The Book of Delight and Other Papers
Public Domain Books
A Handful of Curiosities
I. George Eliot and Solomon Maimon
That George Eliot was well acquainted with certain aspects of Jewish history, is fairly clear from her writings. But there is collateral evidence of an interesting kind that proves the same fact quite conclusively, I think.
It will be remembered that Daniel Deronda went into a second-hand book-shop and bought a small volume for half a crown, thereby making the acquaintance of Ezra Cohen. Some time back I had in my hands the identical book that George Eliot purchased which formed the basis of the incident. The book may now be seen in Dr. Williams’s Library, Gordon Square, London. The few words in which George Eliot dismisses the book in her novel would hardly lead one to gather how carefully and conscientiously she had read the volume, which has since been translated into English by Dr. J. Clark Murray. She, of course, bought and read the original German.
The book is Solomon Maimon’s Autobiography, a fascinating piece of self-revelation and of history. (An admirable account of it may be found in chapter x of the fifth volume of the English translation of Graetz’s “History of the Jews.”) Maimon, cynic and skeptic, was a man all head and no heart, but he was not without “character,” in one sense of the word. He forms a necessary link in the progress of modern Jews towards their newer culture. Schiller and Goethe admired him considerably, and, as we shall soon see, George Eliot was a careful student of his celebrated pages. Any reader who takes the book up, will hardly lay it down until he has finished the first part, at least.
Several marginal and other notes in the copy of the Autobiography that belonged to George Eliot are, I am convinced, in her own handwriting, and I propose to print here some of her jottings, all of which are in pencil, but carefully written. Above the Introduction, she writes: “This book might mislead many readers not acquainted with other parts of Jewish history. But for a worthy account (in brief) of Judaism and Rabbinism, see p. 150.” This reference takes one to the fifteenth chapter of the Autobiography. Indeed, George Eliot was right as to the misleading tendency of a good deal in Maimon’s “wonderful piece of autobiography,” as she terms the work in “Daniel Deronda.” She returns to the attack on p. 36 of her copy, where she has jotted, “See infra, p. 150 et seq. for a better-informed view of Talmudic study.”
How carefully George Eliot read! The pagination of 207 is printed wrongly as 160; she corrects it! She corrects Kimesi into “Kimchi” on p. 48, Rabasse into “R. Ashe” on p. 163. On p. 59 she writes, “According to the Talmud no one is eternally damned.” Perhaps her statement needs some slight qualification. Again (p. 62), “Rashi, i.e. Rabbi Shelomoh ben Isaak, whom Buxtorf mistakenly called Jarchi.” It was really to Raymund Martini that this error goes back. But George Eliot could not know it. On p. 140, Maimon begins, “Accordingly, I sought to explain all this in the following way," to which George Eliot appends the note, “But this is simply what the Cabbala teaches–not his own ingenious explanation.”
It is interesting to find George Eliot occasionally defending Judaism against Maimon. On p. 165 he talks of the “abuse of Rabbinism,” in that the Rabbis tacked on new laws to old texts. “Its origin,” says George Eliot’s pencilled jotting, “was the need for freedom to modify laws"–a fine remark. On p. 173, where Maimon again talks of the Rabbinical method of evolving all sorts of moral truths by the oddest exegesis, she writes, “The method has been constantly pursued in various forms by Christian Teachers." On p. 186 Maimon makes merry at the annulment of vows previous to the Day of Atonement. George Eliot writes, “These are religious vows–not engagements between man and man.”
Furthermore, she makes some translations of the titles of Hebrew books cited, and enters a correction of an apparently erroneous statement of fact on p. 215. There Maimon writes as though the Zohar had been promulgated after Sabbatai Zebi. George Eliot notes: “Sabbatai Zebi lived long after the production of the Zohar. He was a contemporary of Spinoza. Moses de Leon belonged to the fourteenth century.” This remark shows that George Eliot knew Graetz’s History, for it is he who brought the names of Spinoza and Sabbatai Zebi together in two chapter headings in his work. Besides, Graetz’s History was certainly in George Eliot’s library; it was among the Lewes books now at Dr. Williams’s. Again, on p. 265, Maimon speaks of the Jewish fast that falls in August. George Eliot jots on the margin, “July? Fast of Ninth Ab.”
Throughout passages are pencilled, and at the end she gives an index to the parts that seem to have interested her particularly. This is her list:
Talmudic quotations, 36. Polish Doctor, 49. The Talmudist, 60. Prince R. and the Barber, 110. Talmudic Method, 174. Polish Jews chiefly Gelehrte, 211. Zohar, 215. Rabbinical Morality, 176. New Chasidim, 207. Elias aus Wilna, 242. Angels (?), 82. Tamuz, II., 135.
It is a pleasure, indeed, to find a fresh confirmation, that George Eliot’s favorable impression of Judaism was based on a very adequate acquaintance with its history. Sir Walter Scott’s knowledge of it was, one cannot but feel, far less intimate than George Eliot’s, but his poetic insight kept him marvellously straight in his appreciation of Jewish life and character.
II. How Milton Pronounced Hebrew
English politics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries maintained a closer association with literature than is conceivable in the present age. England has just witnessed a contest on fundamental issues between the two Houses of Parliament. This recalls, by contrast rather than by similarity, another conflict that divided the Lords from the Commons in and about the year 1645. The question at issue then was the respective literary merits of two metrical translations of the Psalms.
Francis Rous was a Provost of Eton, a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, and representative of Truro in the Long Parliament. This “old illiterate Jew,” as Wood abusively termed him, had made a verse translation of the Psalms, which the House of Commons cordially recommended. The House of Lords, on the other hand, preferred Barton’s translation, and many other contemporaneous attempts were made to meet the growing demand for a good metrical rendering–a demand which, by the way, has remained but imperfectly filled to the present time. Would that some Jewish poet might arise to give us the long-desired version for use, at all events, in our private devotions! In April, 1648, Milton tried his hand at a rendering of nine Psalms (lxxx.-lxxxviii.), and it is from this work that we can see how Milton pronounced Hebrew. Strange to say, Milton’s attempt, except in the case of the eighty-fourth Psalm, has scanty poetical merit, and, as a literal translation, it is not altogether successful. He prides himself on the fact that his verses are such that “all, but what is in a different character, are the very words of the Text, translated from the original." The inserted words in italics are, nevertheless, almost as numerous as the roman type that represents the original Hebrew. Such conventional mistakes as Rous’s cherubims are, however, conspicuously absent from Milton’s more scholarly work. Milton writes cherubs.
Now, in the margin of Psalms lxxx., lxxxi., lxxxii., and lxxxiii., Milton inserts a transliteration of some of the words of the original Hebrew text. The first point that strikes one is the extraordinary accuracy of the transliteration. One word appears as Jimmotu, thus showing that Milton appreciated the force of the dagesh. Again, Shiphtu-dal, bag-nadath-el show that Milton observed the presence of the Makkef. Actual mistakes are very rare, and, as Dr. Davidson has suggested, they may be due to misprints. This certainly accounts for Tishphetu instead of Tishpetu (lxxxii. 2), but when we find Be Sether appearing as two words instead of one, the capital S is rather against this explanation, while Shifta (in the last verse of Psalm lxxxii.) looks like a misreading.
