Jewish Magic and Superstition, by Joshua Trachtenberg, , at sacred-texts.com
IT IS erroneous to assume that magic is practiced exclusively by professionals, or that it represents always a conscious, deliberate act. As Karl Goldmark once said, "Civilized people lose their religion easily, but rarely their superstitions." There is an anecdote of a well-known actress who, when asked by a zetetic reporter what was her favorite superstition, replied, "Thank Heaven, I have none!"and unconsciously "knocked wood" as she spoke. How many of us still "knock wood" when we hear or utter a word of praise, without in the least being aware that we are repeating an age-old magical act whose purpose is to distract or frighten away the jealous spirits? Fear of the supernatural has been productive of the greatest number and variety of magical protective devices; and just as the fear has vividly colored man's consciousness of the universe, so these devices have become automatic responses to it. In this sense magic was, and still is, an integral pattern in the fabric of social usage, having influenced profoundly not alone folk-habits, but equally as much religious ceremonial and rite.
The methods of warding off the spirits fell into three general categories: 1. to drive them away, or at least to render them powerless by the application of certain approved means; 2. to buy them off with gifts, to bribe them and thus conciliate them; 3. to deceive them by disguising their intended victims, or by pretending that the situation was other than it actually was. Each of these methods, and often two or all three of them combined, was known and employed by Jews and even found expression in special ceremonies which have become part and parcel of Jewish ritual.
The first category comprised by far the greatest number and variety of procedures. Foremost among these is the power of the
religious life to protect the individual. Piety and personal purity constitute a coat of armor which no demon or magic can pierce. The merit of one's ancestors also serves as a protection. From among the multitude of anecdotes that point this moral, the following perhaps best illustrates the apotropaic and remedial virtues of piety: A certain righteous and pious Jew was about to die when a man came to him with a story that his wife had been rendered barren by sorcery, and requested that so soon as the righteous one enter heaven he repair to the throne of God and beg Him to release her from the spell. The sage promised to do so. Within the year the spell was removed and she bore a child. Not only is the truly religious man himself secure, but his merit carries sufficient weight up above to shed security upon his descendants and friends. The man whose life had been devoted to a holy occupation sometimes bore with him to the grave testimony of that fact, instanced in the custom of burying with the performer of circumcisions the foreskins which he had severed, "to drive away from him every demon and destroyer." The practice of fashioning the coffin of a scholar out of the table at which he had pursued his studies probably had a similar purpose.1
Various religious acts and occasions were believed to bring immunity against the powers of evil. "Satan is powerless" on Yom Kippur; the blowing of the shofar at the conclusion of the day "drives off evil spirits" and confuses and confounds the devil. Indeed, the later Kabbalists surrounded the ritual of shofar blowing on the High Holydays with a series of Biblical readings whose inner mystical significance and whose "names" furthered this end. Some held that on the Sabbath "we need no other protection" than the merit of the day itself, for "we are all engaged in fulfilling religious duties." On the basis of the interpretation of a Biblical verse (Ex. 12:42) Passover, too, was regarded as "a night of protection" from the demons. This belief aroused an unwonted sense of security, and led to the suspension of certain customary protective measures. It was permissible to employ even numbers, such as the four cups of wine; the prayers recited before retiring were very much abbreviated, passages intended to protect the sleeper being omitted; the doors of houses and rooms were left unlocked overnight as a mark of confidence; when the holiday fell on a Sabbath, the evening prayers inserted in the service to enable late-comers to catch up with the congregation were omitted; if a death occurred immediately before
[paragraph continues] Passover, when water had already been drawn for the preparation of Maẓẓot, there were some who held it unnecessary to pour this water out, for "it is a night of protection" and the spirits can do no harm.2
Study is a uniquely Jewish form of worship; one of the chief features of the religious life is a scholarly regimen. Study therefore was another form of protection. The Bible in itself possesses anti-demonic virtues, as we have seen. The regular reading of the Bible in the synagogue service was believed to protect Israel from the wiles of the devil. "So long as Israel studies the Torah Satan has no power over them," and therefore, it was explained, immediately upon the reading of the last verse of Deuteronomy the first verse of Genesis is read, on the holiday of "Rejoicing over the Torah," so that the rehearsal of God's law may not be interrupted even for a moment, and Satan get his chance. It was believed that a man should expire with "words of Torah" on his lips, obviously not only as a passport to the heavenly regions, but also as a safeguard on the road. The protective power of study was not limited to the Bible, but extended to all works of Jewish religious import, particularly the Talmud. There is a legend of two demons who were frustrated in their attempts to attack a certain R. Benjamin because his perpetual immersion in his studies rendered him immune. It was this belief in the security of the scholar which gave rise to the notion that the demons accept the challenge and are ever on the alert to distract his attention from his studies and thus pierce his guard.3
As the most important single feature of worship we may expect to find prayer singled out as especially powerful in this respect. The destroying angels, among whom is included the angel of death, have no power over those who have participated in the three daily prayer services, or who have recited the prayer Yoẓer Or, the "Eighteen Benedictions," or the grace after meals. As evidence of this fact attention was called to the absence of the letter peh in the titles of the services, and in the prayers mentioned, for this letter distinguishes the names of the destroying angels; its absence implies their absence, too.4
When a man believes himself to be threatened by demons, or by magic of one sort or another, an appeal to God should win him safety. In an extremity he can resort to extemporaneous prayer. The most direct method is recommended in dealing with a demon who unexpectedly confronts one: "Don't run, but drop to the
ground before him; so long as you are prostrate he will not harm you; and pray in the name of God that he do you no hurt." However, the provident man fortified himself with one or another of the many petitions especially composed for such needsprayers which besought protection against demons, illness, magic, the evil eye, the whole catalogue of perils that beset the superstitiousprayers that concentrated on only one of these dangers, or, more often, lashed out against all of them together, in long-winded, iterative supplication. The Kabbalists, toward the close of the period, were especially prolific of such prayers. Already in the pages of the Talmud we read that "the demons keep away from everyone who recites the Shema before retiring." There grew up an increasingly elaborate scheme of prayer around this nocturnal recitation of the Shema, to reinforce its protective powers, and coupled with straightforward pleas for deliverance from "the terrors that threaten by night" were potent Biblical verses and Psalms, magic names, appeals to the angels, three- and sevenfold repetitions, prayers with obscure mystical connotations, etc. There was no attempt to disguise the purpose of this prayer-service; it was frankly admitted time and again that "it exists only because of the demons."
