Chapter Twenty

How the Jews prepare for their Atonement Feast, and how they offer up a Cock for their Sins.

They call the period from New Year's day until the tenth of the month, on which the Feast of Atonement is held, Aseres jeme teschubhah, the Ten Days of Penitence. They fast on these days, and recite many prayers, and want to be very pious, because if God has written one of them into the book of those destined to die, and decreed a bad year for him, he might yet look at his life and good deeds now, and turn to the good side, and put him into the book of the living on the great Day of Atonement and then seal that decree over him.

Every day early in the morning they say their confession three times. Nobody is placed under the ban, nobody is summoned before the court, nobody takes an oath. On the ninth day they get up early, go to their shul, and sing and pray very much.

As soon as they come home, each man as well as each boy takes a cock in his hand, a woman takes a hen, a pregnant woman a cock and hen, and the man of the house steps up with his cock in his hand and says from the Psalms of David Ps. 107.17: The fools were so pained because of their transgressions and their sins, that they felt disgust at the sight of food, and became deadly sick. And they called to the Lord in their need, and he helped them in their anguish. He sent his word and made them well, and he saved them from death. Therefore they should thank the Lord for his kindness, and for the miracle which he does to help his children, and give thanksgiving, and tell joyfully of his deeds. Job 33.23 If an angel, one out of a thousand, will come to tell the person how to do the right thing, then God will have mercy on him and say: Let him be saved so that he may not go down to perdition, because I have found an atonement (namely a cock, which should be a Capparah, or atonement for my sin). After this, he makes his atonement, and he knocks the cock three times against his head, and each time he says: This cock shall be an exchange for me; he shall take my place, he shall be my atonement. This cock shall die, and I shall have a good life with all the people of Israel. Amen. He does this three times, once for himself, then for his children, and once for a guest, or whoever is with him, just as the high priest made atonement in the Old Testament, as you can read in the third book of Moses Lev. 16.17. After this, he kills the cock, but first he pulls the skin around his neck tight, and reflects that he might be liable to the penalty of strangulation. After that, he cuts the throat with a knife and reflects that he might be liable to be executed with a sword, then he throws the cock hard on the ground, as a sign that he might be liable to be stoned. Finally, he sears and roasts the bird to remember that he himself might be liable to be burned with fire, and thus the cock suffers four deaths for the Jew. They throw the insides of the bird onto the roof of the house, so that the birds may participate in their sacrifice too. But others say it is done because sin is more an interior than an exterior thing, and it adheres to the entrails of the cock, and therefore the ravens should come and carry off the sin of the Jew into the desert, just as the scapegoat of the Old Testament ran off into the desert with the sin of the people. They ensure that they have a white cock for their offering. They do not take a red one, because they are full of sin, and sin is red, as it is written Is. 1.18: Though your sin is blood-red, it shall become snow-white, and if it is rose-red it shall be like white wool. If the cock is white, then he has no sin, and he may bear the sins of the Jew, but if he is red, then he is full of sin, and would not be able to bear the sins. Antonius Margarita writes in his book about the Jewish faith that some say that they have heard from old wise men to take a monkey for the atonement offering, because it most resembles man.

The reason for taking a cock rather than any other animal is that a man is called Gebher in Hebrew. If a Gebher sins, a Gebher should be punished. But that punishment would be too painful, therefore they take a cock, which in the Talmud or Babylonian language is also called Gebher, and therefore justice is done, because if a Gebher sins, a Gebher, namely the cock, is indeed punished. The blind and unreasonable Jews think that they can make God Mebulbal, confused, just as they did to the devil (mentioned in the previous chapter) so that he mistakes a cock for a human. What a pity is this great blindness! You can read a similar shrewd interpretation in the book Schebhet Jehudah, which was first written in the Hebrew language, then later translated by the Jews into German, and printed twelve years ago in Crakow, Poland. In it, a dispute is described between a Christian and a Jew, which was held before Don Alfonso, King of Portugal. After the Christian quoted many statements from Holy Scripture which point to Christ, the true Messiah, as well as the words from the twenty-second Psalm: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?, the Jew finally answered: The nature and peculiarity of Holy Scripture is that it can be interpreted in many different ways. But the true and best interpretation is that which can be explained and confirmed by other sayings from Holy Scripture. Regarding the saying, My God, my God etc., many sayings contradict the notion that it refers to Christ. The Jew said further: First I want to tell you what a very wise Chacham and learned Rabbi answered the King of Spain some time ago: Yesterday I was angry at a cock in my house because he bothered me with all his crowing, so I hit him with my cane and chased him into a dark room, then he stopped. But because of my anger, I hit him every day until his skin was torn and his legs were broken; after that I put him in a pot and put on the lid as is usual. A miracle happened though after his death, his spirit came back, he came back to life, and crowed and sang as before. And this is the meaning of the twenty-second Psalm, because I find that the prophet Jeremiah also prophesied it in his Lamentations 3.1 when he said: Ani haggebher, - I am the man who went through misery and pain - this is the cock, called Gebher in the language of the Talmud, who had to see the rod of your bitter anger - that is the stick with which the cock was hit. He drove me - that is the hunt - into darkness and not light - that is the dark room - he turned his hand against me - that is the second beating in the room, or that he turned him around in the pot. He has wasted my flesh and skin - that is they are torn - and broken my legs - that is he cut me up. He built a wall around me - that is, he covered him up in a pot. He put me in darkness, that is in the covered pot, And when I call and cry - that is, he crowed again after he was dead. So far from the book Schebhet jehudah. From this we see how the Jews misinterpret Holy Scripture, and thereby prove that they are stricken with insanity, blindness, and stubborness of heart as God threatened them through Moses. You see how they make a Gebher, a man, out of a cock, and again a cock out of a man. I believe and hold it certain that if the prophet Isaiah had used the word Gebher in his fifty-third chapter, then the man of whom he speaks would also have had to be a cock. However, he does not call him Gebher, but Isch machobhos, a man plagued by many sicknesses - nibhseh vahadal ischim - the most despised and unworthy among men. What kind of sickness did he bear? He bore our sickness, and took our pain upon himself. He was wounded because of our misdeeds, and broken because of our sins. He took punishment so that we may have peace, and through his wounds we are healed. The stubborn Jews do not want such a man, but rather one they can put on a spit, roast, eat, and enjoy. Through the wounds of the cock they will slowly be healed, but not much peace will come to their conscience as they show on their deathbed when they have no comfort but say Misasi tehi Capparasi my death shall be my atonement and satisfaction for my sins. What a miserable comfort. Not the present death, but eternal death will be the atonement for their sins. But the Jews cannot and will not see this, through the just sentence of God, therefore we will go on to see how they prepare for their feast of atonement.

