Down The Rabbit Hole Part III: A Medieval Jew’s Dilemma

NOTE: This article is going to say some things that will make some people very angry. It is a historical analysis of the Jewish community in early Renaissance Europe leading up to the year 1421, with the community at Vienna used as an example. It is meant to describe, albeit briefly, the connection between Jewish teachings as articulated in the Talmud and how specifically, the Jewish dislike (at that time) of Christians and the unique historical situation that European Jews found themselves in, being the only people able to issue usurious loans, resulted in their being able to exercise disproportionate influence in European societies. 

As I noted in my last article, usurious loans were issued by both Jew and Christian in Europe. However, only the Christian was excommunicated from his Faith and also potentially subject to legal penalties from the government for his actions. The Jew did not have this problem because since he was not a Christian, he was exempt from the religious teachings and their secular consequences.

As alluded to at the end of this article and briefly so in the previous, this lead to a situation where non-Jewish financiers pushed to change Church doctrine on usury so they could benefit. Since doctrine cannot change, bishops and priests began speaking about usury in such a way as to speak about it but fail to mention its sinful consequences. This began in northern Italy, specifically in Florence, around the the same time the situation described below takes place. 





I spent my spring break of my freshman year in college overseas. I received an all expenses paid scholarship for a trip to Vienna, Austria and Bratislava, Slovakia. Being around the food, the culture, and literally living in the history of a city which has stood for over two thousand years, especially as an American, gives you a broader perspective on the same history that you read about in books.

One of my most memorable experience was when I visited the Juedisches Museum in the old Jewish quarter in Vienna. The Jewish quarter has remained in the same spot for over a thousand years, and you cannot miss it for two reasons. First, there is a large holocaust memorial in the center of it. Second, the Jewish quarter borders and partially crosses into the red-light district. During the day, you only need to find the statues placed in memoriam of World War II. At night, you only need to look for the neon red lights which dot the windows of grimy establishments filled with eastern European women, most likely trafficked in against their will.

The entire museum is fascinating. From what I remember, most of it is dedicated to recent (18th century through present times) Jewish history. In the basement of the Jewish museum, however, there is a very large exhibition of pre-18th century Jewish history, going back to the earliest days of Jewish life in Vienna.  Not only that, but the remnants of the original synagogue that was burned down in the year 1406 were open in the museum for visitors to walk on.


While this photo is from Wikipedia, I remember this scene as though I were there yesterday. You could walk up to the path in the lower right hand corner of this central piece when I was in Vienna.

This was most interesting to me because this was connecting to history in a way that I had never learned about Jewish life. While many American schools teach something about recent Jewish history, Jewish life during the Renaissance, Medieval, and earlier eras is almost barely mentioned, and when it is from my experience, it was a quick reference to how Jews were persecuted by the “intolerant” Catholics who hated them for spite.

The above picture is taken from the furthest end of the basement. If you were to turn 180 degrees around and walk about 20 feet back, turn right, walk for about 10 feet more, and then turn directly left, you would face a wall with large piece of paper written entirely in Yiddish dated from approximately the year 1425. This was the same year that King Albert II of Germany ordered the destruction of Vienna’s Jewish community. The document, which is very old and preserved under a special light, is transcribed onto another large sheet of paper on the right with additional translations into German and English. The document describes the events of 1421 but also Jewish life in Vienna prior to both the destruction of the community in 1421 and the burning of the synagogue in 1406. For me, this was the most important and memorable exhibit in the museum.

The document described in various parts the business relationship of Jews with their Catholic neighbors. I cannot remember the exact wording, and this was in a time before digital cameras were both easily available and the quality was what it is today- I tried to take a picture of the wording but it did not work on my camera when it was developed. Was caught my eye was how the document not only described, but encouraged and almost seemed to brag about how Jewish merchants regularly defrauded Christians by intentionally fixing scales in the market place and selling them inferior quality goods at inflated prices as well as charging exhorbitant interest rates on loans because they were no better than animals and could be morally treated as such. Later in the document, when  they were describing the persecutions of 1420 and describing how those persecuted pronounced curses on the Christians up to their dying breath, the document noted indirectly how one of the Christian complaints which precipitated the pogrom was the very fraud the document bragged about.

