The Fateful Mission
Jerusalem / New York
Another Feldheim book by Meir Baram;
First published in English 1987
First published in Hebrew by Tvuno (HasMichui Hagvralii) 1983.
English version copyright © 1987 by
Meir Baram and Feldheim Publishers
All rights reserved
This novel is based on the historical events sur-
rounding the life of Rabbi Eliezer of Touques, editor of the
Tosaphot, in thirteenth-century France. The medieval vil-
lage of Touques (or, as it is often spelled, Tuch) no longer
exists; but the nearby village of Toucy, which serves as the
setting for our book, was a place very much like Touques
where Rabbi Eliezer lived and worked.
The story of Reuven's mission is fiction; all of the
historical background the Crusades, the trial and burn-
ing of the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer and the editing of the
Tosaphot is factual.
It was the time of the early Middle Ages. The Crusad-
ers were sweeping across Europe on their way to conquer
the Holy Land, wreaking havoc and destruction on the
Jewish communities along their way. Despite their suffer-
ing, the Jews clung faithfully to the Torah, but the hard-
ships of the exile affected the communities and disrupted
their schools. The level of Jewish learning declined to the
point where most men could no longer understand the
Aramaic and Hebrew text of the Gemara. The holy Torah
was becoming a closed book.
At the time of the first crusade, Rabbi Shlomo Yitz-
chaki of Troyes better known as Rashi gave us an
invaluable key for understanding the Talmud. He wrote a
clear, concise commentary in the form of small pamphlets
which were collected, copied and circulated by his daugh-
ters. Their sons Rabbenu Tarn, Rashbam, and Rivam
later wrote discourses called Tosaphot (literally "addi-
tions") on questions arising from their grandfather's com-
mentary. Before long, much of Jewry was studying Rashi
and Tosaphot. For two hundred years, the Tosaphist
method of learning was used, and it laid the foundation for
all subsequent learning.
The era of Rashi and the Baalei Tosaphot spanned
the dark centuries of the Crusades. Indeed, the Talmud
and the commentaries of these brilliant sages helped the
Jews cling ever more determinedly to the Torah, despite
the immense suffering caused by the Crusaders.
Then, in 1240 (5001), the Talmud itself came under
attack. It was put on trial in France in a public disputation,
before Queen Blanche and the child-prince Louis IX. The
Jewish apostate Nicholas Donin tried to prove that the
Talmud ridiculed the Christian faith. Four rabbis defended
the Talmud, among them the Tosaphists Rabbi Yechiel of
Paris and Rabbi Moshe of Coucy. Donin was no match for
the great sages. The royal family gave its verdict: The
Talmud was innocent. Yet despite this legal victory, Rabbi
Yechiel continued to worry, for the court's verdict had to
be sent to the pope for approval, and so the verdict was
not yet secure.
It should be remembered that printing had not yet
been invented. Manuscripts were expensive and rare.
Each volume of Gemara had to be laboriously copied by
hand, and if the precious manuscripts were confiscated or
destroyed, it was almost impossible to replace them. So
Rabbi Yechiel instructed his disciples to memorize huge
tracts of the Talmud as a precaution against any unfore-
As it turned out, Rabbi Yechiel's fears were justified.
The new pope, Innocent IV, ruled that each tractate of
Talmud would have to stand trial individually, and that
while the trials were in progress, the holy books were to be
confiscated. Only because of Rabbi Yechiel's precaution-
ary policy of memorization could Torah study continue in
Slowly, the sages succeeded in convincing the Chris-
tian judges that the sacred volumes contained no libel and
the books were gradually returned. But still, Rabbi Yechiel
was not at peace.
"Satan continues to accuse," he declared. "He has
drawn his sword against our Torah and has not yet
returned it to its sheath."
That year, Louis IX reached adulthood and assumed
the throne. Rabbi Yechiel was reminded of the verse, "A
new king arose over Egypt..." and of the sages' explana-
tion, "A king who made new decrees."
And this time, too, Rabbi Yechiel was right.
ONE summer day in Paris, the windows of
Rabbi Yechiel's yeshiva were opened wide,
allowing the sing-song of Torah study to spill
out into the sleepy street.