It is curious to see that Milton adopted the nasal intonation of the Ayin. And he adopted it in the least defensible form. He invariably writes gn for the Hebrew Ayin. Now ng is bad enough, but gn seems a worse barbarism. Milton read the vowels, as might have been expected from one living after Reuchlin, who introduced the Italian pronunciation to Christian students in Europe, in the “Portuguese” manner, even to the point of making little, if any, distinction between the Zere and the Sheva. As to the consonants, he read Tav as th, Teth as t, Qof as k, and Vav and Beth equally as v. In this latter point he followed the “German” usage. The letter Cheth Milton read as ch, but Kaf he read as c, sounded hard probably, as so many English readers of Hebrew do at the present day. I have even noted among Jewish boys an amusing affectation of inability to pronounce the Kaf in any other way. The somewhat inaccurate but unavoidable ts for Zadde was already established in Milton’s time, while the letter Yod appears regularly as j, which Milton must have sounded as y. On the whole, it is quite clear that Milton read his Hebrew with minute precision. To see how just this verdict is, let anyone compare Milton’s exactness with the erratic and slovenly transliterations in Edmund Chidmead’s English edition of Leon Modena’s Riti Ebraici, which was published only two years later than Milton’s paraphrase of the Psalms.
The result, then, of an examination of the twenty-six words thus transliterated, is to deepen the conviction that the great Puritan poet, who derived so much inspiration from the Old Testament, drew at least some of it from the pure well of Hebrew undefiled.
III. The Cambridge Platonists
As a “Concluding Part” to “The Myths of Plato,” Professor J.A. Stewart wrote a chapter on the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century, his object being to show that the thought of Plato “has been, and still is, an important influence in modern philosophy.”
It was a not unnatural reaction that diverted the scholars of the Renaissance from Aristotle to Plato. The medieval Church had been Aristotelian, and “antagonism to the Roman Church had, doubtless, much to do with the Platonic revival, which spread from Italy to Cambridge.” But, curiously enough, the Plato whom Cambridge served was not Plato the Athenian dialectician, but Plato the poet and allegorist. It was, in fact, Philo, the Jew, rather than Plato, the Greek, that inspired them.
“Philo never thought of doubting that Platonism and the Jewish Scriptures had real affinity to each other, and hardly perhaps asked himself how the affinity was to be accounted for.” Philo, however, would have had no difficulty in accounting for it; already in his day the quaint theory was prevalent that Athens had borrowed its wisdom from Jerusalem. The Cambridge Platonists went with Philo in declaring Plato to be “the Attic Moses.” Henry More (1662) maintained strongly Plato’s indebtedness to Moses; even Pythagoras was so indebted, or, rather, “it was a common fame [report] that Pythagoras was a disciple of the Prophet Ezekiel.” The Cambridge Platonists were anxious, not only to show this dependence of Greek upon Hebraic thought, but they went on to argue that Moses taught, in allegory, the natural philosophy of Descartes. More calls Platonism the soul, and Cartesianism the body, of his own philosophy, which he applies to the explanation of the Law of Moses. “This philosophy is the old Jewish-Pythagorean Cabbala, which teaches the motion of the Earth and Pre-existence of the Soul.” But it is awkward that Moses does not teach the motion of the earth. More is at no loss; he boldly argues that, though “the motion of the earth has been lost and appears not in the remains of the Jewish Cabbala, this can be no argument against its once having been a part thereof.” He holds it as “exceedingly probable” that the Roman Emperor “Numa was both descended from the Jews and imbued with the Jewish religion and learning.”
Thus the Cambridge Platonists of the seventeenth century are a very remarkable example of the recurrent influence exercised on non-Jews by certain forms of Judaism that had but slight direct effect on the Jews themselves. Indirectly, the Hellenic side of Jewish culture left its mark, especially in the Cabbala. It would be well worth the while of a Jewish theologian to make a close study of the seventeenth century alumni of Cambridge, who were among the most fascinating devotees of ancient Jewish wisdom. Henry More was particularly attractive, “the most interesting and the most unreadable of the whole band.” When he was a young boy, his uncle had to threaten a flogging to cure him of precocious “forwardness in philosophizing concerning the mysteries of necessity and freewill.” In 1631 he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, “about the time when John Milton was leaving it,” and he may almost be said to have spent the rest of his life within the walls of the college, “except when he went to stay with his ’heroine pupil,’ Anne, Viscountess Conway, at her country seat of Ragley in Warwickshire, where his pleasure was to wander among the woods and glades." He absolutely refused all preferment, and when “he was once persuaded to make a journey to Whitehall, to kiss His Majesty’s hands, but heard by the way that this would be the prelude to a bishopric, he at once turned back." Yet More was no recluse. “He had many pupils at Christ’s; he loved music, and used to play on the theorbo; he enjoyed a game at bowls, and still more a conversation with intimate friends, who listened to him as to an oracle; and he was so kind to the poor that it was said his very chamber-door was a hospital for the needy.” But enough has been quoted from Overton’s biography to whet curiosity about this Cambridge sage and saint. More well illustrates what was said above (pp. 114-116)–the man of letters is truest to his calling when he has at the same time an open ear to the call of humanity.
IV. The Anglo-Jewish Yiddish Literary Society
The founder and moving spirit of this unique little Society is Miss Helena Frank, whose sympathy with Yiddish literature has been shown in several ways. Her article in the Nineteenth Century ("The Land of Jargon," October, 1904) was as forcible as it was dainty. Her rendering of the stories of Perez, too, is more than a literary feat. Her knowledge of Yiddish is not merely intellectual; though not herself a Jewess, she evidently enters into the heart of the people who express their lives and aspirations in Yiddish terms. Young as she is, Miss Frank is, indeed, a remarkable linguist; Hebrew and Russian are among her accomplishments. But it is a wonderful fact that she has set herself to acquire these other languages only to help her to understand Yiddish, which latter she knows through and through.
Miss Frank not long ago founded a Society called by the title that heads this note. The Society did not interest itself directly in the preservation of Yiddish as a spoken language. It was rather the somewhat grotesque fear that the rôle of Yiddish as a living language may cease that appealed to Miss Frank. The idea was to collect a Yiddish library, encourage the translation of Yiddish books into English, and provide a sufficient supply of Yiddish books and papers for the patients in the London and other Hospitals who are unable to read any other language. The weekly Yiddishe Gazetten (New York) was sent regularly to the London Hospital, where it has been very welcome.
In the Society’s first report, which I was permitted to see, Miss Frank explained why an American Yiddish paper was the first choice. In the first place, it was a good paper, with an established reputation, and at once conservative and free from prejudice. America is, moreover, “intensely interesting to the Polish Yid. For him it is the free country par excellence. Besides, he is sure to have a son, uncle, or brother there–or to be going there himself. ’Vin shterben in vin Amerika kän sich keener nisht araus drehn!’ (’From dying and from going to America, there is no escape!’)” Miss Frank has a keen sense of humor. How could she love Yiddish were it not so? She cites some of the Yiddishe Gazetten’s answers to correspondents. This is funny: “The woman has the right to take her clothes and ornaments away with her when she leaves her husband. But it is a question if she ought to leave him.” Then we have the following from an article by Dr. Goidorof. He compares the Yiddish language to persons whose passports are not in order–the one has no grammar, the others have no land.
