Toledot Yeshu on Christmas

“So what do you do at Christmas?” One of my colleagues asked me last week, and my remark that I would be eating Chinese food was met with a blank stare. So, here’s some background forthose unfamiliar with this important Jewish custom:

Christian holidays often translated into volatile times for Jews, especially of course during the  Easter holiday when many communities required “their” Jews to remain indoors or in Jewish neighborhoods, and ritual stoning of houses were not uncommon. Pogroms, too, often took place during Easter. Christmas seems to have elicited less anti-Jewish violence. Still, it was a time of unease and so, Ashkenazi Jews traditionally refrain(ed) from Torah studies on Christmas Eve. Instead, many communities read a work called Toledot Yeshu (the Traditions of Jesus), a bold rejection of everything a Christian might possibly hold sacred: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the miraculous birth of Jesus, his powers to work healings and miracles and especially his ascension. The text was an encouragement

Written as a kind of anti-gospel, Toledot Yeshu presents its own upside-down version of the life of Jesus:  conceived when his mother was in nidda (menstruating and so not fit for sexual intercourse) and seduced by a neighbor or a Roman soldier, Jesus acquired his magic powers in Egypt and by deceit, only to be defeated in an air battle when Judas urinated (or, depending on the text, ejaculated) on him, robbing him of his powers. Yeah, medieval Christians didn’t like the story either, and  Toledot Yeshu was probably one of the texts the accusers of the Talmud had in mind when they put the work on trial in Paris in 1242.

Toledot Yeshu emerged in the sixth to ninth century and exists in many, many different versions, in Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Yiddish, and Ladino. Because of the extremely offensive nature of the text, only some texts have been published and translated by Samuel Kraus (1906). Currently, a research project at Princeton is editing this important book for the first time. To quote from the project’s website:

Thus, since the autumn of 2008, Peter Schäfer, Michael Meerson, Research Associate Adina Yoffie, and a group of undergraduate students have been engaged in collecting and transcribing all the available Toledot Yeshu manuscripts. Due to the large number and variety of versions of Toledot Yeshu, the current project presents an extraordinary challenge, making it very difficult to predict its final results and how they will be published. At this point we are leaving it deliberately open whether it will be an electronic database, similar to the “Princeton University Sefer Hasidim Database (PUSHD),” or a synoptic edition of its multiple versions. After the establishment of a firm textual basis it will be possible to trace the reception history of the book among Jews and Christians.

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