Inside, under the wooden rafters, stood Reuven of
Toucy, one of Rabbi Yechiel's leading disciples. With clar-
ity and enthusiasm, Reuven was explaining an intricate
section of the Gemara to a receptive group of young
students clustered around him. They were trying their
best to understand the material before Rabbi Yechiel
began his shiur. So engrossed were they that no one heard
the drum beats, which grew louder and louder. Only when
the drummer stood in the very doorway of the yeshiva did
the sound of study stop. A tense silence filled the room as a
tall, authoritative figure, draped in a purple cloak with
silver stripes, entered behind the drummer. A triangular
hat graced his head, and a long, gold-tipped cane was in his
hand. It was the king's crier.
All eyes followed him as he strode importantly to the
podium. He raised his cane, and the gold tip sent beams
of light throughout the room. With a flourish, he drew a
scroll from his cloak, unrolled it, and read in a loud,
"We, Louis IX, king of France by the grace of God,
and lord of Navarre, Provence, Burgundy, Gascony, and
Catalonia, in compliance with the wishes of our holy father
the pope, hereby order the confiscation of all volumes of
the Talmud and its commentaries throughout our entire
kingdom, so that they may be burned at the stake."
The youths were stunned. They looked at one
another questioningly, hoping for some words of explana-
tion or comfort. Only then did they notice the soldiers who
had quietly entered the yeshiva and posted themselves
along the wall, where they stood like statues, waiting for
the crier to signal that he was finished by lowering his staff.
Now the soldiers spread out through the room, grab-
bing the holy books from the lecterns and throwing them
toward the entrance. Then they turned towards the book-
shelves lining the walls.
The more daring of the youths sprang into action.
Some shielded their cherished books with their bodies,
while others desperately attacked the soldiers, trying to
snatch the books back. The soldiers, who had been wait-
ing for such an opportunity, drew their swords. But with a
mighty roar of anger, the rest of the students advanced
fiercely, forcing the soldiers to retreat in panic towards the
From the podium, the face of the king's crier whit-
ened as he watched the scene before him. He had no
doubt that after the frenzied youths ousted the soldiers,
they would vent their fury on him and on the royal edict in
His fears were realized. A tall youth pressed through
the crowd straight for the podium! Fire burned in his
eyes, and his lips were clenched. His peyot flew wildly
behind him; his sleeves were ripped. Breathing heavily, he
climbed the steps to the podium, and the frightened crier
stepped back in terror.
But the youth ignored him completely. He banged
the lectern again and again, until surprised faces turned in
his direction. "Stop fighting! Stop immediately!" he
For a moment his fellow students stopped in sur-
prise, and the soldiers took advantage of the opportunity
to regroup. Then someone from the crowd called out:
"Have you gone mad, Reuven? Shall we let our precious
books be plundered?"
"Shall we let them burn our holy Torah?" cried
"My brothers, stop and think!" Reuven persisted.
"You are rebelling against the king! We shall all be killed,
and our books will be burned nevertheless!"
"We shall die to sanctify God's name!" broke in
another, but his friends hushed him.
"And all the Jews of the kingdom will be expelled,"
continued Reuven. "Our saintly teacher, our parents, the
aged, children, even babies. Who will take such a heavy
responsibility on his shoulders?"
The soldiers watched in surprise as the youths
bowed their heads in silent agreement and began to back
away. Then the soldiers returned to their task of rounding
up the books. Next Reuven turned to the crier and
pleaded with him not to report the incident to the king.
The crier pulled himself together, stood very
straight, and tried to salvage what remained of his pride.
"How dare you make such a request!" he thundered.
"Why, you are guilty of rebellion against His Majesty. You
will all be sentenced to death, and the yeshiva will be
closed. The absurdity of putting your lives in jeopardy over
a bunch of old books!"
"No, you don't understand," whispered Reuven,
pained. "It was a natural outburst over the desecration of
that which is most holy and precious to us. Our Torah is
the essence of our life. If a royal decree would order your
mother to be burnt at the stake, wouldn't you react
The crier stroked his thick moustache and shrugged
his shoulders in wonder. "You Jews are strange people,"
he said. And he strode proudly out of the yeshiva.
FOLLOWING the soldiers' departure, the yeshiva
was strangely silent. The stunned youths walked
aimlessly about, as if in mourning. With numbed
senses they stared uncomprehendingly at the
I empty bookshelves.
