jerusalem was later to be built. The pious patriarch is then believed to have proceeded to reduce the body to ashes, burning it on the pyre which he is said to have previously prepared for that purpose. Only later is God supposed to have rectified Abraham’s action, returning Isaac to life. [6]

Elsewhere, the analogy between Isaac, who bears the burden of the bundles of wood intended for his own holocaust on Mount Moriyah, and Christ, bent under double the weight of the Cross, is clearly shown. [7]

Explaining the verse of Ex. 12:13 ("And I when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you, and the plague shall be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt"), the Midrash asks us which blood God is to see on the doors of the Children of Israel, and unhesitatingly responds: "God will see the spilt blood of the sacrifice of Isaac". On the other hand, the Jewish month of Nissan, during which the festivity of Pesach falls, in the tradition of Midrash, is considered the month of the Isaac’s birth, as well as that of his immolation. [8]

Isaac was sacrificed for the love of God and his blood gushes onto the altar, coloring it red. This is the historical-ritual memory, transfigured and updated, which the Judaism of the German lands, reduced in numbers by the suicides and mass child murders committed during the Crusades "for the sanctification of the Lord's name" wished to preserve, situating it at Passover and in relation to the exodus from Egypt.

In one of his elegies, Ephraim of Bonn described not only the ardor and the zeal of Abraham in immolating his son, butchering him on the altar, but also the abnegation of Isaac, happy to serve as the holocaust [9].

After which the saintly boy was carried back to life by God himself, Abraham is said to have sought to sacrifice him a second time in an overflowing backwash of fervent faith. It was precisely these the elements which, according to the Jews of the Franco-German communities, placed in relationship with the prayer for the dead (zidduk hadin) with the sacrifice of Isaac.

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"The verse

‘When He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you’ (Ex. 12:23),

recalls the sacrifice of Isaac, while the verse

'I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live!' (Ez. 16:6)

"possesses the same numerical value (ghematryah ) as the name Isaac, Izchak.

"For this reason was introduced into the text of the prayer for the dead, ziddu, ha-din, the following wish:

'Through the merit of He who was sacrificed like a lamb (Isaac), Thou, oh God, lend an ear and act accordingly'.

"In fact, Isaac, was killed and appears at the sight of the divined presence (schechinah). Only after he was already dead did the angel cure him, restoring him to life". [10]

In conclusion, the German Jews, who, during the first crusade in 1096, sacrificed their sons to avoid forced baptism, intending to imitate the sacrifice of Isaac by the hand of Abraham, his father.

Deliberately ignoring the Biblical conclusion of the episode, which stressed God’s aversion to human sacrifice, they preferred to refer to those texts of the Midrash in which Isaac actually met a cruel death on the altar.

The German Jews thus conferred new life upon these new texts in search of moral support for the their actions, which appeared unjustifiable and might easily be condemned under the terms of ritual law (halakhah). [11]

The Biblical account of Jeptha was generally interpreted in this sense as well. The exegetic tradition of the Midrash has no hesitation of any kind in stating that the brave judge of Israel who solemnly promised to sacrifice the first creature he met upon victorious return from the battle against the Ammonites (Judges 11:31), actually kept his vow, sacrificing on the altar his only daughter, who ran out to celebrate the happy outcome of the epic battle with him (Judges 11:35). [12]

Nor did the Medieval exegetics of the German territories show any kind of embarrassment in dealing with this problematical tale, since they were all intent on minimizing the seriousness of the action of this Jewish leader from Galahad [13].

It is, however, a fact that, while reference to the sacrifice of Isaac is frequently made, heavily charged with significance in the historical-ritual memory of Ashkenazi Judaism, that of the Jeptha’s daughter never rose to the rank of moral precedent of reference.

As we have said, the memorial celebration of Pesach was indissolubly linked with the sacrifice of the lamb and the blood of circumcision.

The latter arose as a symbol of the pact between God and the people of Israel, signed in the flesh of Abraham, while the blood of the Passover lamb was the emblem of salvation and redemption. As Yerushalmi notes, the Passover dinner or Seder has always constituted the exercise of memory par excellence of the Jewish community, wherever it existed.

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Seder symbology - Slavery, liberation, final Redemption

"Here, during the meal around the family dining table, ritual, liturgical and culinary elements were orchestrated in such a way as to transmit the most vital sense of the past from one generation to another.

"The entire Seder is the symbolic staging of an historically founded scenario, divided into three main sections, corresponding to the structure of the Haggadah (the account of the stories of Pesach and about Pesach), which are to be read aloud: slavery, liberation, final Redemption.

"[...] words and gestures which are intended to awaken, not simply memory, but a harmonious merging of the past and present. Memory is no longer something to be contemplated from afar, but represents a true and proper representation and updating" [14]

The wine drunk during the Seder symbolizes the blood of the Passover lamb and the circumcision, and it is not therefore surprising that the Palestinian Talmud associates the four glasses of wine, which absolutely must be drunk during the Seder, with the four phases of Redemption. What is more, the text presents the charoset, the fruit preserve kneaded with the wine, intended to bring to mind the past, as "blood memorials" of the clay and mortar used by the Jews when engaged in slave labor during their long captivity in the land of the Pharaohs. [15]

If the blood of the Passover lamb was distilled from a sacrifice, so, in a certain sense, is the blood of circumcision. The Midrash states that "a drop of the blood (of circumcision) is as pleasing to the Holy One -- may His name be blessed -- as that of sacrifices". [16]

But it was the rabbis and the medieval exegetics, particularly, those of the Franco-German territories, who developed and broadened this concept. The Provençal Aharon di Lunel (13th century) did not hesitate to affirm that "He who offers his own son for circumcision is similar to the priest who presents the farinaceous offering and sacrifices a libation on the altar".

