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  • SKETCHES IN JEWISH SOCIAL LIFE - CH. 10 - A
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    In Death and After Death

    A sadder picture could scarcely be drawn than that of the dying Rabbi Jochanan ben Saccai, that "light of Israel" immediately before and after the destruction of the Temple, and for two years the president of the Sanhedrim. We read in the Talmud (Ber. 28 b) that, when his disciples came to see him on his death-bed, he burst into tears. To their astonished inquiry why he, "the light of Israel, the right pillar of the Temple, and its mighty hammer," betrayed such signs of fear, he replied: "If I were now to be brought before an earthly king, who lives to-day and dies to-morrow, whose wrath and whose bonds are not everlasting, and whose sentence of death, even, is not that to everlasting death, who can be assuaged by arguments, or perhaps bought off by money--I should tremble and weep; how much more reason have I for it, when about to be led before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Who liveth and abideth for ever, Whose chains are chains for evermore, and Whose sentence of death killeth for ever, Whom I cannot assuage with words, nor bribe by money! And not only so, but there are before me two ways, one to paradise and the other to hell, and I know not which of the two ways I shall have to go-- whether to paradise or to hell: how, then, shall I not shed tears?" Side by side with this we may place the opposite saying of R. Jehudah, called the Holy, who, when he died, lifted up both his hands to heaven, protesting that none of those ten fingers had broken the law of God! It were difficult to say which of these two is more contrary to the light and liberty of the Gospel--the utter hopelessness of the one, or the apparent presumption of the other.

    And yet these sayings also recall to us something in the Gospel. For there also we read of two ways--the one to paradise, the other to destruction, and of fearing not those who can kill the body, but rather Him who, after He hath killed the body, hath power to cast into hell. Nor, on the other hand, was the assurance of St. Stephen, of St. James, or of St. Paul, less confident than that of Jehudah, called the Holy, though it expressed itself in a far different manner and rested on quite other grounds. Never are the voices of the Rabbis more discordant, and their utterances more contradictory or unsatisfying than in view of the great problems of humanity: sin, sickness, death, and the hereafter. Most truly did St. Paul, taught at the feet of Gamaliel in all the traditions and wisdom of the fathers, speak the inmost conviction of every Christian Rabbinist, that it is only our Savior Jesus Christ Who "hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (2 Tim 1:10).

    When the disciples asked our Lord, in regard to the "man which was blind from his birth": "master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:1,2) we vividly realise that we hear a strictly Jewish question. It was just such as was likely to be raised, and it exactly expressed Jewish belief. That children benefited or suffered according to the spiritual state of their parents was a doctrine current among the Jews. But they also held that an unborn child might contract guilt, since the Yezer ha- ra, or evil disposition which was present from its earliest formation, might even then be called into activity by outward circumstances. And sickness was regarded as alike the punishment for sin and its atonement. But we also meet with statements which remind us of the teaching of Hebrews 12:5, 9. In fact, the apostolic quotation from Proverbs 3 is made for exactly the same purpose in the Talmud (Ber. 5 a), in how different a spirit will appear from the following summary. It appears that two of the Rabbis had disagreed as to what were "the chastisements of love," the one maintaining, on the ground of Psalm 94:12, that they were such as did not prevent a man from study, the other inferring from Psalm 66:20 that they were such as did not hinder prayer. Superior authority decided that both kinds were "chastisements of love," at the same time answering the quotation from Psalm 94 by proposing to read, not "teachest him," but "teachest us out of Thy law." But that the law teaches us that chastisements are of great advantage might be inferred as follows: If, according to Exodus 21:26, 27, a slave obtained freedom through the chastisement of his master--a chastisement which affected only one of his members--how much more must those chastisements effect which purified the whole body of man? Moreover, as another Rabbi reminds us, the "covenant" is mentioned in connection with salt (Lev 2:13), and also in connection with chastisements (Deu 28:58). "As is the covenant," spoken of in connection with salt, which gives taste to the meat, so also is "the covenant" spoken of in connection with chastisements, which purge away all the sins of a man. Indeed, as a third Rabbi says: "Three good gifts hath the Holy One--blessed be He!--given to Israel, and each of them only through sufferings- -the law, the land of Israel, and the world to come." The law, according to Psalm 94:12; the land, according to Deuteronomy 8:5, which is immediately followed by verse 7; and the world to come, according to Proverbs 6:23. As on most other subjects, the Rabbis were accurate and keen observers of the laws of health, and their regulations are often far in advance of modern practice. From many allusions in the Old Testament we infer that the science of medicine, which was carried to comparatively great perfection in Egypt, where every disease had its own physician, was also cultivated in Israel. Thus the sin of Asia, in trusting too much to earthly physicians, is specially reproved (2 Chron 16:12). In New Testament times we read of the woman who had spent all her substance, and suffered so much at the hands of physicians (Mark 5:26); while the use of certain remedies, such as oil and wine, in the treatment of wounds (Luke 10:34), seems to have been popularly known. St. Luke was a "physician" (Col 4:14); and among the regular Temple officials there was a medical man, whose duty it was to attend to the priesthood who, from ministering barefoot, must have been specially liable to certain diseases. The Rabbis ordained that every town must have at least one physician, who was also to be qualified to practise surgery, or else a physician and a surgeon. Some of the Rabbis themselves engaged in medical pursuits: and, in theory at least, every practitioner ought to have had their licence. To employ a heretic or a Hebrew Christian was specially prohibited, though a heathen might, if needful, be called in. But, despite their patronage of the science, caustic sayings also occur. "Physician, heal thyself," is really a Jewish proverb; "Live not in a city whose chief is a medical man"--he will attend to public business and neglect his patients; "The best among doctors deserves Gehenna"--for his bad treatment of some, and for his neglect of others. It were invidious to enter into a discussion of the remedies prescribed in those times, although, to judge from what is advised in such cases, we can scarcely wonder that the poor woman in the gospel was nowise benefited, but rather the worse of them (Mark 5:26). The means recommended were either generally hygienic--and in this respect the Hebrews contrast favorably even with ourselves--or purely medicinal, or else sympathetic, or even magical. The prescriptions consisted of simples or of compounds, vegetables being far more used than minerals. Cold-water compresses, the external and internal use of oil and of wine, baths (medicated and other), and a certain diet, were carefully indicated in special diseases. Goats'-milk and barley-porridge were recommended in all diseases attended by wasting. Jewish surgeons seem even to have known how to operate for cataract.

