Saturday, 5 January 2013

How Jews purloined the bloodbath blood libel

Almost everything in this post I've learnt from the following three papers listed below. This is only a brief overview of the Pharaoh's Bloodbath, and I recommend reading the three cited papers for a fuller view.
Infanticide in Passover Iconography (1993) by David J. Malkiel. here
Pharaoh's Bloodbath
(2009) by Ephraim Shoham-Steiner. here

Sacrifice and Redemption in the Hamburg Miscellany
(2012) by Zsofia Buda. pdf thru here

This is a depiction of the Roman Emperor Constantine sick with leprosy, with Saint Peter and Saint Paul who, according to legend, appeared
before Constantine in a dream. It is part of a fresco dated to 1246, in the Chapel of Saint Sylvester in Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome. Photo source.

The Legenda Sancti Silvestri (or Actus Silvestri) which dates between 480—490, is a romanticised (false) account of Constantine's conversion to Christianity. The Legenda claims that Constantine had been advised by pagan priests in Rome that the only cure for his leprosy would be to bathe in the blood of slaughtered children, but St. Peter and St. Paul appeared to Constantine in a dream and appealed to him to substitute children's blood for the water of baptism. The Legenda claims Constantine submitted to the Saints' request, and was soon baptised by Pope Sylvester c.312. In reality, Constantine was baptised on his death-bed in 337 by Bishop Eusebius.

An awfully similar legend to Constantine and his prescribed bloodbath, later appeared in Jewish rabbinism, which, initially at least, also had a similar happy ending: the bath of children's blood was avoided. But in later Jewish tradition, the happy ending was dropped and the bloodbath became a "historical" event.

Exodus 2:23, The King James Bible (1611)

"For the rabbis, the Bible is simply an immense metaphor." 
Talmud: A film by Pierre-Henry Salfati

Rabbinical Jews do not interpret Exodus 2:23-25 literally, although it states "the king of Egypt died", they once believed that it meant 'the king of Egypt caught leprosy and was advised by his physicians/necromancers to bathe daily in the blood of 300 Jewish babies but God quickly cured him following pleas from the Hebrews, meaning he never had to bathe in the blood of Jewish children.' But as I've learnt, this story was pilfered from the legend of Constantine's conversion, and during the Middle Ages it was amended by Ashkenazi Jews into a vastly more horrific version in which the Pharaoh actually did bathe daily in the blood of Jewish babies. It is this later, more gory version, that is propagated by Hasidic Jews to this day.

The story of the Pharaoh's bloodbath originates in the Shemot Raba (sometimes Rabbah), a Midrash, a Rabbinical commentary of the Book of Exodus, which The Jewish Encyclopedia (Vol 8, 1904, p.562) suggests dates from the 11th or 12th century, although it also concedes parts of it might be considerably older: c.7th century. The Shemot Raba states of Exodus 2:23-25:
"The king of Egypt died—he contracted leprosy, and a leper is considered dead ... And the Children of Yisrael moaned—why did they moan? Because the necromancers of Egypt told Pharaoh that he had no cure other than to slaughter the infants of the Children of Yisrael, 150 by evening and 150 by morning, and to bathe in their blood twice a day. And God remembered His covenant—our Rabbis teach that a miracle occurred for them, and he was cured of his leprosy." (Shemos Rabbah 1:35).

As you can see, in the Shemot Rabbah the bloodbath was avoided, as God cured the Pharaoh. That was to change.

The immensely influential French Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak, known as Rashi (1040—1105), whose commentary on the Talmud has been included in every single edition of the Talmud for the last several hundreds years, wrote of Exodus 2:23 in his commentary of the Tanakh (Jewish Bible):
"The king of Egypt died—he became a leper [who is deemed as one dead], and he used to slaughter Israelite children and bathe in their blood [as a cure for his disease]."

The Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, an Aramaic and paraphrased translation of the Bible, which might originate from the seventh or eighth century, possibly earlier, possibly later: 12th century. The original no longer exists and the only existing copy is from the 16th century. It states in Exodus 2:23:
"After a long time the King of Egypt was afflicted with leprosy, and he ordered the first-born of the Israelites to be killed so that he might bathe in their blood."

