Philologos Religious Online Books
Sketches of Jewish Social Life
by Alfred Edersheim
It may be safely asserted, that the grand distinction, which divided all mankind into Jews and Gentiles, was not only religious, but also social. However near the cities of the heathen to those of Israel, however frequent and close the intercourse between the two parties, no one could have entered a Jewish town or village without feeling, so to speak, in quite another world. The aspect of the streets, the building and arrangement of the houses, the municipal and religious rule, the manners and customs of the people, their habits and ways all, the family life, stood in marked contrast to what would be seen elsewhere. On every side there was evidence that religion here was not merely a creed, nor a set of observances, but that it pervaded every relationship, and dominated every phase of life.
Let us imagine a real Jewish town or village. There were many such, for Palestine had at all times a far larger number of towns and villages than might have been expected from its size, or from the general agricultural pursuits of its inhabitants. Even at the time of its first occupation under Joshua we find somewhere about six hundred towns we may judge by the Levitical cities, of about an average circumference of two thousand cubits on each side, and with probably an average population of from two to three thousand. But the number of towns and villages, as well as their populousness, greatly increased in later times. Thus Josephus (Life, 45) speaks of not fewer than two hundred and forty townships in Galilee alone in his days. This progress was, no doubt, due not only to the rapid development of society, but also to the love of building that characterised Herod and his family, and to which so many fortresses, palaces, temples, and towns owed their origin. Alike the New Testament, Josephus, and the Rabbis give us three names, which may be rendered by villages, townships, and towns latter being surrounded by walls, and again distinguished into those fortified already at the time of Joshua, and those of later date. A township might be either "great," if it had its synagogue, or small, if it wanted such; this being dependent on the residence of at least ten men, who could always be reckoned upon to form a quorum for the worship of the synagogue (the so-called Batlanin *); for service could not be celebrated with any less number of males.
* From "betal," to cease the glossary to Baba B. 82 a explains: men without reproach, who gave up their work to give themselves wholly to the work of the synagogue. Such had a claim to support from the synagogue revenues.
The villages had no synagogue; but their inhabitants were supposed to go to the nearest township for market on the Monday and Thursday of every week, when service was held for them, and the local Sanhedrim also sat (Megill. i. 1-3). A very curious law provided (Cheth. 110), that a man could not oblige his wife to follow him if he moved either from a township to a town, or the reverse. The reason of the former provision was, that in a town people lived together, and the houses were close to each other; hence there was a want of fresh, free air, and of gardens, which were enjoyed in townships. On the other hand, a woman might object to exchange residence in a town for one in a township, because in a town everything was to be got, and people met in the streets and market-place from all the neighbourhood.
Statements like these will give some idea of the difference between town and country life. Let us first think of the former. Approaching one of the ancient fortified towns, one would come to a low wall that protected a ditch. Crossing this moat, one would be at the city wall proper, and enter through a massive gate, often covered with iron, and secured by strong bars and bolts. Above the gate rose the watch-tower. "Within the gate" was the shady or sheltered retreat where "the elders" sat. Here grave citizens discussed public affairs or the news of the day, or transacted important business. The gates opened upon large squares, on which the various streets converged. Here was the busy scene of intercourse and trade. The country-people stood or moved about, hawking the produce of field, orchard, and dairy; the foreign merchant or pedlar exposed his wares, recommending the newest fashions from Rome or Alexandria, the latest luxuries from the far East, or the art produce of the goldsmith and the modeller at Jerusalem, while among them moved the crowd, idle or busy, chattering, chaffing, good-humoured, and bandying witticisms. Now they give way respectfully before a Pharisee; or their conversation is hushed by the weird appearance of an Essene or of some sectary or religious, low, muttered curses attend the stealthy steps of the publican, whose restless eyes wander around to watch that nothing escape the close meshes of the tax-gatherer's net. These streets are all named, mostly after the trades or guilds which have there their bazaars. For a guild always keeps together, whether in street or synagogue. In Alexandria the different trades sat in the synagogue arranged into guilds; and St. Paul could have no difficulty in meeting in the bazaar of his trade with the like-minded Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2,3), with whom to find a lodging. In these bazaars many of the workmen sat outside their shops, and, in the interval of labour, exchanged greetings or banter with the passers-by. For all Israel are brethren, and there is a sort of freemasonry even in the Jewish mode of salutation, which always embodied either an acknowledgment of the God of Israel, or a brotherly wish of peace. Excitable, impulsive, quick, sharp-witted, imaginative; fond of parable, pithy sayings, acute distinctions, or pungent wit; reverent towards God and man, respectful in the presence of age, enthusiastic of learning and of superior mental endowments, most delicately sensitive in regard to the feelings of others; zealous, with intensely warm Eastern natures, ready to have each prejudice aroused, hasty and violent in passion, but quickly assuaged is the motley throng around. And now, perhaps, the voice of a Rabbi, teaching in some shady retreat latterly Jewish pride of learning forbade the profanation of lore by popularising it for the "unlearned", better far, at one time the presence of the Master, gathers and keeps them spell-bound, forgetful alike of the cravings of hunger and of the lapse of time, till, the short Eastern day ended, the stars shining out on the deep blue sky must have reminded many among them of the promise to their father Abraham, now fulfilled in One greater than Abraham.