Jewish History 101

Jewish history in Europe corresponds closely with Roman history, with a possible Jewish community existing in Rome around 163 BC during the time of Judas Maccabaeus.* Throughout the centuries there were active Jewish communities throughout Italy and other corners of the Roman empire, which persisted after the Empire’s fall in 476. While the Jewish Encyclopedia alludes to the Christianization of the Roman Empire as being the beginning of intolerance for European Jews, it also mentions that in spite of this and the barbarian invasions, “these hordes found large numbers of Jews who experienced no change at the hands of their new masters.*

The Christianization of Europe had the opposite effect on Europe’s Jews for many reasons, not the least of which was because the Catholic Church brought with it a prohibition on issuing usury. While it is documented that there were Christians who did act in violation of this prohibition, in many places the practice was banned and in some cases those Christians who did practice usury were severely punished. However, this was applied only to Christians and rarely to Jews because Jews had their own law and, barring civil obligations, were not bound by Christian moral teachings. Not only could the Jew issue usury, but the Jew became the only person who could in many places legally charge interest for loans. As the Jewish encyclopedia states,

On the other hand, the Church found herself compelled to make the Jew a fellow citizen of the believer; for she enforced upon her own communities the Biblical prohibition against usury; and thus the only way left open to her of conducting financial operations was to seek loans at a legally determined rate of interest from the adherents of another faith. Through these peculiar conditions the Jews rapidly acquired influence. At the same time they were compelled to find their pleasures at home and in their own circles only. Their sole intellectual food came from their own literature, to which they devoted themselves with all the strength of their nature. This was the general condition of the Jews in Western lands.

While the prohibition on usury did not limit Church or state operations, and even more so those nations which enforced the usury ban did exceptionally well while the ban was enforced (such as in Medieval England and Ireland), the fact remains that interest allowed the Jews to amass great wealth very quickly wherever they went. While they did not have direct control over the monetary supply during this period, such as with the ability to print paper money, usury gave them a disproportionate control over the monetary supply because they could write up and perpetuate debt obligations upon the borrower that would grow without respect to the asset for which the money was borrowed in the first place. This money later translated into power- power over the borrower, and power over society.

The Bible states that “the borrower is the slave of the lender.” This fact was clearly understood by these Jewish money changers and exploited, understandably so, for their personal financial advantage. Mayer Amschel von Rothschild, an 18th century Jewish lender and member of the infamous and still operating Rothschild banking empire, is said to have made the following statements about usury:

“There are two ways to enslave a man. The first is by force. The other is by debt.”

“Give me control over a nation’s currency and I do not care who makes the laws.”

Cultural and Religious Isolation

Looking back above at the passage quoted by the Jewish encyclopedia, I underlined a part which noted how Jews nourished their intellect with their own cultural writings and did so wholeheartedly. This is a reference to the Jewish Law, for “the Law as a literature has continued its development from the earliest times down to the present day, and has been of greater influence upon the life of the Jews than any other branch of literature…. This gave rise to the Talmudic law, or Halakah, which deals, like the Biblical law, not only with man’s civil and public life, but also with his private habits and thoughts, his conscience, and his morality.”*

The Talmud is the most important piece of Jewish literary work. “The Talmud marks the culmination of the writings of Jewish tradition, of which it is, from a historical point of view, the most important production.” It is the “encyclopedia of Jewish faith and scholarship, comprising whatsoever the greatest representatives of Judaism in Palestine and in Babylon had regarded as objects of study and investigation and of teaching and learning, during the three centuries which elapsed from the conclusion of the Mishnah to the completion of the Talmud itself.” This would be the period following Christ’s death until about the year 500.

“The history of Jewish literature since the completion of the Talmud has been a witness to its importance in awakening and stimulating intellectual activity among the Jews. The Talmud has been made the subject or the starting-point of a large portion of this widely ramified literature, which has been the product of the intellectual activity induced by its study, and to which both scholars in the technical sense of the word and also a large number of the studious Jewish laity have contributed. The same faculties which had been exercised in the composition of the Talmud were requisite also for the study of it; the Talmud therefore had an exceedingly stimulating influence upon the intellectual powers of the Jewish people, which were then directed toward other departments of knowledge. It is a noteworthy fact that the study of the Talmud gradually became a religious duty, and thus developed into an intellectual activity having no ulterior object in view. Consequently it formed a model of study for the sake of study.