This night-prayer offers an interesting illustration of the tenacity of magical and superstitious forms. One of its constituents invokes the protection of the angels: "at my right Michael, at my left Gabriel, before me Uriel, behind me Raphael." This is nothing more than a Jewish version of the ancient Babylonian incantation, "Shamash before me, behind me Sin, Nergal at my right, Ninib at my left," or, "May the good Shedu go at my right, the good Lamassu at my left," etc.5 And across millennia and continents Ireland provides us with a doggerel Catholic version:
While it is difficult to dissociate the religious from the superstitious in such pious practices as fasting and charity, which as expiatory measures served to avert the evil consequences of sin, there can be no doubt that they were believed to exert a certain degree of compulsion upon the supernatural powers. The words of Prov. 10:2, "Charity delivereth from death," were reiterated with enough insistence to lead one to believe that some degree of literalness attached to them. We read that "God forgives all the sins of everyone who fasts on three consecutive days and nights, four times a year, namely, before the tenth of Tebet, before the seventeenth of Tamuz, before Rosh Hashanah, and during the ten succeeding days of Penitence." In an unavailing effort to avert assault during the First Crusade, the Jews of Trier, we are informed, distributed almost all their possessions to the poor. This was a fairly common practice in the Middle Ages, individuals sometimes stripping themselves even of their clothes and giving them away, to gain relief from serious illness and other afflictions. Private fasts and almsgiving were recommended in a host of situations: before undertaking a journey, to cure an ailment, to change one's luck, to remedy barrenness, to counteract an omen of death, or an ominous dream, and so on. Communal fasts were also decreed on occasion: for rain, when a pogrom impended, when an unduly heavy tax burden had been laid upon the community, etc.6
Of course, the most obvious means of protection was to post a guard over the threatened individual. This was the purport of the warning against going out at night unaccompanied. The well-known German-Jewish institution of the Wachnacht, celebrated with feasting and prayer and study all the night preceding a circumcision, constituted a close watch against demonic attacks. Speaking of people whose condition renders them an easy prey to the spirits, one writer says, "I have known many to observe a meticulous watch over them, in particular over a pregnant woman and a mourner, who are not left alone for a moment, and who are not permitted to go out of doors unless accompanied by an adult or at least by a child."7
But a physical guard was not of itself warranted to relieve all fear, and most often supernatural forces were set into operation. The demons must be met on their own ground. Prominent among
the anti-demonic measures was the method of magic, the exorcism. All the familiar devices were resorted toinvoking the angels and the holy names, reciting Biblical verses, magical numbers, etc. Most potent among the protective names was Shaddai, "Almighty." It was inscribed on the outside of the mezuzah; the phylactery straps were so knotted that in combination with the letter shin on the head-box they spelled it out; it was uttered prior to departure on a journey; Kohanim (descendants of the priestly caste), while offering the Priestly Benediction, spelled it out with their fingers; one did the same to fend off an anticipated assault by a thug; even the dead were afforded its protection, for in some places the fingers of a corpse were bound in such a way as to form the three letters of this name.'
The following spell was prescribed to expel demons from a place which they were believed to infest: "Measure off the spot in the four cardinal directions, and mark its borders with strings. Stretch another string the length of the area, alongside one of the borders, and have ten men carrying a Scroll of the Torah walk along this string to its end; then move the string a trifle, so that their footprints will touch the impressions made on the first line, and have them follow this second line; repeat this until the entire area has been covered. On each line, the Torah preceding them, they should recite the following: the Priestly Benediction (Nu. 6: 24-26), the 'anti-demonic psalm' (Ps. 91), Lev. 26:42, Ezek. 45:12, Deut. 11:12, Is. 62:4, Is. 45:18, Ps. 85:2, Ps. 67:2, Deut. 28:8. They must recite these on each line, and they must tread the entire plot of ground thoroughly. When this has been done they should say, 'With the consent of God, and with the consent of the Torah, and of Israel, who guard it, may it be forbidden to any demon, male or female, to invade this place from this time forth and forever.'" Incantations and charms of this sort are to be found aplenty. Before setting out on a journey it was a common practice to invoke the protection of angels. To free a demoniac of his unwelcome visitant one should "fill a new pot with freshly drawn water, pour in some olive oil, and whisper Psalm 10 over it nine times, with the mystical names that appertain to that Psalm, and then bathe the patient with the liquid." Scriptural verses, universally employed against the evil eye, were frequently recommended in Jewish literature for this purpose. Outstanding among these verses were the Priestly Benediction and Gen. 49:22.9
Furthermore, Jewish superstition was conversant with the fairly large class of things and actions which have been universally credited
with anti-demonic virtues. Here a brief summary of the extensive material may suffice.
Light was one of these protective agents, due, no doubt, to the circumstance that demons shun the light, and also because of the purificatory and expiatory virtues of fire, the source of light. In the Talmud we read that "carrying a torch at night is as good as having a companion (to keep the demons away), while walking by moonlight is equivalent to having two companions." Sefer Ḥasidim advises that "anyone who is threatened by demons and approaches fire before uttering a word about it, will not be harmed nor die." This belief partly explains the ubiquity of lights at religious and semi-religious exercises, especially those associated with moments of crisis, although it would be absurd to deny that lights were used also, and perhaps more frequently, because of other significances, symbolic, ritual, superstitious, attached to them.10
Water is as potent a cleansing and piacular medium as fire, and consequently it possesses similar protective virtues. If a man who has been bitten by a snake reaches a stream first, the snake dies, but if the snake gets there first, the man dies. Running water neutralizes a magic act, and destroys the magical properties of things; it dispels mirages created by demons, and drives off the spirits themselves. To bar the demons from entering one's home, one must pour water, prepared according to a magic recipe, over the threshold. Many prescriptions for expelling a demon from a possessed person require bathing in water. It was also a common ingredient of superstitious medicaments.11
The most powerful liquid, as we have seen, was supposed to be spittle, especially the sputum of a fasting man. Therefore it was suggested that one may protect himself in unclean places, which the spirits haunt, by spitting three times, and even evil thoughts, which are the work of demons, may be dispelled in the same way.12
A form of frontal attack upon the spirits is practiced by some peoples, who resort to throwing things or shooting into the air to drive them off. While such practices were not altogether unknown among Jews, the noise that usually accompanies warfare was substituted for the physical encounter. In Talmudic times it was customary to rattle nuts in a jar to scare away the demons that frequent privies, and a precautionary measure against swallowing evil spirits along with some water was to strike the vessel sharply before drinking. Medieval Germans believed that the crack of a whip and the
ringing of church bells have the same effect; on the Polterabend, preceding a wedding, the demons that threatened bride and groom were driven off by setting up a great clamor and breaking pottery; the same custom is preserved in the "bellin" that still accompanies a wedding in the Kentucky mountains. Noise-making also figured at Jewish weddings as a measure of protection, as we shall see.13
