Chapters On Jewish Literature
By Israel Abrahams

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Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature

     Bachya Ibn Pekuda.–Choboth ha-Lebaboth.–Sefer
     ha-Chassidim.–Rokeach.–Yedaiah Bedaressi’s Bechinath
     Olam.–Isaac Aboab’s Menorath ha-Maor.–Ibn Chabib’s “Eye of
     Jacob."–Zevaoth, or Ethical Wills.–Joseph Ibn Caspi.–Solomon

A large proportion of all Hebrew books is ethical. Many of the works already treated here fall under this category. The Talmudical, exegetical, and philosophical writings of Jews were also ethical treatises. In this chapter, however, attention will be restricted to a few books which are in a special sense ethical.

Collections of moral proverbs, such as the “Choice of Pearls," attributed to Ibn Gebirol, and the “Maxims of the Philosophers” by Charizi, were great favorites in the Middle Ages. They had a distinct charm, but they were not original. They were either compilations from older books or direct translations from the Arabic. It was far otherwise with the ethical work entitled “Heart Duties” (Choboth ha-Lebaboth), by Bachya Ibn Pekuda (about 1050-1100). This was as original as it was forcible. Bachya founded his ethical system on the Talmud and on the philosophical notions current in his day, but he evolved out of these elements an original view of life. The inner duties dictated by conscience were set above all conventional morality. Bachya probed the very heart of religion. His soul was filled with God, and this communion, despite the ascetic feelings to which it gave rise, was to Bachya an exceeding joy. His book thrills the reader with the author’s own chastened enthusiasm. The “Heart Duties” of Bachya is the most inspired book written by a Jew in the Middle Ages.

In part worthy of a place by the side of Bachya’s treatise is an ethical book written in the Rhinelands during the thirteenth century. “The Book of the Pious” (Sefer ha-Chassidim) is mystical, and in course of time superstitious elements were interpolated. Wrongly attributed to a single writer, Judah Chassid, the “Book of the Pious” was really the combined product of the Jewish spirit in the thirteenth century. It is a conglomerate of the sublime and the trivial, the purely ethical with the ceremonial. With this popular and remarkable book may be associated other conglomerates of the ritual, the ethical, and the mystical, as the Rokeach by Eleazar of Worms.

A simpler but equally popular work was Yedaiah Bedaressi’s “Examination of the World” (Bechinath Olam), written in about the year 1310. Its style is florid but poetical, and the many quaint turns which it gives to quotations from the Bible remind the reader of Ibn Gebirol. Its earnest appeal to man to aim at the higher life, its easily intelligible and commonplace morals, endeared it to the “general reader" of the Middle Ages. Few books have been more often printed, few more often translated.

Another favorite class of ethical books consisted of compilations made direct from the Talmud and the Midrash. The oldest and most prized of these was Isaac Aboab’s “Lamp of Light” (Menorath ha-Maor). It was an admirably written book, clearly arranged, and full to the brim of ethical gems. Aboab’s work was written between 1310 and 1320. It is arranged according to subjects, differing in this respect from another very popular compilation, Jacob Ibn Chabib’s “Eye of Jacob” (En Yaakob), which was completed in the sixteenth century. In this, the Hagadic passages of the Talmud are extracted without arrangement, the order of the Talmud itself being retained. The “Eye of Jacob” was an extremely popular work.

Of the purely devotional literature of Judaism, it is impossible to speak here. One other ethical book must be here noticed, for it has attained wide and deserved popularity. This is the “Path of the Upright" (Messilath Yesharim) by Moses Chayim Luzzatto, of whom more will be said in a later chapter. But a little more space must be here devoted to a species of ethical tract which was peculiar to Jewish moralists. These tracts were what are known as Ethical Wills.

These Ethical Wills (Zevaoth) contained the express directions of fathers to their children or of aged teachers to their disciples. They were for the most part written calmly in old age, but not immediately before the writers’ death. Some of them were very carefully composed, and amount to formal ethical treatises. But in the main they are charmingly natural and unaffected. They were intended for the absolutely private use of children and relatives, or of some beloved pupil who held the dearest place in his master’s regard. They were not designed for publication, and thus, as the writer had no reason to expect that his words would pass beyond a limited circle, the Ethical Will is a clear revelation of his innermost feelings and ideals. Intellectually some of these Ethical Wills are poor; morally, however, the general level is very high.