His contemporary, Bechayah b. Asher of Saragoza, a famous moralist, also stressed the close relationship between sacrifice and circumcision:

"The precept of circumcision is equivalent to a sacrifice"

"The precept of circumcision is equivalent to a sacrifice, because a man offers the fruit of his loins to blessed God for the purpose of fulfilling His command (to circumcise the son); and, just as sacrificial blood is used for expiation, thus the blood of circumcision heals wounds [...] It is, in fact, thanks to this obligation, that God promised Israel salvation from Gehenna". [17]

Even more explicit is Yaakov Ha-Gozer ("the Cutter") who lived in the 13th century in Germany, in his essay on the rite of circumcision.

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"Come and consider how pleasing is the precept of circumcision before the Holy One, may His name be blessed. In fact, every Jew who sacrifices by means of circumcision in the morning is considered as if he had presented the daily holocaust of the morning.

"Before God, the blood of circumcision is as valuable as the sacrifice of the lamb on the altar every day: one in the morning and the other in the evening, and his son is perfect and immaculate like the lamb of one year". [18]

Circumcision is therefore considered equal to the sacrifice and the blood poured out during this holy act of surgery thus came to assume the same value as the uncorrupted blood of the perfect and innocent lamb, butchered on the altar and offered to god.

This sacrifice was at the same time individual and collective, because, as Bechayeh b. Asher observed, it was considered capable of providing automatic and infallible salvation from the torments of gehenna [inferno], regardless of the conduct of the individual and the community. It was a kind of sacramental mystery of certain efficacy and proven power. [19]

Circumcision - exorcistic rite

In this sense, circumcision came, with time, to assume the character of an apotropaic [warding off evil] and exorcistic rite. The blood of the circumcised child and the providential cutting of the foreskin provided protection and salvation, as taught in the Biblical account -- which is otherwise short on detail -- of Moses, mortally assailed by God and miraculously saved by virtue of his own circumcision and that of his son.

This was said to have been performed immediately, although a bit crudely, by Moses’ wife Zipporah. "And it came to pass by the in the inn, that the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Then Zipporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bloody husband art thou to me. So He let him go; then she said, A bloody husband thou art, because of thy circumcision" (Ex. 4: 24-26).

Circumcision defended and liberated from danger, and the blood shed on that occasion possessed infallible exorcistic significance. The Gheonim, heads of the rabbinical academies of Babylon, "circumcised in the water", i.e., they taught that the bloody foreskin was to be thrown into a recipient containing water perfumed with spices and myrtil [a red flower]. The young males present at the ceremony hastened to wash the hands and face in the sweet-smelling fluid as a counter-spell intended to bring good luck and serve as a propitiatory sign of stupendous success in love and numerous and healthy descendants. [20]

In the Middle Ages, particularly, in the German-speaking territories, circumcision came to assume, with particular clarity, the value p. 143] of an apotropaic and exorcistic rite, which, in the synagogue, was free to express itself without hindrance of any kind against the background of community life.

As we have seen, during the ceremony, the blood of circumcised foreskin was mixed with the wine and tasted by the mohel himself, by the child and his mother, and the libation was accompanied by the prophetic wish "Thanks to your blood, you live!"

The famous German rabbi Jacob Mulin Segal (1360-1427), known as Maharil, who also lived at Treviso for some time, in his weighty handbook of customs in use in the Ashkenazi communities of the valley of the Rhine, reported that it was a widespread custom to pour whatever remained in the cup, together with the wine and the blood of the circumcised child, under the Ark with the rolls of the Law, located in the synagogue. This act was intended to exorcise the exterior dangers hanging over the Jewish world and the tragedies threatening its existence.

In the 17th century, this custom was still in force in the Jewish community of Worms. "Soon after the mohel has completed the operation [...] whatever remains of the content of the glass, together with the wine and blood of the circumcised child, is poured onto the steps before the Ark with the rolls of the Law in the synagogue". [21]

Among Ashkenazi Jews therefore, on a popular level, the salvation represented by the blood of circumcision was essentially understood, by both the individual and the collective, in a magical sense. That blood was able to provide protection from the constant threat of the Angel of Death, while functioning as an antidote to the ills of this life and serving as a health-giving potion during the rites of passage, charged with unknown dangers. [22]

Another curious testimony in this regard may be found in the writings of the so-called "Cutter, the mohel Yaakov Ha-Gozer. The German rabbi described the custom of his Jewish contemporaries (obviously, in the 13th century) of hanging the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands from the lintel of the entranceway to the synagogue upon completion of the operation.

"The children of Israel left the land of Egypt thanks to the blood of the Passover sacrifice and the blood of circumcision"

"Therefore, the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands and mouth, which are full of blood, is placed on the door to the synagogue. The meaning of the custom of hanging the cloth in the entrance to the temple was explained to me by my uncle, rabbi Efraim of Bonn. In effect, our elders told us that the children of Israel left the land of Egypt thanks to the blood of the Passover sacrifice and the blood of circumcision.