Back to the town in the cool of even to listen to the delicious murmur of well or fountain, as those crowd around it who have not cisterns in their own houses. The watchman is on the top of the tower above the gateway; presently, night-watchers will patrol the streets. Nor is there absolute darkness, for it is customary to keep a light burning all night in the house, and the windows (unlike those of modern Eastern dwellings) open chiefly on street and road. Those large windows are called Tyrian, the smaller ones Egyptian. They are not filled in with glass, but contain gratings or lattices. In the houses of the rich the window-frames are elaborately carved, and richly inlaid. Generally the woodwork is of the common sycamore, sometimes of olive or cedar, and in palaces even of Indian sandal-wood. The entablature is more or less curiously carved and ornamented. Only there must be no representation of anything in heaven or on earth. So deep was the feeling on this point, that even the attempt of Pilate to introduce by night into Jerusalem the effigies of Caesar on the top of the Roman standards led to scenes in which the Jews showed themselves willing to die for their convictions (Josephus, Ant, xviii, 59); while the palace of Herod Antipas at Tiberias was burned by the mob because it was decorated with figures of animals (Josephus, Life, 62-67). These extreme views, however, gave way, first, before the tolerant example of Gamaliel, the teacher of Paul, who made use of a public bath, although adorned by a statue of Venus, since, as he put it, the statue was intended for the embellishment of the bath, and not the bath for the sake of the statue. If this argument reminds us that Gamaliel was not a stranger to Christianity, the statement of his grandson, that an idol was nothing if its worship had been disclaimed by the heathen (Ab. Sar. 52), recalls still more strongly the teaching of St. Paul. And so we gradually come down to the modern orthodox doctrine, which allows the representation of plants, animals, etc., but prohibits that of sun, moon, and stars, except for purposes of study, while, though doubtfully, it admits those of men and even angels, provided they be in sunken, not in raised workmanship.
The rule of these towns and villages was exceedingly strict. The representatives of Rome were chiefly either military men, or else fiscal or political agents. We have, indeed, a notice that the Roman general Gabinius, about half a century before Christ, divided Palestine for juridical purposes into five districts, each presided over by a council (Josephus, Ant. xiv, 91); but that arrangement was only of very short duration, and even while it lasted these councils seem to have been Jewish. Then every town had is Sanhedrim, * consisting of twenty-three members if the place numbered at least one hundred and twenty men, or of three members if the population were smaller. **
* The name "Sanhedrim," or "Sunedrion," is undoubtedly of Greek derivation, although the Rabbis have tried to paraphrase it as "Sin" (=Sinai) "haderin," those who repeat or explain the law, or to trace its etymology, as being "those who hate to accept the persons of men in judgment" (the name being supposed to be composed of the Hebrew equivalents of the words italicised).
These Sanhedrists were appointed directly by the supreme authority, or Great Sanhedrim, "the council," at Jerusalem, which consisted of seventy-one members. It is difficult to fix the limits of the actual power wielded by these Sanhedrims in criminal cases. But the smaller Sanhedrims are referred to in such passages as Matthew 5:22, 23, 10:17; Mark 13:9. Of course all ecclesiastical and, so to speak, strictly Jewish causes, and all religious questions were within their special cognisance. Lastly, there were also in every place what we may call municipal authorities, under the presidency of a mayor representatives of the "elders" institution so frequently mentioned in Scripture, and deeply rooted in Jewish society. Perhaps these may be referred to in Luke 7:3, as sent by the centurion of Capernaum to intercede for him with the Lord.
