Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Jews in England

Illustrated by Simeon Solomon.


Whenever a paragraph appears in a newspaper touching the Jews resident in Jerusalem, it is read with general interest, and is sure of being extensively quoted; but of the Jews resident among us nothing is ever heard, and probably very few persons indeed are aware of the extent to which they adhere to ancient forms and ceremonies.

As it is a subject which has not, as far as I am aware, been treated in any periodical, I propose to fill up this void in our literature as fully as is possible in the limited space which this journal can devote to one subject. Like most oriental nations, the Jews adhere to their religious doctrines and customs with great tenacity: but even they have not been able to withstand the introduction of novelties into their worship. Hence the existence of a body calling itself the Reformed Jews; the difference, however, is more in forms than in reality, the fundamental doctrines of their faith being identical in the cases of the Reformed and of those who by way of distinction I may term the Unreformed Jews.

But, apart from this distinction, which, it may be said, is almost without a difference, the Jews divide themselves into two communities, the one designated as the Sephardim, the other the Ashkenasim. The former are the descendants of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and claim to be the representatives of the tribe of Judah. They are proud of the eminent men their community has produced; nevertheless, though they regard themselves as the aristocracy of the Jewish nation, it is no very uncommon circumstance for members of this community to marry with those of the Ashkenasim. The last-named are descended from the German and Polish Jews, and are far more numerous than their aristocratic brethren.

The Jews who deal in left-off garments belong to the latter branch: there are very few trades either in London or elsewhere in which some of them are not engaged, and in which they do not contrive to make more money than their neighbours, if popular opinion on this subject is well informed. A better idea will be obtained of the difference in the number of the two communities if I mention that, while the Sephardim have only one synagogue, the Ashkenasim have upwards of forty in England.

To begin at an early period in the career of the English Jew. On the eighth day after his birth he is taken to the synagogue by his father to be circumcised, accompanied by a kind of godfather and godmother, who are termed Sandakin, the chief duty of the former being to carry the baby from the mohel, or circumciser, to the godmother, who is waiting for it outside, no women being admitted within the walls of the building during the performance of the solemn rite of circumcision.

After the operation the infant receives a Hebrew name, to be used on solemn occasions, and may have in addition any name the parents think proper to confer upon him for every day use.

The performance of the rite of circumcision is one to which great importance still attaches, as in former days, and is attended with much ceremony. Supposing the infant happens to be the first-born son of the mother, he is, according to Jewish jurisprudence, the property of the Cohen (who is supposed to be a descendant of the house of Aaron, but has no longer any priestly functions to perform), and must be redeemed. The father having selected a Cohen, invites him and a party of friends to a special entertainment at his house on the thirtieth day after the birth of his son, whom he then presents to the Cohen. The latter on receiving him, asks the parent which he would prefer to have, his son, or the money he must otherwise pay for his redemption. The father replies: “He is my first-born; here, take unto thee the five shekels which is thy due for his redemption.” The word shekels is merely a figure of speech, the value of the coins he tenders being usually about twelve shillings. Sundry prayers follow, and the ceremony of redemption is completed.

Until he attains his thirteenth year, the young Jew is entirely under the control of his father and mother, who are supposed to be accountable for all the sins he may commit up to that period; but their responsibility ceases on the Sabbath Day succeeding his thirteenth birthday, when a ceremony akin to that of confirmation takes place. The boy is called up to the reading-desk in the synagogue, and is required to read a portion of the law. If he cannot read, the chazan, or minister, does it for him, after which the father places his hands on his son’s head, and solemnly renounces his accountability for his future actions.

The next important step in his career is his betrothal, which usually takes place at an early age, in accordance with the recommendation of the Jewish law. A number of friends being present, the Kenas, or bond inflicting a penalty on either party who shall be guilty of a breach of the agreement, is read, after which a cup is broken, as a ratification of its provisions, by the parties concerned. The marriage follows the betrothal, it may be six or twelve months afterwards, or more.