    Ordinarily, life was expected to be prolonged, and death regarded as alike the punishment and the expiation of sin. To die within fifty years of age was to be cut off; within fifty-two, to die the death of Samuel the prophet; at sixty years of age, it was regarded as death at the hands of Heaven; at seventy, as that of an old man; and at eighty, as that of strength. Premature death was likened to the falling off of unripe fruit, or the extinction of a candle. To depart without having a son was to die, otherwise it was to fall asleep. The latter was stated to have been the case with David; the former with Joab. If a person had finished his work, his was regarded as the death of the righteous, who is gathered to his fathers. Tradition (Ber. 8 a) inferred, by a peculiar Rabbinical mode of exegesis, from a word in Psalm 62:12, that there were 903 different kinds of dying. The worst of these was angina, which was compared to tearing out a thread from a piece of wool; while the sweetest and gentlest, which was compared to drawing a hair out of milk, was called "death by a kiss." The latter designation originated from Numbers 33:38 and Deuteronomy 34:5, in which Aaron and Moses are respectively said to have died "according to the word"--literally, "by the mouth of Jehovah." Over six persons, it was said, the angel of death had had no power--viz., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because they had seen their work quite completed; and over Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, who had died by "the kiss of God." If premature death was the punishment of sin, the righteous died because others were to enter on their work--Joshua on that of Moses, Solomon on that of David, etc. But, when the time for death came, anything might serve for its infliction, or, to put it in Rabbinical language, "O Lord, all these are Thy servants"; for "whither a man was to go, thither his feet would carry him." Certain signs were also noted as to the time and manner of dying. Sudden death was called "being swallowed up," death after one day's illness, that of rejection; after two days', that of despair; after four days', that of reproof; after five days', a natural death. Similarly, the posture of the dying was carefully marked. To die with a happy smile, or at least with a bright countenance, or looking upward, was a good omen; to look downward, to seem disturbed, to weep, or even to turn to the wall, were evil signs. On recovering from illness, it was enjoined to return special thanks. It was a curious superstition (Ber. 55 b), that, if any one announced his illness on the first day of its occurrence, it might tend to make him worse, and that only on the second day should prayers be offered for him. Lastly, we may mention in this connection, as possibly throwing light on the practice referred to by St. James (James 5:14), that it was the custom to anoint the sick with a mixture of oil, wine, and water, the preparation of which was even allowed on the Sabbath (Jer. Ber. ii. 2).

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