…For the majority of Jews it is still the supreme authority in religion; and, as noted above, although it is rarely an object of study on the part of those who have assimilated modern culture, it is still a subject of investigation for Jewish learning, as a product of Judaism which yet exerts an influence second in importance only to the Bible.”

To understand Jewish culture, one must understand the Talmud. Since the Talmud was written after Jesus’ death one must naturally ask the question- What does the Talmud say about Jesus? The Jewish Encyclopedia gives us an excellent starting point for learning about this:

From the Entry Jesus of Nazareth:

Somewhat different is the accusation that Jesus imposed upon the people and led them astray (comp. Bischoff, “Ein Jüdisch. Deutsches Leben Jesu,” p. 20, Leipsic, 1895:  , often also  , and in the Greek texts πλανός, λαοπλανός; comp. πλανᾷ τὸν ὅχλον = “he deceives the people”; John vii. 12). As Balaam the magician and, according to the derivation of his name, “destroyer of the people,” was from both of these points of view a good prototype of Jesus, the latter was also called “Balaam.”

and from the same article

It is clear, therefore, that the Jewish legends deny the resurrection of Jesus; the halakic assertion that Balaam (i.e., the prototype of Jesus) had no part in the future life must also be especially noted (Sanh. x. 2). It is further said: “The pupils of the recreant Balaam inherit hell” (Abot v. 19). Jesus is accordingly, in the following curious Talmudic legend, thought to sojourn in hell. A certain Onḳelos b. Ḳaloniḳos, son of Titus’ sister, desired to embrace Judaism, and called up from hell by magic first Titus, then Balaam, and finally Jesus, who are here taken together as the worst enemies of Judaism. He asked Jesus: “Who is esteemed in that world?” Jesus said: “Israel.” “Shall one join them?” Jesus said to him: “Further their well-being; do nothing to their detriment; whoever touches them touches even the apple of His eye.” Onḳelos then asked the nature of his punishment, and was told that it was the degrading fate of those who mock the wise (Giṭ. 56b-57a). This most revolting passage was applied in the Middle Ages to another Jesus (e.g., by R. Jeḥiel, in the Paris disputation; “Wikkuaḥ,” p. 4, Thorn, 1873). A parallel to the story is found in the statement of the “Toledot” that when Judas found he could not touch Jesus in any way in theaerial battle, he defiled him. This feature naturally especially angered Christians (see Wagenseil, “Tela Ignea Satanæ,” p. 77). According to a passage in the Zohar (Steinschneider, “Polemische Litteratur,” p. 362) the same degrading fate is meted out to both Jesus and Mohammed.

-Per the Talmud, Jesus is associated with “Balaam” In the Bible, Balaam is a non-Israelite false prophet who leads Jews astray

-Per the Talmud, Jesus is in hell and suffering the worst of punishments

-Per the Talmud, everybody who follows Jesus will go to hell and suffer the worst of punishments.

Before going on, let’s look at the entry for Balaam in the Jewish Encyclopedia, but specifically at the end part:

Henceforth he became the type of false prophets seducing men to lewdness and obscene idolatrous practises (Rev. ii. 14; II Peter ii. 15; Jude 11; Abot v.19). The name “Nicolaitanes,” given to the Christian heretics “holding the doctrine of Balaam” (Rev. ii. 6, 15), is probably derived from the Grecized form of Balaam,   = Nικο-γάος, an­d hence also the pseudonym “Balaam,” given to Jesus in Sanh. 106b and Giṭ. 57a. See Geiger, “Bileam and Jesus,” in “Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift für Jüdische Theologie,” vi. 31-37).

Excellent. Now not only can we conclusively and definitively say that when the Talmud mentioned Balaam it is talking about Jesus, but we also have two direct Talmud references from the Jewish Encyclopedia itself for examples: tractates Sanhedrin 106B, and Gittim 57A.