As among other peoples, metals, and iron, in particular, were the most frequently used anti-demonic objects. Eleazar of Worms suggests an explanation which has been favored by modern students of superstition; for protection against demons and witches one should strike a tool made of "acier," he wrote, "for metals are the products of civilization," and thus evidently antipathetic to the spirit masters of primitive pre-metal society. However, this is only one of the explanations advanced nowadays. The magic circle was to be drawn with a knife or sword; a piece of iron suspended in water protects it against demonic contamination during the Tekufah; iron was put into a hen's nest to guard the chicks against suffocation and fright during a thunderstorm; pregnant women kept a knife with them when alone; the key to the synagogue was placed under the pillow of the dying man.14
Salt was another such substance which figured prominently in the folklore of European peoples. Thus it was believed that salt is never found at the witches Sabbat feast, and the Inquisitor and his assistants at a witch-trial were warned to wear bags containing consecrated salt for protection against the accused. Jewish folklore credited salt with an equally high potency. In Ezek. 16:4 we learn that new-born babes were rubbed with salt, a practice still current in the Orient. According to medieval authorities, salt must be set on a table before a meal is begun "because it protects one against Satan's denunciations." The Kabbalists were more outspoken: "It drives off the spirits," they wrote, "because it is the mathematical equivalent of three yhvh's; therefore one should dip the piece of bread over which the benediction is recited, three times into salt." "After each meal eat some salt and you will not be harmed." For this reason salt was used in many rites connected with birth, marriage and death, and in medicine.15
Very often salt and bread were jointly prescribed to defeat the stratagems of spirits and magicians. When a witch assaults a man, he can bring about her death by forcing her to give him some of her bread and salt. Murderers ate bread and salt immediately after
their crime to prevent the return of their victim's spirit to wreak vengeance upon them. Schudt reports that a Jewish woman advised him to hang bread and salt on his daughter's neck to protect her from harm; "she had done this to all her children and in consequence they had all prospered." The common practice of bringing salt and bread into a new home before moving in, usually explained as symbolic of the hope that food may never be lacking there, was probably also in origin a means of securing the house against the spirits.16
Along with salt, sharp herbs and condiments in general have been widely regarded as anti-demonic, and have had an important place in religious rites of purification. This is not true, however, of Jewish practice to any appreciable extent, though such ingredients were occasionally prescribed in medicaments, where their power to expel spirits may have been their recommendation, along with their more natural medicinal properties.17
Among the most widely used anti-demonic devices in Europe is the gesture called "to fig" (in German, die Feige weisen, in French, faire la figue, in Italian, far la fica, in Spanish, hacer el higo), recognized as a sign of defiance and insult in ancient and modern times. It is made by closing the fist and inserting the thumb between two fingers. Its peculiarly obnoxious character, to men and spirits alike, derives from the fact that it is meant as an obscene representation of the sexual act. Menasseh b. Israel was correct both in his explanation of the intent of this gesture, and his association of it with the Talmudic recommendation that to protect oneself against the evil eye one should place his right thumb in his left fist and his left thumb in his right fist. While this gesture differs in form, its significance is the same. In the Middle Ages, however, Jews were acquainted with the authentic "fig": "If a demon confronts a man he should bend his thumb between his fingers," or, more explicitly, "When a man encloses his thumb in his fist he simulates a pregnant woman, and they [the spirits] do not harm him." People who employed this gesture were warned that it infuriates the demons at the same time that it renders them harmless; therefore, a weak person, "especially one who is dangerously ill," should forbear to use it, for the spirits may subsequently take vengeance on him. Variations on this theme were also employed: For safety on a journey one should place the little finger of the right hand in the left fist and recite a charm formula. The fingers were used as phallic symbols
to the same end, and we learn that a witch is transfixed when one raises his index finger and thumb and recites the name "Uriel" seven times, or that an "evil impulse" may be vanquished by pressing the thumbs on the ground, repeating "Pipi" nine times, and spitting.18
These methods constitute the arsenal employed in the war against the spiritsweapons of more or less direct attack. But strategy knows more devious means of disarming a foe. The giftor bribe, depending upon the viewpointhas been proven easily as effective in conciliating demons as men. "If a sorcerer or a witch demands anything of you," we read in Sefer Ḥasidim, "don't hesitate to give them a coin or two, so that they shall not bewitch you, just as you would make a present to the demons, or to a maniac, to forestall their doing you some harm." In magic, as we have observed, the offering played a conspicuous and often deliberate rôle. Countless customs among all peoples have cunningly preserved the good-will offering to the spirits, so that to this day Jews and non-Jews innocently continue to tender their gifts of peace to the unseen powers. The harsh building-sacrifice, once universally observed, which involved originally the immolation of a human being to secure the stability and safety of a structure, was in time mitigated into an animal sacrifice. Medieval Germans still felt the need of protecting their homes by burying a fowl or an animal in its walls; I know of no analogous Jewish practice during the Middle Ages.
Offerings to the spirits made their appearance in many guises. When a beast or fowl upset a dish or some other utensil this was taken to be an ill omen; one must kill the offending creature at once. The sacrifice of the animal may appease the spirits. In a sense the offering represents a substitute for the intended victim, which the spirits are ready to accept even when it is proffered accidentally and not by design. "When an angel is dispatched to take a man's life, if another born under the same planetary influences chances to die, the first is spared." When the angel of death comes to town the dogs are immediately aware of his presence and freeze in their tracks; if a dog's master should push him forward, the animal will drop dead; "the dog then serves as a substitute for the man whom the angel of death has been sent to kill."19
A superstitious dread of unnatural behavior manifested itself in a summary destruction of the offender. A cow which bore twins, or a hen that laid two eggs in one day, was executed; a tree which produced fruit twice in one year was cut down. In one instance, when a child was born with two sets of teeth and a rudimentary tail, its life was barely saved by the vigorous intercession of a "wise man." Although the Talmud condemned the practice of killing a crowing hen as "heathenish superstition," fear that this aberrant behavior betokened misfortune persisted, and the unlucky fowl met a speedy death. It has been argued that the references to this practice are merely a figurative expression of the male conviction that woman should keep her placeif she attempts to usurp her husband's authority she becomes dangerous. An Italian proverb employs the same figure: In quella casa non è mai pace, dove la gallina canta ed il gallo tace. But ingenious though this supposition is, it pays little regard to the plain sense of the texts. There can be no doubt that the practice was observed quite literally and that the execution was regarded as a means of appeasing the powers that had decreed the impending bad luck. The observation that "the hen's head is chopped off at the threshold of the house" can indicate nothing else than that it was an offering to the spirits.20
The Kapparah rite is an interesting version of the famous "scapegoat" offering, which occurs in various forms among many peoples. It was first mentioned in early Geonic times, and probably originated toward the end of the Talmudic period. The following account, quoted by Rashi from a Geonic source, describes a form of this rite which was no longer followed during the Middle Ages: two or three weeks before Rosh Hashanah the head of the family planted beans in little baskets, one for each member of the family; when these sprouted on the eve of the New Year he would circle the head of each individual with his basket seven times, saying, "This is in place of this person, this is his surrogate, this is a substitute for him," and throw it into the river.