"On that occasion, the sons of Israel colored the lintels of their doorways with blood so that the Lord would prevent the Angel of Death from striking their houses and for the purpose of manifesting the miracle. For this reason, the circumcision cloth, stained with blood, is hung in the door of the synagogue to indicate the sign linked to circumcision and to make manifest to all the precept, as is said, 'It shall be a sign between thee and me'". [23]

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The custom of hanging the cloth used by the mohel to clean his hands and mouth of blood of the child in the synagogue doorway also appears in the so-called Machazor Vitry, written around the 12th century. This ancient French liturgical text in fact states that, in the Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the cloth used by the mohel to clean off the blood "shall be hung at the entrance to the synagogue". [24]

Jewish mystical texts also stress the relationship between the blood of the Passover lamb and that of circumcision and the meanings of Pesach.

Cabalistic meaning of the blood of the circumcision

The Zohar "the blood of splendor", the classical text of the Cabbalah attributed to rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and set in Palestine of the 2nd century of the Christian era, but, in reality, composed in Spain at the end of the 13th century, stresses, in its peculiar language, the centrality of the motif of blood in the ceremonial commemoration of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

"The blood of the circumcision corresponds to the divine quality of absolute piety, because the Holy One, may His name be blessed, upon seeing the blood of the circumcision, feels compassion for the world; the blood of the Passover lamb, on the other hand, indicates the divine quality of judgment, because the sacrifice of the Passover is performed with the lamb, which corresponds to the Zodiacal sign of the ram, the god of Egypt [...] therefore, the blood of the circumcision and that of the Passover lamb, which are to be seen on the door, corresponded to the two sefirot (the divine attributes) of piety and power (or justice), which had awakened to dominance in the heavens at that moment.

In fact, the blood of circumcision represents the divine quality of compassion, while the blood of the Passover lamb represents the qualities of justice and power. Therefore, piety was kindled to pity the children of Israel so that they wouldn't die [...] while justice was kindled to wreak vengeance on the first born of the Egyptians. [25]

For the Cabballah, the blood of circumcision and that of the Passover lamb therefore possessed opposite meanings. The first indicated the piety of God, ready to show compassion towards the Jews and save them from dangers and death.

The second, on the other hand, represented the power and severity of Divine justice, which wreaked vengeance on the peoples of Egypt, killing their children. The motif of the blood of the circumcision, capable of protecting the children of Israel, effectively removing the threats to its existence, annulling the instinct of evil and hastening the hour of Redemption, returns, further along in the Zohar, in connection with the memorial of Pesach.

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"When the Holy One, may His name be blessed, having come down from Egypt to smite the first born, saw the blood of the Passover sacrifice marking the doors (of Israel), and also sees the blood of the pact (of circumcision) and that both are found on the door [...] To drive away the influx of evil spirits he sprinkled it (in those places) using a hyssop branch. In the future, in the hour of Israel’s redemption, sublime and complete, the Holy One, may His name be blessed, shall take unto himself the instinct of evil and shall butcher it, thus removing the spirit of impiety from the earth. [26]

For the Zohar, God, passing by the doors of the children of Israel, dubbed with blood, is not only said to have saved the Jews from the Angel of Death, but He is said to have cured the wounds of their circumcision, collectively performed by the Jews for the first time.

"It is written: 'God smote Israel, he smote it and he cured it' (Is. 19:22), wishing to signify that he smote Egypt and cured the Israelites, i.e., not only that Israel’s salvation only occurred simultaneously with the slaying of the first born (of the Egyptians), but that Israel’s healing occurred at the same time. If one were to wonder what the children of Israel were to recover from, we shall respond that, after being circumcised, they needed to be healed, and were cured through the appearance of the Divine Presence (ghilui schechinah).

While the Egyptians were being smitten, at that exact same moment, the children of Israel were being cured of the wound caused by circumcision. In fact, what does the verse: 'And God passed by the door' (Ez. 12:23) mean? [...] the answer is that He passed by the door of the body. But what is the door of the body? And we shall respond: the door of the body is the place of circumcision. We shall conclude by saying that when the Holy One, may His name be blessed, passed by the door (of the children of Israel), in Egypt, they were cured of the wound of circumcision. [27]

The symbolic meaning of the Passover lamb offered in sacrifice is stressed by the Zohar, which places it in relationship with a significant, corresponding sacrifice performed in the secret and sublime world of the reality of God. When the children of Israel shall have immolated the Passover lamb, only then shall God in his firmament sacrifice the corresponding Lamb of Evil, responsible for the tragedies of Israel on earth and for the repeated exiles afflicting the Jews throughout history.