What may be called the police and sanitary regulations were of the strictest character. Of Caesarea, for example, we know that there was a regular system of drainage into the sea, apparently similar to, but more perfect than that of any modern town (Josephus, Ant. xv, 340). The same holds true in regard to the Temple-buildings at Jerusalem. But in every town and village sanitary rules were strictly attended to. Cemeteries, tanneries, and whatever also might be prejudicial to health, had to be removed at least fifty cubits outside a town. Bakers' and dyers' shops, or stables, were not allowed under the dwelling of another person. Again, the line of each street had to be strictly kept in building, nor was even a projection beyond it allowed. In general the streets were wider than those of modern Eastern cities. The nature of the soil, and the circumstance that so many towns were built on hills (at least in Judaea), would, of course, be advantageous in a sanitary point of view. It would also render the paving of the streets less requisite. But we know that certain towns were paved with white stones (Josephus, Ant. xx, 219-223). To obviate occasions of dispute, neighbours were not allowed to have windows looking into the courts or rooms of others nor might the principal entrance to a shop be through a court common to two or three dwellings.
These brief notices may help us better to realise the surroundings of Jewish town life. Looking up and down one of the streets of a town in Galilee or Judaea, the houses would be seen to differ in size and in elegance, from the small cottage, only eight or ten yards square, to the mansions of the rich, sometimes two or more stories high, and embellished by rows of pillars and architectural adornments. Suppose ourselves in front of a better-class dwelling, though not exactly that of a patrician, for it is built of brick, or perhaps of undressed, or even of dressed stone, but not of marble, nor yet of hewn stone; nor are its walls painted with such delicate colours as vermilion, but simply whitewashed, or, may be, covered with some neutral tint. A wide, sometimes costly, stair leads from the outside straight up to the flat roof, which is made to slope a little downwards, so as to allow the rainwater easily to flow through pipes into the cistern below. The roof is paved with brick, stone, or other hard substance, and surrounded by a balustrade, which, according to Jewish law, must be at least two cubits (three feet) high, and strong enough to bear the weight of a person. Police-regulations, conceived in the same spirit of carefulness, prohibited open wells and pits, insufficient ladders, rickety stairs, even dangerous dogs about a house. From roof to roof there might be a regular communication, called by the Rabbis "the road of the roofs" (Babba Mez. 88 b). Thus a person could make his escape, passing from roof to roof, till at the last house he would descend the stairs that led down its outside, without having entered any dwelling. To this "road of the roofs" our Lord no doubt referred in His warning to His followers (Matt 24:17; Mark 13:15; Luke 17:31), intended to apply to the last siege of Jerusalem: "And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein." For ordinary intercourse the roof was the coolest, the airiest, the stillest place. Of course, at times it would be used for purposes of domestic economy. But thither a man would retire in preference for prayer or quiet thinking; here he would watch, and wait, and observe whether friend or foe, the gathering of the storm, or the priest stationed on the pinnacle of the Temple before the morning sacrifice the red and golden light of dawn spread along the edge of the horizon. From the roof, also, it was easy to protect oneself against enemies, or to carry on dangerous fight with those beneath; and assuredly, if anywhere, it was "on the housetops" where secrets might be whispered, or, on the other hand, the most public "proclamation" of them be made (Matt 10:27; Luke 12:3). The stranger's room was generally built on the roof, in order that, undisturbed by the household, the guest might go out and come in; and here, at the feast of Tabernacles, for coolness and convenience, the leafy "booths" were often reared, in which Israel dwelt in memory of their pilgrimage. Close by was "the upper chamber." On the roof the family would gather for converse, or else in the court beneath its trees spreading grateful shade, and the music of its plashing fountain falling soothingly on the ear, as you stood in the covered gallery that ran all around, and opened on the apartments of the household.