The Midrash ha-Gadol (13th century, Yemen) states:
"Pharaoh had three advisers. When he contracted leprosy, he asked the physicians what would heal him. Balaam advised him to slaughter the Jews and bathe in their blood in order to be healed. Job was silent, implying agreement. Jethro heard and fled. He that advised was killed, he that was silent was tormented, and he that fled merited the addition of a letter to his name: it had be Jether  [Exodus 4.18], and became Jethro."

Sefer ha-Yashar (c.13th century) states:
"When God struck Pharaoh with disease, he asked his scholars and magicians to heal him. They said that he would be cured if he put the blood of little children on the diseased area. Pharaoh accepted this advice, and sent his attendants to Goshen, to the Israelites, to take their little children. The attendants went off, and took the Isrelites' children from their mothers' bosoms by force. They brought them to Pharaoh each day, one at a time, and the physicians slaughtered them and applied the blood to the diseased area. They did this every day, until the number of children slaughtered by Pharaoh reached 375. God did not heed the Egyptian king's physicians, and the disease grew stronger. Pharaoh suffered this illness ten years."

I will just mention that many people have insisted over the centuries that kings of Egypt did bathe in human blood in an attempt to cure leprosy, and cite as a source the Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder (23AD - 79AD). Here's precisely what he wrote:
"Aegypti peculiare hoc malum et, cum in reges incidisset, populis funebre, quippe in balineis solia temporabantur humano sanguine ad medicinam eam. et hic quidem morbus celeriter in Italia restinctus est, sicut et ille, quem gemursam appellavere prisci inter digitos pedum nascentem, etiam nomine oblitterato."
Natural History, Volume 26, Chapter 5, Verse 8
"This disease was originally peculiar to Egypt. Whenever it attacked the kings of that country, it was attended with peculiarly fatal effects to the people, it being the practice to temper their sitting-baths with human blood, for the treatment of the disease." (trans. by J. Bostock)

In his 2009 paper Pharaoh's Bloodbath Medieval European Jewish Thoughts about Leprosy Disease and Blood Therapymore, Dr. Ephraim Shoham-Steiner of Ben Gurion University of the Nege argues that Jews in the Late Antiquity period hijacked the leprous Constantine bloodbath and redemption story from the Legenda Sancti Silvestri, and remodelled it in the Shemot Raba around the Pharaoh, and the renewed concern the God showed for the Hebrews in Exodus 2:23-25 (which would lead to their deliverance from Egypt). But, Shoham-Steiner adds: 
"by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Jewish midrashic story supplied by Shemot Raba no longer served its purpose. Jewish-Christian relations had undergone a change for the worse. In the aftermath of the 1096 riots and the acts of infanticide and martyrdom, miraculous deliverance no longer satisfied Ashkenazi Jews. They wanted revenge for the martyred Jews of the crusades and other anti-Jewish riots and libels.
The eschatological ideology of an avenging God that would come and "settle the score" with Gentiles was by that time not an abstract notion related to eschaton but a pressing issue. In the minds of many Jews of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the blood of innocent Jews functioned as a tool to invoke divine wrath in the final judgment and the subsequent violent retribution towards the Gentiles who spilled innocent Jewish blood. According to this view, Pharaoh could not have been healed, innocent Jewish blood had to be and was spilt, and this blood was an important component in the process of deliverance; it was to be present before the Lord on the day of final judgment.
(emphasis in original)

Modern Haggadah based on the earliest known illustrated Ashkenazi Haggadah

The Haggadah is a brief overview of the Exodus story, that Jews are supposed to read at their Passover dinners each and every year. In the 14th century, Illuminated Haggadah appeared, which are essentially illustrated Haggadah. The earliest known Ashkenazi Illuminated Haggadah, is the so-called Bird's Head Haggadah (c.1300), where the illustrated figures of Jews have bird's faces, and the non-Jews (Pharaoh, Egyptians, angels, etc.) are depicted with no faces at all. The reason for this was to circumvent the rabbinical ban on Jewish image making, reminiscent of the prohibition originating from the Hadith of Sunni Islam, which forbids all images of not just Mohammad, but all humans, animals, and angels etc.

