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Censorship before 1800

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Censorship will be understood here to mean attempts by a religious authority to prevent the publication and/or circulation of written material. Thus, for example, the standard code of Jewish law, Shulḥan ‘arukh (Yoreh de‘ah 246:4), bans heretical literature. This has been understood to mean that such literature should not be read, published, or distributed.

In the medieval period, the writings of Maimonides, precisely because they were viewed as heretical or as possibly leading to heresy, provoked much controversy in Western Europe, leading to bans and counterbans. In 1232, apparently at the instigation of Jewish opponents, his writings were burned by the newly established Christian Inquisition. Debates over the propriety of studying philosophy persisted in later centuries in Eastern Europe, but did not lead to interference with publication. Indeed, in 1598, nearly 50 years before John Milton’s Areopagitica,Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal), in the conclusion of his Be’er ha-golah, published a remarkable declaration in favor of freedom of the press:

It is wrong to disqualify any matter that is opposed to one’s view. . . . Even if such words run counter to the belief and religion of the one who is in power, it is wrong for him to say . . . ‘Do not speak. . . . ’ The following . . . ought to be declared: ‘Say whatever you wish. . . . ’ It is supposed that the prohibition to criticize religion strengthens it . . . but this is not so . . . the interpretation of religion, especially in writing, is open to all. . . . Indeed, it is most unnatural to suppress the publication of books in order to prevent the expression of [contrary] ideas.

Still, several chapters earlier in the same book, Maharal calls for the banning of a work he considered heretical: ‘Azaryah dei Rossi’s Me’or ‘enayim.

The Shulḥan ‘arukh also forbids reading books of worldly talk, war stories, and lustful discourse (specifically the poetry of Imanu’el ha-Romi) on the Sabbath “and even on weekdays.” Mosheh Isserles, representing Ashkenazic and East European practice, limits the prohibition of books in the first category (worldly talk) to books not written in Hebrew (Oraḥ ḥayim 307:16).

Sometimes, however, provocative or controversial writings were suppressed or hidden even though they were not initially suspected of heresy or considered unfit for Sabbath reading. Thus, for example, a ruling by Isserles on the subject of wine handled by gentiles was printed in the first edition of his responsa but was omitted from all subsequent early modern editions, and two responsa by Binyamin Slonik discussing Christians did not appear in the second edition of his book.

In the last decade of the sixteenth century, the Polish Council of Four Lands called for the appointment of censors (anashim medakdekim she-yivdeku) to inspect prayer books published in Basel and Moravia that were suspected of including heretical passages. At issue may have been the inclusion of kabbalistic materials in some prayer books, a factor that provoked the opposition of rabbinic authorities. The proliferation of popular publications expressing kabbalistic ideas and advocating practices in that spirit may also have been responsible for an edict of the Council of Four Lands, issued around 1630, forbidding communal authorities to expend public funds on the purchase of books. In the summer of 1687, the records of the Council indicate that “in these times we have a strict edict prohibiting the publication of any [new] book.” Exceptions were made, but the edict may well have arisen in reaction to the circulation of materials originating among the followers of Shabetai Tsevi. An approbation written by an elder of the Council in 1690 indicates that the restriction on new publications may by that time have been limited to sifre derush—homiletical or exegetical works. By 1726, there is a reference to an enactment of the same Council, insisting that no one could publish a book without its permission.

The enormous battle that arose when Ya‘akov Emden accused Yonatan Eybeschütz of being a Sabbatian led to the Council’s overseeing the burning of two of Emden’s books in the fall of 1753. The Council’s actions were echoed in Nikolsburg (Moravia), and bans were placed on Emden’s books in numerous communities, including Pressburg, Prossnitz, and Kraków. In 1756, the Council, in the context of excommunicating Sabbatians, forbade the study of their books, specifying those by the Sabbatian prophet Natan of Gaza along with the anonymous Sabbatian treatise Va-Avo’ ha-yom el ha-‘ayin. It also prohibited anyone under the age of 30 from studying the Zohar. In the same period, the debate, under church auspices, between the “anti-Talmudist” Sabbatian followers of Jakub Frank and the rabbis led to the burning of the Talmud in Lwów.

In the context of controversies over the popularization of Kabbalah, Sabbatianism, Hasidism, and the Haskalah, there were numerous attempts to suppress or prevent the circulation of writings deemed offensive or dangerous by one or another side. Hasidim systematically bought up and destroyed copies of the pamphlet “Zemir ‘aritsim,” published in 1772, which included the texts of the first bans against the Hasidic movement and a number of other anti-Hasidic writings. Hasidim also burned subsequent writings that expressed scorn for the movement. Hasidic books were, for their part, put to the fire by their opponents—notably Toledot Ya‘akov Yosef, the first published Hasidic work, in Brody in 1781. There is a report that Hasidic writings (presumably manuscripts) had been burned beside the kuna (a sort of communal stocks or pillory) in Vilna in 1772.

The writings of maskilim were treated similarly in a number of communities, including Żółkiew and Vilna, where Divre shalom ve-emet (1782) by Naftali Herts Wessely was placed in the kuna before being burned in that city. Vilna was also the scene of the burning in 1824 of the fiercely satirical anti-Hasidic Sefer ha-kundes, by Avraham Yitsḥak Landau. Although incidents of this kind continued to occur, for the most part these struggles were carried out in print, in pamphlets, polemics, and other tracts.

Efforts by the church to claim and maintain jurisdiction over the printed word affected Jews, particularly in Italian territories. Some communities, especially in Italy, maintained a sort of precensorship of their own in order to forestall difficulties with the censors, such as house searches for possible heretical material. This procedure, which may be the origin of the custom of adding approbations to books, was followed in Prague but was not always successful. House searches were conducted there, for example, in 1693, 1715, and 1731, leading to the burning of books. Sometimes the front matter of a rabbinic work would include a statement to the effect that references and terms in the book referring to gentiles did not apply to contemporary Christians, who, it was asserted, were not idolatrous. In Poland, although the publication of the Talmud in Lublin in the first decades of the seventeenth century apparently evoked some complaints from local bishops, there was no substantial interference by the Catholic clergy with Hebrew and Yiddish publishing.

Suggested Reading

Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger, Censorship and Freedom of Expression in Jewish History (New York, 1977); Israel Halpern, Yehudim ve-yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eropah (Jerusalem, 1968), pp. 78–107; Ludmila Kubatova, “K cenzuře hebrejskych a židovských knih, tisků a rukopisův Čechách od poloviny 16.stuletí,” Narodni knihovna 14 (2003): 12–20; Krzysztof Pilarczyk, Talmud i jego drukarze w pierwszej Rzeczpospolitej (Kraków, 1998), pp. 146–161; William Popper, The Censorship of Hebrew Books (1899; rpt., New York, 1969).