This week, I acquired a splendid copy of Synagoga Judaica, a Latin book published in 1680, authored by Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629). This book scrupulously documents the customs and society of German Jewry in the early modern period.
Synagoga Judaica is probably the most famous book from a long forgotten genre of books written by Christian Hebraists who had a series interest in Hebrew and Judaism and produced a massive library on the subject.
Buxtorf was professor of Hebrew at Basel, Switzerland and was very well read in rabbinic writings and the Hebrew Bible and was also fluent in Yiddish and its literature. Living at a time when Jews were forbidden to live in Basel, he obtained special permission for a few Jews to reside there to work as his assistants.
Buxtorf’s works provide a unique insight on Jewish customs in Germany at the time as viewed from an outsider. Despite his clear bias, Buxtorf appears to have recorded the customs faithfully, despite his often skewed interpretations.
Following is an excerpt (with additional paragraph breaks) of a recent translation of his writings that give a taste of his style and attention to detail:
“How the Jews observe the true Sabbath:
“When they come into shul, they pray, as on other days but they are accustomed to carry on their prayers and chanting longer in honor of the Sabbath. They do not put on their Tephillin, the prayer straps, because the Sabbath itself is a sign of the Jewish faith….
“They take out the Book of the Law from the Ark…and they read seven Pàrschios, or lectiones, [readings] from the Thorah for which seven individual men are called. The one being called goes through the entrance which is closest to him, and leaves by another, because it is written that the people of Israel did it thus, when they entered the holy Temple on the Sabbath. They went in at one gate, and out at the other. Ezek. 46:1,2.
“They read also some Haphtaros…. This custom came about because at one time readings from Moses was forbidden in their shuls. Then in place of Mosaic readings, they read a similar selection from the prophets…. This custom is referred to in the New Testament Acts 13.27: Because the residents of Jerusalem and their leaders did not recognize him, or understand the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.…
“They pray also for the souls of the dead, which they really are not supposed to do on the sabbath. But the Cháchamim believe that the souls in hell come out on the sabbath, and return after it, so they pray for them on the sabbath.
“Prayer in the synagogue should not be prolonged longer than the sixth hour of the day [i.e. twelve noon.] For it is forbidden to pray or fast longer. Is. 58.13 You shall call the sabbath Oneg. They say that the expression Oneg, deliciae [pleasure] is written without the letter Vau which makes the number six. By this the prophet wishes to indicate subtly that it is not proper to fast beyond the sixth hour, that is, past noon: because otherwise it might be said that the sabbath is not a pleasure, but an unpleasantness….
“If anyone has dreamed something bad, for example, the Sépher thórah, the book of the law, being burned up, or the beams of his house falling down, or his teeth falling out – which dreams do not bode well – he may properly fast till nightfall.
“If a man dreams that his jaw falls down, that is good, because it means that his enemies, who plotted against him, are dead. If a man’s digestion is upset, and for him it is a pleasure to fast, then it is held to be proper and healthy to do so. If anyone is so sad that he cannot stop crying, it is permitted to him to cry; such weeping may be a pleasure for him, and a source of recovery. But then he must fast on the following day, as a punishment for not scrupling to detract proper enjoyment from the sabbath.”