And both the Jewish language and the Jewish nation hide their faulty
passports in their wallets, and disappear from the register of nations
and languages–no land, no grammar!
“A pretty conclusion the savants have come to!” (began the Jewish
nation). “You are nothing but a collection of words, and I am nothing but
a collection of people, and there’s an end to both of us!”
“And Jargon, besides, they said–to which of us did they refer? To me or
to you?” (asks the Jewish language, the word jargon being unknown to
“To you!” (answers the Jewish nation).
“No, to you!” (protests the Jewish language).
“Well, then, to both of us!” (allows the Jewish nation). “It seems we are
both a kind of Jargon. Mercy on us, what shall we do without a grammar
and without a land?”
“Unless the Zionists purchase a grammar of the Sultan!” (romances the
“Or at all events a land!” (sighs the Jewish nation).
“You think that the easier of the two?” (asks the Jewish language,
And at the same moment they look at one another and laugh loudly and
This is genuine Heinesque humor.
V. The Mystics and Saints of India
A book by Professor J.C. Oman, published not long ago, contains a clear and judicially sympathetic account of Hinduism. The sordid side of Indian asceticism receives due attention; the excesses of self-mortification, painful posturings, and equally painful impostures are by no means slurred over by the writer. And yet the essential origin of these ascetic practices is perceived by Professor Oman to be a pure philosophy and a not ignoble idealism. And if Professor Oman’s analysis be true, one understands how it is that, though there have always been Jewish ascetics, at times of considerable numbers and devotion, yet asceticism, as such, has no recognized place in Judaism. Jewish moralists, especially, though not exclusively, those of the mystical or Cabbalistic schools, pronounce powerfully enough against over-indulgence in all sensuous pleasures; they inculcate moderation and abstinence, and, in some cases, where the pressure of desire is very strong, prescribe painful austerities, which may be paralleled by what Professor Oman tells us of the Sadhus and Yogis of India. But let us first listen to Professor Oman’s analysis (p. 16):
“Without any pretence of an exhaustive analysis of the various and
complex motives which underlie religious asceticism, I may, before
concluding this chapter, draw attention to what seem to me the more
general reasons which prompt men to ascetic practices: (1) A desire,
which is intensified by all personal or national troubles, to propitiate
the Unseen Powers. (2) A longing on the part of the intensely religious
to follow in the footsteps of their Master, almost invariably an ascetic.
(3) A wish to work out one’s own future salvation, or emancipation, by
conquering the evil inherent in human nature, i.e. the flesh. (4) A
yearning to prepare oneself by purification of mind and body for entering
into present communion with the Divine Being. (5) Despair arising from
disillusionment and from defeat in the battle of life. And lastly, mere
vanity, stimulated by the admiration which the multitude bestow on the
With regard to his second reason, we find nothing of the kind in Judaism subsequent to the Essenes, until we reach the Cabbalistic heroes of the Middle Ages. The third and the fourth have, on the other hand, had power generally in Jewish conduct. The fifth has had its influence, but only temporarily and temperately. Ascetic practices, based on national and religious calamity, have, for the most part, been prescribed only for certain dates in the calendar, but it must be confessed that an excessive addiction to fasting prevails among many Jews. But it is when we consider the first of Professor Oman’s reasons for ascetic practices that we perceive how entirely the genius of Judaism is foreign to Hindu and most other forms of asceticism. To reach communion with God, the Jew goes along the road of happiness, not of austerity. He serves with joy, not with sadness. On this subject the reader may refer with great profit to the remarks made by the Reverend Morris Joseph, in “Judaism as Creed and Life," p. 247, onwards, and again the whole of chapter iv. of book iii. (p. 364). Self-development, not self-mortification, is the true principle; man’s lower nature is not to be crushed by torture, but to be elevated by moderation, so as to bear its part with man’s higher nature in the service of God.
What leads some Jewish moralists to eulogize asceticism is that there is always a danger of the happiness theory leading to a materialistic view of life. This is what Mr. Joseph says, and says well, on the subject (p. 371):
“And, therefore, though Judaism does not approve of the ascetic temper,
it is far from encouraging the materialist’s view of life. It has no
place for monks or hermits, who think they can serve God best by
renouncing the world; but, on the other hand, it sternly rebukes the
worldliness that knows no ideal but sordid pleasures, no God but Self. It
commends to us the golden mean–the safe line of conduct that lies midway
between the rejection of earthly joys and the worship of them. If
asceticism too often spurns the commonplace duties of life, excessive
self-indulgence unfits us for them. In each case we lose some of our
moral efficiency. But in the latter case there is added an inevitable
degradation. The man who mortifies his body for his soul’s sake has at
least his motive to plead for him. But the sensualist has no such
justification. He deliberately chooses the evil and rejects the good.
Forfeiting his character as a son of God, he yields himself a slave to
“It is the same with the worldly man, who lives only for sordid ends,
such as wealth and the pleasures it buys. He, too, utterly misses his
vocation. His pursuit of riches may be moral in itself; he may be a
perfectly honest man. But his life is unmoral all the same, for it aims
at nothing higher than itself.”
Thus Professor Oman’s fascinating book gives occasion for thought to many whose religion is far removed from Hinduism. But there is in particular one feature of Hindu asceticism that calls for attention. This is the Hindu doctrine of Karma, or good works, which will be familiar to readers of Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim.” Upon a man’s actions (Karma is the Sanskrit for action) in this life depends the condition in which his soul will be reincarnated.
“In a word, the present state is the result of past actions, and the
future depends upon the present. Now, the ultimate hope of the Hindu
should be so to live that his soul may be eventually freed from the
necessity of being reincarnated, and may, in the end, be reunited to the
Infinite Spirit from which it sprang. As, however, that goal is very
remote, the Hindu not uncommonly limits his desire and his efforts to the
attainment of a ’good time’ now, and in his next appearance upon this
earthly stage” (p. 108).
