Sunday, May 15, 2011

Oh, those silly and wily Jews (1850)

A guest post by Philo

Here's an article from Harper's Magazine in 1850 (apparently reprinted from the Dublin University Magazine,) with the kind of socially acceptable anti-Semitism that was prevalent at the time.


Harper’s Magazine June 1850, pages 119 – 120

[From the Dublin University Magazine]


THE veneration of the Jew for the law is displayed by the grossest superstition, a copy of the Torah or Decalogue being carefully soldered into a narrow tin case, and hung over the entrance to their chambers, as old crones with us nail a horse-shoe to a door; it is even believed to avail as an amulet or charm capable of averting evil, or curing the most obstinate disease. "Ah," said a bed-ridden old Hebrew woman to me, as I visited the mission hospital in Jerusalem, "what can the doctors do for me? If I could only touch the Torah I should be made whole." Not exactly comprehending what she meant, I handed her a little tin-cased copy of the Ten Commandments; she grasped it in her emaciated hands, which trembled with anxiety, and her eyes were lit up with a transient gleam of joy. "Are you made whole?" I inquired; she made no answer, fell back on her pillow, let drop the Torah, and turned from me with a sigh.

Sitting one evening with an intelligent German Jew, who used often to pay me a visit at my lodgings, the conversation turned on Jewish religious rites and ceremonies. Alluding to the day of atonement, he assured me that on that day the Jews believe that ministers are appointed in heaven for the ensuing year: a minister over angels; one over the stars; one over earth; the winds, trees, plants, birds, beasts, fishes, men, and so forth.

That, on that day also, the good and evil deeds of every son of Abraham are actually summed up, and the balance struck for or against each, individually. Where the evil deeds preponderate, such individuals are brought in as in debt to the law; and ten days after the day of atonement, summonses are issued to call the defaulters before God. When these are served, the party summoned to appear is visited either with sudden death or a rapid and violent disease which must terminate speedily in death. "But can not the divine wrath be appeased?" said I. "Not appeased," said my informant; "the decree must be evaded." "How so?" "Thus," he replied. "When a Jew is struck with sudden sickness about this time, if he apprehends that his call is come, he sends immediately for twelve eiders of his people; they demand his name; be tells them, for example, my name is Isaac; they answer, thy name shall no more be Isaac, but Jacob shall thy name be called. Then kneeling round the sick man, they pray for him in these words: O God, thy servant, Isaac, has not good deeds to exceed the evil, and a summons against him has gone forth; but this pious man before thee, is named Jacob, and not Isaac. There is a flaw in the indictment; the name in the angel's summons is not correct, therefore, thy servant Jacob can not be called on to appear." "After all," said I, "suppose this Jacob dies." 'Then," replied my companion, "the almighty is unjust; the summons was irregular, and its execution not according to law."

Does not this appear incredible? Another anecdote, and I have done.

On the same occasion we were speaking about vows, and the obligation of fulfilling them. "As to paying your vow," said my Jewish friend, "we consider it performed, if the vow be observed to the letter." He then gave me the following rather ludicrous illustration as a case in point: There was in his native village a wealthy Jew, who was seized with a dangerous illness. Seeing death approach, despite of his physician's skill, he bethought him of vowing a vow; so he solemnly promised, that if God would restore him to health, he, on his part, on his recovery, would sell a certain fat beast in his stall, and devote the proceeds to the Lord.

The man recovered, and in due time appeared before the door of the synagogue, driving before him a goodly ox, and carrying under one arm a large, black Spanish cock. The people were coming out of the synagogue, and several Jewish butchers, after artistically examining the fine, fat beast, asked our convalescent what might be the price of the ox. "This ox," replied the owner, "I value at two shillings" (I substitute English money); but the cock," he added, ostentatiously exhibiting chanticleer, “I estimate at twenty pounds." The butchers laughed at him; they thought he was in joke. However, as he gravely persisted that he was in earnest, one of them, taking him at his word, put down two shillings for the ox. "Softly, my good friend," rejoined the seller, "I have made a vow not to sell the ox without the cock; you must buy both, or be content with neither." Great was the surprise of the bystanders, who could not conceive what perversity possessed their, wealthy neighbor. But the cock being value for two shillings, and the ox for twenty pounds, the bargain was concluded, and the money paid.

Our worthy Jew now walks up to the Rabbi, cash in hand. "This," said he, handing the two shillings, "I devote to the service of the synagogue, being the price of the ox, which I had vowed; and this, placing the twenty pounds in his own bosom, is lawfully mine own, for is it not the price of the cock?" "And what did your neighbors say of the transaction? Did they not think this rich man an arrant rogue?" "Rogue!" said my friend, repeating my last words with some amazement, "they considered him a pious and a clever man." Sharp enough, thought I; but delicate about exposing my ignorance, I judiciously held my peace.

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