Shoham-Steiner details how the amending of the hijacked bloodbath legend, from its original happy-ending: no bloodbaths, to a version where the malevolent Pharaoh regularly bathed in the blood of Jewish youths, is evident in the Illustrated Haggadah of the 14th and 15th century.

Illustrations on "folio 15V" (full page here) from the Bird's Head Haggadah

Shoham-Steiner describes how the image on the right "the binding of Isaac" on the Bird's Head Haggadah (c.1300), was replaced on later 15th century Haggadahs with images of the Pharaoh sitting in a bloodbath, and of Egyptians slaughtering infants for his bath. Shoham-Steniner suggests that Ashkenazi Jews were "too intimidated to present an image or a scene that might have implicated them as those who slaughter rather than those who are slain." He writes:
"The difference is significant, for aside from its polemical meaning, the Binding of Isaac signifies, probably more than any other scene from Genesis or the entire Hebrew Bible, the concept of the merit of the Patriarchs. It represents the ultimate sacrifice on the part of the two Patriarchs involved. In late antiquity, as well as in the Middle Ages, Jews saw the Binding of Isaac as the constituent core of the Patriarchs' merit, the act that resonates far beyond the Patriarchs to their immediate kin—the Children of Israel—enabling Jews to make the most of this extreme gesture of ultimate faith in God. Interestingly, this is the exact theme that Ashkenazi Jews had altered when they deviated from the Shemot Raba tradition. In their minds, the blood of innocent children designed to heal Pharaoh's leprosy was spilt and that blood symbolically harbored the redemptive qualities they saw in their own blood spilt during riots and libels."
Shoham-Steiner cites "the Nuremberg Haggadah" as an example of how the Binding of Isaac was replaced by the Pharaoh's Bloodbath. There is the First Nuremberg Haggadah (c.1449) and the Second Nuremberg Haggadah (1450-1500), the First is not available online, but the Second is viewable through this link (you'll need DjVu), and a full description and translation is viewable on this pdf from the National Library of Israel. Below are images from page 14 of the Second Nuremberg Haggadah, and the captions are quoted from the aforementioned description available from the National Library of Israel.

"In the outer margin, crowned Pharaoh is sitting naked in a bathtub, possibly full with blood."
"Inscribed above Pharaoh:
עוד להרע." נצטרע/ ויוס מצרי "מל
(The king of Egypt became leprous, and he became even more evil)"

"Below, an Egyptian is carrying the corpses of children (badly damaged)"
"Above the Egyptian is inscribed:
האיברי בדמ " / ולרחו לשחוט את הזכרי "ציוה המל
(The king ordered the males to be slaughtered, and his limbs to be washed in their blood)"

Below are other images of the Pharaoh's bloodbath mostly from Haggadahs
created between 1427 and 1690, but also one from a Hebrew prayer book: 

This images and the one immediately above it, are from the same page  (folio 13) of the Yahuda Haggadah (c.1450). The top image depicts the Pharaoh sitting in his bloodbath, the other shows a man swinging a cleaver at a infant, whilst another man has two infants impaled on a spear slung over his shoulder, and an infant grasped in left hand. A corpse of an infant lays on the floor between the two men.

Hamburg Miscellany, folio 27

Hamburg Miscellany, folio 28
The two images immediately above are from a Haggadah found in the so-called Hamburg Miscellany a collection of Hebrew documents (c. 1427"). Once again the Pharaoh is depicted in his bloodbath, and beneath, two of lackeys are shown with three Jewish children and a bucket to collect their blood to fill the Pharaoh's bath.

This image of the Pharaoh in his bloodbath
appears in the Rizin prayer book (15th century)

Mantua Haggadah, 1560

Second Prague Haggadah, c.1580

Venice Haggadah, 1609

The four images above are reproduced from Ariel Toaff's Blood Passover


  1. Excellent research.

  2. Great work. Congratulations.

  3. This is fascinating. I've never heard of any of this, great stuff. Thank you!


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