Philo-palin, Hillel Halkin and the phrase Blood Libel

In last weeks’ Forward, Hillel Halkin attributes the phrase “blood libel” to the influence of the Encyclopedia Judiaca (1971). Originally I thought that his column supported one of my prior posts, which showed that the spelling of the word Kabbalah was based on the influence of the EJ.

In order make a decent blog post, I checked Google Ngram and discovered that the change of terminology was 1966-1970. Halkin was wrong again and was more concerned with his political agenda to show the influence of Jabotinsky and Israel than any love of words. With even more wonderful Google technology, I turned to Google Books and found that the books that changed from blood accusation to blood libel were all American volumes. This list included the new volume of Salo Baron, the translation of Dubnov, Dan Ben–Amotz, In Praise of the Baal Shen Tov, Joseph Blau of Columbia’s Varieties of Modern Judaism, the translation of Zinberg, as well as Midstream and Tradition. It is time for a more philological approach to the study of Jewish words.

Here is Halkin’s genealogy:

Although the blood libel itself — that is, the accusation that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes, especially for the baking of Passover matzos — is an old one going back at least to the Middle Ages, “blood libel” as an English expression is quite recent. The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia covered the subject under “Blood Accusation”; and in Volume IV of his monumental “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” published in 1957, renowned historian Salo Baron wrote, too, of “the fateful popular invention which was permanently to envenom the relations between Jews and Christians in many lands: the so-called ‘blood accusation.’” In the pages that followed, Baron did not once use the term “blood libel.” The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery, for his part, in his 1965 history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” referred to “the ritual murder libel,” also calling it “the ritual murder charge” and “the ritual murder calumny.” “Blood libel” is nowhere to be found in Flannery’s book, either.

The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, has a lengthy entry under “Blood Libel,” written by the Hebrew University professor of Jewish history Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. It would appear, in fact, to have been this article that introduced the term in English, into which it was translated from the Hebrew expression alilat dam, dam meaning “blood” and alila “libel” or “slander.” Traceable to the 17th-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicler Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari, who first used it in his history of medieval Jewry, “Sefer Divrei Yosef,” alilat dam has been for hundreds of years the standard Hebrew way of saying “blood accusation” or “ritual murder charge.” Presumably, the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica preferred it in English because a libel is by definition false whereas an accusation or charge may be true, and presumably, too, this was the reason that “blood libel” quickly caught on among historians writing in English and soon displaced its rivals completely.

And here is the Ngram showing that by 1971 the majority of the shift had occurred already.

2 responses to “Philo-palin, Hillel Halkin and the phrase Blood Libel

  1. >It is time for a more philological approach to the study of Jewish words.

    Hear, hear. I enjoy Philologos as much as the next guy, but you’re right about which comes first for him.

  2. Come to think of it, someone should probably show him how to use Google Books, not to mention other databases.

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