"Sayeth the Holy One, may His name be blessed, to the children of Israel: carry out this action below (on earth) and go and take the lamb and prepare it for sacrifice on the 14th of this month [of Nissan]; then I on high (in my heaven) shall destroy his power [...] Observing the precept of the sacrifice of the Passover lamb below (on earth), the children of Israel have caused to be reduced to impotence the slag of evil (kelippah) of the lamb on high (in the divine firmament), which is responsible for the four exiles suffered by the children of Israel (in Babylon, in Media, in Greece and in Egypt). Thus it is written: 'I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from generation to generation' (Ex. 17:14), has this significance: You, children of Israel, shall blot out the memory of Amalek below (on earth) through the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, as it is written: 'Thou shalt cancel out the memory of Amalek', and thanks to this your action I shall blot out its memory on high (in my firmament)". [28]

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The sacrifice of the Passover lamb therefore came to assume a cosmic significance in the texts of Jewish mysticism. Its blood, poured on the altar and applied to the door-posts of the houses, are intended to impel God to sacrifice the Lamb of Evil in His world, responsible for the successive troubles and misfortunes marking the history of Israel.

The link between the blood of the circumcision and that of the Passover lamb came to assume additional meanings during the Middle Ages, particularly in the German-speaking territories, and no longer alluded merely to the blood by virtue of which sin is expiated. The latter blood came to be added to the blood shed by Jewish martyrs, who offered their own lives and those of their dear ones "to sanctify the name of God" ('al kiddush ha-Shem), rejecting the waters of baptism.

Thus, the blood of circumcision, that of the Passover lamb, and that of those killed in defense of their own faith became mixed together and became confounded, hastening the final redemption of Israel and persuading God to wreak His atrocious vengeance on the children of Edom, the Christians, responsible for the tragedies suffered by the Jewish people.

The Jews in Germany who, during the first crusade, sacrificed their own children 'as Abraham sacrificed Isaac his son', were perfectly convinced that their own blood, together with that of the two other sacrifices -- circumcision and the Passover lamb -- all offered to God in abnegation, would not be lost, but would constitute the powerful fluid from which the well-deserved and predicted revenge and the much-desired Redemption would ferment. [29]

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Thus, in a distorted logic borne of suffering and distorted by passion, one might even arrive at aberrant analogies which might nevertheless appear justifiable from the point of view of the persons concerned. In the ceremony of the milah, a few drops of blood from the circumcised child, poured into wine, possessed the power to transform the wine into blood; therefore, the wine was drunk by the child, his mother and the mohel himself, with propitiatory, well-auguring and counter-magical meanings. [30]

The blood, intended to be drunk and sprinkled onto the table as a sign of vengeance and as a symbol of the curses directed at the enemies of Israel

By the same logic, during the Passover ceremony of the Seder, a few drops of the child’s blood, the symbol of Edom (Christianity) and of Egypt, dissolved in the wine, had the power to transform the wine into blood, intended to be drunk and sprinkled onto the table as a sign of vengeance and as a symbol of the curses directed at the enemies of Israel as well as a pressing call to Redemption.

Again, in connection with Pesach, vengeance on the children of Edom – Christianity – representing Edom renewed, at Rome, the city of impurity -- was also eagerly sought in the Zohar, even if in deliberately convoluted language:

"It is written 'Who is He who comes from Edom, with the garments tinted red from Bozrah?' (Is. 63:6). The prophet predicts that the Holy One, may His name be blessed, shall wreak vengeance against Edom, and that the minister who represents the reign of Edom on high (in the celestial firmament) shall be the first to die. The prophet is in fact speaking with the language of ordinary people, observing that when they kill someone, blood squirts upon their garments. For this reason, he refers to them as if they asked: 'Who is he who comes from Edom, with his garments tinted with blood; that is, from the armed city (Hebrew: bezurah, a pun, recalling the name Bozrah of the verse of Isaiah, which is he great metropolis of Rome? This is, therefore, the meaning of that which is written: in the future, the Holy One, may His name be blessed, shall reveal his powers of judgment and of blood in all their obviousness to wreak his vengeance on Edom". [31]

The fact that this fragment of the Zohar -- which contains not one explicit reference to the memorial of Passover -- is found in the section dealing with the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, clearly indicates that blood -- linked to the vengeance against Edom, the symbol of arrogant and triumphant Christianity -- was a major element in the updated historical-ritual celebration of the Pesach.

As we have seen, the preserve of fresh and dry fruit (apples, pears, nuts and almonds), kneaded with the wine, intended to represent the building materials used by the people of Israel during their captivity in Israel, and which was to be eaten and drunk during the Passover dinner of the Seder, took the name of charoset and was considered a memorial of the blood. [32]

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In other words, the clay and mortar with which the Jews had built the city on the banks of the Nile were mixed with the blood flowing from their bodies, covered with sores and suffering. It is not, therefore, surprising that the Jews, in their history (yet again, we are speaking of Ashkenazi-origin Jews) have sometimes been accused of murdering Christian children to eat the body and drink the blood in the charoset during a repulsive cannibalistic repast.

In 1329, in the Duchy of Savoy, a Jew, Acelino da Tresselve, and a Christian, Jacques d'Aiguebelle, were accused of abducting Christian boys in numerous cities of the region, such as Geneva, Rumilly and Annecy. Several other Jews in the Duchy were involved in the inquiry, including a certain Jocetus (Yoseph) and Aquineto (Izchak). The inquiry finally forced them to confess, at least partially under torture, to sacrificing five children to knead their heads and viscera into the charoset (indicated in the confessions under the correct term of aharace), which they are then alleged to have been eaten, presumably during the Seder dinner.

According to their statements, this collective ritual constituted a surrogate Easter sacrifice, and was, as such, able to bring closer the hour of Redemption [33].

