Jewish High Holidays in Christian Eyes

by Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

From the earliest days of Christianity, Christian communities grappled with Jewish holidays. Should they be observed or not? Soon, they were rejected. Passover came to be redefined as Easter; the Sabbath moved to Sunday as the day of the Lord. But as Jews continued to observe their festivals—sometimes developing new rituals—some Christians continued to follow them. Preaching in 387, just before High Holidays, which he described as “the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts,” a Christian leader in Antioch John Chrysostom was exasperated. “The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews,” he noted in his homily, “are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now.” It was a difficult task, many Christian considered synagogues holy places because of the scrolls they held, and respected Jewish holidays. As a result John Chrysostom did everything possible to disparage both Jewish rituals and their synagogues, producing some of the most anti-Jewish writings in Christian history, though because they were written in Greek they became lost to the Roman Latin world.

Still, Jewish holidays continued to be subject of Christian interest and derision, seen a proof of the absurdity of their observance of Jewish law. Some of the earliest printed anti-Jewish books focus on Jewish ceremonies, and especially those of the High Holidays. At the beginning of the sixteenth-century, a new genre of literature developed, called by scholars “polemical ethnographies of Jews.” Victor von Carben and Johannes Pfefferkorn pioneered the genre in the German vernacular, and Antonius Margaritha perfected it. In 1508, Pfefferkorn published a pamphlet Ich heyss eyn buchlijn, which came with five woodcuts, four of which were full-page, representing scenes of Jewish ceremonies related to the High Holidays. In all of them, Jews appear blindfolded performing ritual acts on Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur, such taschlikh (a symbolic casting off of sins), kapparot (a ritual of atonement), and malkot (a ritual flagellation). The goal was unmistakably to ridicule and highlight the strangeness of Jewish observances. The woodcuts in Pfefferkorn’s booklet were some of the earliest visual representations of post-biblical Jews disseminated in Europe.

In 1530, Antonius Margaritha published Der gantz Jüdisch Glaub (The Entire Jewish Faith) and provided a fuller (than Pfefferkorn) description of Jewish customs, including also a translation of Jewish prayers into German. The book also came with woodcuts and became a bestseller. Margaritha’s illustrations were based on Pfefferkorn’s, though they were smaller and a mirror image, suggesting the artist had Pfefferkorn’s book in front of him.

The genre of “polemical ethnographies of Jews” flourished after the beginning of the Reformation in the context of Protestant anti-Catholic polemic and interests, as Protestants began to study “Jewish ritual for the purpose of elucidating the original practices” of early Christians, and, thereby, of pointing to the corruption of the Catholic Church. If von Carben, Pfefferkorn, and Margaritha were Jewish converts to Christianity, soon Christian scholars began to write their own books about Jewish ceremonies and rituals. One of the most successful such books became Johannes Buxtorf’s Synagoga Judaica, whichaddressed explicitly to the Christian reader, promising to “consider” with utmost diligence the “great ingratitude, disobedience, and stubbornness” of the Jews through a detailed description of Jewish ceremonies. He based his description on a wide array of Jewish sources ranging from the Talmud and the Shulḥan ‘Arukh, to prayer books, and Yiddish sources, such as sermons, guidebooks, and minhag books. Buxtorf, a reformed theologian and a professor of Hebrew at the University of Basel, wanted ostensibly to answer a question whether Jews indeed observed “zealously” the laws of Moses.  But, in fact, he sought to expose the “unbelief” of the Jews and show to Christians that Jews of his time no longer obeyed biblical laws but they followed “fables” and other traditions. He wanted to arm Christians with tools against the Jewish “unbelief” and help them avoid the “wrath of God.” The book became exceedingly popular, going through many editions in German and Latin, not least because—with no illustrations and small octavo or duodecimo format—it was inexpensive to print. Only some later, eighteenth-century editions included images.

Bernard Picart, The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Nations of the Known World (1733), illustrations of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur

But some other books were more exquisite. One such work was Bernard Picart’s elaborate depiction and description of Jewish ceremonies, Cèrèmonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde, published in 1723, with high quality copperplates that did not focus just on what Christians thought were absurd practices, and soon also in the English translation as The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Several Nations of the Known World. And though not all Picart’s Jewish figures are portrayed in a flattering way— some even sport a prominent “Jewish nose”–nonetheless these images are not inflammatory, though not devoid of polemical meaning. Like Pfefferkorn and Margaritha before him, Picart included in the first 1723 edition illustrations of Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, and the rest of High Holidays, but omitted the “bizarre” others emphasized (tashlikh, kapparot, and malkot). (Only a later edition in Paris added these derogatory images).

With these books, some illustrated, western Christian readers now had tools to learn more about Jews. Jewish rituals were now revealed, and the artists made it symbolically known that Christians were now privy to see the internal Jewish practices: many illustrations depict Christians gazing or even participating in the ceremonies: in Pfefferkorn’s and Margaritha’s books it is a Christian synagogue attendant, the only figure not blindfolded; in some of Bernard Picart’s depictions, among Christian figures are prominently located women wearing crosses; in Johann Alexander Boener’s depictions of Jews in Fürth, Christians witness outdoor Jewish ceremonies, as they also do in Paul Christian Kirchner’s Jüdisches Ceremoniel and Johann Bodenchatz’s Kirchliche Verfassung. The presence of the Christians in these illustrations made visible a significant point—they signaled to the readers that Jewish ceremonies, now exposed and witnessed by Christians, were no longer “secret” and concealed. In the long term, the works demystified Jewish practices. Even though these books presented Jews as strange, they also countered the knowledge passed on through anti-Jewish tales in chronicles so ubiquitous in Europe, in which Jews appeared as secretive and dangerous killers to be killed and plundered.