We need not go fully into this doctrine, which, as the writer says elsewhere (p. 172), “certainly makes for morality,” but we may rather attend to that aspect of it which is shown in the Hindu desire to accumulate “merits.” The performance of penances gives the self-torturer certain spiritual powers. Professor Oman quotes this passage from Sir Monier Williams’s “Indian Epic Poetry” (note to p. 4):
“According to Hindu theory, the performance of penances was like making
deposits in the bank of Heaven. By degrees an enormous credit was
accumulated, which enabled the depositor to draw on the amount of his
savings, without fear of his drafts being refused payment. The power
gained in this way by weak mortals was so enormous that gods, as well as
men, were equally at the mercy of these all but omnipotent ascetics, and
it is remarkable that even the gods are described as engaging in penances
and austerities, in order, it may be presumed, not to be undone by human
Now, if for penance we substitute Mitzvoth, we find in this passage almost the caricature of the Jewish theory that meets us in the writings of German theologians. These ill-equipped critics of Judaism put it forward seriously that the Jew performs Mitzvoth in order to accumulate merit (Zechuth), and some of them even go so far as to assert that the Jew thinks of his Zechuth as irresistible. But when the matter is put frankly and squarely, as Professor Monier Williams puts it, not even the Germans could have the effrontery to assert that Judaism teaches or tolerates any such doctrine. Whatever man does, he has no merit towards God: that is Jewish teaching. Yet conduct counts, and somehow the good man and the bad man are not in the same case. Judaism may be inconsistent, but it is certainly not base in its teaching as to conduct and retribution. “Be not as servants who minister in the hope of receiving reward"-this is not the highest level of Jewish doctrine, it is the average level. Lately I have been reading a good deal of mystical Jewish literature, and I have been struck by the repeated use made of the famous Rabbinical saying of Antigonos of Socho just cited. One wonders whether, after all, justice is done to the Hindus. One sees how easily Jewish teaching can be distorted into a doctrine of calculated Zechuth. Are the Hindus being misjudged equally? Certainly, in some cases this must be so, for Professor Oman, with his remarkably sympathetic insight, records experiences such as this more than once (p. 147). He is describing one of the Jain ascetics, and remarks:
“His personal appearance gave the impression of great suffering, and his
attendants all had the same appearance, contrasting very much indeed with
the ordinary Sadhus of other sects. And wherefore this austere rejection
of the world’s goods, wherefore all this self-inflicted misery? Is it to
attain a glorious Heaven hereafter, a blessed existence after death? No!
It is, as the old monk explained to me, only to escape rebirth–for the
Jain believes in the transmigration of souls–and to attain rest.”
Other ascetics gave similar explanations. Thus (p. 100):
“The Christian missionary entered into conversation with the Hermit (a
Bairagi from the Upper Provinces), and learned from him that he had
adopted a life of abstraction and isolation from the world, neither to
expiate any sin, nor to secure any reward. He averred that he had no
desires and no hopes, but that, being removed from the agitations of the
worldly life, he was full of tranquil joy.”
VI. Lost Purim Joys
It is scarcely accurate to assert, as is sometimes done, that the most characteristic of the Purim pranks of the past were children of the Ghetto, and came to a natural end when the Ghetto walls fell. In point of fact, most of these joys originated before the era of the Ghetto, and others were introduced for the first time when Ghetto life was about to fade away into history.
Probably the oldest of Purim pranks was the bonfire and the burning of an effigy. Now, so far from being a Ghetto custom, it did not even emanate from Europe, the continent of Ghettos; it belongs to Babylonia and Persia. This is what was done, according to an old Geonic account recovered by Professor L. Ginzberg:
“It is customary in Babylonia and Elam for boys to make an effigy
resembling Haman; this they suspend on their roofs, four or five days
before Purim. On Purim day they erect a bonfire, and cast the effigy into
its midst, while the boys stand round about it, jesting and singing. And
they have a ring suspended in the midst of the fire, which (ring) they
hold and wave from one side of the fire to the other.”
Bonfires, it may be thought, need no recondite explanation; light goes with a light heart, and boys always love a blaze. Dr. J.G. Frazer, in his “Golden Bough,” has endeavored, nevertheless, to bring the Purim bonfire into relation with primitive spring-tide and midsummer conflagrations, which survived into modern carnivals, but did not originate with them. Such bonfires belonged to what has been called sympathetic or homeopathic magic; by raising an artificial heat, you ensured a plentiful dose of the natural heat of the sun. So, too, the burning of an effigy was not, in the first instance, a malicious or unfriendly act. A tree-spirit, or a figure representing the spirit of vegetation, was consumed in fire, but the spirit was regarded as beneficent, not hostile, and by burning a friendly deity the succor of the sun was gained. Dr. Frazer cites some evidence for the early prevalence of the Purim bonfire; he argues strongly and persuasively in favor of the identification of Purim with the Babylonian feast of the Sacaea, a wild, extravagant bacchanalian revel, which, in the old Asiatic world, much resembled the Saturnalia of a later Italy. The theory is plausible, though it is not quite proven by Dr. Frazer, but it seems to me that whatever be the case with Purim generally, there is one hitherto overlooked feature of the Purim bonfire that does clearly connect it with the other primitive conflagrations of which mention was made above.
This overlooked feature is the “ring.” No explanation is given by the Gaon as to its purpose in the tenth century, and it can hardly have been used to hold the effigy. Now, in many of the primitive bonfires, the fire was produced by aid of a revolving wheel. This wheel typifies the sun. Waving the “ring” in the Purim bonfires has obviously the same significance, and this apparently inexplicable feature does, I think, serve to link the ancient Purim prank with a long series of old-world customs, which, it need hardly be said, have nothing whatever to do with the Ghetto.
Then, again, the most famous of Purim parodies preceded the Ghetto period. The official Ghetto begins with the opening of the sixteenth century, whereas the best parodies belong to a much earlier date, the fourteenth century. Such parodies, in which sacred things are the subject of harmless jest, are purely medieval in spirit, as well as in date. Exaggerated praises of wine were a foil to the sobriety of the Jew, the fun consisting in this conscious exaggeration. The medieval Jew, be it remembered, drew no severe line between sacred and profane. All life was to him equally holy, equally secular. So it is not strange that we find included in sacred Hebrew hymnologies wine-songs for Purim and Chanukah and other Synagogue feasts, and these songs are at least as old as the early part of the twelfth century. For Purim, many Synagogue liturgies contain serious additions for each of the eighteen benedictions of the Amidah prayer, and equally serious paraphrases of Esther, some of them in Aramaic, abound among the Genizah fragments in Cambridge. Besides these, however, are many harmlessly humorous jingles and rhymes which were sung in the synagogue, admittedly for the amusement of the children, and for the child-hearts of adult growth. For them, too, the Midrash had played round Haman, reviling him, poking fun at him, covering him with ridicule rather than execration. It is true that the earliest ritual reference to the wearing of masks on Purim dates from the year 1508, just within the Ghetto period. But this omission of earlier reference is surely an accident, In the Babylonian Sacaea, cited above, a feature of the revel was that men and women disguised themselves, a slave dressed up as king, while servants personated masters, and vice versa. All these elements of carnival exhilaration are much earlier than the Middle Ages. Ghetto days, however, originated, perhaps, the stamping of feet, clapping of hands, clashing of mallets, and smashing of earthenware pots, to punctuate certain passages of the Esther story and of the subsequent benediction.
My strongest point concerns what, beyond all other delights, has been regarded as the characteristic amusement of the festival, viz. the Purim play. We not only possess absolutely no evidence that Purim plays were performed in the Ghettos till the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the end of the Ghettos was almost within sight, but the extant references imply that they were then a novelty. Plays on the subject of Esther were very common in medieval Europe during earlier centuries, but these plays were written by Christians, not by Jews, and were performed by monks, not by Rabbis. Strange as it may seem, it is none the less the fact that the Purim play belongs to the most recent of the Purim amusements, and that its life has been short and, on the whole, inglorious.
