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Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

by Israel Abrahams

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Highly readable social history comprehensively examines life of European Jews, from approximately the late 10th-century to the early 1500s. Topics include social functions of the synagogue, communal organizations, love, courtship and marriage, monogamy and home life, trades and occupations, medieval pastimes and personal relations between Christians and Jews.


Highly readable social history comprehensively examines life of European Jews, from approximately the late 10th-century to the early 1500s. Topics include social functions of the synagogue, communal organizations, love, courtship and marriage, monogamy and home life, trades and occupations, medieval pastimes and personal relations between Christians and Jews.

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Jewish Life in the Middle Ages

By Israel Abrahams

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13940-1



THE medieval life of the Jews had for its centre the synagogue. The concentration of the Jewish populations into separate quarters of Christian and Moslem towns was initially an accident of Jewish communal life. The Jewish quarter seems to have grown up round the synagogue, which was thus the centre of Jewish life, locally as well as religiously.

This concentration round the synagogue may be noted in the social as well as in the material life of the middle ages. The synagogue tended, with ever-increasing rapidity, to absorb and to develop the social life of the community, both when Jews enjoyed free intercourse with their neighbours of other faiths, and when this intercourse was restricted to the narrowest possible bounds. It was the political emancipation, which the close of the eighteenth century witnessed, that first loosened the hold of the synagogue on Jewish life. Emancipation so changed the complexion of that life that the Jewish middle ages cannot be considered to have ended until the French Revolution was well in sight. But throughout the middle ages proper the synagogue held undisputed sway in all the concerns of Jews. Nor was this absorption a new phenomenon. Already in Judea the Temple had assumed some social functions. The tendency first reveals itself amid the enthusiasm of the Maccabean revival, when the Jews felt drawn to the house of prayer for social as well as for religious communion. The Temple itself became the scene of some festal gatherings which were only in a secondary sense religious in character. Political meetings were held within its precincts. Its courts resounded on occasion with cries for the redress of grievances. King and Rabbi alike addressed the assembled Israelites under the Colonnade, which was joined to the Temple by a bridge.

The synagogue in the middle ages filled a place at once larger and smaller than the Temple. In the middle ages politics only rarely invaded the synagogue. Bad government, in the Jewish view, was incompatible with the kingdom of God, but the Jews learned from bitter experience that they must often render unto Caesar the things that were God's. The Jews of the middle ages may have been alive to the current corruption, but they readily administered the public trusts which were sometimes committed to their care. Though they doubtless used their power at times to the advantage of their co-religionists, the Jewish holders of financial offices enjoyed a high, if rather 'unpopular,' reputation for fidelity to their royal employers. Their honesty, as well as their amenability to kingly pressure, may be inferred from the frequency which they were entrusted with confidential posts in Spain and Italy. But the despotic government of the middle ages entailed an insecurity of political status which prevented Jews from participating much in the discussion of public affairs. The Jews gained nothing and lost much by their courageous partisanship of Don Pedro of Castile against his half-brother Henry de Trastamara (1350–1369). Santob de Carrion, a Jewish troubadour of that age, compiled moral and political maxims for the king, but such an incident could hardly be paralleled. The Jews, on the other hand, frequently joined the general population in patriotic movements; but beyond the regular recitation of a prayer for the sovereign, politics were excluded from the liturgy. Occasionally, special prayers were inserted which involved a partisan attitude on questions of the day. Thus in 1188 the Jews of Canterbury prayed for the monks as against the archbishop in a local dispute. At a much later date, the Jews of Rome erected a trophy in front of one of their synagogues in honour of the temporary establishment of a republican government.

Such instances of political partisanship finding expression in the synagogue were rare in the middle ages, for even under the most favourable circumstances the Jews were subject to sudden and sweeping changes in their relations to the government. But it would be an error to suppose that this fact carried with it as a corollary the exclusion from the synagogue of wide and comprehensive social interests. The seventeenth was the gloomiest century in the pre-emancipation history of the Jews, but until the beginning of the sixteenth century they were never for long cut off from the common life around them. Nay, their interests were wider than those of their environment, for they had the exceptional interest of a common religion destitute of a political centre. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this factor in moulding Jewish life. Thus was begotten that cosmopolitanism which broke through the walls of the ghettos, and prevented the life passed within them from ever becoming quite narrow or sordid.