Soon Jews from the surrounding neighborhood
began to stream in. They reported that soldiers had
entered all the Jewish homes in Paris and confiscated all
the holy books they found. Even Rabbi YechiePs wonder-
ful library had not been spared. Many rare manuscripts,
including the teachings of the geonim of Babylonia and the
great sages of Germany, France, and Spain, had been
ruthlessly carted off to be burned.
It was a crushing blow. No one who saw the mourn-
ful students would have believed that only a short time ago
they had been eagerly preparing for a shiur. In their shock
and grief, all was now forgotten. But one person did
A ripple of excitement passed through the yeshiva.
The youths stopped their aimless walking and stood
respectfully in their places.
In the doorway stood Rabbi Yechiel, wrapped as
usual in tallit and tefillin. He stood tall and straight, but his
face was pale, his cheeks hollow, and his eyes red. Still, he
For a long moment he surveyed the hall, taking in the
shocked and confused youths, the overturned lecterns,
the empty bookshelves. Then his gaze fell upon the aron
kodesh. Even there the soldiers had searched for hidden
books. The parochet was off, as on the Ninth of Av, and
the doors of the ark were still open, exposing the Torah
scrolls which had miraculously been spared. No one had
the presence of mind to close the aron.
Rabbi Yechiel continued to stand in the doorway
while his disciples watched him with growing anticipation.
He made his way slowly to the aron kodesh, while all eyes
The sage ascended the three wooden steps to the
podium and approached the open ark. He embraced the
Torah scroll closest to him and buried his face in its velvet
mantle. Was he pleading with God to nullify the evil
decree? Was he invoking Divine mercy for the Jewish
people? Or was he perhaps demanding an end to the
torments of exile?
The answer was not long in coming. Rabbi Yechiel's
shoulders shook. He was weeping! Within seconds, the
entire assembly broke out in unrestrained cries. When the
general outburst subsided, the sage kissed the Torah
scrolls, closed the doors of the ark, and returned the
parochet to its place. Then he turned to face his audience.
"My sons," he began in a whisper, "my dear sons...
a thousand years ago, a similar decree was issued. The
Roman government forbade the Jews to learn Torah. In
Tractate Avoda Zara, the Gemara tells us that Rabbi
Chanina ben Tradyon was found learning Torah and
teaching it to a large group while carrying a Torah scroll in
his bosom. As punishment, the Romans wrapped him in
the scroll and tied him with ropes of tendrils which they set
on fire. Then they placed wads of wool soaked in water on
his heart to prolong his agony.
"'Father,' cried his daughter, 'is this the reward for
'"If I alone were being burned,' he answered, 'yours
would be a difficult question. But since I am being burned
together with the Torah, He Who avenges the Torah will
also avenge me.'
"Then his disciples said to him, 'Rabbi, what do you
see?' and he replied, 'The parchment is burning, but the
letters are floating in the air/
"Two questions were asked of Rabbi Chanina. One
was asked by his daughter... who was concerned about
her father. The second question was that of the disciples,
who were concerned about the fate of the Torah.
"For the two questions, there are two answers.
"Our exile in France is dark and bitter. We have felt
the blind fury of the Crusaders, and we live in constant
fear. Persecution, heavy taxes, even expulsion, are our lot.
Yet despite all this, the Torah continues to shine forth from
hundreds of holy kehittot and dozens of yeshivot, for our
people aspire to eternal life. And even if we ask from the
depths of our broken hearts 'Is this the reward for Torah
study?' we know that our suffering comes as a result of our
"But since now it has also been decreed that our
Torah be burned, we may take some comfort in Rabbi
Chanina's reply to his daughter: He Who avenges the
Torah will avenge us as well."
The sage's voice rose.
"But the second question arises: What will happen
now? When Rabbi Chanina, the teacher of multitudes, was
burned together with the Torah scroll he carried in his
bosom, his disciples asked, 'Rabbi, what do you see? What
will happen now?'
"He saw the parchment burning while the letters
floated in the air, and he explained: The Torah is eternal,
and we have been promised that it shall never be forgotten
from amongst our people. Even if the gentiles burn the
parchments, the letters are not consumed. We shall
gather the floating letters, engrave them in our hearts, and
bequeath them to our children after us!"
Indeed, despite decrees of destruction in the past,
the Jewish People adhered stubbornly to their Torah, firm
in the belief that the Torah is a tree of life for those who
cling to it. Rabbi Yechiel's disciples, too, would prove to
their enemies that they were faithful sons of a stiff-necked
people a people brave, proud, and righteous.