Thus, without pressing the contention too closely, Purim festivities do not deserve to be tarred with the Ghetto brush. Is it, then, denied that Purim was more mirthfully observed in Ghetto days than it is at the present day? By no means. It is unquestionable that Purim used to be a merrier anniversary than it is now. The explanation is simple. In part, the change has arisen through a laudable disinclination from pranks that may be misconstrued as tokens of vindictiveness against an ancient foe or his modern reincarnations. As a second cause may be assigned the growing and regrettable propensity of Jews to draw a rigid line of separation between life and religion, and wherever this occurs, religious feasts tend towards a solemnity that cannot, and dare not, relax into amusement. This tendency is eating at the very heart of Jewish life, and ought to be resisted by all who truly understand the genius of Judaism.
But the psychology of the change goes even deeper. The Jew is emotional, but he detests making a display of his feelings to mere onlookers. The Wailing Wall scenes at Jerusalem are not a real exception–the facts are “Cooked,” to meet the demands of clamant tourists. The Jew’s sensitiveness is the correlative of his emotionalism. While all present are joining in the game, each Jew will play with full abandonment to the humor of the moment. But as soon as some play the part of spectators, the Jew feels his limbs growing too stiff for dancing, his voice too hushed for song. All must participate, or all must leave off. Thus, a crowd of Italians or Southern French may play at carnival to-day to amuse sight-seers in the Riviera, but Jews have never consented, have never been able, to sport that others might stand by and laugh at, and not with, the sportsmen. In short, Purim has lost its character, because Jews have lost their character, their disposition for innocent, unanimous joyousness. We are no longer so closely united in interests or in local abodes that we could, on the one hand, enjoy ourselves as one man, and, on the other, play merry pranks, without incurring the criticism of indifferent, cold-eyed observers. Criticism has attacked the authenticity of the Esther story, and proposed Marduk for Mordecai, and Istar for Esther. But criticism of another kind has worked far more havoc, for its “superior” airs have killed the Purim joy. Perhaps it is not quite dead after all.
VII. Jews and Letters
The jubilee of the introduction of the Penny Post into England was not reached till 1890. It is difficult to realize the state of affairs before this reform became part of our everyday life. That less than three-quarters of a century ago the scattered members of English families were, in a multitude of cases, practically dead to one another, may incline one to exaggerate the insignificance of the means of communication in times yet more remote. Certainly, in ancient Judea there were fewer needs than in the modern world. Necessity produces invention, and as the Jew of remote times rarely felt a strong necessity to correspond with his brethren in his own or other countries, it naturally followed that the means of communication were equally extempore in character. It may be of interest to put together some desultory jottings on this important topic.
The way to Judea lies through Rome. If we wish information whether the Jews knew anything of a regular post, we must first inquire whether the Romans possessed that institution. According to Gibbon, this was the case. Excellent roads made their appearance wherever the Romans settled; and “the advantage of receiving the earliest intelligence and of conveying their orders with celerity, induced the Emperors to establish throughout their extensive dominions the regular institution of posts. Houses were everywhere erected at the distance only of five or six miles; each of them was constantly provided with forty horses, and by the help of these relays it was easy to travel a hundred miles a day along the Roman roads. The use of the posts was allowed to those who claimed it by an Imperial mandate; but, though originally intended for the public service, it was sometimes indulged to the business or con-veniency of private citizens.” This statement of Gibbon (towards the end of chapter ii) applies chiefly, then, to official despatches; for we know from other sources that the Romans had no public post as we understand the term, but used special messengers (tabellarius) to convey private letters.
Exactly the same facts meet us with reference to the Jews in the earlier Talmudic times. There were special Jewish letter-carriers, who carried the documents in a pocket made for the purpose, and in several towns in Palestine there was a kind of regular postal arrangement, though many places were devoid of the institution. It is impossible to suppose that these postal conveniences refer only to official documents; for the Mishnah (Sabbath, x, 4) is evidently speaking of Jewish postmen, who, at that time, would hardly have been employed to carry the despatches of the government. The Jewish name for this post was Bê-Davvar, and apparently was a permanent and regular institution. From a remark of Rabbi Jehudah (Rosh ha-Shanah, 9b), “like a postman who goes about everywhere and carries merchandise to the whole province,” it would seem that the Jews had established a parcels-post; but unfortunately we have no precise information as to how these posts were managed.
Gibbon’s account of the Roman post recalls another Jewish institution, which may have been somehow connected with the Bê-Davvar. The official custodian of the goat that was sent into the wilderness on the Day of Atonement was allowed, if he should feel the necessity–a necessity which, according to tradition, never arose–to partake of food even on the fast-day. For this purpose huts were erected along the route, and men provided with food were stationed at each of these huts to meet the messenger and conduct him some distance on his way.
That the postal system cannot have been very much developed, is clear from the means adopted to announce the New Moon in various localities. This official announcement certainly necessitated a complete system of communication. At first, we are told (Rosh ha-Shanah, ii, 2), fires were lighted on the tops of the mountains; but the Samaritans seem to have ignited the beacons at the wrong time, so as to deceive the Jews. It was, therefore, decided to communicate the news by messenger. The mountain-fires were prepared as follows: Long staves of cedar-wood, canes, and branches of the olive-tree were tied up with coarse threads or flax; these were lighted as torches, and men on the hills waved the brands to and fro, upward and downward, until the signal was repeated on the next hill, and so forth. When messengers were substituted for these fire signals, it does not appear that they carried letters; they brought verbal messages, which they seem to have shouted out without necessarily dismounting from the animals they rode. Messages were not sent every month, but only six times a year; and a curious light is thrown on the means of communication of the time, by the legal decision that anyone was to be believed on the subject, and that the word of a passing merchant who said that “he had heard the New Moon proclaimed,” was to be accepted unhesitatingly. Nowadays, busy men are sometimes put out by postal vagaries, but they hardly suffer to the extent of having to fast two days. This calamity is recorded, however, in the Jerusalem Talmud, as having, on a certain occasion, resulted from the delay in the arrival of the messengers announcing the New Moon.
Besides the proclamation of the New Moon, other official documents must have been despatched regularly. “Bills of divorce,” for instance, needed special messengers; the whole question of the legal position of messengers is very intimately bound up with that of conveying divorces. This, however, seems to have been the function of private messengers, who were not in the strict sense letter-carriers at all. It may be well, in passing, to recall one or two other means of communication mentioned in the Midrash. Thus we read how Joshua, with twelve thousand of his warriors, was imprisoned, by means of witchcraft, within a sevenfold barrier of iron. He resolves to write for aid to the chief of the tribe of Reuben, bidding him to summon Phineas, who is to bring the “trumpets” with him. Joshua ties the message to the wings of a dove, or pigeon, and the bird carries the letter to the Israelites, who speedily arrive with Phineas and the trumpets, and, after routing the enemy, effect Joshua’s rescue. A similar idea may be found in the commentary of Kimchi on Genesis. Noah, wishing for information, says Kimchi, sent forth a raven, but it brought back no message; then he sent a dove, which has a natural capacity for bringing back replies, when it has been on the same way once or twice. Thus kings train these birds for the purpose of sending them great distances, with letters tied to their wings. So we read (Sabbath, 49) in the Talmud that “a dove’s wings protect it," i.e. people preserve it, and do not slay it, because they train it to act as their messenger. Or, again, we find arrows used as a means of carrying letters, and we are not alluding to such signals as Jonathan gave to David. During the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Emperor had men placed near the walls of Jerusalem, and they wrote the information they obtained on arrows, and fired them from the wall, with the connivance, probably, of the philo-Roman party that existed within the doomed city.