Due notice having been given at the synagogue, the minister on the Sabbath eve preceding the day fixed for the marriage, chaunts some sentences referring to the approaching event, and the next day the intended bridegroom has to appear in the synagogue and have certain portions of the law read over to him, and pay any arrears he may owe to the congregation.

The way in which the parties spend the morning in their respective dwellings on the wedding-day resembles, I suppose, the manner in which it is employed by Gentiles on similar occasions; those who rightly realise the awful nature of the ceremony they are about to perform, spend the hours in fasting and reading the service prepared for the day of atonement. As soon as the clock strikes the appointed hour, two men present themselves before the bridegroom, and carry him off to the synagogue, where he meets the bride, whom two female friends have brought there with her head enveloped in a veil. The same persons place the two principal performers facing each other under a silk or velvet canopy supported by four long poles; the shamas, a kind of curate and clerk combined, brings a glass of wine, which he hands to the Rabbi, who thereupon offers up a short blessing, and then gives the glass of wine to the bridegroom, who tastes it and passes it to the bride, who does likewise. The bridegroom then takes the ring from his pocket and places it on the finger of the bride, saying after the Rabbi (in Hebrew) as he does so: “Behold! thou art betrothed unto me with this ring, according to the rites of Moses and Israel.” The Rabbi then reads the marriage contract, which is written in Chaldee, and is not understood by the parties concerned, who therefore take it on trust: after this the Chazan takes a glass of wine and pronounces a form of words longer but similar to that pronounced by the Rabbi, the wine is given to the bridegroom and bride, and an empty glass having been placed at the feet of the former, he stamps upon it and breaks it, whereupon all present wish him mazal tov (good speed), and the ceremony is at an end.

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The Marriage Ceremony.

If the newly married Jew has a proper sense of his religious duties, one of his first proceedings, on taking possession of his domicile, is to prepare a mezuzah. Most Gentiles who pass through the streets in the neighbourhood of Houndsditch will probably have remarked here and there a tin tube nailed in a slanting position on the door-post, which they probably presumed to be a trade emblem. This tube contains a strip of parchment, on one side of which is inscribed שדל, one of the names applied to the Supreme Being, and on the other from the 4th to the 9th verses of the vi. chapter of Deuteronomy, and from the 13th to the 21st verses of the xi. chapter of the same book. A similar tube is fastened to the jambs of the other doors in the house; and the Jew who is a strict observer of the old customs of his forefathers never leaves his house for the first time, daily, without touching the mezuzah with his lips, or bending his head to it as he passes from room to room.

The Jew being now provided with a wife, the next thing to be done is to describe the manner in which he may dispose of her in the event of her failing to afford him that happiness which he anticipated. To accomplish this object it is generally supposed the aid of Sir Cresswell Cresswell is not needed. The husband cannot now write a “bill of divorce” and send her away; but on assigning reasons for desiring a divorce, which are deemed of sufficient gravity, this ceremony is performed for him by the Bethdin, or ecclesiastical authorities. The bill of divorce is written in Hebrew, and is copied from a form, and its possession by the wife makes her free to marry again with whom she pleases, unless the divorce is brought about through her having been guilty of a breach of the Seventh Commandment, in which case she is not allowed to benefit by her own wrong, or, in other words, she may not marry the associate of her guilt.

In certain countries a divorce is sometimes given conditionally, that is, supposing a husband is about to start for a place from which there is a strong probability he may not return, he may give his wife a bill of divorce, stating that if at the end of three years he shall not return to her or send for her to join him, she is free to marry again; but this custom has been abolished in England.

The Jew has no reason to complain of lack of seasons for rejoicing, but days of mourning and sorrow visit him as well as his Gentile brethren. But the manner in which he mourns for the dead is different as regards certain forms from that of the latter, who simply buries his grief in his own heart and suffers it to exhibit itself as little as possible. The coffin is of the simplest construction, and before the lid is placed upon it, a little earth, brought from Jerusalem, is put in. The nearest relatives of the deceased approach in succession, and request pardon of the deceased for any offence they may have given him in his lifetime, and a favourable recollection of them in the world to which he has departed. The Rabbi then makes a slight cut in the upper part of the garments of each mourner, and tears it slightly, and this rent must not be sewn up till after a certain number of days.

