The Battle for Hebrew


In 1509, Johannes Pfefferkorn–a former rabbi who became a Dominican monk–published a book called Judenspiegel, or Mirror of the Jews. It was a ghastly, vividly anti-Semitic book, full of false disclosures about the Jewish people–and it proposed that all Hebrew books, including the Talmud, be burned.

At about the same time, a Bavarian priest named Johannes Reuchlin became enamored with the Hebrew language, and started teaching it to his students. When he read Judenspiegel, he protested to the German emperor. Instead of book burning, he argued, two chairs in Hebrew should be established at every university.

In response, Pfefferkorn attacked Reuchlin, accusing him of being a tool of the Jews–and the Dominican order submitted Reuchlin’s name to the Catholic hierarchy with a request to turn him over to the Inquisitors in Spain. Ultimately, however, Reuchlin was acquitted by the Vatican, and Hebrew gained a new prominence in the Church. The holy language spread among Christian scholars in Europe–who, until then, had confined themselves to Latin and Greek–and Reuchlin’s Rudimentia Hebraica served as the primary text for teaching the language.

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