David Wolpe reviews Elisheva Baumgarten's “Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe” -- an “erudite and captivating chronicle of Jewish family life in the Middle Ages.”
He describes some of the medieval Jewish ceremonies (including one for both boys and girls involving the Torah, blessings and receipt of a non-Jewish name) and superstitions (placing knives under a mother and baby’s pillows to ward off demons), and the interaction between Jewish and Christian families, in which Jews adapted the mores of the surrounding societies.
Sermons in the home were a common feature of Jewish life. These sermons often took the form of learned discussions, and a distinguished guest repaid his host’s hospitality by a chiddush. Boys on their thirteenth birthday delivered orations at table . . .
Riddles were a regular table game, and all the great Hebrew poets of the middle ages composed acrostics and enigmas of considerable merit. . .
The Jewish table-songs were the bridge between the human and the divine, they were at once serious and jocular, they were at once prayers and merry glees. . . . On Friday evenings in the winter, the family would remain for hours round the table, singing these curious but beautiful hymns. . .
Thou beautiful Sabbath, thou sanctified day,
Thou chasest our cares and our sorrows away,
O come with good fortune, with joy and with peace,
To the homes of thy pious, their bliss to increase!
New heavenly powers are given to each;
Of everyday matters now hush’d is all speech;
At rest are all hands that have toil’d with much pain;
Now peace and tranquility everywhere reign.
Not the choicest of wines at a banqueting board
Can ever such exquisite pleasure afford
As the Friday-night meal when prepared with due zest
To honour thee, Sabbath, thou day of sweet rest!
Shabbat Shalom, and Happy New Year.