Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought



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Through a detailed analysis of ghost tales in the Ashkenazi pietistic work Sefer ḥasidim, Susan Weissman documents a major transformation in Jewish attitudes and practices regarding the dead and the afterlife that took place between the rabbinic period and medieval times. She reveals that a huge influx of Germano-Christian beliefs, customs, and fears relating to the dead and the afterlife seeped into medieval Ashkenazi society among both elite and popular groups. In matters of sin, penance, and posthumous punishment, the infiltration of Christian notions was so strong as to effect a radical departure in Pietist thinking from rabbinic thought and to spur outright contradiction of talmudic principles regarding the realm of the hereafter. Although it is primarily a study of the culture of a medieval Jewish enclave, this book demonstrates how seminal beliefs of medieval Christendom and monastic ideals could take root in a society with contrary religious values—even in the realm of doctrinal belief.

‘This exceptional piece of work demonstrates almost beyond question that elements of Sefer Hasidim’s perception of key aspects of the afterlife were influenced by an array of beliefs current in the larger society involving both theology and folklore... The theses proffered are persuasive, grounded in a command of rabbinic material and familiarity with both Christian doctrines and European folktales... This is an eye-opening work that will have a significant impact on medieval Jewish studies.
David Berger, Yeshiva University

'Weissman’s work is a masterpiece of history, splendidly written. It displays a rare maturity and a high degree of mastery of the sources cited, but more important, a high degree of historical intuition and intelligence in their interpretation ... I am confident that it will become a classic of medieval Jewish studies; by the same token, I am sure that medieval researchers and students of Christian cultural space will also find in this book both matters of substance and stimulation that will enhance the general understanding of the period'.
Sylvie Anne Goldberg, cole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

'Weissman’s study, as remarkable for its erudition as for its precision in textual analysis, sheds new light on key concepts that the Ashkenazi Jews of the high Middle Ages shared with local Christians. It shows how Sefer {h.}asidim reflects ideas that contradict rabbinic and talmudic tradition, a development that Weissman attributes to Jewish contact with the dominant Christian culture. ... An outstanding work likely to be of enduring importance'.
Jean Claude Schmitt, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

A superb study of how Germanic and even Christian ideas about the nature and time of divine judgment and the complex relationship between the living and the vibrantly alive dead influenced Jewish thought. It is the first serious proof of common cultural notions of an entire area of human experience (and not simply of an idea or ceremony or two) since Trachtenberg's Jewish Magic and Superstition. It makes a major contribution to our understanding of medieval Ashkenaz.
Haym Soloveitchik, Yeshiva University

'A fascinating examination of ghost tales in Sefer Hasidim.'
Rabbi Dr. Stu Halpern, Straus Center

Author Information

Susan Weissman is Chair of Judaic Studies and Associate Professor at Lander College for Women, Touro College and University System.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Note on Sources11
Note on Transliteration12
Part I: The Dead of Sefer Hasidim28
1. The Dangerous Dead30
2. The Sinful Dead72
3. The Holy Dead98
4. The Neutral Dead and the Pietist Dead128
Part II: The Afterlife in Sefer Hasidim162
5. Status in the Hereafter164
6. On Sin, Penance, and Purgation221
7. Bonds Between the Living and the Dead, Part I280
8. Bonds Between the Living and the Dead, Part II320
9. Conclusion386