We read in the Talmud Baba Qama 82a and Rabbi Alphes [Talmudist and decisor, born Fez, Morocco, 1013, died 1103] that the prophet Ezra gave the Jews ten different things to keep and obey, while imprisoned in Babylon to wit:
It may be that the prophets ordained before Ezra's time that people should read from the Law of Moses on Sabbaths, and teach and hear about it; so Ezra ordered, to increase the fear of God, that never should three days pass without reading from the Law, and the people should be taught about it so they could hear it. The wise men who taught and interpreted the law have confirmed this order with this statement Exod. 15.22: And they wandered for three days in the desert, and found no water, that is, no Thorah or law, which is called water, as it is written Is. 55.1: Now, all you who thirst, come to the water, that is, to the law and word of God. On account of the fact that they wandered three days without the Thorah in the desert, they divided up the week in such a way that there would never be more than three days without readings from the word of God. Besides, Monday and Thursday are the days on which Moses went to Mount Sinai to get the Law, and then he received forgiveness of sins for the idolatry of the golden calf, and came back on Monday. Therefore the most pious Jews still observe those two days as fastdays, as the Pharisee did in the time of Christ, proudly declaring Luke 18.11: I thank you God that I am not like other people, I fast twice a week. It is also necessary on account of the court days that you should observe and hear and meditate on God's words.
Those two days are still half-holidays for the Jews. They come early in the morning together in their synagogues, they pray, sing and say other prayers besides their usual morning prayers, as you can see in their Minhagim or church and prayer books. In addition they have different kinds of ceremonies when they take out and put back the book of the Law in the ark. I shall report more on this later.
Regarding the prayers, they add another one to their morning-prayers which they call Vehu rachum ["And He, being merciful, pardons iniquity…"] because it starts with those words. They rely on it very much, and think it has great power and effect, although it did not show any effect in sixteen hundred years. They pray it standing up, and with great devotion. The history of this prayer is as follows. When the Jews were driven out from Jerusalem by the Emperor Vespasian, he ordered three boatloads of Jews sent out into the waters without shipmaster or rudders. After this happened, the three boats got separated by a storm, so that they landed in three different countries. One boatload landed in the country of Louanda (the names of the three lands are unknown today), the second in the country of Arlado, the third in the country of Burdeli. The last mentioned were accepted by the lord of the land in quite a friendly manner, and he gave them fields and vineyards to plant and work. But after this lord died, another lord came who, like the other Pharaoh in Egypt, was ill-willed, and bothered them and said to them: I will test if you are real Jews, just as the three Jews, Hanania, Mishael and Azaria were tried in the fiery oven. If you are protected, like they were, then I will accept you as real Jews. The Jews answered: Adoni melech, merciful Lord king, give us three days, as they had, to prepare ourselves, and we will pray to God to save us, just as he saved them. This was granted, and then three of the most pious men, Joseph and Benjamin, who were brothers, and Samuel, their cousin, had a meeting to decide what to do. They decided to fast and pray until the third day. Each one made his own prayer, and then they put it together into one, and that prayer they prayed all three days and nights. On the third day one said: I dreamed this night that somebody read a Pasuk or verse from the Bible to me, in which I heard two times Ki and three times Lo, but I do not know where it is written, and what it means. The Pasuk or saying will be your help, God in heaven will help you. It is written in prophet Isaiah in the forty-third chapter: Ki táabhor bammájim, ittecha ani, ubannehároth lo jistephúchah: Ki télech bemó esch, lo tikkaveh, velehabhah lo tíbhar bach, that, is, when you go through water, I shall be with you, that the rivers might not drown you, and if you go through fire, you shall not burn, and the flames should not hurt you. On the third day a big fire was built and many people gathered who wanted to see the Jews burn. The three men came with ease and unsummoned, and they walked into the fire singing and praying, until the fire burned down and they were saved by that prayer. This miracle became known in all the places where Jews lived, and it was ordered that this prayer be said always on Mondays and Thursdays in their synagogues. This is still held and observed today, and they put high hopes on it that they may be saved by this from their lengthy captivity and misery - it has not happened yet though, and it will not happen in the future as long as they despise Christ and insist on their terrible disbelief. This story or fable I have brought in more detail than in Antonius Margarita, out of the book Colbo.
The prayer begins this way: Vehu rachum, etc. And he is merciful, forgives the sin, does not destroy the sinner. He turns away his anger, and does not arouse all his fury. O God, do not leave me without your mercy, your grace and truth should always protect me. Help us, God our God, and assemble us from the heathens. The sum of the whole prayer is that God should forgive their sins, show mercy concerning the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the devastation of the temple, should gather them again from all four corners of the earth, and fulfil the promise of their inheritance. They do not forget the Christians here, and pray: Oh how long will your power be imprisoned, and your beauty (the following words are omitted in many books by order of the authorities, they usually have a Spatium [gap] so they can insert it, or be reminded to ask their elders) in the hands of the harmful? O Lord God, raise your power and your zealous vengeance over our enemies, then their power will be destroyed and disgraced. Here they mean the Christians over whom they call down vengeance.
After that they fall once more on their face, as was reported in the previous chapter, and they say more prayers in which they beg God to divert his anger from them, not let them fall into the hands of their enemies, but think of the promise that he will multiply their seed like the stars in heaven.