After the procedure with the cock, they go to the churchyard [sic] in which the dead are buried, and pray there, just as on the New Year feast, and they give alms, to the value of a cock. Some time ago they gave the cocks to the poor Jews, but the poor complained and disliked it, feeling as if they ate the sins of the rich. Therefore they buy the offering back from God with money, put it on the spit, and have a good time.

In the afternoon they go again in cold water and bathe, as was mentioned on New Year's eve, submerge in the water and wash away their sins.

Some of them light the lights which they will need the next day in shul. In Germany they prepare one light for each man. Their Kabbalists have taught them that the Hebrew word Ner (which in German means light) has the numerical value of 250. Now a man has 248 members in his body. If you add his spirit and soul, you have 250, therefore the word Ner, light, means one man. A woman has four more members than a man, therefore it is not allowed to light a light for her. In other countries they burn lights for the women also, and consider it a great honor and decoration if many lights are burning in their shuls. Whoever wants to be very pious will light two candles, one for the body and one for the soul and the last is bigger and more expensive than the other and they call it Neschamah [soul] candle.

Around evening they get together in the shul, and say their evening and night-prayers. Each one goes to the other. Whoever has offended or made an enemy of another begs forgiveness. The one who was insulted should be willing to forgive, because God will soon forgive him too. If the insulted person does not want to forgive him the first time asked, then he should take three other persons with him and ask again, and even ask a third time. If this still does not help, he should take ten persons with him and ask again. If the one who was insulted forgives him, everything is well. If not, he is excused, and it will do him no harm in his atonement by God. Any sin committed against another human will not be forgiven, unless they have forgiven each other first. If the insulted person has died, then the one responsible takes ten men, and goes to his grave and says: I have sinned against the God of Israel, and against N. who lies buried here.

They also make confession to each other, because if one of them drinks too much at the evening meal, or gets a bone stuck in his throat, he might die without confessing his sins.

This confession is done thus. They go two by two to a particular place in church [sic]. There one of them bends down, his face towards midnight, [north] his back towards noon [south] and the other gives him 39 strokes with a leather belt on his back, and the one that receives the strokes says meanwhile his confession, and at each word, he beats on his chest. The one administering the strokes recites Psalm 78.38: He was merciful, and forgave their misdeeds, and did not destroy them, but often averted his anger, and did not let loose all his wrath. This verse has thirteen words in the Hebrew language. He says it three times, and for each word administers one stroke, which makes thirty-nine strokes. After that the whole process is repeated with the other one bending down, and this way they suffer great punishment for their sins, however, the foxes do not bite each other really hard. [i.e. they cunningly give one another mild strokes.] This punishment they call [in Yiddish] "Malkus-schlagen" [administering corporal punishment] and they take it from the fifth book of Moses in which is written Deut. 25.2: And if the godless one has earned a beating, then the judge should have him lie down, and let him have his strokes according to his misdeeds with a certain number of strokes; with forty strokes he should be punished, and no more shall be added. Some time ago this was a civil punishment, just as the Christians would drive an evil-doer out of town with a switch. But they write and interpret this saying, declaring that not forty, but the number next to forty, which is thirty-nine, should be given. Some time ago I asked a Rabbi why they give thirty-nine strokes, when it says explicitly in the law forty. He answered: Formerly a whip was used with three calfskin thongs, two of them short, but the one in the middle long, so that it went round the whole body, and with that item thirteen lashes were administered. If you count one stroke with each of the thongs, then the thirteen lashes would make thirty-nine, but one more would have meant two more than forty for the poor sinner, which Moses had prohibited. But you can find the right interpretation of this saying of Moses concerning what was used to strike the evil-doer in their Talmud, but it would be too lengthy to report here. The Apostle Paul said he received this punishment, one less than forty, five times from the Jews. No doubt it was much harder, and quite different from the manner in which they administer it to each other in church.

After shul, they hurry home to sit at the table, which the women have prepared in the meanwhile and they enjoy their cocks and chickens which they sacrificed that morning for their sins. They explicitly state in their Minhágim, that it is a law of God, as well as a good deed, to eat and be merry that evening as much as it is to fast the next day. This evening meal has to be done by sundown, because the holy day starts then. They put their best clothes on, but they wear over it a big, wide linen shirt which reaches down to their shoes, as a sign that they will be white and clean of sins the following day, just like the angels. [This garment, called a kittel, later serves as the owner's shroud.] Because they cannot honor the atonement-day with eating and drinking, they are Mecabbed [honoring] it through fine clothes, which is the greatest honor for that day.

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Alan D. Corré