VIII. RELEASE

From mystic exaltation, Messianic disillusionment, periodic persecution, and the hard routine of economic life, the medieval Jews found refuge in the obscurity of their congregations and the consolations of their ritual and creed. They celebrated with piety the festivals that recalled their history, their tribulations, and their ancient glory, and patiently adjusted to their urban existence the ceremonies that once had divided the agricultural year. The vanishing Qaraites kept the Sabbath in darkness and cold, lest they violate the Law by kindling fires or lighting lamps; but most Jews, while the rabbis winked, brought in Christian friends or servitors to keep the fires burning and tend the lights. Every chance for a banquet was seized with generosity and pomp: the family gave a feast on the circumcision or confirmation of a son, the betrothal or marriage of a son or daughter, the visit of a noted scholar or relative, the occurrence of some religious festival. Sumptuary regulations of the rabbis forbade the providers of such banquets to invite more than twenty men, ten women, five girls, and all relatives up to the third generation. A wedding feast sometimes lasted a week, and not even the Sabbath was allowed to interrupt it. The bridal pair were crowned with roses, myrtle, and olive branches; their path was strewn with nuts and wheat; barley grains were thrown over them as a hint to fertility; songs and quips accompanied every stage of the event; and in later medieval days a professional jester was engaged to ensure full merriment. Sometimes his jests were mercilessly truthful; but almost always he accepted Hillel’s genial decree, that “every bride is beautiful.”86

So the passing generation celebrated its own replacement, rejoiced in its children’s children, and subsided into a harassed but kindly old age. We see the faces of such old Jews in Rembrandt’s portraits: features bearing the history of the people and the individual, beards breathing wisdom, eyes haunted with sad memories but softened with indulgent love. Nothing in Moslem or Christian morals could surpass the mutual affection of young and old in Judaism, the love that overlooks all faults, the quiet guidance of immaturity by experience, and the dignity with which the life fully lived accepts the naturalness of death.

When he made his will the Jew left not only worldly goods to his offspring, but spiritual counsel. “Be one of the first in synagogue,” reads the will of Eleazar of Mainz (c. 1337); “do not speak during prayers; repeat the responses; and after the service do acts of kindness.” And then the final instruction:

Wash me clean, comb my hair, trim my nails, as I was wont to do in my lifetime, so that I may go clean to my eternal resting place, just as I used to go on every Sabbath to the synagogue. Put me in the ground at the right hand of my father; if the space be a little narrow, I am sure that he loves me well enough to make room for me by his side.87

When the last breath was drawn, the eyes and mouth of the dead were closed by the eldest son or the most distinguished son or relative; the body was bathed and anointed with aromatic unguents, and wrapped in spotless linen. Almost everyone belonged to a burial society, which now took the corpse, watched over it, gave it the last religious rites, and accompanied it to the grave. In the funeral the pallbearers walked with bare feet; the women preceded the bier, chanted a dirge, and beat a drum. Any stranger who encountered the procession was expected to fall in with it and accompany it to the grave. Usually the coffin was placed near those of dead relatives; to be buried was for a man “to lie with his fathers,” “to be gathered unto his people.” The mourners did not despair. They knew that though the individual might die, Israel would carry on.

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