After they have bowed down and prayed for a certain time, they start the ceremony with the book of laws and they read the weekly lection as Ezra ordered them to do. It follows in this manner.
In all their synagogues they have a book of laws, namely the five books of Moses, written on several calf-skins, and sewn together the long way, written in large letters. It is fastened on both ends to round wooden sticks with which it can be lifted up and carried. It is kept in a special ark, usually built into a wall. In front of the door to the ark is a beautiful woven curtain, and the bigger the feast, the more beautiful the curtain. They love to have birds woven in, because in the old Testament there were also birds above the ark. The book is always wrapped in a special cloth, four or five yards long, and a span wide. They place there these "Windeln" as they call these pennants. Every boy at the age of six months is carried, on a Sabbath, by his father to shul to receive a blessing from the Rabbi. Each baby boy has to bring a piece of cloth on which figures are embroidered with silk, and also the name of the boy, and the name of the father, his age and the day of his birth. The father takes the piece of cloth and gives it to the individual charged with the Ez chajim [holding the scroll] and he gives it to the individual charged with Gelilah [unwrapping the scroll.] The book of laws will be wrapped in it with the letters inside, so that they may touch the parchment on which the law is written. Over that another cloth is placed, like a cover, made of silk, velvet or even gold, on that a silver leaf is hanging on a silver chain, on which is written Keser thorah, the crown of the law or kodesch ladonai, Holiness of the Lord. Under this leaf are several small leaves, on which are engraved the names of the feast days, or other days on which the books are used.
One man walks around and calls out: Who wants to buy Gelilath Etz chájim? His official duty is to grasp the wooden rollers and to roll it up or down. It is sold, and the money is used for the poor; such wooden rollers are called Etz chajim, wood of life, from the sayings of Solomon in which it is written Prov. 3.18: Wisdom is a tree, or wood, of life for all who grasp it. Gelilath means winding, to wind something up or down.
When the Chasan or cantor takes this holy book from the ark, and walks with it to the high place, which we would call the pulpit, everybody sings from the fourth book of Moses 10.35: And when the ark moved, Moses said: Lord arise, let your enemies disperse, and those who hate you flee before you. Is. 2.3 The law comes from Zion and the Lord's word from Jerusalem. The cantor starts to sing while he takes the book in his arms Ps. 34.4: Praise the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. The congregation answers Ps. 99.9: Exalt the Lord our God, and bow to his holy mountain, because the Lord our God is holy.
On a square elevation there is a table with a stand, covered with a silk or velvet cloth. On this the Chasan puts the book, and then comes the one who bought Gelilath duty, he takes off the cloth and unwinds the book. He calls one of the congregation by his name and his father's name to come to him, Jáamod Rabbi Abraham bar Itzchak Hakkóhen, Step forward Rabbi Abraham son of Isaac or something similar. This man steps up, and stands between the two. He kisses the book, but not on the parchment, because that would be a great sin. He does so through the cloth, and he takes the two bottom rollers of the book in his hand and says aloud: Praise to God, praise to you God, that you have chosen us among all other people, and that given us your law. Praise to you God, giver of laws. With this the Jew thinks he has it good, because he has the wood of eternal life in his hands, and is blessed over all other people. After that, the cantor reads a Párascha, or chapter from the book and done with that, the one that was called before comes back, kisses the book again and says: Praise to you God that you have given us the true law and hast planted in us eternal life. Praise to you God, giver of laws.
After that two more are called, one after the other, and each one does like the first one, and the first one walks down the other door, not the one he came up to. Then another one comes, he has to be strong, he lifts the book up with both hands as far as he can, walks around so that everybody can see the written law and the congregation shouts in the meanwhile : This is the law which Moses gave to the children of Israel. This duty is called Hagbahah [elevation] and is also sold for money.
In the meanwhile the women have a great quarrel in their church, and they crowd around the grated windows and peepholes to have a look at the holy writings of the book. Although they may not kiss the book, like the men, a look at it would be a blessing for them.
The women have their own church, which is separated from the men's church by grated windows, as it is discussed in the Talmud and proved by the Prophet Zacharia as he said Zech. 12.12: The women will lament separately, as will the men; namely, in a separate church to have more discipline and honor, because they might have evil thoughts if they are mixed.
If the Jew carrying the book would stumble or fall, they would all have to fast a long time, and it would be a sign that a great disaster would befall them.
After that the men who bought Gelilah and Etz chajim step up again and one grasps the upper rollers so that it may be wound up again (it takes special experience to do it the right way.) They cover it up with cloth again, then with the outer cover or coat, on which the silver hangs.
Then everybody comes, young and old. They kiss the book, touch it with two fingers, and then put them over their eyes. It is considered holy and good against blindness and a flux from the eye.
While the book is carried back to the ark, the cantor sings: Praise God's name because his name alone is strong. And the congregation answers: His praise is on earth and in heaven, he has raised the rule of a people for the praise of all holy things. The children of Israel are his closest people; praise God. While they put it back into the ark the people sing: And when the Ark rested, Moses said Num. 10.36: Come back, Lord, to the many thousands of Israelites.
After that they end their prayers as was mentioned in the daily morning prayer, and they always say when they leave the synagogue or their house, or travel to perform some task Ps. 5.9: Lord, lead me in your rectitude to withstand my enemies, justify my way for me. Ps. 121.8 The Lord protect my going out and my coming in from now until eternity.