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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

German Persecutions Lead to New and Lasting Jewish Customs

By Shelomo Alfassa

Director of Research for ASH at the Center for Jewish History

For many centuries, the Jewish communities in medieval Germany suffered greatly under the hand of the non-Jewish populace. During this period, German Jews enacted special pious customs which they felt would help them demonstrate their sincere emunah (faith) toward God. A simple example of this is the custom of a man who is to be married--to fast before his wedding day. Fear and reverence for the Almighty played a role in the development of these customs, several of which are still followed today and have since entered into mainstream Jewish society.

The stringency of waiting six hours between eating meat and dairy was long a practice in Spain, one instituted by Alfassi, HaRaMBaM, and Shelomo ben Aderet. Many Ashkenazi sages including Rabbeinu Tam and Ra'avyah, as well as other Tosafot, generally favored a briefer period. German Jews long have had (and still do) a custom of waiting three hours between eating meat and dairy. Yet, during the Middle Ages, these suffering Jews, long anguished both physically and economically in Germany, took it upon themselves to wait a full six hours as an act of emunah. They were attempting to demonstrate to the Almighty that they revered Him although they were suffering, while at the same time, seeking His mercy. Today, six hours has evolved to become the standard in most communities as the period of time to wait between eating meat and dairy.

Many say that there are Kabbalistic reasons why we light two candles on Shabbat, yet, any reason ascribed to Kabbala would have been a late adaptation. The lighting of two Shabbat candles as a norm was not in practice during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the Jews of Germany who initiated the practice of kindling two candles on Friday night, as a way to enhance the misvot of lighting and to demonstrate increased emunah. Only later in Spain, was the popular reason attributed, one which says we light two candles in remembrance of the two obligations of Shabbat, Shamor v'Zahor (guard and remember). It's interesting to note that while there still is no strict halakhic ruling or Kabbalistic meaning which mandates two candles, today, lighting of two candles has become the minimal standard worldwide.

"The lighting of two Shabbat candles as a norm was not in practice during the Middle Ages. In fact, it was the Jews of Germany who initiated the practice of kindling two candles on Friday night, as a way to enhance the misvot of lighting and to demonstrate increased emunah."

In preparation for the period of national mourning which commemorates the calamities that befell the Jews between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av (Tisha B'Av), the Talmud mentions that we are not to eat meat and wine (both considered luxuries) but only prior to the pre-fast meal. The first rabbi to mention such a prohibition of wine and meat was Rav Hai Gaon (10th -11th century), who said it was the prevailing custom in Babylonia (Iraq), during the Nine Days. Yet, it was the German Jews who as an act of piousness instituted the custom of not eating meat during the extended period between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. Today, this old German custom has been adopted by all observant Ashkenazi communities and some of the Sephardic communities.

The German Jews adopted the stringent custom that when preparing matsa, to only use wheat that has been under Jewish supervision from the time of the harvest to the time of baking, known commonly as matsa shemura. This was a custom Sephardim had took upon themselves, adapted from the RaMBaM. Today, almost all observant communities world-wide seek matsa shemura for their seders.

Jews in Germany instituted the custom to keep their lulav and willows till Pessah, to burn them as fuel for the baking of matsa. This is based on the Talmudic idea that since they served for one mitsvah, they should (and may) serve for another. We are reminded also, that it says in Pirke Avot, every mitsvah leads to another mitsvah. Today, many Jews keep some sort of custom to utilize the several month-old lulavs in preparation for Pessah.

To kiss a holy object such as a Sefer Torah or mezuzah is a display of veneration and symbolically represents one's devotion to Judaism and loyalty to God. The widespread practice of kissing a religious book when it is put down, is thought to have its origins from 12th century Germany, a time of great persecution for Jews. The custom is thought to stem from the Hassidei Ashkenaz, a movement of Jewish mysticism in Germany. This movement was considered different from Kabbalistic mysticism because it emphasized specific prayer and moral conduct. Due to extreme persecutions, many of the Hassidei Ashkenaz migrated to Spain and Portugal during the early part of the 13th century; eventually the movement ceased to exist, yet, the custom of kissing a religious book lives on today.

These customs developed out of strictness, out of fear and out of faith. Increasing their misvot, and when possible, taking upon themselves stringencies, pious Jews sought mercy from the Almighty. As a people, the Jews of Germany had suffered tremendously from the year 1096 leading up to 1349, when the "Black Death" (an infectious disease) peaked, killing an estimated 30%-60% of Europe's population. Sadly, the Jews were blamed for causing the disease by the non-Jewish German population, this is but one reason why they suffered severely.

The crushing anti-Jewish attacks of the period led to a massive exodus east to Poland, where the German Jews resettled and created new religious communities and new religious traditions.



© Shelomo Alfassa