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Sefer Hasidim, Rabbi Judah of Regensburg (early 13th c.)

The twisted logic of Medieval German piousness

by
Joshua Cohen
September 17, 2013

German Hasidism flourished (but, being German, would never have admitted to such an indulgence as “flourishing”) between ca. 1150 and 1250 in the Rhineland. Sefer Hasidim, or Book of the Pious, was its greatness, authored by Rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (1140-1217) and/or his father Samuel (the latter working under the influence of his father, Kalonymus ben Isaac the Elder). Most scholars agree that Rabbi Judah’s student, Rabbi Eleazar Rokeach, compiled the extant text. Its archaic warnings—don’t masturbate, don’t pray in bed, don’t fart during prayers, but if you do, be silent until the odor subsides—are time and again redeemed by anecdotes and contortions of logic: “The scholar said, ‘Give good advice to all men who come to you, even to your enemies.’ For two reasons: firstly, because this is the Law, and you must avoid sin. Secondly, in this way you will take revenge on your enemies. Because your enemy will think in his heart: ‘Surely this man hates me and did not advise me well,’ and he will spurn your thoughts and do another thing, which will be to his detriment.”

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. His first essay collection, Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, will be released in August. In 2017 he was named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.

Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, London Review of Books, The Forward, n+1, and others. He is the recipient of the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, for The Netanyahus: An Account of a Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Episode in the History of a Very Famous Family. He lives in New York City.

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