In relation to these facts, it might be noted that some of the Jews expelled from England in 1290 in the times of Edward I emigrated to Savoy, reinforcing the Jewish community of the Duchy from a demographic, cultural and religious point of view. Jews from Norwich, Bristol and Lincoln were now to be found at Chambéry, Bourg-en-Bresse and Annecy, bringing with them traditions and stereotypes charged with implications [34]. The accusation of preparing the charoset of Pesach with the blood of Christian children was repeated with regards to the Jews of Arles in 1453. [35]

Another child murder, that of Savona, the particulars of which were revealed around 1456 to Alfonso de Espina, confessor to the King of Castille, by one of the participants in the cruel ritual, desiring to obtain pardon and baptism, appears to have revolved around the preparation of the charoset for the celebration of the Pesach [36]. The victim’s blood, gathered in the cup ordinarily used to collect the blood of Jewish infants following circumcision, was said to have been poured into the kneaded dough of a pastry consisting of honey, pears, nuts, hazelnuts and other fresh and dried fruits, which all persons present at the ceremony were alleged to have gulped down hastily with an appetite born of religious zeal. [37]

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The charoset, according to these reports --the reliability of which we would not be inclined to swear upon -- was thus transformed into a kind of sacred human black pudding, capable of wonderfully enriching the list of the foods of the Passover dinner and, at the same time, of bringing to the table the exotic savor of Redemption, soon to come. It is therefore plausible that, whoever placed the charoset in the forefront of the ritual murder accusations was quite aware of the fact that tradition considered it a memorial of blood. In this sense, it constituted an element perfectly well suited to serve as a basis for arguments alleging that the Jews used the blood of children in their Passover rites.

Circumcision, Passover lamb, sacrifice of Isaac, martyrdom for love of God, memorial of the charoset. A true and proper river of blood flowed towards Pesach, both on the table of Seder and in the pages of the Haggadah, the liturgical-convivial celebration of the stories of the exodus from Egypt.

But that was not all. In addition, the first and the most characteristic of the ten plagues smiting the lands of the Pharaoh, guilty of culpably holding the Jews captive against their will, was linked to blood, dam.

Moses and Aronne smote the sacred waters of the beneficial Nile with their staff and, by the will of God, the waters were transformed into venomous serpents (Ex. 7:14-25). These waters, now toxic and no longer potable, gave birth to abandonment, desolation and death.

In popular culture, carried along by a thousand rivulets within the traditions and customs of Jews in the Western word, the troublesome phenomenon of the waters of the rivers and the lakes, basins of water, fountains, and mountain fountains capable of transforming themselves without warning into lethal agents, were an unfortunately recurrent theme.

At least four times a year, with every change in the season (tekufah), for four days, blood was said to be have become mixed with the potable water (i.e., this cannot refer to the waters of the sea, but rather, to rivers, wells and fountains), menacingly jeopardizing the health of men.

The uncertainty and dismay which accompanied the moments and the phases of passage, such as the approach of the seasons, once again evoked the obsessive menace of blood. Blood at birth, blood at circumcision, blood in matrimony, blood at death, blood at each change of the seasons.

Superficial carelessness or inadvertent negligence were fraught with danger. Once again, the classical references to Isaac’s cruel sacrifice (i.e., the sacrifice actually carried out), the transformation of the Nile into blood and Jeptha’s tragic vow, became both customary and mandatory, finding well-considered, welcome acceptance in the texts containing the most ancient traditions of Franco-Germanic medieval Judaism, from the Machazor Vitry to the late 17th century writings of Chaim Chaike Levi Hurwitz, rabbi of Grodno. [38]

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In the Sefer Abudarham, famous liturgical compendium based on the popular traditions of the Sephardic world, both Sephardic, Provençal and Ashkenazim, makes open reference to the dangers threatening man whenever one season replaces another. David Agudarham, rabbi at Seville, who compiled his heavy handbook in 1340, advised, although with some hesitation, against the drinking of water during the days of the change of seasons (tekufah), for fear of its contamination by blood.

"I have found it written that one must be careful during any of the four changes of seasons, so as to avoid harm and danger. In the season of Nissan (spring, the Passover period), the waters of Egypt were actually transformed into wine; in the season of Tamuz (summer), when God commanded Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, so that waters might flow forth from it, and they disobeyed, striking the rock instead [Num. 20:8-12], they were punished, and blood flowed forth from the rock [...]; in the season of Tishri (autumn), because then Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac and from his knife fell drops of blood, which alone were sufficient to transform all waters; and in the season of Tevet (winter), because it was then that the daughter of Jeptha was sacrificed and all the waters became blood [...]. It is for this reason that the Jews, living in the lands of the Occident, completely abstain from drinking water during any change of the seasons". [39]

Even at the end of the 16th century, the Marranos of Bragança, in northern Portugal, on trial before the Inquisition of Coimbra, proved themselves perfectly well aware of the dangers lurking in the night air upon the approach of any change of season. It was then that, according to the ancient traditions of the Judaizers [Christians who believe in circumcision ], rays and veins of blood (rai e veie de sangue) penetrated the waters of wells and fountains at the setting of the sun.

A wonderful and extraordinary phenomenon was observed at this point, because the "waters turned into wine"; and anyone drinking of them would undoubtedly lose his life in the cruelest way. It then became necessary to have recourse to particularly effective and powerful antidotes, identified by tradition in the ceremony of "tempering", which consisted of throwing three glowing-hot coals into the polluted waters; or of "ironing" the same waters by dipping a red-hot horseshoe into them.