In earlier Bible times, there was, as the Tell-el-Amarna bricks show, an extensive official correspondence between Canaan and Egypt, but private letter-writing seems not to have been resorted to; messages were transmitted orally to the parties concerned. This fact is well illustrated by the story of Joseph. He may, of course, have deliberately resolved not to communicate with his family, but if letter-writing had been usual, his brothers would naturally have asked him–a question that did not suggest itself to them–why he had never written to tell his father of his fortunes. When Saul desired to summon Israel, he sent, not a letter, but a mutilated yoke of oxen; the earliest letter mentioned in the Bible being that in which King David ordered Uriah to be placed in the forefront of the army. Jezebel sends letters in Ahab’s name to Naboth, Jehu to Samaria. In all these cases letters were used for treacherous purposes, and they are all short. Probably the authors of these plots feared to betray their real intention orally, and so they committed their orders to writing, expecting their correspondents to read between the lines. It is not till the time of Isaiah that the references to writing become frequent. Intercourse between Palestine on the one hand and Babylon and Egypt on the other had then increased greatly, and the severance of the nation itself tended to make correspondence through writing more necessary. When we reach the age of Jeremiah, this fact makes itself even more strongly apparent. Letters are often mentioned by that prophet (xxix. 25, 29), and a professional class of Soferim, or scribes, make their appearance. Afterwards, of course, the Sofer became of much higher importance; he was not merely a professional writer, but a man learned in the Law, who spread the knowledge of it among the people. Later, again, these functions were separated, and the Sofer added to his other offices that of teacher of the young. Nowadays, he has regained his earlier and less important position, for the modern Sofer is simply a professional writer. In the time of Ezekiel (ix. 2) the Sofer went abroad with the implements of his trade, including the inkhorn, at his side. In the Talmud, the scribe is sometimes described by his Latin title libellarius (Sabbath,11a). The Jews of Egypt, as may be seen from the Assouan Papyri, wrote home in cases of need in the time of Nehemiah; and in the same age we hear also of “open letters,” for Sanballat sends a missive of that description by his servant; and apparently it was by means of a similar letter that the festival of Purim was announced to the Jews (Esther ix., where, unlike the other passages quoted, the exact words of the letter of Mordecai are not given). The order to celebrate Chanukah was published in the same way, and, indeed, the books of the Apocrypha contain many interesting letters, and in the pages of Josephus the Jews hold frequent intercourse in this way with many foreign countries. In the latter cases, when the respective kings corresponded, the letters were conveyed by special embassies.
One might expect this epistolary activity to display itself at an even more developed stage in the records of Rabbinical times. But this is by no means the case, for the Rabbinical references to letters in the beginning of the common era are few and far between. Polemic epistles make their appearance; but they are the letters of non-Jewish missionaries like Paul. This form of polemical writing possessed many advantages; the letters were passed on from one reader to another; they would be read aloud, too, before gatherings of the people to whom they were addressed. Maimonides, in later times, frequently adopted this method of communicating with whole communities, and many of the Geonim and other Jewish authorities followed the same plan. But somehow the device seems not to have commended itself to the earliest Rabbis. Though we read of many personal visits paid by the respective authorities of Babylon and Palestine to one another, yet they appear to have corresponded very rarely in writing. The reason lay probably in the objection felt against committing the Halachic, or legal, decisions of the schools to writing, and there was little else of consequence to communicate after the failure of Bar-Cochba’s revolt against the Roman rule.
It must not be thought, however, that this prohibition had the effect we have described for very long. Rabbi Gamaliel, Rabbi Chananiah, and many others had frequent correspondence with far distant places, and as soon as the Mishnah acquired a fixed form, even though it was not immediately committed to writing, the recourse to letters became much more common. Pupils of the compilers of the Mishnah proceeded to Babylon to spread its influence, and they naturally maintained a correspondence with their chiefs in Palestine. Rab and Samuel in particular, among the Amoraim, were regular letter-writers, and Rabbi Jochanan replied to them. Towards the end of the third century this correspondence between Judea and Babylon became even more active. Abitur and Abin often wrote concerning legal decisions and the doings of the schools, and thereby the intellectual activity of Judaism maintained its solidarity despite the fact that the Jewish people was no longer united in one land. In the Talmud we frequently read, “they sent from there,” viz. Palestine. Obviously these messages were sent in writing, though possibly the bearer of the message was often himself a scholar, who conveyed his report by word of mouth. Perhaps the growth of the Rabbi’s practice of writing responses to questions–a practice that became so markedly popular in subsequent centuries–may be connected with the similar habit of the Roman jurists and the Christian Church fathers, and the form of response adopted by the eighth century Geonim is reminiscent of that of the Roman lawyers. The substance of the letters, however, is by no means the same; the Church father wrote on dogmatic, the Rabbi on legal, questions. Between the middle of the fourth century and the time of the Geonim, we find no information as to the use of letters among the Jews. From that period onwards, however, Jews became very diligent letter-writers, and sometimes, for instance in the case of the “Guide of the Perplexed” of Maimonides, whole works were transmitted in the form of letters. The scattering of Israel, too, rendered it important to Jews to obtain information of the fortunes of their brethren in different parts of the world. Rumors of Messianic appearances from the twelfth century onwards, the contest with regard to the study of philosophy, the fame of individual Rabbis, the rise of a class of travellers who made very long and dangerous journeys, all tended to increase the facilities and necessities of intercourse by letter. It was long, however, before correspondence became easy or safe. Not everyone is possessed of the postmen assigned in Midrashim to King Solomon, who pressed demons into his service, and forced them to carry his letters wheresoever he willed. Chasdai experienced considerable difficulty in transmitting his famous letter to the king of the Chazars, and that despite his position of authority in the Spanish State. In 960 a letter on some question of Kasher was sent from the Rhine to Palestine–proof of the way in which the most remote Jewish communities corresponded.