The procedure that prevailed in the Middle Ages, also mentioned in Geonic writings, differed. It involved the slaughter of a cock for the male, a hen for the female, on the eve of Yom Kippur (in Geonic times a ram, or lamb, or goat might also be used), after the following ritual: the fowl was passed three times around the head of the subject, while various Biblical passages were recited; the announcement was then made, "This fowl is my substitute, this is my surrogate,
this is my atonement." Some old texts significantly add, "May it be designated for death, and I for life." According to one account, after the fowl was slaughtered, "the entrails were thrown on the roof for the birds of heaven"; the usual procedure was to present the entire fowl to the poor "as an act of charity in accordance with the words 'Charity delivereth from death,'" but some of the rabbis frowned upon this method of disposal, favoring rather the distribution of the money value of the bird, "for when it is given to a poor man, he says to himself, that man has transferred his sins to the cock, and I seem to him of so little worth that he sends it to me." In Spain the rite did not meet with the approval of several of the leading authorities. R. Solomon b. Adret (thirteenth century), who stated specifically that it was observed without objection in Germany, was himself poorly acquainted with it and confused it with another local superstitious custom. The earliest editions of the Shulḥan Aruch, the authoritative law code of modern Jewry, contain the opinion of its Palestinian author, Joseph Caro, that this is "a silly custom" and its observance "should be checked"; under the influence of the sixteenth-century Polish annotator, Moses Isserles, the first words were eliminated from later editions. It is possible that the rite was not observed in Angevin England, for the author of the only code composed there introduced his description of it with the words, "I have found in the Seder of R. Amram that . . .," implying that he was not acquainted with it from his own experience.
The intent of the rite was to transfer the sins of the individual to the fowl, and by offering this substitute to the supernatural powers save oneself from the punishment decreed in heaven. The various features of the ceremony accentuate its superstitious and even magical character. Fowl are closely associated with the spirits in Jewish and non-Jewish lore, and are the commonest oblation to them. The Hebrew term for "rooster," gever (a word which, it should be noted, attained fairly wide currency only in post-Talmudic times), also means "man," making the one a palpable substitute for the other. The cock is employed to represent a man, the hen, a woman, in many magic rites. The circles which are described about the head of the individual, and the numbers three and seven, are well-known magical elements. The words which effectuate the substitution have all the earmarks of a typical incantation. In the earlier texts the words "this is my atonement" are not present; they were added later so that the initials of the Hebrew terms might form the word
[paragraph continues] Ḥatach, "which is the name of the angel appointed over this." The belief that evil spirits roost on roofs occurs often (the Talmud places them under the eaves), and many folk-customs, including the German, display instances of placing offerings to the spirits on a roof. In view of this the requirement that the entrails be thrown on a roof acquires special significance. Thus analyzed there can be little doubt of the true meaning of the rite, which is still observed today. It is probably the most blatantly superstitious practice to have entered Jewish religious usage, for where the significance of other such practices has long been lost sight of, the purpose of this one is too apparent to escape even the dullest wits. However little meaning the details of the rite may convey to the uninformed, the substitution of fowl for man is unescapable.21
Not unrelated is the rite of Tashlich, observed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, which derived its name from the words of Micah 7:19, "Thou wilt cast (tashlich) all their sins into the depths of the sea." The first direct reference to it in its modern form is by R. Jacob Mölln (Maharil, d. 1425), and the general impression has therefore been that it originated not earlier than the fourteenth century, with the German Jews. Professor Lauterbach, however, has shown that this ceremony represents merely the latest version of a complex of superstitious practices centering about the belief in the existence of spirits in bodies of water, which reaches back to remote antiquity. Maharil's comment is suggestive of a connection with the first form of the Kapparah rite, for he speaks of people "throwing bread to the fish in a river." This apparently was the essential feature of the ceremony, for in later times Tashlich was postponed if the first day of the New Year fell on a Sabbath, on the ground that carrying bread was a violation of the Sabbath rules.
Whatever its origin, the explanations varied widely. Maharil viewed it as a symbolic affirmation of faith: according to a Midrashic legend, when Abraham was on his way to fulfill God's demand that he sacrifice Isaac, Satan flung a swift-flowing stream across his path, but the patriarch pressed forward, confident that God would respond to his plea for aid. Mölln, then, stressed the mere act of visiting a river as paramount, and in fact, opposed the practice of throwing crumbs into it. Others suggested that since the limitless deep saw the beginning of Creation, visiting a body of water on New Year was the most impressive reminder of the Creator's might; or that man should emulate the river, endlessly renewing
itself, forswear his evil ways and return home a new man; or that the fish which devour the crumbs illustrate the plight of man, who is "as the fishes that are taken in an evil net" (Eccl. 9:12), and arouse him to repentance; or, again, that the fish, whose eyes never close, symbolize the Guardian of Israel who slumbereth not. These explanations only too patently evade the main issue, the bread offering to the spirits. Under Kabbalistic influence an attempt was made to limit the rite to shaking one's clothes at the river-side ("to dislodge the kelippot," the clinging demons of sin) and reciting various prayers and Biblical selections "whose secret significance is very profound." What the popular conception of the purpose of this rite was may be gleaned from the rabbinic animadversions against "those men, with as little sense as a woman, who say, 'I am going to the river to shake off my sins,' and grasping the edges of their garments shake them violently and imagine that in this way they can slough off a whole year's transgressions." However, it is with this meaning for the masses that the ceremony has survived.22
Less formal food offerings were also fairly common. The Talmud cites the opinion of R. Eleazar b. Pedat: "He who leaves crumbs on the table is to be regarded as a worshiper of heathen gods," and from the discussion it would appear that not only "crumbs" but sometimes whole loaves were set on the table at the conclusion of a meal. Other usages of the same nature were popular in Talmudic times; try as they might the rabbis could not root them out. They compromised by forbidding the leaving or scattering of food "that may spoil," thus accepting the practices but obscuring their purpose. In the Middle Ages the Talmudic custom was sedulously observed; crumbs, "but not morsels of bread," were left on the table, the explanation offered being that this was a symbolic expression of hospitality to the wayfarer and the needy. Still we find that on certain occasions, notably on the eve of a circumcision, a table was set especially for the delectation of the spirits.