So what do these tractates say about Jesus? One does not simply go to a library, even a large one, and find a copy of the Talmud, especially in English, as the Talmud is not easy to find. Fortunately, the Internet has made available that which was difficult to find in the past.

According to the Complete Soncino English Talmud Translation pulled from, a major and well-respected Jewish sited dedicated to helping Jews study the Talmud, here is what they say. Please note that while there is more said about Jesus in each tractate as well as in many other tractates, I have highlighted some of the most important passages:

Sanhedrin 106B:

A certain min (note: “min” is short for “minim”, and is a derisive term used to refer to Christians in the Talmud)  said to R. Hanina: Hast thou heard how old Balaam was? — He replied: It is not actually stated, but since it is written, Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days,4 [it follows that] he was thirty-three or thirty-four years old.  He rejoined: Thou hast said correctly; I personally have seen Balaam’s Chronicle, in which it is stated, ‘Balaam the lame was thirty years old when Phinehas the Robber killed him.’

Mar, the son of Rabina, said to his sons: In the case of all [those mentioned as having no portion in the future world] you should not take [the Biblical passages dealing with them] to expound them [to their discredit], excepting in the case of the wicked Balaam: whatever you find [written] about him, lecture upon it [to his disadvantage].

Scripture writes Doeg and Doeeg: R. Johanan said: At first the Holy One, blessed be He, sits and is anxious lest one go out on an evil course. But when he has done so, He exclaims, ‘Woe, that he has entered [on an evil path]!’

The footnotes of this passage say that “Phineas the Robber” is Pontius Pilate

Gittin 57B:

What is your punishment [in the other world]? He replied: What I decreed for myself. Every day my ashes are collected and sentence is passed on me and I am burnt and my ashes are scattered over the seven seas. He then went and raised Balaam by incantations. He asked him: Who is in repute in the other world? He replied: Israel. What then, he said, about joining them? He replied: Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever.1  He then asked: What is your punishment? He replied: With boiling hot semen.2  He then went and raised by incantations the sinners of Israel.3  He asked them: Who is in repute in the other world? They replied: Israel. What about joining them? They replied: Seek their welfare, seek not their harm. Whoever touches them touches the apple of his eye. He said: What is your punishment? They replied: With boiling hot excrement, since a Master has said: Whoever mocks at the words of the Sages is punished with boiling hot excrement. Observe the difference between the sinners of Israel and the prophets of the other nations who worship idols. It has been taught: Note from this incident how serious a thing it is to put a man to shame, for God espoused the cause of Bar Kamza and destroyed His House and burnt His Temple.


This is just a tiny selection of the Talmud. There are many, many more parts with more heinous and disgusting things said about Jesus and His mother by the Jewish Rabbis. What is clear is that the Talmud, the most important book in Jewish learning since after Christ’s death that is regarded as equal to and even greater than the Torah by Jews themselves, hates Christianity and Christ, lying and blaspheming Him without apology or truth, and teaching their spiritual children to follow in their blasphemy.

So now, going back to my experience at the Juedisches Museum from college, put yourself in the shoes of an average young Jewish man from that period.

You are living in Austria, about the year 1400. Your family are small-time merchants or money changers, but they have done well for themselves. You grew up in a Jewish ghetto, and while you are not rich you are also not poor. You know German, but Yiddish is your primary language. You are or average religious devotion, but you remember learning something of the Talmud as a child, which you still even read today. You especially remember learning about those Christians who live all around you outside your community. You think that some are OK, but you don’t trust them, and many you actively dislike because that is what you know. You have also seen some of them do things that really upset or confused you, so in your mind, you “know” this is true from what your family and friends have said as well as what you have seen with your own eyes. You know that you can sell and engage in commerce with them in ways that you cannot with fellow Jews and that are more profitable, and not only that but you can make the most profitable exchanges in money-changing because the Christians are forbidden from doing this. Now that you are ready step out into the world, and start earning money by your own means, what do you do?

Now, imagine if you were all of the above, but like some people, you had malicious intentions in mind. Now evil people are found in all races and creeds, but if you are in a potentially socially advantageous position with and evil disposition, then things can become very ugly and quite quickly, especially when money is involved, because the love of money is the root of many evils.

Next Part: The Usurer’s Apostasy