Metz is an ancient city in the province of Lorraine in France. Jews came to live there more than a thousand years ago. There are records of Jewish inhabitants in Metz dating back to the 9th century.
Outstanding Rabbis served the Jewish community of Metz through the centuries. The best known among them were Rabbi Jonah Teomim Frankel (166069), Rabbi Jacob Joshua Falk, author of Pnei Yehoshua (1733-1740). Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz; (1742-50), and Rabbi Aryeh Leib, Asser, author of Shaagath Aryeh (1765-85).
As in many other European cities in the Middle Ages, the Jews of Metz suffered a great deal of persecution and expulsion on occasion. During the Crusade in 1096, 22 Jews were killed in Metz. In 1322 a number of Jews of Metz were burned alive as a result of a cruel libel that the Jews poisoned the wells. A most cruel blood-libel took place in the year 5430 (1670), which is the subject of the following account.
In a village called Bolchen, not far from the town of Metz, there lived a G‑d-fearing Jew. Rafael Halevi - this was his name - was greatly respected not only by his fellow Jews, but also by the Christian neighbors who knew him. He was a quiet, friendly man, and his dealings were always honest.
Rafael Halevi often rode into the town of Metz to make purchases of various things which he used for his household and for the estate which he managed.
One day, as he was riding to town, he met an unknown horseman on the way. Rafael waved to him in a friendly greeting and continued on his way.
It so happened that on the previous day a young Christian girl, the daughter of a peasant in a neighboring village disappeared without a trace. Since she had not returned home for the night, her parents became worried, and the following morning the girl's father set out for Metz to report the matter to the police. It was then that the peasant met the horseman and asked him, as he had asked all other people he met, if he had by any chance, seen his missing girl.
The horseman, whether he bore a grudge against Jews, or simply wished to play a cruel prank, told the peasant that he had met a Jew riding on a mottled grey horse, carrying a little girl with him. "So this is it? Was it your girl he was carrying off? I wonder what the Jew was up to!" So said the horseman as he galloped away.
The peasant was shocked and frightened. He had heard all sorts of horror stories about Jews, even from his own priest. He had heard it more than once that Jews used christian blood for their wine and Matzos for Passover! The thought of this sent chills down his spine, for Passover was not far off.
Greatly distressed, the peasant came running to the police in Metz. He reported about his missing daughter, and also what he had heard from the horseman he had met on the way.
The police chief of Metz took a personal interest in the matter. He questioned the peasant about the description of the Jew and his horse, and he began an investigation. It led him to place the suspicion on the Jew Rafael Halevi of Bolchen. However, the police chief found that he could not arrest the suspect. Metz belonged to France under the rule of Louis XIV, while the village of Bolchen belonged to the Duchy of Lorraine. It would require a complicated diplomatic effort to get the King of France to prevail upon the Duke of Lorraine to deliver the Jew Rafael Halevi to the authorities in Metz to try him for the ritual murder of the little girl.
The authorities in Metz, with the police and church working together, decided on a better plan. Inasmuch as the Jew accused was said to have brought the girl to Metz, suspicion fell also on the leaders of the Jewish community in Metz. Therefore it was the duty of the Jewish leaders of Metz to persuade the accused to surrender to the authorities for trial. If they would be able to prove his innocence, it would be good for all concerned. If the community leaders refused to cooperate, it would only strengthen suspicion against the entire community.
The leaders of the Jewish community of Metz were, of course, quite certain that Rafael Halevi was innocent of the charge. The whole accusation was nothing but a cruel blood libel, as the investigation would soon discover. Under pressure of the authorities, they had no choice but to send a messenger to Rafael Halevi with an urgent appeal that he should surrender himself for trial, to prove the accusation false.
Rafael Halevi knew that he would be putting his life at stake, should he surrender himself to the justice of his would-be judges. On the other hand, he knew that he could not leave the whole community of Metz in such a predicament. He put his trust in G‑d, and he was ready to meet his fate whatever it might be.
As soon as Rafael Halevi arrived in Metz, he was placed in chains and thrown into prison.
For days and weeks he languished in prison. From time to time he was brought before his investigators and urged to admit his "guilt." He was questioned for hours without end, over and over again, and when he persisted in his protestations of innocence, he was put to all sorts of tortures to force a confession out of him, and to have him involve other Jews in the "ritual" murder. Rafael Halevi suffered his tortures bravely, and refused to confess to this horrible blood-libel.
During all this time the leaders of the Jewish community tried their best to obtain the release of their innocent brother, all to no avail.
In the meantime, the real murderer was going about his drunken and quarrelsome ways in the nearby village. His name was "Red" John, so called because of his red beard. He was feared by most villagers, for he was mostly drunk and wild, ready to fly into a rage and murderously beat up anyone who happened to cross his path. Once, in a drunken stupor, he boasted to the local teacher that it was he who killed the little girl in order to square an account with her father...
The teacher reported it to the village head, who in turn passed on the information to the magistrates in Metz. But these were not interested in discovering the true murderer. They were determined not to let such a wonderful opportunity as finding a Jew guilty of ritual murder slip through their fingers. They simply ignored the information and continued to press the charge against the Jew. "Witnesses" were found who declared that they saw "with their own eyes" how the Jew dragged the little girl in the ghetto of Metz. Rafael's position was getting bleaker every day.
Thus, one day, "Red" John disappeared. A few days later a fisherman found his body in the river. It was clearly a case of murder, and the police began an investigation, which led to the arrest of the peasant, the father of the missing girl. It did not take long to get him to confess to the murder. He told the police that he had killed "Red" John for killing his daughter.
There was no longer any doubt, if there ever was, as to the innocence of Rafael Halevi. But again the truth was covered up, and the Jew remained accused of the murder. This was all to the advantage of the local christian merchants, who wanted to get rid of their Jewish competitors and creditors. Already agitators were busy clamoring for vengeance against the Jews, calling for a pogrom, to kill the Jews and burn down their houses and stores. The Jews of Metz lived in dread of their lives.
Finally, the day of Rafael Halevi's trial came. The verdict was a foregone conclusion. Although the accused never confessed to the crime, the "evidence" was quite satisfactory to the judges. Blinded by hatred of the Jews and of the Jewish faith, they found the Jew Rafael Halevi guilty as charged, and condemned him to be burned alive at the stake. His possessions were also to be taken away.
In addition, all Jews of Metz were to be expelled, with the loss of their possessions, for their "share in the ritual murder."
It was not the first time, nor the last, that the shameful and vicious accusation of "ritual murder" was used as a pretext for cruel persecution of defenseless and innocent Jews living in christian lands. The Jews of Metz were crushed by the terrible calamity that had befallen them. Moreover, it was a terrible tragedy not only for the Jewish community of Metz, but for the Jewish people as a whole.
The Jewish community of Metz sent a delegation to the king. Louis XIV was said to be an enlightened king, and the Jews hoped that he would not permit such a cruel injustice. However, all he did was to stop the expulsion of the Jews from Metz. Instead, they were to pay a heavy fine and increased taxes. The verdict against Rafael Halevi remained.
Wrapped in his Tallis and Tefillin Rafael Halevi was led to the stake, jeered by the mob who were filled with cruel pleasure at seeing a Jew burn alive. Rafael Halevi walked with dignity to his execution. He was grateful that G‑d had given him the strength to endure his suffering, so that all the torture could not force him to confess to the horrible blood libel, and thus saved the lives of other Jews.
As the flames blazed away under him, he began to recite Oleinu l'Shabeah, the hymn in which we praise G‑d daily for not making us like the other nations and peoples of the world. And with these sacred words on his lips he returned his soul to his Maker.