No woman is allowed to accompany the corpse to its last resting-place, so that the wailing of women which has chilled the heart of every traveller in the East, and which may be heard even in those islands at the Antipodes where scarcely a European has set his foot, is never heard here now.

It is the custom in our village churchyards to dig the grave from east to west, with the feet towards the former point of the compass, from an idea that the Great Judge will make his appearance in the east; the Jews, however, invariably dig the grave from north to south. A singular custom is sometimes observed on occasions when there have been several deaths in the family within a short period. A padlock is locked and placed in the grave, and the key thrown away, the object being to delay the entrance of death into the household for a longer period.

The seven days which succeed the funeral of a Jew are given up entirely to mourning. Unwashed, and with naked feet, the mourner sits on the bare ground in a room open to all comers; not even a change of dress is permitted; and the only consolation which the afflicted can have during this period is derived from the perusal of religious books, which cheer them with the hope of meeting the deceased hereafter. When they visit the synagogue, during the continuance of these days of mourning, a touching reception is given them by the congregation, who all rise as they enter and make a movement towards them, the Rabbi uttering a short prayer that they may be comforted. Business may be attended to after the lapse of the seven days, but no amusement may be indulged in for thirty days thereafter; and if the mourning be for a father or mother, this rule is to be observed for a year.

Lighting the Lamps - Simeon Solomon.png
Lighting the Lamps, Eve of the Sabbath. (See page 194.)

There is this resemblance between Jewish parents and Chinese parents,—they have an intense desire for a son, and for a like reason. When the parent dies, it becomes the duty of the son to present himself in the synagogue morning and evening, for eleven months afterwards, and to repeat a song of praise to the Almighty: this is called the Kaddish, and is repeated by the son on the anniversary of his father’s death, all the days of his life, and a lamp is likewise kept burning all day.

Though no express mention is made in this song of praise of the departed soul, it is evident that it is expected it will derive some advantage from its repetition, or parents would not be so anxious to provide for its performance; moreover, the souls of the departed are prayed for on the principal festival days throughout the year, the prayer running as follows:—

May God remember the soul of my honoured father (or mother, as the case may be), who is gone to his repose; for that I now solemnly offer charity for his sake, in reward of this, may his soul enjoy eternal life, with the souls of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and the rest of the righteous males and females that are in Paradise, and let us say—Amen.

The son alone is capable of offering up these prayers; daughters, though eligible to seats in Paradise, are not admitted to the synagogue as members of the congregation, and their presence in the gallery is, in theory, only tolerated on the hypothesis that it forms no part of the synagogue. But the distinction between the Jew and the Jewess is deserving of more detailed consideration. In everyday life the sexes are as much on an equality as among other civilised peoples, but in religious matters the case is slightly different: it is in acknowledgment of this difference that the Jew is taught to offer up the following short thanksgiving along with his daily prayers:—“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast not made me a woman.” The female infant is named in the synagogue, and that is the only ceremony to which she is subjected.

When she marries, in addition to the superintendence of the household arrangements, she acquires certain responsibilities; for example, it becomes her duty to light the lamp or the gas for the Sabbath, which is a matter attended with some formality. Having lighted the lamp, or gas, or candles, as the case may be, she, with raised hands, repeats: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, king of the universe, who hast sanctified us with thy commandments, and commanded us to light the lamp of the Sabbath.” It is also her duty to prepare bread in a certain manner for use on Sabbath days and festivals: when she has mixed the dough she breaks a piece off and burns it as an offering, repeating the same form of words as in the case of the lamp lighting, only instead of concluding “and commanded us to light the lamp of the Sabbath,” she says, “and commanded us to separate the dough.” But in this matter, as in some others, duty has been forced to a compromise with convenience: officers have been appointed to see that the dough is prepared by the baker in the orthodox way, and the Jewess cuts off a small bit of the loaf and sacrifices it in lieu of the dough.

