Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

The Story of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library

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Much has been written Recently about the Jewish claim to some precious, ancient Hebrew manuscripts lying in the Vatican Library. These Jewish treasures came to the attention of American Jews when in 1987 a selection of 57 of them were exhibited in various American cities, arranged as a fund-raiser by the Reform congregations of the United States.

This exhibit, which began in Miami, was introduced by publicity handouts that glorified the "cultural cross-fertilization" of Christians and Jews during the Middle Ages to which these precious manuscripts allegedly testified. This line was immediately attacked by those who knew the tragic background of the manuscripts as a falsification of history. The Church had for 600 years carried out a ferocious spiritual genocide against Judaism by seizing and burning hundreds of thousands of Hebrew books in order to thwart the continuation of Jewish education. Only a handful -- some 800 by the latest count -- still survive in the Vatican besides some hundreds of charred fragments salvaged from the pyres of the book burnings.

A group of concerned Jews, knowledgeable in Jewish history, formed the Committee for the Recovery of Jewish Manuscripts and placed ads wherever the Vatican exhibition went asking the Pope to return to the rightful owners -- the Jewish people -- these surviving Jewish treasures in the spirit of the "Nostra Actate" of Pope John XXIII. The Committee requested that these manuscripts be housed in the National Library in Jerusalem, the center of research on Hebrew literature.

The Vatican totally stonewalled the request. But after two years, the Vatican sent its Librarian Emeritus, Cardinal Stickler -- an Austrian and good friend of Kurt Waldheim -- to lecture at Harvard, the last stop of the exhibit. He made the astounding claim that the Vatican got these Hebrew works, not by seizing them from Jews, but as gifts from Italian noblemen and that the "Renaissance" Popes of the 16th century were lovers of Hebrew books.

I, as chairman of the Committee, to show the falsehood of the claims, presented him with a copy of the Bull of Pope Clement VIII dated 1592 -- in the midst of the Renaissance period - which in the most ferocious anti-Semitic language condemned the Talmud and other Hebrew writings as "obscene," "blasphemous" and "abominable" -- all to be ordered seized and burned. The good Pope also forbade non-Jews to own, give as gifts or print Hebrew books on pain of torture and excommunication. The embarrassed cardinal had no answer and stalked out of the meeting room.

The campaign of this Committee has had the support of such American personalities as Seymour Reich, Elie Weisel, Rabbi Emanual Rackman and others. Since the time of the manuscript exhibition in America, the Committee has further researched the origin of the Vatican manuscripts. The Israel Government, through its Institute of Manuscripts, published a report written by two prominent Professors, Aloni and Loewenberg, showing that the largest part of the 800 works originated in a part of Germany where they were seized after a pogrom. One of the Catholic rulers in Germany presented them to the Vatican.

This finding is consistent with the sordid story of the persecution of Jews by the Vatican throughout history.

We found that the burnings of Hebrew books were initiated by Pope Gregory IX. He persuaded French King Louis IX to burn some 12,000 copies of the Talmud in Paris in 1243. He was followed by Pope after Pope. The most ferocious hates of Judaism and Jewish books were Innocent IV (1243-1254), Clement IV (1256-1268), John XXII (1316-1334), Paul IV (1555-1559), Plus V (1566-1572) and Clement VIII (1592-1605). They almost succeeded in stamping out Jewish books entirely. Yet Jews continued to pen holy books, and once the printing press was invented, the Church found it impossible to destroy entire printed editions of the Talmud and other sacred books. Gutenberg, the German who invented the printing press around 1450, is certainly one of our great heroes, since he helped us to be victorious over our Catholic enemies, who had hoped to blot out Judaism.

We also found that a part of the seized Hebrew books were not burned but turned over to a special building in Rome reserved for renegade Jews, who were ordered to search for passages in the Talmud that the Church could use to combat Judaism in the disputations that took place from time to time between rabbis and Jewish converts.

When the first attempts were made to negotiate an agreement between the Vatican and the State of Israel, I proposed that the question of the return of the Hebrew manuscripts to the Jewish people be put on the agenda. To my pleasant surprise this proposal was met with great approval by Shimon Peres, then foreign minister of education, and Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin. Their letters of approval make interesting exhibits in our file.

I cannot disclose the status of the negotiations but can report that action is being taken in Rome. When the Pope recently visited New York the question of the manuscripts was supposed to be taken up with him when he met with American Jewish leaders, but the meeting did not allow any substantive discussions. Chief Rabbi Lau of Israel on a visit to the Vatican did take up the question at my suggestion. Sooner or later we will surely have positive results, because if the Church is really intent on atoning for the past sins against the Jewish people, the return of the surviving manuscripts is one of the few concrete gestures the Vatican is capable of making.

A symbolic beginning of the process would be for the Vatican to annul the ferocious Bull of Pope Clement VIII which is until this day on the books. The ban against the Talmud and other religious Hebrew writings must be lifted, just as the Vatican recently lifted the ban on the writings of the astronomer Galileo! Are we not entitled to the same atonement as the memory of a scientist who died 300 years ago? Time will show if the Church is really serious About atoning for its sins against the Jews.

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