On Friday nights, too, a loaf of bread and a cup of wine were set aside during the meal or left standing overnight. Some advanced the dubious rationalization that this was "in commemoration of the manna" which fell in double portion on the eve of the Sabbath, but there were rabbis who saw through the shallow evasion and did not hesitate to categorize it as "setting a table for the demons." Yet it continued to be done, sometimes with the frank admission that "it extends fullness of blessing over the entire week." During the Passover
[paragraph continues] Seder a cup of wine is filled expressly for the Prophet Elijah, who is believed to visit every Jewish home on that occasion, and the door is opened for him to enterthis time the offering is to a good spirit, rather than an evil one. But during the same service there is a late custom, which arose in German-Jewish circles, to pour out a drop of wine at the mention of each of the ten plagues, possibly to placate the evil spirits, who may be impelled by the reference to so many disasters to visit some of them upon the celebrants. Israel Isserlein's biographer wrote of him, "He always spilled some of the water from his cup before drinking," thus observing a universal Jewish custom going back to Talmudic times. The explanation then given was that the water might have been contaminated by a demon but obviously merely spilling some of it doesn't purify it all. The intention was to induce the demon to neutralize the possible ill effect of the water by making him a libation.
On Saturday evening, during the Habdalah ceremony which marks the beginning of the new week, another libation was offered to the spirits, as part of the ritual. Some of the wine was poured upon the ground "as a good omen for the entire week, to symbolize good fortune and blessing," for was it not written in the Talmud, "A man in whose home wine does not flow like water is not among the truly blessed"? This custom was not mentioned earlier than the Geonic period; the Talmudic support was wholly arbitrary, for the plain sense of the words is the reverse of the interpretation here given them. The Talmud speaks of overflowing wine not as a symbol of blessing to come, but as a token of blessings already enjoyed. The Geonim admitted that the custom was not altogether respectable when they included it among a list of superstitious practices. Centuries later we come across a recognition of its true significance which shows the retentiveness of the popular memory. Moses Mat in the sixteenth century wrote that this practice is intended to "give their portion to the company of Korah," namely, to the powers of evil. And that portion was not inconsiderable. As one rabbi in Silesia remarked, "If I had the wine that is poured upon the ground in Austria during Habdalah it would suffice to quench my thirst for a whole year!" This custom of pouring out some wine over which a blessing had been recited, which appears again in the wedding ceremony, may have been considered by some people not as an offering to the spirits, but as a means of driving them off. Christians in those days believed that consecrated water had such power, and Jews may
also have believed that the wine of the "cup of blessing" would have the same effect.23
The final weapon in the anti-demonic strategy is that of deceit. It figures prominently in the initiation, marriage and burial rites of primitive peoples and not a few examples have been collected from European folk-customs. Medieval Jews, however, resorted to this device only rarely. Apart from several instances connected with birth and marriage, to be cited later, it was most commonly employed in changing an invalid's name so that the spirits who might be charged with effecting his death would be unable to locate him. This deception was also practiced by individuals who had suffered a run of bad luck; just as criminals adopt aliases to evade the police, so medieval Jews embraced new names to give their spirit harriers the slip. Changing one's residence, or moving out of a city altogether, was another way of confusing and eluding the demons; this remedy was suggested to people whose fortune had soured, to couples whose children died young, to men who had lost their peace of mind through the operation of love charms.24
Birth, marriage, illness, deaththese were the moments when a pall descended upon mannot only upon the individuals directly involved, but upon all those who were in their vicinity. It was in such moments that the whole battery of anti-demonic weapons was trained upon man's mortal enemies, that we find a massing of all those superstitious devices which from time immemorial have been accredited with potency to counteract magic, curses, the evil eye, to cure disease, to shatter the onslaught of the evil spirits.
A brief enumeration of the customs associated in Jewish life with these critical moments, which display either singly or in combination the anti-demonic measures described, may astound many Jews familiar with some of them as a respectable part of Jewish ceremonial. The Jewish propensity for re-interpreting ineradicable primitive usages and endowing them with religious values has successfully masked their true significance, at least in the western world. In Eastern Europe and in the Orient, where more primitive attitudes still prevail among the masses, an awareness of the real import of such customs still persists, albeit along with a doctrinal acceptance of the
rationalizations which the rabbinic purifiers of Judaism have promulgated. This was the case during the Middle Agesmost teachers struggled valiantly to uproot the superstitious ideas, if not the actual practices with which they were associated, but many comments reveal the ineffectuality of their efforts. Not all of these practices were employed collectively, nor were they of equal moment; the selection varied from place to place and from time to time, often according to individual predilection, and was frequently accompanied by the recital of Biblical verses, amulets, etc.