Neglecting these precautions was said to cause certain death to anyone drinking those toxic and pestiferous potions. Death was said to fall upon the victim at the first onset of winter, "when his vines lose their last leaf". [40]

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Sabato Nacamulli (Naccamù), a Jew of Ancona who later converted to Christianity under the name of Franceso Maria Ferretti, provided a critical summary of the rites relating to the change of seasons (tekufah), when the waters were capable of dangerously transforming themselves into deadly blood.

"Four times in the year, they pray that God might, at any moment, [at any] points or minutes [of the compass], turn all the waters into blood; they therefore abstained from drinking water at such times, because they firmly believed that if anyone drank the water at that moment, his abdomen would certainly swell, and he would die a few days afterwards; they, therefore, keep bread, a piece of iron, or something else in those waters at such times, and this, in their vanity, they called tecufà". [41]

Perhaps linked to these popular beliefs was the custom among relatives in mourning to pour out, onto the ground, all water contained in recipients kept in the house of a dead person. In German-ritual Jewish communities, they actually believed that the Angel of Death intended to immerse his deadly sword in those waters, transforming them into blood, and thus threatening the lives of the relatives and all persons known by the deceased. [42]

In the German-language territories, rivers, lakes, rivers and torrents possessed an ambiguous and disturbing fascination. Many of the presumed ritual murder victims had emerged from those very same waters, cast forth onto the river banks of Saxony by floods and currents.

The muddy waters of the Severn and the Loire, the Rhine and the Danube, the Main and Lake Constance, with their ebb and flow, revealed that which was intended to remain hidden, becoming the fulcrum of many tales awaiting discovery.

Moreover, even the Christian populations of the regions traversed by these waterways were convinced, from ancient times, as Frazer tells us, that the spirit of the rivers and lakes claimed their victims every year, particularly during precise periods, such as the days around Assumption Day. [43]

People considered it dangerous to bathe in the waters of the Saale, the Sprea and the Neckar, and even Lake Constance, for fear of becoming involuntary sacrifices to the cruel gods of the river. Thus, on St. Johns’ Day, at Cologne, Schaffhausen, Neuburg in Baden, as well as at Fulda and Regensburg in Swabia, as well as in the Swiss valley of Emmenthal, there was wide-spread fear that new victims of the lethal waters of the rivers and lakes would be added to those of previous years, to satisfy the demands of the imperious spirits hovering over the waves. Jews and Christians observed the ebb and flow, fearful and simultaneously bewitched, possessed by an overwhelming fascination. No ritual homicide ever occurred, nor could it occur, at the seaside.


[1] In this regard, see A. di Nola, Antropologia religiosa, Florence, 1971, pp. 91-144; R. Le Deaut, La nuit pascale, Rome, 1963, p. 281.

[2] Midrash Shemot Rabbah 17, 3-5, 19, 5; Ruth Rabbah 6; Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah 1, 35; 5; Midrash Tanchumah 55, 4; Pesiktah de-Rav Kahah 63, 27.

[3] In this regard, see Haggadat ha-midrash ha-mevor. Haggadah shel Pesach by Z. Steinberger, P. Barzel and A.Z. Brillant, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 65-69; N. Rubin, The Beginning of Life. Rites of Death, Circumsciscion and Redemption of the First-Born in the Talmud and Midrash, Tel Aviv, 1995, pp. 102, ss (in Hebrew); I.G. Marcus, Circumcision (Jewish), in J.R. Strayer, Dictionary of the Middle Ages. III: Cabala-Crimea, New York, 1983, pp. 401-412; Sh. J.D. Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism, Berkely (Calif.), 2005, pp. 16-18.

[4] A useful argument, intended to link the meanings of redemption, implemented through the sign of the blood of the Passover lamb on the doors of the house of the Jewish people of Egypt, with the saving meaning of the Cross, may be found in Justine Martyr (Triphone, 111).

[5] Cfr. Sefer Nizzachon Yashan (Nizzahon Vetus). A Book of Jewish-Christian Polemic, by M. Breuer, Ramat Gan, 1978, p. 50 (in Hebrew). For the same argumentation on the links between the blood of circumcision, that of the sacrifice of Isaac and that of the Passover lamb, see also Shelomoh di Worms, Siddur ("Book of Prayers"), Jerusalem, 1972, p. 288.

[6] Cfr. H.E. Adelman, Sacrifices in the History of Israel, http://www.achva.ac.il/maof.2000_9.doc (google), pp. 5-6. See also the chapter dedicated to this argument in the thesis presented by my assistant in the Department of Jewish History at Bar-Ilan University, I. Dreyfus, Blood, Sacrifice and Circumcision among the Jews of the Middle Ages, Ramat Gan, 2005, pp. 11-16.

[7] In this regard, see J. Parkes, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue, London, 1934, pp. 116-117. The paragon between Isaac and Jesus was known, among the Fathers of the Church, by Origin: "and his use of it suggests that he knew it was quoted in the synagogue".

[8] Midrash Mechiltah, Pascha 7, 11: Shemot Rabbah 12, 13, 15, 11.

