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Times of Israel PodcastPietists known for penance like setting themselves on fire

LISTEN: Medieval Jewish ghost stories, heaven, hell, and a lot of punishment

Dr. Susan Weissman delves into the spooky side of a 13th-century moralistic Jewish text, Sefer Hasidim, written by a German sect notorious for taking repentance extremely seriously

Just in time for Halloween, this week on The Times of Israel Podcast we’re speaking with Dr. Susan Weissman, who has just published “Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought.”

Weissman’s book delves into Sefer Hasidim, a Hebrew-language moralistic text written in the 13th century in Ashkenaz. The men who wrote it were part of the German Pietists sect, which was known for its extreme forms of penitence, including sitting in vermin or setting themselves on fire.

The era was one of change for Jewish liturgy, and the Medieval preoccupation with sin and the afterlife was not lost on the Jewish communities. It’s during this time that the mourner’s Kaddish emerges, as well as the Yizkor service, which commemorates the souls of loved ones.

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

Cover of ‘Final Judgement and the Dead in Medieval Jewish Thought,’ by Dr. Susan Weissman. (courtesy)

She concentrated her study on a collection of ghost stories that appear in Sefer Hasidim. According to the Pietists, “the dead are to be feared and you should stay away from them,” Weissman explains.

After Weissman dissects an interesting ghost story, we’ll discuss how these acetic Jews were influenced to fear the “dangerous dead” and the “sinful dead” by their Christian neighbors.

“You’re talking about Halloween and the scariness of the dead, well that was a direct result of the fear of the dangerous dead,” says Weissman.

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Dr. Susan Weissman and a copy of Sefer Hasidim. Background: Marc Chagall’s ‘The Lovers.’ (courtesy/ Israel Museum)

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