If the guest-chamber on the roof, which could be reached from the outside, without passing through the house, reminds us of Elisha and the Shunammite, and of the last Passover-supper, to which the Lord and His disciples could go, and which they could leave, without coming in contact with any in the house, the gallery that ran round the court under the roof recalls yet another most solemn scene. We remember how they who bore the man "sick of the palsy," when unable to "come nigh unto Jesus for the press," "uncovered the roof where He was," "and let him down through the tiling with his couch into the midst before Jesus" (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19). We know, from many Talmudical passages, that the Rabbis resorted in preference to "the upper room" when discussing religious questions. It may have been so in this instance; and, unable to gain access through the door which led into the upper room, the bearers of the sick may have broken down the ceiling from the roof. Or, judging it more likely that the attendant multitude thronged the court beneath, while Jesus stood in the gallery that ran round the court and opened into the various apartments, they might have broken down the roof above Him, and so slowly let down their burden at His feet, and in sight of them all. There is a significant parallelism, or rather contrast, to this in a Rabbinical story (Moed K. 25 a), which relates how, when the bier on which a celebrated teacher was laid could not be passed out at the door, they carried up their burden and let it down from the roof its way, not to a new life, but to burial. Otherwise, there was also a stair which led from the roof into the court and house. Approaching a house, as visitors ordinarily would do, from the street, you would either pass through a large outer court, or else come straight to the vestibule or porch. Here the door opened into the inner court, which sometimes was shared by several families. A porter opened to callers on mentioning their names, as did Rhoda to Peter on the eventful night of his miraculous deliverance from prison (Acts 12:13,14). Our Lord also applies this well-known fact of domestic life, when He says (Rev 3:20), "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with Me." Passing through this inner court, and through the gallery, you would reach the various rooms family room, the reception room, and the sleeping apartments most retired being occupied by the ladies, and the inner rooms used chiefly in winter. The furniture was much the same as that now in use, consisting of tables, couches, chairs, candlesticks, and lamps, varying in costliness according to the rank and wealth of the family. Among articles of luxury we mention rich cushions for the head and arms, ornaments, and sometimes even pictures. The doors, which moved on hinges fastened with wooden pins, were barred by wooden bolts, which could be withdrawn by check keys from the outside. The dining apartment was generally spacious, and sometimes employed for meetings.
We have been describing the arrangements and the appearance of towns and dwellings in Palestine. But it is not any of these outward things which gives a real picture of a Jewish home. Within, everything was quite peculiar. At the outset, the rite of circumcision separated the Jew from the nations around, and dedicated him to God. Private prayer, morning and evening, hallowed daily life, and family religions pervaded the home. Before every meal they washed and prayed: after it they "gave thanks." Besides, there were what may be designated as special family feasts. The return of the Sabbath sanctified the week of labour. It was to be welcomed as a king, or with songs as a bridegroom; and each household observed it as a season of sacred rest and of joy. True, Rabbinism made all this a matter of mere externalism, converting it into an unbearable burden, by endless injunctions of what constituted work and of that which was supposed to produce joy, thereby utterly changing its sacred character. Still, the fundamental idea remained, like a broken pillar that shows where the palace had stood, and what had been its noble proportions. As the head of the house returned on the Sabbath-eve from the synagogue to his home, he found it festively adorned, the Sabbath lamp brightly burning, and the table spread with the richest each household could afford. But first he blessed each child with the blessing of Israel. And next evening, when the Sabbath light faded out, he made solemn "separation" between the hallowed day and the working week, and so commenced his labour once more in the name of the Lord. Nor were the stranger, the poor, the widow, or the fatherless forgotten. How fully they were provided for, how each shared in what was to be considered not a burden but a privilege, and with what delicacy relief was administered all Israel were brethren, and fellow-citizens of their Jerusalem know best who have closely studied Jewish life, its ordinances and practices.
But this also is rather a sketch of religious than of family life. At the outset, we should here say, that even the Hebrew name for "woman," given her at her creation (Gen 2:23), marked a wife as the companion of her husband, and his equal ("Ishah," a woman, from "Ish," a man). But it is when we consider the relations between man and wife, children and parents, the young and the aged, that the vast difference between Judaism and heathenism so strikingly appears. Even the relationship in which God presented Himself to His people, as their Father, would give peculiar strength and sacredness to the bond which connected earthly parents with their offspring. Here it should be borne in mind that, so to speak, the whole purpose of Israel as a nation, with a view to the appearance of the Messiah from among them, made it to each household a matter of deepest interest that no light in Israel should be extinguished through want of succession. Hence, such an expression as (Jer 22:10), "Weep sore for him that goeth away: for he shall return no more," was applied to those who died childless (Moed K. 27). Similarly, it was said that he who had no child was like one dead. Proverbial expressions in regard to the "parental relation" occur in Rabbinical writings, which in their higher application remind us that the New Testament writers were Jews. If, in the impassioned strain of happy assurance concerning our Christian safety, we are told (Rom 8:33), "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth," we may believe that St. Paul was familiar with a saying like this: "Shall a father bear witness against his son?" (Abod S. 3). The somewhat similar question, "Is there a father who hateth his own son?" may recall to our minds the comfort which the Epistle to the Hebrews ministers to those who are in suffering (Heb 12:7), "If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?"
