Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz

Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance

Elisheva Baumgarten
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz
    Book Description:

    In the urban communities of medieval Germany and northern France, the beliefs, observances, and practices of Jews allowed them to create and define their communities on their own terms as well as in relation to the surrounding Christian society. Although medieval Jewish texts were written by a learned elite, the laity also observed many religious rituals as part of their everyday life. InPracticing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz, Elisheva Baumgarten asks how Jews, especially those who were not learned, expressed their belonging to a minority community and how their convictions and deeds were made apparent to both their Jewish peers and the Christian majority.

    Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenazprovides a social history of religious practice in context, particularly with regard to the ways Jews and Christians, separately and jointly, treated their male and female members. Medieval Jews often shared practices and beliefs with their Christian neighbors, and numerous notions and norms were appropriated by one community from the other. By depicting a dynamic interfaith landscape and a diverse representation of believers, Baumgarten offers a fresh assessment of Jewish practice and the shared elements that composed the piety of Jews in relation to their Christian neighbors.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9012-7
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[vii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    The talmudic passage above offers an etymological explanation of the Hebrew term for stork (hasidah) by connecting the stork’s behavior to the wordhesed(kindness) and its derivative,hasidut(piety).² During the Middle Ages, the famous French commentator Rashi (Solomon b. Isaac of Troyes, d. 1105) understood the stork’s kindness through her custom of voluntarily distributing food to her friends, an act of sharing that was in no way obligatory (see Figure 1). Other commentators provided alternate interpretations for her gentle behaviors, such as allowing others to tread on her and showing mercy to her friends.³ Moving from animals to...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Standing Before God: Purity and Impurity in the Synagogue
    (pp. 21-50)

    Rashi and his students produced a number of books that detail the customs observed in their communities.¹ In several such works, there is a recurring passage that describes a practice attributed to select women of their time:

    There are women who refrain from entering the synagogue when they are menstrually impure although they do not need to do so. So why do they do this? If they believe that the synagogue is like the Temple, then why do they enter even after having immersed?² . . . In that case, one should avoid entering the sanctuary forever, [that is] until...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Jewish Fasting and Atonement in a Christian Context
    (pp. 51-102)

    As the previous chapter demonstrated, pious practices were often linked to precise times and places. This chapter further examines pious practices as they related to eating and abstaining from food, with a specific focus on fasting. Just as culinary norms—what is eaten; when, where, and with whom; and, of course, how food is prepared—constitute individual and communal understandings of belonging, belief, and status, so too fasting serves to signify social and religious identity in all cultures.¹

    During the past century, anthropologists have assessed the many roles that food plays in communal and self-definition,² and they have also demonstrated...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Communal Charity: Evidence from Medieval Nürnberg
    (pp. 103-137)

    An epitaph from 1287 in the Jewish cemetery of Worms reports: “[Buried here is] the Mistress Yokheved daughter of Rosh¹—R. Yehiel son of our teacher, Rabbi Ephraim—who excelled (hefli’ah la’asot) in building synagogues and cemeteries here and in many communities, and in [contributing to] other charities and also by surrounding this cemetery with a wall.”²

    This Yokheved³ is being praised for her generous support of community institutions, not only in her home city of Worms but in other locations as well.⁴ Her patronage is noted on her tombstone and attests to the outstanding scope of her contributions. This...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Positive Time-Bound Commandments: Class, Gender, and Transformation
    (pp. 138-171)

    One of the most commonly noted forms of medieval Ashkenazic piety featured in scholarly and popular literature is women’s adoption of commandments that have traditionally been seen as specifically male obligations.¹ This category, known as positive time-bound commandments,² was delineated in late antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages.³ These commandments, whose performance is determined by a precise timeframe, include daily as well as annual observances, like hearing the shofar on Rosh haShanah and precepts related to Sukkot.⁴

    Whether or not a given precept was defined as time-bound has direct implications for determining who was halakhically obligated for its observance.⁵ The...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Conspicuous in the City: Medieval Jews in Urban Centers
    (pp. 172-194)

    Many of the pious practices that we have analyzed in this study draw attention to specific codes that were broadcast daily by medieval Jews to one another and to their Christian neighbors. Such actions often elicited comments and praise from religious leaders or fellow community members, although when praxis breached social conventions, these same behaviors could be reprimanded and even forbidden, as exemplified in the cases of positive time-bound commandments when gender lines were crossed and fasting when religious boundaries were blurred. Together with the ritual objects used to express devotion (e.g., tallit and tefillin), which became especially popular during...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Feigning Piety: Tracing Two Tales of Pious Pretenders
    (pp. 195-211)

    The analyses in the preceding chapters have each highlighted visible aspects of medieval Jewish piety. Whether fasting, giving charity as an expression of penitence and piety, performing time-bound commandments, attending synagogue for prayer services, or stringently adhering to the laws of impurity, these rituals were easily recognizable to members of the Jewish community and, on some level, to the Christians among whom they lived. Although medieval Jews would have readily acknowledged that God alone can judge and determine piety, our study thus far has demonstrated the prevalence of external signs of practicing piety and the roles of these signals of...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Practicing Piety: Social and Comparative Perspectives
    (pp. 212-224)

    “This is the tombstone of the important and respectable [woman] Marat Rivkah, who was bound by her fear of the Torah and who was also modest and . . . to all precepts and loyal with all her heart to her creator.”² This epitaph describes Mistress Rivkah, who died in Worms in 1160. In this sole record of her life, she is described as God-fearing and loyal to her creator and her piety is emphasized in the adjectives chosen for her gravestone. Jews like Rivkah, who left little mark of their individuality behind, populate this study of personal and communal...

    (pp. 225-226)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 227-286)
    (pp. 287-322)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 323-330)
    (pp. 331-336)