This Kinah was written by the Maharam Miruttenberg, one of the last of the Baalei Tosfos. It describes a tragic event in Jewish history, made even more tragic due to the fact that the entire event was instigated by one of our own, an apostate Jew. In 1240 in Paris an apostate Jew named Nicholas Donin recommended to King Louis IX that if he wanted to get rid of the Jews for once and for all, the only way to do that was by destroying their Torah. The King and the Church had all copies of the Talmud confiscated on March 3 1240 and placed in the Place De Greve, a public square in Paris, which is the current location of city hall and the mayor’s office. In all there were 24 cartloads of Talmud, thousands of volumes.
The King invited 4 rabbis to a debate with Donin, the fate of the 24 cartloads hanging in the balance. Transcripts of the debate exist, and even according to the Latin transcript was it by no means a win by Donin. The Queen herself at one point told the accusers that they were trying too hard. Even so the fates of the volumes of Torah were a foregone conclusion, and in 1242 the Gemara’s were burnt.
The ramifications of this were tremendous. Each one of those volumes were handwritten, this was 200 years before the printing press was invented. There wasn’t a Gemara to be found in all of France, and many of the volumes had the actual handwritten glosses of the Baalei Tofos written in their margins, to be lost forever.
There is a parallel that cannot be ignored here. Nine years earlier (to the day?) in the very same square, volumes of the Rambam’s guide for the perplexed had been burned. Although it seems that they had also been burned by the church, the impetus came from some of the greatest Rabbis of the day, who felt that the works of the Rambam should not be studied. It cannot be merely a coincidence that the Talmud was burnt in the very same spot 9 years later.
The Maharam Mirutenberg was a 27 year old student at the time. It is evident in this Kinah that he saw this potentially as the end of Torah as we knew it. He compares the glory of the giving of the Torah to its current state. As Rav Soleveitchik explains it, he compares us to a wife whose husband ran away and deserted us, and didn’t even leave over any money – the holy Sefarim – to sustain ourselves.
He laments “no longer will I hear the voice of your singers” the voice of Torah has been stilled, and there will no longer be any Torah scholars.
The Torah is the glue that keeps us going throughout golus, that binds us together and to our Father in Heaven.
But netzach yisrael lo yishaker – the tenacity and resilience of the Jewish people cannot be over estimated. As the maharam himself predicts at the end of the kinah, Torah will prevail.
Rabeinu Yechiel of Paris the father of the Rosh and one of the debaters, gathered 300 students and taught them Shas from memory, which they recorded.[remarkably, when compared to the Munich manuscript, one of the only Shasim we have from before the burning, they are almost exactly the same]. He taught them the teachings of the Baalei Tosfos. Rav Moshe of Coucy, another one of the debaters wrote the Sefer Mitzvos Hagadol, which codified and explained all the mitzvos and is still a primary text today.
We saw this more recently during the holocaust. In the Kovno Ghetto there was a Rav named Rav Ephraim Oshry. He recorded and hid many of the questions that were asked to him, questions like whether the kohanim had to remove the rags from their feet before duchening, how to put on tefilin when working 18 hour days, whether boards stolen from the Nazis can be used for a sukkah, and were ghetto homes obligated in a mezuzah. These questions eventually filled five volumes that were printed after the war. Five voumes!! From one ghetto, to one Rabbi. That is the tenacity of klal yisrael, the inborn resilience Hashem has given us to survive.
An American officer told my father the following story. In 1945, he was involved in liberating the horrendous concentration camps of Nazi Europe. He went into a camp to find himself surrounded by death. A man looked up to him with gratitude. “Zei Moichel,” [please forgive me for troubling you] he said “and find me a Gemara Moed Katan.” Next week I have yahrzeit for my father and I promised him that each year on his yahrzeit I would make a siyum on Moed Katan.”
The Maharam Mirutenberg, who right before he died wrote “the sun shines for everyone but G-d and me,” is telling us that Torah is our essence, and when 24 cartloads of Torah were burnt it potentially could spell the end of the Jewish people, total despair and abandonment. The Torah is our lifeforce!
Some of the ides here were borrowed or inspired from here and here