It was the synagogue that made this influence effective. Owing to the love of travel innate in the Jewish consciousness and stimulated by repeated expulsions, the Jew of many an isolated place became familiar with the manners of foreign co-religionists who would find their way to the local synagogues. The vehicles of this moral traffic were travelling preachers and teachers, bringing new ideas and quaint information as to passing events; beggar-students who, when the conquering Moslems, and later on the Christian Crusaders, demolished the schools in one town, found their way to other schools of repute whereat to continue their studies ; merchants and artisans who plodded many a weary mile in search of work, and brought with them new fashions and new handicrafts; strolling cantors who would be hailed by the many for their new hymns and new tunes; pious pilgrims who had set out from home for the Holy Land with but a hazy perception of the length and difficulty of their proposed journey, but imbued with a rich fund of enthusiasm idealized and communicable ; professional wayfarers, who would bring, by word of mouth or by letter, the moral influence of great Rabbinical authorities, who, with no organized power outside their own local congregations, yet imparted their inspiration to a widespread circle, centring now in Babylon, now in Cordova, at one time in Cairo, at another in the Rhine country ; excited mystics who carried confused but rousing tales of the wondrous doings of ever-new claimants to the Messiahship, and fanned that smouldering dream of an ideal future which brightened the present hideous reality and made it tolerable.

Thus Jewish life was not narrow, though its locale was limited. As a legalized institution the ghetto itself was unknown till the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Venetian and Roman ghettos being erected almost contemporaneously at that period. Hence the predominance of the synagogue in medieval Judaism cannot be altogether attributed to the isolation of Jews from the social life of their contemporaries. There were, indeed, influences enough at work to drive the Jews from the world. For centuries they were legally barred from professional careers and honourable trades, though individual Jews contrived to overleap the barriers ; they were forced to become usurers, though at first fully conscious of the obloquy attaching to a traffic banned by the Church and despised by the men of honour of all peoples in all ages. The cruellest result which persecution worked was to produce insensibility to this obloquy on the part of many Israelites. But all these attempts to isolate the Jews from the rest of mankind only partially succeeded. Even when the persistent efforts of Innocent III had spent themselves in branding the Jews as a race outside the pale of humanity, when the Inquisition had done its worst, when the Black Death had spread its baleful cloud between Jew and Gentile, still the former shared something of the general life. In Spain and Italy this participation is most clearly marked, but until the sixteenth century the Jews were nowhere entirely divorced from the ordinary national life.

But this general life lacked centralization. This statement may be illustrated by the phenomenon that no country in the middle ages possessed a national drama. National drama needs a national centre, and not even the concentrating genius of a Charles the Great could bring homogeneity into the heterogeneous mass over which he ruled. This lack of a common basis for national life became more marked when feudalism and chivalry fell. The seething thirteenth and fourteenth centuries show us national life in the making, not national life made. The Crescent and the Cross had not yet divided the civilized world between them. Until the beginning of the sixteenth century the Jews were hardly subjected to those deep-cut national prejudices which thenceforward barred them from the world until the era of the French Revolution. The only serious exclusion that the Jews suffered occurred at the Renaissance. Except in Italy the Jews shared little of the elevating effects which the Renaissance produced. The causes of this anomaly will be examined hereafter, but in the middle ages proper, Jewish life, with all the innate 'provincialism' from which it has never, in all its long and chequered history, contrived to free itself, was freshened and affected by every influence of the time, and the Synagogue, like the Church, attracted to itself and focussed these influences, providing a centre which the ordinary life of the nations failed to create.

The life within the synagogue reflected the social life of the Jews in all its essential features. In northern and central Europe, no pursuit or interest was honourable, in the synagogue as in the church, unless it had some religious flavouring. The liturgy of the synagogue created social custom, and the reaction of the latter on the former was at least equally great. Amid a world in which might was right, the Jews learned from their common oppression to respect each other's rights. Any Jew who conceived that he had a grievance against his fellow had the privilege to interrupt the synagogue service until he had gained a public promise of redress. Naturally this privilege was open to abuse, and the right was restricted and eventually suppressed. Whether the synagogue was the scene of flagellations for offences against the moral and religious codes is open to question. Probably this punishment was inflicted in the synagogue precincts, and the statements that the apostles were liable to be 'beaten in the synagogues' may be literally true. It is certain that in the early middle ages flagellation took place in the Beth Din (Jewish Court of Justice), but on the day preceding the Great Fast a symbolical scourging was, and even is, usual in the synagogue itself. When Uriel Acosta did penance in Amsterdam in 1633 he was publicly flogged in the synagogue, but in a retired corner, not on the central platform. As the culprit always had to strip to the waist, it was probably regarded as indecorous to execute the sentence coram populo. It was thought no irreverence, however, to use the synagogue for all kinds of announcements concerning the just payment of dues. So fully was this fact understood by the governments of Europe that it was occasionally utilized for their own purposes. In the thirteenth century, for instance, the English Government compelled the Jews to announce in their synagogues quittances of debts owing by Christians. In Spain, by the Castilian Code of 1212, Jews were in certain cases, in which stolen apparel and furniture had been pledged with them by Christians, to swear on oath in synagogue that the transaction had been honest in intention. The ordinary Spaniard made public proclamations of this nature, not in church but in the squares and market-places. In Rome, at a later date, it seems that a list of articles stolen during the year was read out on the eve of the Day of Atonement to warn Jews against buying or in any way dealing with the stolen goods. But the voluntary announcements of this kind were at least as numerous as the enforced. The inter-communal organization, which will be described in another chapter, required the periodical proclamation in synagogue of the Tekanoth, or Ordinances, which everywhere regulated the moral and social no less than the religious life of the Jews.

