The Blood Libel in Solomon ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehudah

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Largely complete by around 1520, though not published until several decades later, Solomon ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehudah (The Staff of Judah) numbered among the most popular Hebrew books of its day.1 It captivated many a reader with its stories of trial and tribulation endured by the Jewish people, from the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century ce to the persecution of Spanish-Portuguese Jewry in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and with its picture of the resolute survival of the nation of Israel in the face of adversity. Shevet Yehudah proves no less fascinating for the present-day historian, both for its preservation of collective memories of old and for the critical, transitional phase between medieval and early modern periods in Jewish history that it illuminates. Born to a distinguished Castilian family, Solomon ibn Verga was expelled from Spain in 1492. Forcibly converted to Christianity in Portugal before the end of the century, he evidently fled to Northern Europe after the great massacre of Jews in Lisbon in 1506. He appears to have died soon after 1520 while en route to Ottoman Turkey, where his son Joseph edited Shevet Yehudah and prepared it for its initial publication during the 1560s. As Solomon ibn Verga (and his son) reflected on the course of Jewish history and on the factors that had contributed to the downfall of medieval European Jewry, the libels wherein Christians accused Jews of committing heinous crimes against them and their faith figured significantly in their narrative. One modern investigator has even termed Shevet Yehudah “the first Jewish work whose main concern was the struggle against ritual murder accusations.”2 Eight of the 76 tales amassed in Shevet Yehudah address instances of the ritual murder – or “blood” – libel,3 and another mentions an additional libel in a long list of woeful events recently suffered by the Jews. Of these nine chapters, seven represent the work of Solomon ibn Verga, and the remaining tale and brief listing number among the additions of his son Joseph. In addition to these nine libels recounted in the book, nine more stories report instances of other anti-Jewish libels, in which Christians accused Jews of blasphemy, desecrating holy objects (or graves), poisoning the water supply, and the like. In all, over 20 percent of the shemadot (persecutions) recorded by the ibn Vergas focus on such libels, over 10 percent on the ritual

murder/blood libel specifically. The blood libel in Shevet Yehudah has accordingly commanded the attention of modern Jewish scholars, who have addressed the subject in a range of contexts: analysis of the orientation and worldview of Solomon ibn Verga and Shevet Yehudah; studies of medieval Jewish historiography and folklore; and the history and phenomenology of the blood libel itself. Nonetheless, the ritual murder stories of Shevet Yehudah have yet to undergo a systematic review unto themselves, which we offer as a step toward a more comprehensive study of Solomon ibn Verga, his work, and its fascinating perspective on the Jewish condition at the dawn of modern times.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationJewish Blood
Subtitle of host publicationReality and metaphor in history, religion and culture
EditorsMitchell B. Hart
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherRoutledge Taylor & Francis Group
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780203876404
ISBN (Print)9780415477499, 9780415845489
StatePublished - 2009

Publication series

NameRoutledge Jewish Studies Series

RAMBI Publications

  • rambi
  • Blood accusation
  • Ibn Verga, Solomon -- 1460-1554 -- Shevet Yehuda


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