1. The woman in childbirth was closely guarded; men were stationed in the house who prayed for her and her child, and recited various Psalms that were believed to be effective against the spirits. They were warned, however, on no account "to gossip about any sins that she might have committed." After the birth of her child she was not permitted to stir out of the house alone until after the circumcision.25
2. The Scroll of the Torah and phylacteries were placed on her bed, or at least brought to the door of her room.26
3. Candles were lit in her behalf.27
4. During the last days prior to delivery she would keep a knife with her when she was alone. According to a late report, which probably reflects an earlier usage, the key to the synagogue was placed in her hand during labor; in isolated country places and villages where there was no synagogue the key to a church was borrowed for this purpose.28
5. A circle was drawn around the lying-in bed, and a magical inscription (reading "Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangelaf, Adam and Eve, barring Lilit") was chalked upon the walls or door of the room.29
6. I know of no record of an actual offering to the spirits at this time, though it was customary among the Germans, and occurs in Oriental Jewries. However, a prime protective amulet bore the figures of fowl, which may be taken to have been a refinement of an earlier offering.30
7. It was suggested, to ease labor pains, that a woman should wear an article of her husband's clothing, such as his doublet, trousers, or belt.31
1. The rite itself must be considered as in some degree a measure of protection against the forces of evil. It is significant that the heightened danger which threatens both mother and infant during the eight days prior to the operation subsides immediately afterward. Circumcision ushers the child into the community of Israel and at the same time evokes the guardianship of the powers of good. Certain incidental usages illustrate the potency attributed to circumcision. A Geonic source is cited as authority for this practice: the bloody foreskin was placed in a bowl containing water and spices, and each member of the congregation, as he left the synagogue (where the rite used to be performed), would bathe his hands and face. A late work suggests, as a "wonderful charm," that during the days preceding the rite the foreskin of a child previously circumcised be put into the mouth of the infant who is about to undergo the operation. In a thirteenth-century manuscript we read: "Why was it ordained that the cloth [upon which the circumciser wipes his blood-stained hands and mouth] be hung at the door of the synagogue [during and after the operation]? My uncle, Ephraim of Bonn, said that the sages explained it thus: Israel was redeemed from Egypt because of a double blood merit, the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision; and Israel 'shall take of the blood and put it on the lintel' of their houses (cf. Ex. 12:7) as a token that the Destroyer shall not have power over their homes, to do them harm. . . ."32
2. The child was very carefully guarded during these eight critical days.33
3. "The essence of protection is to remain awake nights and study Torah until the circumcision." The writer might have added, and to recite mystical prayers and Psalms, for these were included in the vigils. This should be done "particularly on the night before the circumcision, because the spirits are most incensed then," or, as another writer put it, "because Satan strives to harm the child and to prevent it from experiencing the religious rite of circumcision, for he is very much provoked that Jews should keep the commandment by whose merit they are saved from Gehinnom." This is the Wachnacht, during which an unremitting watch was maintained over the child, eked out with prayers and study. The occasion of a circumcision was celebrated in ancient times with a feast on the night before,
or on the day of the performance of the rite. In the Middle Ages both feasts were observed, or rather the one was begun in the evening and continued on the following day. The special Wachnacht custom developed out of this. How early this happened we cannot say; the references to it go back no further than the sixteenth century, and the name itself was not used until later. One sixteenth-century writer did record that in Elsass the name used was Gitot Nacht while in other parts of Germany and in Metz it was called Wazinacht, but these transliterations are not very helpful. They have been variously interpreted as Gottesnacht and Weizennacht, as French and German versions of Wachnacht, and as Güets Nacht and Waizen-Nacht. Whichever of these translations may be correct, the suggestion of Güdemann that the terms signify Spuknacht may be accepted as essentially faithful to the temper of the observance.34
4. It was customary, in some places, "to set a table with varieties of food on the night before the circumcision, with the explanation that they are doing this for the child's star" (or "to bring him good luck") . The rabbis pointed out that this was nothing else than an offering to the spirits.35
5. The custom of setting aside a chair for the Prophet Elijah during the circumcision goes back to early times, and was connected with a legend that God had rewarded the prophet for his zealous defense of this rite with the promise that he would be present at every circumcision. In origin, this custom was of a piece with the offering to the spirits, to bribe the evil ones, and to entertain the good ones, and is analogous to similar practices among the Romans. It was not merely a symbolic gesture; something of Elijah's presence was actually believed to inhabit his chair. During the Middle Ages it was customary for the assembled guests to rise before the ceremony, and to greet the unseen visitor with the words, "Blessed be he that cometh."36
6. "This also is a protective measure," we read: "the house should be full of light" on the days before the circumcision, and candles were lit in profusion, especially while the circumcision was being performed. The purpose was not to obtain light, for the rite was performed during the daytime. The variety of explanations indicates uncertainty about the real reason, or a desire to obscure it. "The commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light" (Prov. 6:23) was cited as Scriptural basis for the practice; or it was explained as "an expression of rejoicing and honor"; or again, as a notice to
[paragraph continues] Jewish passersby that the ceremony was in progress, originating in an ancient proscription against circumcisions which consequently had to be performed in secret. In more recent times it was customary to light thirteen candles, ostensibly to correspond with the thirteen occurrences of the word "covenant" (berit) in the Biblical chapter (Gen. 17) which speaks of circumcision, or with the thirteen tribes (including the half-tribes of Ephraim and Menasseh), or with the twelve tribes plus one for the child, this last candle being permitted to burn itself out.37
7. The Hollekreisch, which has already been described, was a measure to drive off evil spirits during the ceremony of naming the child, by shouting and tossing the infant in the air.38
1. Both bride and groom (in some places only the groom) fasted on the wedding day. A variety of far-fetched explanations was offered for this custom; one, which attained the height of absurdity, was that the groom might not be suspected of inebriety during the ceremony!39
2. The groom was escorted from his home to the synagogue by attendants; "just as a king is surrounded by his guards, so the attendants surround the groom," was the significant parallel. Sometimes the entire congregation accompanied him. For a while before and after the wedding the groom was forbidden to venture out-of-doors alone.40
3. The wedding procession, in broad daylight, was preceded by young men bearing lighted torches or candles, which were sometimes thrown into the air. Loud and often discordant music characterized the procession.41
4. The custom of breaking a glass at the wedding, which, according to some, goes back to Talmudic times, was a regular feature of the medieval ceremony. The groom would step on the glass, or dash it on the ground, or shatter it against the north wall. The explanations generally account for this practice as a token of sadness which should leaven all rejoicings, or more commonly after the fourteenth century, as a sign of mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem; but some of the very rabbis who advanced these explanations were aware of their artificiality. There are indications that the real purpose of the custom had not been forgotten, as in the comment that it was
intended "to give the accuser [Satan] his due." The demons were believed to come from the north, and therefore the detail that the glass was thrown against the north wall has special significance in this connection. The custom combined an attempt to frighten off the demons with noise, and a direct attack upon them.42
5. The wedding ceremony contained several instances of presenting gift-offerings to the spirits. Some of the wine over which the marriage blessings had been recited was poured on the ground. A special feature of this practice, mentioned in one source, namely, to scatter the wine over the entire house, may perhaps be accounted for as due to the belief that the "wine of blessing" drives away the demons. In Talmudic times it was customary to strew food, such as wine and oil, parched corn and nuts, fish and meats, before the bridal pair; during the Middle Ages the practice usually was limited to scattering grains of wheat over and around them, just as we do today with rice. In some places gold coins were mingled with the wheat; in others, salt was scattered over the couple. The Talmudic custom of carrying a hen and rooster before the bride and groom was transmuted in the Middle Ages to flinging a pair of fowl over their heads. The commonest explanation of these practices was that they were symbols of fertility and prosperity. But as Samter has shown after a study of similar usages all over the world, such fertility symbols are at bottom offerings to the spirits to gain their good-will. The presence of the gold coins, which may be viewed either as bribes, or as an anti-demonic use of metal, and of salt, which certainly was intended to drive away the demons, emphasizes the general nature of these customs.43
6. An effort was made to introduce a note of mourning into the ceremony, ostensibly over the destruction of Jerusalem. Bride and groom wore white shoes, ashes or dust was strewn upon the heads of both, or of the groom alone, or a strip of black cloth was wound around their heads, they were clothed in funereal garb, the bride wearing a shroud called a sarganes, the groom, a hooded cloak, or mitron, "as mourners do in the Rhineland." The custom of crying and wailing at weddings has remained prevalent to this day, especially among the Jews of Eastern Europe and the Orient. The real purpose of all this doubtless, was to delude the demons into imagining it was a sorrowful and not a joyous occasion, and thus to avoid arousing their envy and hatred.44
7. During the ceremony the groom's mitron, or his prayer-shawl,
was spread over the head of the bride, and immediately after the wedding he "placed in her bosom" his doublet, girdle and cap. These may have been vestiges of an ancient exchange of clothes between the two, a custom frequently encountered among other peoples. The widespread custom of covering the bride's face with a veil, which prevailed throughout the Middle Ages, was originally intended to hide her from the spirits.45
8. In some places the groom carried a piece of iron in his pocket during the ceremony. Toward the end of the Middle Ages it became customary to march the bride three times around her mate, apparently a version of the magic circle. And finally, to point the moral, no sooner was the ceremony over than "they would rush the groom off to the wedding chamber before the bride, by way of rejoicing." A strange "way of rejoicing" indeed! The mad dash was only to get him to the bridal chamber before the demons, recovering from the bombardment to which they had been subjected, prevented him from enjoying his newly won connubial happiness.46
The same motifs are repeated in the customs connected with death. A dying man was on no account to be left alone. Mystical prayers were prescribed to be read in his presence, notably the prayer Ana Bekoaḥ, which contains an acrostic of the powerful 42-letter name of God. Candles were lit beside his bed, quite frankly, "to drive away the demons." It was suggested that a loaf of bread be placed beside him "to straighten his limbs," in other words, to ease his final moments. Chicken feathers, no doubt because of the relationship that existed between demons and this fowl, were believed to prolong the death-agony, and therefore bedding containing such feathers was removed from beneath the dying man. Such practices were intended to repel the demons, who, in their struggle for the body of the departing one, were held responsible for the anguish that he suffered. But death itself is the work of spirit forces, and the very measures that oblige the demons to keep their distance, and thus make death easier, have the same effect upon the angel of death, and upon the soul preparing timidly for its exit from the body, and therefore delay the end. This was undoubtedly in the mind of many folk who resorted to these measures. However, believing that death is an inherent phase of life, and that it is decreed
by God, the rabbis strongly opposed such efforts to delay its coming. Thus, they forbade shouting at a dying man, or engaging in any noisy occupation, such as chopping wood, for noise prevents the soul from leaving the body. Similarly, salt delays death, and one should not put any upon the dying man's tongue for that purpose; but it was permissible to remove salt if it had coagulated upon his tongue. It was also customary to place the key to the synagogue under his head, though this too was forbidden by the authorities.47
THE CORPSE. The rules for preparing the corpse for burial were compiled in early post-Talmudic times, and comprise practices such as closing the eyes, placing metal or salt on the body, setting a light at its head, etc., which were undoubtedly originally intended to confound the spirits and the ghost of the deceased, both of which the survivors feared. While it was forbidden to place a Scroll of the Torah on the coffin, as seems to have been done at times, it could be set near the body. The Talmud lamely explained the watch over the corpse as intended to protect it from rodents and other such marauders, but later writers confessed that it was meant as a protection against attack from the spirit world. A ritual of study and prayer for this watch was developed during the Middle Ages. The Polish Kabbalist, Isaiah Horowitz, wrote, "I have received a tradition that those who watch the corpse from the moment of death until it is covered with earth should gather around it so closely that not a breath of 'outside' [a term often applied to demons] air can seep past their guard; they should constantly repeat this prayer without an instant's pause, even a thousand times"; the prayer is the acrostic of the 42-letter name of God. Another late medieval custom was to march seven times around the corpse and to recite "certain Biblical selections which drive away the spirits so that they may not seize the body." The belief that a clenched fist, the "fig," is anathema to demons, led to the practice of bending the fingers of a corpse so that even in the grave their depredations might be forestalled. The rabbis inveighed against this "heathenish" custom, and insisted that the fingers must be straightened out before burial, but the practice persisted. In later times it was modified and the fingers were bent in such a way as to form the name Shaddai, again arousing rabbinic displeasure. Finally, those who had prepared the corpse for burial were instructed to wash in salt and water, and to beware even of turning over the board upon which the body had lain lest
they incite the ire of the deceased and "some one die within three days." 48
BURIAL. Funeral rites reflect in a dozen ways the ever-present fear of the supernatural, temporarily heightened as the demons and the ghost of the deceased hover in uncomfortable proximity to the living. Several times the warning is repeated not to set a coffin containing a corpse on top of another, and not to leave a grave open overnight, "or someone will assuredly die in a few days"; one source has it "within nine days." The numeral is indicative of the cause of apprehension; the spirits are touchy about such things, and make speedy reprisal. This explanation is not given in the sources, but as an illustration of the tenacious popular awareness of the purposes of superstitious acts I may note that in recent times, among Russian Jews, when a grave had been dug and was not used promptly, it was filled in overnight and a rooster was buried in it!49
1. The custom of pouring out all the water in and near a house in which a death has occurred is not mentioned in Jewish sources earlier than the thirteenth century, and is evidently a medieval innovation. It was observed by Christians in Germany and France at a still earlier date, and was no doubt borrowed from them. The Jewish practice, which does not follow the more usual and simpler procedure of pouring water across the threshold after the corpse has been removed, to bar the way to the homesick ghost, is susceptible of several explanations. In Christian France, where the same custom existed, these three explanations were offered in the fifteenth century: the soul of the deceased might drown if all the vessels were not emptied; the water reflects the struggle between the soul and the demons, which human eyes may not behold; the soul bathes in it thrice before leaving for the other world, and it may not therefore be used.
The contemporaneous Jewish explanations differed: spilling the water constitutes a silent annunciation of a death, which it is dangerous to mention aloud; the angel of death, who according to Talmudic legend fulfills his mission with a sword steeped in poison, might let a drop of the deadly fluid fall into the water, and thus render it unfit to drink. The fact that all the water in and near the house was spilled exposes the first explanation as an obvious rationalization; the second sounds more "realistic," according to medieval standards. In modern times Jews in Eastern Europe set a glass of water and a towel beside the bed of a dying man so that the angel
of death may cleanse his sword and wipe it. But this same custom also prevails among non-Jews, their explanation being that the soul bathes and dries itself before departing on its long journey. This is the likeliest interpretation not only of this late custom, but of the earlier one also; it emerges quite explicitly from the many examples of this and related practices which scholars have collected from all over the world. Fear that the immersion of the soul would contaminate the water for the living was responsible for all of it being poured out, to make sure the danger was averted. Even food prepared with water was suspect. Interestingly, a sixteenth-century Inquisitorial "Edict of Faith" posited the following as an unmistakable mark of Marranism (adherence to Judaism while professing Christianity): "Pouring water from jars and pitchers when someone has died, believing that the soul of such persons will come and bathe in the water."