It was an ancient custom in several places for the Shamash or verger to announce every Saturday the results of law-suits, and to inform the congregation that certain properties were in the market. The Jews did not exclude their every-day life from the sphere of religion, and felt rather that their business was hallowed by its association with the synagogue than that the synagogue was degraded by the intrusion of worldly concerns. The following incident is typical. Rabbi Meir Halevi of Vienna once had to deal with a Jew who showed a disposition to go back on a business bargain which he had only verbally assented to. This fourteenth-century Rabbi privately remonstrated with the delinquent, but finding him still contumelious, ordered the officiating Reader to make the following public announcement in the synagogue: 'Hear all present, that A. B. refuses to abide by his word, given under such and such circumstances; thereby he has excited the displeasure of the Rabbis and is unworthy to be regarded as a member of the congregation of Israel, to whom dishonesty and falsehood are an abomination, but A. B. is a liar and a deceiver.' The same moral sensitiveness is manifested in a large class of synagogue announcements, the introduction of which must have begun in the earlier middle ages, though the traces of their existence become more obvious as the eighteenth century approaches. The compulsory institution at Rome of an annual proclamation of stolen goods is less important than the voluntary custom to the same effect which prevailed somewhat later in Frankfort. The 'Schulklopfer,' an official of whom more will be said hereafter, took his stand before the ark, proclaimed that certain articles had been stolen or lost, and solemnly ordered that any worshipper who knew anything of the property must give instant information to the authorities. Lost articles were publicly cried in synagogue, and a threat of excommunication hung over all who withheld information. There is evidence of an earlier custom due to an even higher sense of honesty. At the end of the thirteenth century it was necessary for a man who was about to leave any town in Italy, to publicly announce in synagogue that he was leaving, and to invite those who had claims against him to proffer them. Money disputes were similarly dealt with. Any individual might rise in his place in synagogue and call upon the congregants to come forward with evidence on his behalf. It will be more convenient, however, to deal with other examples of these synagogue regulations in another connexion, for they belong to the communal organization. Only one other instance will be quoted, because it relates to a custom still prevalent in some Jewish congregations. ' In our place, when a man wishes to sell any land, a proclamation is made in the synagogue three times: "Whoever has any claim on this land must lay his claim before the Rabbinical tribunal (Beth Din)." Hereafter, no claim is admitted, and a record of the threefold proclamation in synagogue is inserted in the deed of sale.'

It will easily be inferred that the synagogue was freely used to enforce obedience to other aspects of the moral law than strict commercial honesty. The conjugal rights of husbands, the prerogatives of fathers with regard to their daughters' marriages, and their claims on their sons' obedience, the duty of women to observe the laws of purity, the obligation to make an honest estimate of one's income in paying the communal taxes which were rated at various percentages, the recital of a special benediction for those who never used bad language nor gossiped during prayer — these are a few instances culled from many in which the synagogue was made a powerful lever to elevate the social morality of the people.


Excerpted from Jewish Life in the Middle Ages by Israel Abrahams. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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What People are Saying About This

Israel Abrahams
"I confess that when I undertook to write of Jewish life in the middle ages, I did so under the impression that Jewish life was everywhere more or less similar, and that it would be possible to present a generic image of it. Deeper research has completely dispelled this belief. Possibly the reader may note with disappointment that my book reveals no central principle, that it is a survey less of Jewish life than of Jewish lives." -- Israel Abrahams

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