The question of the materials used in writing has an important bearing on our subject. Of course, the ritual regulations for writing the holy books, the special preparation of the parchment, the ink, the strict rules for the formation of the letters, hardly fall within the province of this article. In ancient times the most diverse substances were used for writing on. Palm-leaves (for which Palestine of old was famous) were a common object for the purpose, being so used all over Asia. Some authorities believe that in the time of Moses the palm leaf was the ordinary writing-material. Olive-leaves, again, were thick and hard, while carob-leaves (St. John’s bread), besides being smooth, long, and broad, were evergreen, and thus eminently fitted for writing. Walnut shells, pomegranate skins, leaves of gourds, onion-leaves, lettuce-heads, even the horns of cattle, and the human body, letters being tattooed on the hands of slaves, were all turned to account. It is maintained by some that leather was the original writing-material of the Hebrews; others, again, give their vote in favor of linen, though the Talmud does not mention the latter material in connection with writing. Some time after Alexander the Great, the Egyptian papyrus became common in Palestine, where it probably was known earlier, as Jewish letters on papyrus were sent to Jerusalem from the Fayyum in the fifth century B.C.E. Even as late as Maimonides, the scrolls of the Law were written on leather, and not on parchment, which is now the ordinary material for the purpose. That the Torah was not to be written on a vegetable product was an assumed first principle. The Samaritans went so far as to insist that the animal whose hide was needed for so holy a purpose, must be slain Kasher. Similarly with divorce documents. A Get on paper would be held legal post factum, though it is not allowed to use that material, as it is easily destroyed or mutilated, and the use of paper for the purpose was confined to the East. Some allowed the Book of Esther to be read from a paper copy; other authorities not only strongly objected to this, but even forbade the reading of the Haftarah from paper. Hence one finds in libraries so many parchment scrolls containing only the Haftarahs. The Hebrew word for letter, Iggereth, is of unknown origin, though it is now commonly taken to be an Assyrian loan-word. It used to be derived from a root signifying to “hire,” in reference to the “hired courier,” by whom it was despatched. Other terms for letter, such as “book,” “roll,” explain themselves. Black ink was early used, though it is certain that it was either kept in a solid state, like India ink, or that it was of the consistency of glue, and needed the application of water before it could be used. For pens, the iron stylus, the reed, needle, and quill (though the last was not admitted without a struggle) were the common substitutes at various dates.
We must now return to the subject with which we set out, and make a few supplementary remarks with regard to the actual conveyance of letters. In the Talmud (Baba Mezia, 83b) a proverb is quoted to this effect, “He who can read and understand the contents of a letter, may be the deliverer thereof.” As a rule, one would prefer that the postman did not read the correspondence he carries, and this difficulty seems to have stood in the way of trusting letters to unknown bearers. To remove this obstacle to free intercourse, Rabbenu Gershom issued his well-known decree, under penalty of excommunication, against anyone who, entrusted with a letter to another, made himself master of its contents. To the present day, in some places, the Jewish writer writes on the outside of his letter, the abbreviation [Hebrew: beth-cheth-daleth-resh-’’-gimel], which alludes to this injunction of Rabbenu Gershom. Again, the Sabbath was and still is a difficulty with observant Jews. Rabbi Jose ha-Cohen is mentioned in the Talmud (Sabbath, 19a) as deserving of the following compliment. He never allowed a letter of his to get into the hands of a non-Jew, for fear he might carry it on the Sabbath, and strict laws are laid down on the subject. That Christians in modern times entrusted their letters to Jews goes without saying, and even in places where this is not commonly allowed, the non-Jew is employed when the letter contains bad news. Perhaps for this reason Rabbenu Jacob Tarn permitted divorces to be sent by post, though the controversy on the legality of such delivery is, I believe, still undecided.
Besides packmen, who would often be the medium by which letters were transmitted, there was in some Jewish communities a special class that devoted themselves to a particular branch of the profession. They made it their business to seek out lost sons and deliver messages to them from their anxious parents. Some later Jewish authorities, in view of the distress that the silence of absent loved ones causes to those at home, lay down the rule that the duty of honoring parents, the fifth commandment, includes the task of corresponding when absent from them. These peripatetic letter-carriers also conveyed the documents of divorce to women that would otherwise be in the unpleasant condition of being neither married nor single. Among the most regular and punctual of Jewish postmen may be mentioned the bearers of begging letters and begging books. There is no fear that these will not be duly delivered.
Our reference to letters of recommendation reminds us of an act, on the part of a modern Rabbi, of supererogation in the path of honesty. The post is in the hands of the Government, and, accordingly, the late Rabbi Bamberger of Wurzburg, whenever he gave a Haskamah, or recommendation, which would be delivered by hand, was wont to destroy a postage stamp, so as not to defraud the Government, even in appearance. With this remarkable instance of conscientious uprightness, we may fitly conclude this notice, suggested as it has been by the modern improvements in the postal system, which depend for their success so largely on the honesty of the public.
VIII. The Shape of Matzoth
Dr. Johnson said, “It is easier to know that a cake is bad than to make a good one.” I had a tiny quantity of material which, by dint of much rolling, I might have expanded into a broad, flat, unsubstantial whole; I preferred, however, to make of my little piece of dough a little cake, small and therefore less pretentious. I am afraid that even in this concentrated form it will prove flavorless and indigestible, but the cook must be blamed, not the material.
I have no intention to consider the various operations connected with the preparation of unleavened Passover cakes: the kneading, the ingredients, the curious regulations regarding the water used, such precautions as carefully watching the ovens. Those who are inclined to connect some of these customs with the practices of non-Jewish peoples will find some interesting facts on all theses topics; but what I wish to speak of now is the shape and form of Passover cakes.
The Christian emblems that figure in the celebration of the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, were probably derived from the ceremonies of the Passover eve. The bread employed in the Eucharist is with some Christian sects unleavened, and, indeed, leavened cakes seem to have been introduced solely as a protest against certain so-called Judaizing tendencies. The Latin Church still contends for the propriety of employing unleavened bread, and from the seventh century unleavened bread was used at Rome and leavened bread at Constantinople. From the earliest times, however, the Eucharistic loaves were invariably round in shape, there being, indeed, a supposed edict by Pope Zephyrinus (197-217) to that effect. It is passing strange that Bona, an ecclesiastical writer, derived this roundness from the shape of the coins Judas received for betraying his master. But though there is no distinct enactment either in the Talmud or in any of the later codes as to what the form of the Matzoth must be, these have been from time immemorial round also. Some Minhagim are more firmly rooted than actual laws, and this custom is one of them. In one of his cartoons, Picard has an illustration which is apparently that of a squarish Matzah; this may, however, be only a case of defective drawing. It is true that in Roumania square Matzoth are used, but in the controversy raised by the introduction of Matzah-making machines, the opponents of the change argued as though no other than a round shape were conceivable. Kluger, for instance, never seems to have realized that his weightiest objection to the use of the machine would be obviated by making the Matzoth square or rectangular. When it was first proposed to introduce Matzah machines in London, the resistance came chiefly from the manufacturers, and not from the ecclesiastical authorities. The bakers refused categorically to make square Matzoth, declaring that if they did so, their stock would be unsalable. Even to the present day no square Matzoth are baked in London; those occasionally seen there are imported from the Continent. The ancient Egyptians made their cakes round, and the Matzoth are regarded Midrashically as a memorial of the food which the Egyptian masters forced on their Israelite slaves. A round shape is apparently the simplest symmetrical form, but beyond this I fancy that the round form of the Passover bread is partly due to the double meaning of Uggoth Matzoth. The word Uggoth signifies cakes baked in the sand or hot embers; but Uggah also means a “circle.” To return, however, to the Eucharistic wafers.
A further point of identity, though only a minute detail, can be traced in the regulation that the Eucharistic oblate from which the priest communicated was, in the ninth century, larger than the loaves used by the people. So the Passover cakes (Shimmurim) used by the master of the house, and particularly the middle cake, pieces of which were distributed, were made larger than the ordinary Matzoth. Picard (1723) curiously enough reverses this relation, and draws the ordinary Matzoth much larger and thicker than the Shimmurim. The ordinary Matzoth he represents as thick oval cakes, with a single coil of large holes, which start outwards from the centre. Picard speaks of Matzoth made in different shapes, but he gives no details.
In the Middle Ages, and, indeed, as early as Chrysostom (fourth century), the Church cakes were marked with a cross, and bore various inscriptions. In the Coptic Church, for example, the legend was “Holy! holy! holy is the Lord of hosts.” Now, in a Latin work, Roma subterranea, about 1650, a statement is made which seems to imply that the Passover cakes of the Jews were also marked with crosses. What can have led to this notion? The origin is simple enough. The ancient Romans, as Aringhus himself writes, and as Virgil, Horace, and Martial frequently mention, made their loaves with cross indentations, in order to facilitate dividing them into four parts: much as nowadays Scotch scones are baked four together, and the central dividing lines give the fourfold scone the appearance of bearing a cross mark. It may be that the Jews made their Passover cakes, which were thicker than ours and harder to break, in the same way. But, besides, the small holes and indentations that cover the surface of the modern Matzah might, if the Matzah be held in certain positions, possibly be mistaken for a cross. These indentations are, I should add, very ancient, being referred to in the Talmud, and, if I may venture a suggestion, also in the Bible, I Kings xiv. 3, and elsewhere, Nekudim being cakes punctuated with small interstices.
We can carry the explanation a little further. The three Matzoth Shimmurim used in the Haggadah Service were made with especial care, and in medieval times were denominated Priest, Levite, Israelite, in order to discriminate among them. Picard, by an amusing blunder, speaks of a gateau des lévites; he, of course, means the middle cake. From several authorities it is clear that the three Matzoth were inscribed in some cases with these three words, in others with the letters Alef, Beth, Gimmel, in order to distinguish them. A rough Alef would not look unlike a cross. Later on, the three Matzoth were distinguished by one, two, three indentations respectively, as in the Roman numerals; and even at the present day care is sometimes taken, though in other ways, to prevent the Priest, Levite, and Israelite from falling into confusion. I do not know whether the stringent prohibition, by the Shulchan Aruch, of “shaped or marked cakes” for use on Passover, may not be due to the fact that the Eucharistic cakes used by Christians were marked with letters and symbols. Certain it is that the prohibition of these “shaped” cakes is rather less emphatic in the Talmud than in the later authorities, who up to a certain date are never weary of condemning or at least discouraging the practice. The custom of using these cakes is proved to be widespread by the very frequency of the prohibitions, and they were certainly common in the beginning of the sixteenth century, from which period seems to date the custom of making the Matzoth very thin, though the thicker species has not been entirely superseded even up to the present day. In the East the Matzoth are still made very thick and unpalatable. They cannot be eaten as they are; they are either softened, by being dipped in some liquid, or they are ground down to meal, and then remade into smaller and more edible cakes.
The Talmud mentions a “stamp” in connection with “shaped cakes,” which Buxtorf takes for Lebkuchen, and Levy for scalloped and fancifully-edged cakes. The Geonim, however, explain that they were made in the forms of birds, beasts, and fishes. I have seen Matzoth made in this way in London, and have myself eaten many a Matzah sheep and monkey, but, unfortunately, I cannot recollect whether it was during Passover. In Holland, these shaped cakes are still used, but in “strict” families only before the Passover.
Limits of space will not allow me to quote some interesting notes with reference to Hebrew inscriptions on cakes generally, which would furnish parallels to the Holy! holy! of the Coptic wafers. Children received such cakes as a “specific for becoming wise.” Some directions may be found in Sefer Raziel for making charm-cakes, which must have been the reverse of charming from the unutterable names of angels written on them. One such charm, however, published by Horwitz, I cannot refrain from mentioning, as it is very curious and practical. It constitutes a never-failing antidote to forgetfulness, and, for aught I know, may be quite as efficacious as some of the quack mnemonic systems extensively advertised nowadays.
“The following hath been tried and found reliable, and Rabbi Saadia ben
Joseph made use of it. He discovered it in the cave of Rabbi Eleazar
Kalir, and all the wise men of Israel together with their pupils applied
the remedy with excellent effect:–At the beginning of the month of Sivan
take some wheatmeal and knead it, and be sure to remain standing. Make
cakes and bake them, write thereon the verse, ’Memory hath He made among
His wondrous acts: gracious and merciful is the Lord.’ Take an egg and
boil it hard, peel it, and write on it the names of five angels; eat such
a cake every day, for thirty days, with an egg, and thou wilt learn all
thou seest, and wilt never forget.”
The manuscript illuminated Haggadahs are replete with interest and information. But I must avoid further observations on these manuscripts except in so far as they illustrate my present subject. In the Haggadah the question is asked, “Why do we eat this Matzah?” and at the words “this Matzah” the illuminated manuscripts contain, in the great majority of cases, representations of Matzoth. These in some instances present rather interesting features, which may throw historical light on the archeology of the subject. Some of these figured Matzoth are oval, one I have seen star-shaped, but almost all are circular in form. Many, however, unlike the modern Matzah and owing to the shape of the mould, have a broad border distinct from the rest of the cake. The Crawford Haggadah, now in the Ryland library, Manchester, pictures a round Matzah through which a pretty flowered design runs. Others, again, and this I think a very ancient, as it certainly is a very common, design, are covered with transverse lines, which result in producing diamond-shaped spaces with a very pleasing effect, resembling somewhat the appearance of the lattice work cakes used in Italy and Persia, I think. The lines, unless they be mere pictorial embellishments, are, possibly, as in the Leeds cakes, rows of indentations resulting from the punctuation of the Matzah. In one British Museum manuscript (Roman rite, 1482), the star and diamond shapes are combined, the border being surrounded with small triangles, and the centre of the cake being divided into diamond-like sections. In yet another manuscript the Matzah has a border, divided by small lines into almost rectangular sections, while the body of the cake is ornamented with a design in which variously shaped figures, quadrilaterals and triangles, are irregularly interspersed. One fanciful picture deserves special mention, as it is the only one of the kind in all the illustrated manuscripts and printed Haggadahs in the Oxford and British Museum libraries. This Matzah occurs in an Italian manuscript of the fourteenth century. It is adorned with a flowered border, and in the centre appears a human-faced quadruped of apparently Egyptian character.
Poetry and imagination are displayed in some of these devices, but in only one or two cases did the artists attain high levels of picturesque illustration. How suggestive, for instance, is the chain pattern, adopted in a manuscript of the Michaelis Collection at Oxford. It must not be thought that this idea at least was never literally realized, for only last year I was shown a Matzah made after a very similar design, possibly not for use on the first two nights of Passover. The bread of affliction recalls the Egyptian bonds, and it is an ingenious idea to bid us ourselves turn the ancient chains to profitable use–by eating them. This expressive design is surpassed by another, found in a beautifully-illuminated manuscript of the fourteenth century. This Matzah bears a curious device in the centre: it is a prison door modelled with considerable skill, but I do not suppose that Matzoth were ever made in this fashion.