[9] Cfr. Sh. Spiegel, Me-haggadot ha-'akedah: piyut 'al shechitat Izchak we-te-chiyato' le-R. Efraim mi-Bonn ("Of the Story of Sacrifice of Isaac: A poetical composition on the immolation of Isaac and this resurrection, written by the rabbi Efraim of Bonn"), in M. Marx, Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume, New York, 1950, pp. 493-497 (in Hebrew). It is significant that Yiddish theater traditionally represents the sacrifice of Isaac as a drama of death and resurrection (cfr. M. Klausner, The Sources of Drama, Ramat Gan, 1971, p. 186 ([in Hebrew]).

[10] Tosofot ha-shalaem 22, 14. The term "tossaphists" [rabbinical commentators], the rabbi to whom the establishment of this liturgical custom is attributed, refers to the learned of the Talmudic academies in the Franco-German lands between the 12th and 14th centuries.

[11] On this argument, see in particular, S. Spiegel, The Last Trial, New York, 1967; I.G. Marcus, From Politics to Martyrdom. Shifting Paradigms in the Hebrew Narratives of the 1096 Crusade Riots, in "Prooftext", II (1982), pp. 40-52; I.J. Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb". Perceptions of Jews and Christians, Tel Aviv, 2000, pp. 173-175 (in Hebrew); H. Soloveitchik, Religious Law and Change. The Medieval Ashkenazic Example, in "AJS Review", XII (1987), pp. 205-221; Id., Halakhah, Ermeneutics and Martyrdom in Medieval Ashkenaz, in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", XCIV (2004), pp. 77-108, 278-299.

[12] Midrash Beresit Rabbah 60, 3; Wairah Rabbah 37, 4; Kohelet Rabbah 10, 15; Midrash Tanchumah (Bechukkutai) 7. See also, Josephus, Ant. Jud. 5, 10.

[13] In this regard, see J. Berman's recent study, Medieval Monasticism and the Evolution of Jewish Interpretation to the Story of Jepthah's Daughter in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", XCV (2005), pp. 228-256; E. Baumgarten, "Remember that Glorious Girl". Jepthah's Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture, in "The Jewish Quarterly Review", XCVII (2007).

[14] Cfr. Y.H. Yerushalmi, Zakhor. Storia ebraica e memoria ebraica, Parma, 1983, pp. 57-58.

[15] In this regard, see L.A. Hoffmann, Covenant of Blood. Circumcision and Gender in Rabbinic Judaism, Chicago (Ill.), pp. 95-135.

[16] Midrash Tachumah 57, 6.

[17] Aharon b. Yaakov Ha-Cohen, Orchot Chayim ("The Paths of Life"), Berlin, 1902, vol. I, p. 12; Bechayeh b. Asher, Kad ha-kemach ("The Amphora of Flour"), Venice, Marco Antonio Giustinian, 1546, s.v. milah (circumcision); Id., Beur 'al ha-Torah (Comment on the Penteuch"), Naples, Azriel Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser, 1492, on Genesis 17:24.

[18] Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit ha-rishonim ("On Circumcision"), by Yaakov Glassberg, Berlin-Cracow, 1892, p. 5.

[19] Cfr. M. Klein, 'Et la-ledet. Mihagim we-masorot be- 'edot Israel (" A Time to Give Birth. Traditional Customs and Uses of the Community of Israel"), Tel Aviv, 2001, pp. 157 ss.; A. Gross, Taame' mizwat ha-milah. Zeramim we-hashpa' ot historiot biyme' ha'benaym ("The Motives for the Precept of Circumcision. Historical Currents and Influences in the Middle Ages"), in "Da' at", XXI (1989), pp. 93-96; I.G. Marcus, Tikse' yaldut. Chanichah we-limmud ba-chevrah ha-yehudit biyme' ha-benaym

("The Ceremonies of Girlhood. Initiation and Learning in Jewish Society of the Middle Ages"), Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 20-21, 34; Dreyfus, Sacrifice and Circumcision, cit., pp. 11-16; Cohen, Why Aren't Jewish Women Circumcised, cit., pp. 31-32.

[20] Anon, Sha'are' Zedeq, cit., c. 22v; Aharon b. Yaakov Ha-Cohen, Orchot chayim, cit., pp. 13-14; Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit harishonim, cit., pp. 14-21; Izchak b. Avraham, Sefer ha-eshkol. Hilkot milah, yoledot, chole' we' gherim ("Book of the Precepts of Circumcision, etc"), Halberstadt 1868, p. 131. In this regard, see also H.L. Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice. Human Blood and Jewish Ritual, London, 1909, pp. 136-137.

[21] Jacob Mulin Segal (Maharil), Sefer ha' ha-minhagim. The Book of Customs, by Sh. Spitzer, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 482 ss (in Hebrew); Yuspa Shemesh, Mihage' Warmaisa ("The Customs of Worms"), Jerusalem, 1992, vol. II, p. 71. In this regard, see also J. Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition. A Study on Folk Religion, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1939, pp. 154; 170; Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised ?, cit., pp. 32-40.

[22] In this regard see Hoffman, Covenant of Blood, cit., pp. 96-135.

[23] Yaakov Ha-Gozer, Zichron berit-ha-rishonim, cit., p. 61. See also in this regard S. Goldin, The Ways of Jewish Martyrdom, Lod, 2002 (in Hebrew).

[24] Machazor Vitry, by H. Horovitz, Jerusalem, 1963, p. 626.

[25] Zohar (parashat Bo),c. 35b.

[26] ibidem, c. 41a.

[27] Ibidem., c. 36a.

[28] Ibidem, cc. 39b-40a

[29] In this regard, see Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb ", cit., pp. 109-150; Blood and Sacrifice, cit., pp. 28-30.

[30] On this point, see in particular Hoffman, Covenant of Blood , cit., pp. 96-135.

[31] Zohar (parashat Bo), c. 36a.

[32] On the meaning and origins of the charoset, understood as "memorial of blood", see in particular Yuval, "Two Nations in Your Womb", cit., pp. 258-264.

[33] On the rather extensive bibliography on ritual murders of 1329 in the Duchy of Savoy, linked to the preparation of the charoset, see, among others, Strack, The Jew and Human Sacrifice, cit., pp. 190; J. Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, Philadelphia (Pa.), 1961, pp. 130 ss; M. Rubin, Gentile Tales. The Narrative Assault on Late Medieval Jews, New Haven (Conn.), 1999, p. 108; M. Esposito, Un procès contre les Juifs de la Savoie en 1329, in "Revue Historique", XXXIV (1938), pp. 785-801. According to the text of their confessions, the Jews of Savoy had carried out that rite consuming the human charoset "loco sacrificii" [at the sacrifice location] at Pesach, considering that they were approaching Redemption in so doing ("credunt se esse salvatos").

[34] The arrival in Savoy of the English Jews expelled in 1290 is documented by R. Segre, Testimonianze documentarie degli ebrei negli Stati Sabaudi (1297-1398), in "Michael", IV (1976), pp. 296-297. In the lists of Jews of the Duke, there appears the name of "Manisseo Menasheh) anglico, Crestecio (Ghershon) anglico, Elioto (Elahu) anglico, etc.". See O. Ramírez's recent study, Les Juifs et le crédit en Savoie au XIVe siècle, in R. Bordone, Credit e società: le fonti, le techniche e gli uomini. Secc. XIV-XVI, Asti, 2003, pp. 55-68.

[35] In this regard, see R. Ben Shalom, Un' accusa di sangue ad Arles e la missione francescana ad Avignone nel 1453, in "Zion", XVIII (1998), pp. 397-399 (in Hebrew).

[36] Alphonsus de Spina, Fortalitium fidei, Nuremberg, Anton Koberger,10 October 1485, cc. 190-192.

[37] Ibidem, c. 192: "Copiosissime vivus sanguis Infantis effundebatur in predicto vase (in quo Judaei consueverunt recipere sanguinem Infantium circumcisorum [...] et deinde fructibus diversis, scilicet pomus, piris, nucibus, avelanis et ceteris, que habere potuerunt, in partes minuitissimas dividentes, sanguinem illius Infantis Christiani in predicto vase miscuerunt et de illa confectione horribili omnes illi Judaei comederunt" [Approximately: "The living blood of the child flowed copiously into the vessel (in which the Jews were accustomed to capture the blood of their circumcised children [...] and then they mixed various fruits, like apples, pears, nuts, hazelnuts, etc., whatever they might have had on hand, cut into extremely fine bits, into the vessel containing the blood of the Christian child and then all the Jews ate of that horrible confection"].

[38] On the tradition of the tekefot (literally, "seasons"), rooted among the Jews of the German-speaking lands, above all starting in the years following the First Crusade, see in particular Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition, cit., pp. 275-258; E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children. Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Princeton (N.J.), 2004, p. 238, no. 130; Ead., " Remember that Glorious Girl", cit. (which examines a broad range of Medieval Ahkenazi sources, in large part manuscript, on this topic).

[39] Abudarhamha-shalem, b A.J. Wertheiemer, Jerusalem, 1963, pp. 311-312. On the religious texts of Ashzenazi Judaism, which include the tradition of the tekufot, from the Machazor Vitry to the manuscript of the work Kevod ha-chuppah ("The Honour of the Nuptials") by Chaike Hurwitz, see ibidem, p. 413.

[40] On the testimonies of the Marranos of Bragança relating to the tekufot, recorded in the protocols of the Inquisition of Coimbra, see in detail the pioneering study by my excellent student C.D. Stuczynski, A "Marrano Religion"? The Religious Behaviour of the New Christians of Bragança Convicted by the Coimbra Inquisition in the Sixteenth Century (1541-1605), Ramat Gan, Bar-Ilan University, 2005, pp. 32-35 (cum laude doctoral thesis).

[41] Francesco Maria d'Ancona Ferretti, Le verità della fede christiana svelate alla Sinagoga, Venice, Carlo Pecora, 1741, pp. 342-343.

[42] Cfr. Y. Bergman, Ha-foklor ha-yehudi ("Jewish Folklore"), Jerusalem, 1953, p. 38; Ch. B. Goldberg, Mourning in Halachah. The Laws and Customs of the Year of Mourning , New York, 2000, pp. 56-59 ("It is customary that people pour out all the water that is in the house, where the deceased is dying, because the Angel of Death whets his knife on water, and a drop of the blood of death falls in").

[43] Cfr. Frazer, The Golden Bough, cit., VII, pp. 26-30.


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Revised by the original translators, Feb. 2011

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