Sefer Hasidim

This medieval work describes the ideal life of the pious Jew.

Sefer Hasidim (‘Book of Saints’), was the major work produced in the circle of the Saints of Germany. Although Judah the Saint of Regensburg (died 1217) is considered to be the author of Sefer Hasidim there are a number of passages which come from other hands. The book in its present form also contains the Ethical Will of Judah the Saint.

Sefer Hasidim is not a systematic work of religion and ethics but consists of moral tales, ethical maxims, short treatises on various religious themes, all describing the ideal life of the Hasid, not necessarily a scholar, who strives to lead a life of extraordinary piety. The ideal of charity is particularly stressed.

High Standards

Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that the saintly demands were not always to the taste of the community heads responsible for the administration of charity funds. The following passage (No. 870) speaks for itself:

‘The community leaders noticed that a good Jew in the town offered hospitality to visitors. He was once a rich man who made guests so welcome that they would always visit him. After a time the man lost his wealth but the guests continued to come to him. The members of the town council were then obliged to say to the man: “We know that you are unable to spend so much on your guests, but since they still come to you please accept this charity money so that you can continue to supply your guests with food and drink.”‘

‘It is in order for the man to inform his guests that the money with which he supplies their needs is charity money so that they should not think they owe him a personal debt of gratitude. If, however, the guests do think that the money is his own, and if they knew it was charity money they would be ashamed to accept it, then it is better not to tell them the truth. Even though they will think it is his own money that he is spending on them, this is not to be compared to misrepresentation since he has not misled them; they have misled themselves.’

‘Furthermore, even if the host, a God-fearing man who has lost his money, is ashamed to admit to his guests that he is using charity money, it is no worse than the man who says to the charity overseers: “Give me charity for myself” and then gives the money to the poor. Concerning such a case it is said: “Happy is he that considereth the poor (Psalms 41:2).”‘

What the community leaders had to say we are not told but can easily guess.

Jewish-Christian Relations

The Sefer Hasidim is insistent that Jews must be completely honest in their dealings with Gentiles and this against the background of the Crusades when Christian-Jewish relations were strained, to say the least.

‘If a Gentile cheats himself in accounts, the Jew must return the additional amount, and if a Jew is poor, it is better for him that he beg than cheat a Gentile (no. 661).’

It appears that, even in this period, it was not unknown for Christians to become converts to Judaism. The Sefer Hasidim says: ‘If a Jew who is kind-hearted marries a kindhearted proselyte woman, it is better for other Jews to marry their descendants rather than the descendants of pure Jews who lack their virtue (no. 377).’

The Dark Side

Together with the lofty maxims, the Sefer Hasidim contains many medieval superstitions, the common property of both Jews and Christians of the time. There are ghost stories, tales of werewolves and vampires who prowl at night, and advice on how to forestall the evil designs of witches.

Some of these ideas, under the influence of the Sefer Hasidim, reappear in later Jewish works. But it is for its piety and sincere love of humanity that the book is admired as a classic of Jewish moralistic literature.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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