We must recognize, however, that such customs are rarely simple in their motivation and meaning, but rather come in time to represent a perplexing maze of folk-notions. This usage was observed for any or all of the reasons advancedor for none at all, except the apprehension that something terrible would happen if it weren't. There is a possibility, even, that the water was also intended as a libation to the spirits or to the soul of the deceased, for "if one who is about to drink water and has already said the blessings, hears that someone has died in town, he should sip a little and pour out the balance." And yet this provision may merely be the result of a desire to maintain the custom, without understanding its meaning, under special circumstances, namely, when a blessing, which requires that some of the water be drunk, has been said. So complex do the motives behind these observances become that it is well-nigh impossible to single them out with any assurance. It may be of interest to recall that we have in English a colloquial expression which commemorates this widespread custom of pouring out liquidswhen a person dies we say he has "kicked the bucket"!50
2. There was considerable difference of opinion in Talmudic and medieval literature as to whether mourners should precede or follow the coffin out of the house. The view that "no man should go out first" was predicated on the belief that "the spirits roam the universe to learn what is decreed above concerning the living," and beholding a condemned sinner before their attention is absorbed by the coffin and its occupant, may pounce upon him. More simply,
the demons await the exit of the corpse, but are prepared to seize a living victim if he makes his appearance first. It was generally agreed, moreover, that women should walk apart from men in the procession, because the spirits display a marked partiality for womankind; "the angel of death and Satan dance before them," it was explained, or, again, "the spirits of uncleanness cling to them." This caution was observed especially on the return from the cemetery, and "in Worms the men turn their faces to the wall when the women walk by" on their way home.51
3. On the way to the cemetery, and after the body had been interred, it was customary, at least toward the end of our period, to recite the "anti-demonic psalm" a number of times, "to drive away the demons." Shabbetai, the son of Isaiah Horowitz, instructed his sons in his testament, "While my body is being lowered into the grave have seven pious and learned men repeat Psalm 91 seven times."52
4. The custom of tearing up some grass and earth, after the conclusion of the funeral rites, and tossing it behind one's back, cannot be traced earlier than the eleventh century. Eliezer b. Nathan, in the twelfth century, did not know, or pretended not to know, the origin of this usage; he introduced his explanation with the words "it seems to me," and went on to base it on three Biblical verses, Ps. 103:14, Ps. 72:16, and Job 2: 12, which speak of earth, grass, and sprinkling dust upon one's head as a token of sorrow. Later writers, citing this explanation, describe the action as an expression of faith in the resurrection of the dead. Eleventh-century rabbis, quoted in later works, said it was done in order "to mark a separation between the mourners and death." But in the thirteenth century one writer, Samson b. Ẓadok, indicated that its real purpose was not altogether forgotten. "This is the reason why they throw it behind and not in front," he wrote: "I read in a Midrash that the soul accompanies the body of the deceased to the grave, and is unable to leave that spot until it receives permission from the congregation; throwing the earth and grass behind one is a sign that the permission is granted, meaning, in effect, 'Go in peace.'" We have here undoubtedly a borrowed custom. It is met with in medieval Germany and France, where along with the general belief that throwing things to the rear repulses the demons who lurk at one's back, there are specific instances of this device being used after a funeral to drive away the spirits, or the soul itself, which may follow the mourners home. The superstitious intent of this usage is enhanced by the fact that a manuscript source
dating from the thirteenth century mentions that the action is to be repeated three times. It was this custom that was responsible for a charge of magic levelled against the Jews of Paris in the twelfth century; luckily R. Moses b. Yeḥiel demonstrated to the satisfaction of the king that it was not intended "to cast a magic spell over the Gentiles, to kill them," but to signify the Jew's belief in the resurrection, and averted a disastrous outcome to this venture in Gentile superstition.53
5. In Talmudic and Geonic times, it was customary for the funeral procession, on its return from the cemetery, to stop and sit down seven times. Although several medieval authorities maintained that this practice had been dispensed with altogether, it persisted in some places, seven or three sittings being observed. Toward the end of our period these halts were coupled with the recitation of Ps. 91 to verse 11, which comprises seven words, one word of that verse being added at each stop. It was frankly admitted that this was intended to confuse and shake off "the evil spirits which follow them home." After the service the chief mourners passed between a double line of people and were then escorted home by the entire company.54
6. The custom of washing the hands after a funeral is very widespread; it seems to have made its way into Judaism in the early post-Talmudic period, and was generally observed during the Middle Ages. Before entering their homes all those who had visited the cemetery bathed their hands, and some, their eyes and face also. In certain mystical circles the lavation was performed three times. Efforts were made to find a Biblical precedent for this act, but along with such pious endeavors there was a general admission that it was done "to dispel the spirits of uncleanness" which cling to one's person, these being "the demons that follow them home."55
7. Mourning rites were most stringent during the seven days after interment, when the soul was believed to suffer intense agony on being parted from the body, and to wander disconsolately back and forth between its former home and the grave. (The earlier distinction between a three- and a seven-day stage of mourning found no practical expression in the Middle Ages.) The ensuing periods of a month and a year represented a gradual weaning away of the soul from the body, and a commensurate easing of the mourning rites. Many of the observances and customs which applied during the first period indicate a desire to protect the mourners against the
soul of the departed, and also a suspicion that the mourners themselves are or may be contaminated by contact with the spirit world. Thus, people forbore to drink out of a glass that had been used by a mourner, or to borrow anything from him during the seven-day period. The mourners were forbidden to leave their homes, except on the Sabbath and holidays, when, in some communities, they were escorted to the synagogue by the members of the congregation. Yet there are instances of refusal to permit mourners to join in the synagogal service, even on the High Holydays, and some would deny mourners the privilege of officiating at services throughout an entire year after their bereavement. It was customary to keep a candle burning in the death chamber during the week after burial; one report has it that each night of the week a small wax candle and a cup of water and salt were set on the spot where the head of the deceased lay when he died. "When I read my account of this custom to R. Israel Isserlein," wrote Joseph b. Moses, his disciple, "he shrugged his shoulders, but he didn't tell me to cross it out." The practice of "wrapping the head" in a mourning cloth was perhaps originally intended to disguise the mourners; if so, its significance was lost sight of in the Middle Ages, when we find that in some places it was dropped altogether "because the Gentiles laugh at us," while in the Rhineland it led to the adoption of a distinctive mourning costume with a cowl, the mitron. Of similar import were the customs of letting the hair and beard grow, of changing one's seat in the synagogue, and the like.56