According to the Jewish law it is still the duty of the husband’s brother, if he die and leave no issue, to marry his brother’s widow, and if he declines to do this, or if he happens to be disqualified by reason of his having a wife already, he must set her free, a ceremony which is performed in this wise. The Rabbi and witnesses being present, and the man having repeated his refusal to marry his brother’s wife, the Rabbi directs the shoe to be brought, which is kept for the purpose, and after the Jew has placed it on his foot, the Rabbi knots the two long strings attached to it round his leg. He then takes the widow by the hand and leads her to the man, and she makes in Hebrew what is in substance a declaration that he refuses to perform the part of the brother of her husband, and he repeats his refusal; upon which the woman stoops down, and with her right hand unfastens the knots, takes off the shoe and throws it down, and, first spitting on the ground before the offender, repeats after the Rabbi:

“So shall it be done to the man that will not build up his brother’s house; and his name shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him that hath his shoe loosed.”—Deuteronomy xxv., 9.

The congregation responding, “His shoe is loosed,” the woman is thereupon pronounced by the Rabbi to be free to marry again.

The principal religious dogmas of the Jews are the unity of God, the resurrection of the dead, and immortality of the soul. The coming of the Messiah is an article of their creed,[1] and they as implicitly believe all the statements contained in their book of prayer, this prayer-book being founded on the Bible and the Talmud. Respecting the Talmud much has been written, both for and against it, but it really does not appear to merit either the abuse or the praise it has received. It is a curious compound of wisdom and absurd superstitions. Its wisdom is often conveyed in fables more difficult of comprehension than even the allegories in which the old alchemists enveloped their discoveries; hence some learned men, who have dipped into the Talmud without possessing the imagination which enables some men to see a meaning where it does or does not exist, have pronounced it a tissue of absurdities. Much of it is taken up with the consideration of questions relating to the observance of the Mosaic laws, and of hypothetical cases. It is, with the Mishnah, the authority on which are based the rules for conducting the service of the synagogue, but notwithstanding, it is doubtful whether any human being ever read it through, still less that if he did he would understand it. It in fact contains the opinions, religious and otherwise, of a great number of Jews who lived within a period embracing from ten to twelve hundred years or more.

There are many things connected with the synagogue, with the articles to be worn there, with ablutions, cattle slaughtering, and so forth, which are of considerable interest, but which space will not allow me to describe, at least not at present; so I pass on to more general subjects before bringing this article to a close.

The total number of Jews at present domiciled in England is not known even to themselves. The best guess that can be made is by taking the number of burials during the year, which the rabbi can always ascertain, and assuming the mortality to be the same as among their Gentile neighbours, an idea can be obtained of the actual number of the living which approximates to the truth. Computed in this way, we find we have something less than 30,000 Jews resident in England, by far the largest portion of whom reside in London. It is by no means the case that the Jewish population remains the same; numbers are constantly leaving for our colonies, for America and California, wherever, in short, an opening appears for speculation and money-making, and their places here are supplied by fresh arrivals from abroad, especially, I believe, from Poland, where they have increased and multiplied greatly since the time when King Casimir, at the intercession of a favourite Jewess named Esther, gave them an asylum and protection against the dreadful persecutions to which they were subjected everywhere else on the continent, during the period when it was being almost depopulated by that fearful scourge the Black Death.

It may appear strange, considering the perfect freedom they enjoy in this country, that they do not all of them leave Rome and other Italian cities, where they are treated with contumely, and, as a rule, are miserably poor, and come over here; but the fact is the Jews in this country, as a body, are in anything but flourishing circumstances, and this heightens the credit due to them for the extensive charity they exercise towards each other. They have charities for assisting the aged and destitute, a hospital for their sick, for educating, clothing, and apprenticing poor boys, for giving marriage portions of from 60l. to 80l. to poor fatherless girls, and for sundry other purposes.