Speaking of the relation between parents and children, it may be safely asserted, that no crime was more severely reprobated than any breach of the fifth commandment. The Talmud, with its usual punctiliousness, enters into details, when it lays down as a rule that "a son is bound to feed his father, to give him drink, to clothe him, to protect him, to lead him in, and to conduct him out, and to wash his face, his hands, and his feet"; to which the Jerusalem Gemara adds, that a son is even bound to beg for his father here also Rabbinism would give preference to a spiritual before a natural parent, or rather to one who teaches the law before a father! The general state of Jewish society shows us parents as fondly watching over their children, and children as requiting their care by bearing with the foibles, and even the trials, arising from the caprices of old age and infirmity. Such things as undutifulness, or want of loving consideration for parents, would have wakened a thrill of horror in Jewish society. As for crimes against parents, which the law of God visited with the utmost penalty, they seem happily to have been almost unknown. The Rabbinical ordinances, however, also specified the obligation of parents, and limited their power. Thus a son was considered independent whenever he could gain his own living; and, although a daughter remained in the power of her father till marriage, she could not, after she was of age, be given away without her own express and free consent. A father might chastise his child, but only while young, and even then not to such extent as to destroy self-respect. But to beat a grown-up son was forbidden on pain of excommunication; and the apostolic injunction (Eph 6:4), "Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath," finds almost its literal counterpart in the Talmud (Moed K. 17 a). Properly speaking, indeed, the Jewish law limited the absolute obligation of a father (a mother was free from such legal obligation) to feed, clothe, and house his child to his sixth year, after which he could only be admonished to it as one of the duties of love, but not legally constrained (Chethub. 49 b; 65 b). In case of separation of the parents, the mother had charge of the daughters, and the father of the sons; but the latter also might be intrusted to the mother, if the judges considered it for the advantage of the children.
A few notices as to the reverence due to age will appropriately close this brief sketch of Jewish home life. It was a beautiful thought some may doubt its exegetical correctness just as the pieces of the broken tables of the law were kept in the ark, so old age should be venerated and cherished, even though it should be broken in mind or memory (Ber. 8 b). Assuredly, Rabbinism went to the utmost verge in this matter when it recommended reverence for age, even though it were in the case of one ignorant of the law, or of a Gentile. There were, however, diverging opinions on this point. The passage, Leviticus 19:32, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man," was explained to refer only to sages, who alone were to be regarded as old. If R. Jose compared such as learned of young men to those who ate unripe grapes and drank of new wine, R. Jehudah taught, "Look not at the bottles, but at what they contain. There are new bottles full of old wine, and old bottles which contain not even new wine" (Ab. iv. 20). Again, if in Deuteronomy 13:1, 2, and also, 18:21, 22 the people were directed to test a prophet by the signs which he showed misapplication of which was made by the Jews, when they asked Christ what sign He showed unto them (John 2:18, 6:30) in Deuteronomy 17:10 they were told simply "to do according to all that they of that place inform thee," it was asked, What, then, is the difference between an old man and a prophet? To this the reply was: A prophet is like an ambassador, whom you believe in consequence of his royal credentials; but an ancient is one whose word you receive without requiring such evidence. And it was strictly enjoined that proper outward marks of respect should be shown to old age, such as to rise in the presence of older men, not to occupy their seats, to answer them modestly, and to assign to them the uppermost places at feasts.
After having thus marked how strictly Rabbinism watched over the mutual duties of parents and children, it will be instructive to note how at the same time traditionalism, in its worship of the letter, really destroyed the spirit of the Divine law. An instance will here suffice; and that which we select has the double advantage of illustrating an otherwise difficult allusion in the New Testament, and of exhibiting the real characteristics of traditionalism. No commandment could be more plainly in accordance, alike with the spirit and the letter of the law, than this: "He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death." Yet our Lord distinctly charges traditionalism with "transgressing" it (Matt 15:4-6). The following quotation from the Mishnah (Sanh. vii. 8) curiously illustrates the justice of His accusation: "He that curseth his father or his mother is not guilty, unless he curses them with express mention of the name of Jehovah." In any other case the sages declare him absolved! And this is by no means a solitary instance of Rabbinical perversion. Indeed, the moral systems of the synagogue leave the same sad impression on the mind as its doctrinal teaching. They are all elaborate chains of casuistry, of which no truer description could be given than in the words of the Saviour (Matt 15:6): "Ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition."