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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 25

The Fasts and Ceremonies.

I imagine that what has been said above will prove — first, that the public worship in Hebrew was not instituted by the Rabbins, but by Ezra and the prophets after the partial restoration of the Israelites; and secondly, that its retention is of the greatest advantage to all the Jews, and its abolition would lead to the most dreadful consequences, which ought ever to be deprecated by every real friend of his religion and of his brethren. — Of the propriety of the second days of the festivals I have already treated above (chap. xvii. note); I shall therefore begin our next enquiry with:

"Have not the Rabbins usurped undue authority in establishing the fast-days?" I must answer at once, that so far from usurping any authority in this respect, the Rabbins had not any agency whatever in establishing the fast-days, for these were instituted in the days of the prophets, and this was with the express approbation of God. The fast-days, independently of the Day of Atonement, are the fast of the seventeenth of Tamuz (fourth month); the fast of the Ninth of Ab (fifth month); the fast of the third of Tishri (seventh month); the fast of the tenth of Tebeth (tenth month); and of the thirteenth day of Adar (twelfth month). — On the tenth day of Tebeth the city was taken, and on the ninth of Ab the temple was burnt. After Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the temple, he suffered a small number of our brethren to live in Palestine under the government of Gedaliah, who was treacherously slain by Ishmael, son of Nethaniah, on the third day of Tishri. The remnant of the Israelites were now afraid to stay any longer in their country, and contrary to the advice of the prophet Jeremiah they went to Egypt, where nearly the whole of their number died, as the prophet had foretold. (Jeremiah chap. xli. and others.) — These days were therefore instituted as fasts, for so long as the Israelites should remain captives in foreign lands. — On these days we ought to assemble in the places of worship, confess our sins, make restitutions, (see chap. xxiii.) ask the protection of God for the remnant of the flock that has escaped, and pray for the restoration of our national glory at the time of the coming of the promised Messiah. — The antiquity of these days can be proven from Zechariah, chap. viii. v.18-19: "And the word of the Lord of Hosts came to me as follows: Thus speaketh Ad-nai Zevakoth, the fast day of the fourth, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth shall be to the house of Judah (days of) rejoicing and gladness and happy festivals; and love you truth and peace." We here see the prophet announcing that these four days, which were in his time (and are now) days of mourning and abstinence, shall, at the time of our restorations, be days of festivity, of general joy, and gladness. The fast of Esther, which is on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, was instituted to commemorate the troubles in which our ancestors found themselves in the time of Achashverosh through the evil counsels of Haman. The history of this event is so well known, that a synopsis is not necessary here; suffice it to say, that the thirteenth, fourteenth, and in walled cities the fifteenth (of Adar) also, are annually celebrated, (the thirteenth as a fast, the other two as days of rejoicing,) in commemoration of our escape from the designs of Haman. — It is hardly necessary to say, that our opponents disapprove entirely our celebrating the downfall of our enemy, when this event took place twenty-three hundred years ago. They say: "It argues a spirit of bitterness and unforgiving hostility, which is highly unbecoming." — This objection would be a good one, if our rejoicing were only on account of the execution of Haman; but this is not the fact, we celebrate our redemption; we rejoice, because we were snatched from destruction, when the whetted sword lay already unsheathed upon our necks; we assemble to return sincere thanks to our God for the goodness He then displayed towards His chosen people, and pray for the continuance of His vigilance and protection over us, who linger so long in captivity. — Is such a celebration proper? — To argue this point further, I am afraid, would be insulting to the understanding of my readers, who, I hope, will be intelligent and kind enough to supply the defective details, which now and then may be found in my arguments.

The fast-days are, according to the above, proved not to be of rabbinical origin, but that all except the fast of Esther were instituted by God himself through the agency of his prophet. The fast of Esther cannot indeed by traced to any prophet, but it was received by the Jews then living as a day of humiliation on account of the great deliverance they had experienced, as were also the festivities of Purim (the fourteenth and fifteenth of Adar) for the reason just given. Ever since the days of Mordecai and Esther this celebration has been kept up, and it cannot now be abolished; first, on account of the extraordinary hold it has taken of the mind of all Jews; and secondly, because it would destroy a feature in our ceremonies resulting from the most amiable trait in human nature — gratitude. For these days are celebrated every year as a tribute from us to our heavenly Protector, and on these days also we read the history of our redemption, and we return our thanks to Him, who was then as ever our Savior from annihilation. — To the same cause may be ascribed the festival called Hanukkah, commencing on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, (ninth month,) and continuing eight days. All conversant with history know that the Syrian king Antiochus oppressed the Jews very grievously, and that they regained their liberty under the guidance of Judah Maccabaeus, who defeated the Syrians and drove them from Jerusalem. Antiochus had made unclean all the oil set apart for the lighting of the lamp in the temple, and when the Jews reconstructed the temple they found but one cruet of oil, sealed with the signet of the high-priest, the contents of which were only sufficient for one days' service. The Jews were not able to procure any other oil, which might be used, for some days, but it so happened, that the contents of the small jar lasted for eight days [of the re-consecration of the Temple], till fresh oil had been procured. For this reason do we light lamps on the evenings of this festival, commencing with one on the first, and increasing night after night till the eighth, when eight lamps are lighted. These days, like the Purim, were instituted to keep alive the recollection of our deliverance from an enemy who attempted to root out the Israelites; and wherever Jews are found, they are celebrated as days of rejoicing and festivity, but we are not bound to abstain from labor on those days, since they are not commanded in the Pentateuch; on Purim, however, most persons do not work, but give themselves up for that day to religious mirth, as it may properly be called. — All these celebrations are feasts proceeded from the voluntary burst of feeling of the whole people, but they were not imposed upon an unwilling nation by the command of the Rabbins, Scribes, and Pharisees.

The next question for consideration is: "Did, or did not the prophets prohibit meat, other than that of forbidden animals, prepared by a gentile, to be eaten by a Jew? And is wine of the gentiles prohibited by the same authority or not?" It needs hardly to be told that the Rabbins have received a great share of abuse, as being the authors of these interdictions; but who would not be surprised to be convinced that these very Rabbis are as innocent of this as any person now alive? To prove this, however, we need only read the first chapter of Daniel; and is it not surprising, that those would-be-wise man, who spend all their lives, and write folio upon folio, in endeavoring to clear up the mysterious prophecies of Daniel concerning the coming of the Messiah, should altogether overlook what he relates concerning his own mode of life, while in the service of the Babylonian king? He tells us that he came to the determination not to defile himself with the meats (or viands) of the king, nor with his wines, and he asked of Melzar the favor to give him and his three associates vegetables (pulse) to eat. and no wine, but water to drink; though Melzar at first refused to comply with this request, thinking himself in danger of losing his head if his charges did not look so well as the other youths in the palace, he at length yielded, and took for himself the rations furnished for their use, and gave them pulse in place of them. (See Daniel, chap. i.) This whole narrative proves, that any meat not prepared by a Jew is forbidden to us. — The killing of animals, as practiced by the rabbinical Jews, is also in every respect conformable to the Mosaic law, where we are in several places positively commanded to let the blood run out (see Lev. chap. xvii. v.13, and Deut. chap. xii. v.16,); however any one might be disposed to explain these texts to suit his own views, it may be well doubted if he could break the force of Deut. chap. xii. v.21, where it says: "Thou shalt kill of thy herd and of thy flock, that the Lord has given thee, as I have commanded thee," commanded where? And since we can no where find the mode of killing commanded in express terms, we must come to the conclusion, that it was explained to the Israelites orally. and handed down from father to son on [down to] the present day. The great care that has ever been bestowed upon this subject, even in the time of Saul, proves, that there is something more in this than mere invention of men, and that therefore the tradition of the fathers is true, and founded upon, and agreeable to, the intent of the Mosaic law.