As regards the state of education among them, I find in a recent report of the education commissioners, that there were 3204 children attending their schools, and Dr. Adler, the present chief Rabbi, who has taken great interest in the subject of education both abroad and at home, states, in his answer to their questions, that there are few Jewish children who can neither read nor write; still he is not satisfied with the progress they make in the schools in the acquisition of general knowledge. The chief reason he assigns is that “it is incumbent upon the Israelite to know at least so much of the Hebrew language as to read the prayers and to understand the Pentateuch in the original,” which, of course, occupies a considerable portion of the time available for educational purposes. The principal institution for the education of Jewish children is situated in Bell Lane, Spitalfields, which is at present attended by 1800 children of both sexes. This school, and the other schools of a similar kind, are under government inspection, and participate in the parliamentary educational grants. There is also a Jews’ college and a school in connection with it, established through the exertions of Dr. Adler, chiefly for the purpose of training up men qualified to serve in the synagogue, and to become masters of schools. To this college a library has recently been added by Mr. L. M. Rothschild, which will, no doubt, form a nucleus for future contributions of a similar kind. It is not here, however, that persons desirous of consulting the rarest Hebrew works are likely to find them. Three quarters of a century ago, Solomon da Costa sent to the trustees of the British Museum nearly two hundred manuscript volumes, in Hebrew, which he had bought; they had been originally intended as a present from the Jews to Charles II., but, from some cause, they were not presented to him, though they were richly bound and marked with his cypher; since that time numerous additions have been made to this gift by purchase and otherwise.

The recipients of the benefits conferred by their charitable institutions, must be Jews, no Christian being eligible; and it is not surprising that these should be excluded from participation, although they do not themselves make any distinction in the applicants for admission to most of their charities; for example, the daughter of a Jew born in any town in the kingdom would be eligible for one of the marriage portions distributed in that town, if her character were such as to entitle her to be a candidate; and I might say the same of the candidates for admission to our endowed schools, which are open to the children of Jews as freely as to those of the Christians. But most of the Jewish charitable institutions have been founded by combination among the poor, or by one who was himself originally poor, and who knew the wants of his brethren, and the inadequacy of such institutions as existed among them to meet their wants. The offerings at the different synagogues during the year amount to a considerable sum. which is disbursed in weekly doles, under the superintendence of a board of guardians, among the most needy members of the congregation. The sum expended in private charity among their poor brethren by those few members of the community who have attained enormous wealth is, as it ought to be, very large; and it does not detract from the credit due to them on this account to say that they confine it principally, or almost entirely, to Jews, since the majority of those who require relief are to them more completely foreigners than the poor and miserable inhabitants of the courts in the vicinity of their own dwellings.

I do not propose to discuss here the question whether those who opposed the admission of Jews to Parliament were right or wrong in their arguments. Of course a Jew is not eligible for a seat in the Legislature because he is a Jew, for that would be tantamount to saying that a Pole or a Frenchman or a German is so, but on the ground that he is born on British soil. In the case of such men as Salomons and Rothschild the appellation Jew indicates a religious rather than a nationalistic distinction between them and the other inhabitants of this kingdom. In a catechism for the instruction of the Jewish youth, compiled by one of their principal teachers, whose name is not altogether unfamiliar in this country—Rabbi Ascher—the following question and answer occurs:

Has the Israelite a fatherland besides Jerusalem?

Yes; the country wherein he is bred and born, and in which he has the liberty to practise his religion, and where he is allowed to carry on traffic and trade, and to enjoy all the advantages and protection of the law in common with the citizens of other creeds; this country the Israelite is bound to acknowledge as his fatherland, to the benefit of which he must do his best to contribute. The sovereign who rules over this land is (after God) his sovereign; its laws—so long as they are not contradictory to the Divine Law—are also the Israelite’s laws; and the duties of his fellow-citizens are also his duties.

It will be seen from this extract what view the Jew is taught to take of his relations to Englishmen.

Though they are scattered all over the country, it is generally in towns that the Jews congregate; and this because there must be at least ten men to constitute a congregation, their law prohibiting the performance of congregational worship by a less number. Moreover, the requirements of their law are much more easily and economically fulfilled when a number of them dwell together than when the reverse is the case. As to their moral qualities, the evidence seems to show that the lower class of Jews are decidedly superior to the same class among ourselves. They are far less given to drinking; their religious customs enforce a certain amount of cleanliness, both personal and in their dwellings; two families are seldom or never found inhabiting the same apartment, so that the scene described by the Inspector of Lodging-houses of a room in which there was a family in each corner, and an Irish gentleman in the middle, who was declared to have recently introduced discord among the previously happy inmates by taking in a lodger, is never witnessed among them. They are very hospitable to each other, and we are all aware of the strict manner in which they, as a body, keep their Sabbath—at least, so far as regards refraining from trade—though, as the expounders of their law have laid down that it was intended as much for pleasure and recreation as for spiritual improvement, they avail themselves of the liberty thus accorded to them with an eagerness which is unknown among their Gentile neighbours. The extent to which they patronise theatres, concerts, dancing-rooms, and other places of amusement, on Saturday evenings, must considerably affect the weekly receipts at some of those places; and the style in which they get themselves up for these occasions has made their love of finery notorious.

The conceit which in ancient times made them such a stiff-necked people still adheres to them. It is said that nothing is more difficult than to get them to adopt a plan suggested by an individual among them, the carrying out of which requires unity of action, every man wanting to be a leader and none followers. On the other hand, if the Jew is conceited, and is taught to consider himself as one of a chosen people, he is also taught that the people of other nations whose worship does not resemble his own are by that circumstance in no way disqualified for admission into Paradise. In an educational work intended for the instruction of Jewish youth, which has received the approval of the highest authority among them, it is laid down that:

Whereas all religions, the foundations of which are constituted on moral principles, qualify man to guide himself in a proper path, and to render him happy both here and hereafter, what avails it what way he arrives at the destined end? it follows hence that man is destined by the circumstances of his birth and education to adhere to the religion of his forefathers.

And in the same educational book from which I have already quoted there occurs the following question and answer:

Are the Jews commanded to convert other nations to Judaism?

No! The Jews are destined by God to be a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation; but all men cannot be priests, and all nations need not to become Jews in order to obtain the favour of God, or to be his true worshippers.

Thus, being instructed from their very infancy that there is no reason why they should seek to convert others to their faith, they do not see why they should abandon their own; hence all attempts to convert them usually fail. The Roman Catholic ecclesiastics had an excellent opportunity of testing their impressionability, for I have seen it stated in an article on the Jews in Rome, that a certain number of the Jewish inhabitants of the Ghetto were compelled to attend the daily service of the Romish Church for generation after generation without any result in the way of conversion. I have not seen any report of the success, or the want of it, on the part of the society founded for the express purpose of propagating the Gospel among the Jews: but I have before me a newspaper published in Utah, in which I see a paragraph stating, on the authority of the Rev. J. Wolff, that a society which existed in London for the express purpose of converting the Jews had, during the last fifty years, spent 500,000l. and converted two Jews and a half. This statement is not strictly accurate, but it is certain the number of conversions is not great. However, that is a branch of the subject which I need not discuss in an article intended merely to give some information concerning the present customs of this ancient people.

G. L.

  1. In a work written by a Jew, named Cohen, and published at Exeter, in 1808, under the title of “Sacred Truths addressed to the Children of Israel residing in the British Empire,” it is stated that a grand Sanhedrim of the Jews was convened at Paris, who issued a book entitled “The New Sanhedrim,” which among other things maintained that Buonaparte was the promised Messiah.