Addresses of parents to their children occur in the Bible, the Apocrypha, and the Rabbinical literature. But the earliest extant Ethical Will written as an independent document is that of Eleazar, the son of Isaac of Worms (about 1050), who must not be confused with the author of the Rokeach. The eleventh and twelfth centuries supply few examples of the Ethical Will, but from the thirteenth century onwards there is a plentiful array of them. “Think not of evil,” says Eleazar of Worms, “for evil thinking leads to evil doing.... Purify thy body, the dwelling-place of thy soul.... Give of all thy food a portion to God. Let God’s portion be the best, and give it to the poor.” The will of the translator Judah Ibn Tibbon (about 1190) contains at least one passage worthy of Ruskin: “Avoid bad society, make thy books thy companions, let thy book-cases and shelves be thy gardens and pleasure-grounds. Pluck the fruit that grows therein, gather the roses, the spices, and the myrrh. If thy soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from sight to sight. Then will thy desire renew itself, and thy soul be satisfied with delight.” The will of Nachmanides is an unaffected eulogy of humility. Asher, the son of Yechiel (fourteenth century), called his will “Ways of Life,” and it includes 132 maxims, which are often printed in the prayer-book. “Do not obey the Law for reward, nor avoid sin from fear of punishment, but serve God from love. Sleep not over-much, but rise with the birds. Be not over-hasty to reply to offensive remarks; raise not thy hand against another, even if he curse thy father or mother in thy presence.”

Some of these wills, like that of the son of the last mentioned, are written in rhymed prose; some are controversial. Joseph Ibn Caspi writes in 1322: “How can I know God, and that he is one, unless I know what knowing means, and what constitutes unity? Why should these things be left to non-Jewish philosophers? Why should Aristotle retain sole possession of the treasures that he stole from Solomon?” The belief that Aristotle had visited Jerusalem with Alexander the Great, and there obtained possession of Solomon’s wisdom, was one of the most curious myths of the Middle Ages. The will of Eleazar the Levite of Mainz (1357) is a simple document, without literary merit, but containing a clear exposition of duty. “Judge every man charitably, and use your best efforts to find a kindly explanation of conduct, however suspicious.... Give in charity an exact tithe of your property. Never turn a poor man away empty-handed. Talk no more than is necessary, and thus avoid slander. Be not as dumb cattle that utter no word of gratitude, but thank God for his bounties at the time at which they occur, and in your prayers let the memory of these personal favors warm your hearts, and prompt you to special fervor during the utterance of the communal thanks for communal well-being. When words of thanks occur in the liturgy, pause and silently reflect on the goodness of God to you that day.”

In striking contrast to the simplicity of the foregoing is the elaborate “Letter of Advice” by Solomon Alami (beginning of the fifteenth century). It is composed in beautiful rhymed prose, and is an important historical record. For the author shared the sufferings of the Jews of the Iberian peninsula in 1391, and this gives pathetic point to his counsel: “Flee without hesitation when exile is the only means of securing religious freedom; have no regard to your worldly career or your property, but go at once.”

It is needless to indicate fully the nature of the Ethical Wills of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. They are closely similar to the foregoing, but they tend to become more learned and less simple. Yet, though as literature they are often quite insignificant, as ethics they rarely sink below mediocrity.



Steinschneider.–Jewish Literature, pp. 100, 232.

B.H. Ascher.–Choice of Pearls (with English translation, London, 1859).

D. Rosin.–Ethics of Solomon Ibn Gebirol, J.Q.R., III, p. 159.


Graetz, III, p. 271.


Graetz.–IV, p. 42 [45].

J. Chotzner.–J.Q.R., VIII, p. 414.

T. Goodman.–English translation of Bechinath Olam (London, 1830).


Edelmann.–The Path of Good Men (London, 1852).

I. Abrahams, J.Q.R., III, p. 436.


Preface  •  Chapter I. The “Vineyard” At Jamnia  •  Chapter II. Flavius Josephus and the Jewish Sibyl  •  Chapter III. The Talmud  •  Chapter IV. The Midrash and Its Poetry  •  Chapter V. The Letters of the Gaonim  •  Chapter VI. The Karaitic Literature  •  Chapter VII. The New-Hebrew Piyut  •  Chapter IX. Dawn of the Spanish Era  •  Chapter X. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (I)  •  Chapter XI. Rashi and Alfassi  •  Chapter XII. The Spanish-Jewish Poets (II)  •  Chapter XIII. Moses Maimonides  •  Chapter XIV. The Diffusion of Science  •  Chapter XV. The Diffusion of Folk-Tales  •  Chapter XVI. Moses Nachmanides  •  Chapter XVII. The Zohar and Later Mysticism  •  Chapter XVIII. Italian Jewish Poetry  •  Chapter XIX. Ethical Literature  •  Chapter XX. Travellers’ Tales  •  Chapter XXI. Historians and Chroniclers  •  Chapter XXII. Isaac Abarbanel  •  Chapter XXIII. The Shulchan Aruch  •  Chapter XXIV. Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century  •  Chapter XXV. Moses Mendelssohn

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