It cannot be expected, that I should give an analysis of our ceremonies, but I may say with truth, that they are of great antiquity, and most of them have even an obvious meaning and are beautiful allegories. For instance, a golden ring is used at our marriages, and when the bridegroom puts it upon the finger of the bride, he says: "Thou are wedded to me by this ring according to the law of Moses and Israel." — The ring is a circle, and when well finished, the point where the two extremes join cannot be discovered; if once a breach be made in the ring, or if it be broken it cannot answer the purpose for which it was intended, and even if it should be mended, a mark will generally remain of the former breach. Just so is it with the married state. The husband and wife should be like the ring of pure metal employed at their marriage, that is, they ought both to be pure, devoted to the practice of virtue and piety. They should be of one mind, so that their being two individuals should be hardly perceptible; the husband should always pay deference to the wishes of his wife; but it is her duty also to endeavor to win his good will by ready compliance and gentle demeanor; and if it unfortunately should become necessary for either of them to chide the other, let it be done in a spirit of conciliation, let it never be more than remonstrance, for faults are much oftener laid by in consequence of mild reproof, than violent altercations. Let the husband think the honor of the wife his own, and let her look up to him as her sole protection (under God), whose happiness ought ever to be her chief delight, and which she is to promote by all the means in her power. If they live so, in love towards God and friendship towards one another, the married state must be the most blissful on earth. But reverse the picture, let once discontent take root in their minds, let them habitually find fault with one another, let angry disputes become familiar to them, let the fear of God be once removed from before them — and unhappiness is the lot of both man and wife, and what was once the best blessing becomes now the greatest curse. Though they become reconciled afterwards, painful recollections of past follies will nevertheless often occasion from those pangs of conscience, which are the severest torture of earth. After the ring is put upon the bride's finger and the marriage contract read, the bridegroom gives her to drink out of the cup, over which grace has been said, which he then throws upon the ground, so that it breaks. This ceremony also is not without its use, and has the following meaning: "Midst the festive joy of the marriage day man is too apt to think only of pleasure, nothing but joyful anticipations float before his eyes, and he is forgetful of the ills of life and its close. But like the glass, that lays shivered in a thousand pieces before him, will the joys of life pass away into innumerable sorrows, and the body of man now so beautiful, must in a few brief years be dissolved into its natural elements, the flesh will decay from the bones and become a prey to the worms of the earth." Again — we read in the Talmud: "That on the day the son of Rav Huna was married, the latter made a feast for all his scholars and companions. They were all, as he thought, too much rejoiced, and he found them forgetful of the state of captivity in which we even yet linger. Seeing this the pious Rabbi threw down a very elegant glass ornament, from a stand near which he stood. The scholars were no sooner aware of the destruction of the rare and costly vase, than they all looked sorrowful about the wanton destruction of what was then very scarce and dear, and they enquired of R. Huna the cause of his strange conduct, when he told them: 'Remember the destruction of Jerusalem, remember the burning of the temple, and do not forget that we dwell no longer in our land, and you will moderate your joy!'" And it is just and proper that we should always recollect, that we are hurled from our high estate, and that, like the fragments of the glass strewed about the floor, we are scattered all over the world in small numbers. We ought to act and think like the holy Psalmist, who says (Psalm 137):

"By the streams of Babel — there we sat and also wept — when we remembered Zion. Upon its willows did we hang our harps, for there did out captors ask of us the words of song, and those deriding us — joy, 'sing us some of Zion's songs?' How can we sing the song of the Eternal in the land of the stranger? If I forget thee Jerusalem, may my right hand forget — then may my tongue cleave to my palate, if I remember thee not — if I bring not (thee O) Jerusalem at the head of my joy?"

Though these ideas may appear to some too gloomy, the reflecting mind will not revolt from them. To remember the hour of dissolution has for the good man and true believer no further terror, than deterring him from sin, that he may leave this world unspotted, and return his soul in the same purity to his Maker, as it was when He gave it to them. — The same is the case with remembering our degraded political state. The recurrence to our former glory must and ever will occasion the severest pain to a Jew; yet there is something very animating in the idea of our future restoration, and it will incite every good man to act so, that the coming of the Messiah may not be retarded on his account.

Our ceremonies on various occasions have been explained already in some parts of the foregoing pages, and since it is not my present purpose to explain the ceremonies of the Jews, it would be quite out of place to dilate on this subject; I shall therefore but remark, that our mourning is in most respects just the same that was customary in the times of the patriarchs, which can be easily proved if necessary; and to show with what feelings we mourn, I beg to call the reader's attention to the following from the funeral service:

"Thou art just, O Lord, and upright are thy judgments! Righteousness art Thou, O Lord, and beneficent in all thy works! Thy righteousness is everlasting righteousness, and thy law is true!

"The judgments of the Lord are true and uniformly just. Where the word of the King is, there is power, and who can say to him, 'What doest Thou?' For He is of one mind, and who can alter it? And what his soul desires He doeth. The rock — whose work is perfect, for all his ways are just; the God of truth — and without iniquity — He is just and upright. He is a true judge, for all his judgments are just and true."

It will be seen, that when our grief is naturally the greatest, we acknowledge the justice of our Supreme Judge, all whose ways are just. — After this prayer we pray for the soul of the departed in a very appropriate manner, and conclude with the prophecy from Isaiah, where he speaks in confident terms of his hope in the resurrection. In short, the ceremonies of the Jews are conformable to the laws they obey; and the life of a good Jew may fairly be set down as a model of perfection, as far as mortals can be perfect!

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