It’s a ritual that catches a lot of people by surprise.
Many of those we told of the custom of flogging synagogue congregants on Yom Kippur, to the extent they’d even heard of it, immediately connected the practice to the Muslim day of Ashura. Ashura is marked every year on the tenth day of the Muslim month of Muharram, marking the day in 680 CE when Hussein Ibn Ali fell at the battle of Karbala in Iraq, fighting to gain control of the Muslim Caliphate. This was the turning point of the new religion established by Hussein’s grandfather, the prophet Mohammad, which subsequently split into Sunni and Shi’ite factions. In our modern era, Ashura is marked by millions of Shi’ite Muslims around the world, and one of the day’s most prominent customs is self-flagellation.
One could easily err in thinking that the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur originated with Eastern or Mizrachi Jews, and that this custom was influenced by Shi’ite Muslims. And indeed, many of the leather whips used for this purpose, which can be seen today in Israeli museums, originate in the East.
But as we already hinted, this would be a mistake. One of the first mentions of the custom of flogging on the eve of Yom Kippur is found in Medieval Ashkenaz or Europe – beginning with the prayer book or siddur of Rashi, and later on in the collected religious rulings of the Rosh (Rabbenu Asher Ben Yechiel) on the Babylonian Tractate of Yoma (14th century). This important Rabbi and religious jurist wrote of the Yom Kippur customs in Ashkenaz: “And it was customary in Ashkenaz that after the [afternoon] Minchah prayer [before Yom Kippur], [congregants] are flogged in the synagogue” (ch. 8, siman 25).
So how does it work?
On the face of it, this would seem a purely Jewish custom, a remnant of a biblical form of punishment. It went like this: On the eve of Yom Kippur, the synagogue shamash (beadle) or one of the community rabbis would flog congregants 39 times on their back with a leather whip.
Deuteronomy 25:2 states that “then it shall be, if the wicked man deserve to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to the measure of his wickedness, by number.” And the number of floggings? 39. Precisely the number that is still in use today, among those who partake.
Some of the communities which observed this custom followed the description which appears in the Mishnah (Makkot 3.12-13), some continue to observe it to this day:
How do they flog him? He ties the two hands of the person being flogged on this side and that side of a post, and the attendant of the congregation takes hold of his garments to remove them. If they were ripped in the process, they were ripped, and if they were unraveled, they were unraveled, and he continues until he bares his chest. And the stone upon which the attendant stands when flogging is situated behind the person being flogged. The attendant of the congregation stands on it with a strap in his hand. It is a strap of calf hide, and is doubled, one into two, and two into four, and two straps of donkey hide go up and down the doubled strap of calf hide.
And the attendant flogs him with one-third of the lashes from the front of him, on his chest, and two one-third portions from behind him, on his back. And he does not flog him when the one receiving lashes is standing, nor when he is sitting; rather, he flogs him when he is hunched, as it is stated: “that the judge shall cause him to lie down and to be beaten” (Deuteronomy 25:2), which indicates that the one receiving lashes must be in a position that approximates lying down. And the attendant flogging the one receiving lashes flogs [makeh] him with one hand with all his strength.
“But despite the similarity to the Mishnah,” writes Professor Shalom Tzabar in his article on illustrated Jewish rituals in the Diaspora from the early 20th century, “this is not a custom from the time of the Bible or the Talmud, and the description in the Mishnah is unrelated to Yom Kippur, as it refers to the physical punishment imposed on one who intentionally violates a Torah prohibition.”
So it seems that in the diaspora, in an era when there were no longer Jewish courts or Batei Din with the authority to impose flogging, this biblical punishment for violating negative commandments was transformed into a symbolic (though still somewhat painful) custom in which the congregant atones for his actions. So why have most of us never heard of it?
The custom of flogging, unlike another Yom Kippur custom – Kapparot (the swinging of a chicken or money above the head as an act of atonement) – did not take root in every community. Today, the custom is primarily observed in some Hasidic sects and among some Mizrahi Jews. We can only speculate why this is, but the answer may lie in how the custom was portrayed outside the Jewish community in the diaspora.
There are hardly any illustrations of the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur in Jewish manuscripts. But they are common in another genre: books describing Jewish customs written by Jewish apostates, religious converts to Christianity, which were intended for Christian audiences.
We don’t know much about the life of Paul Christian Kirchner. His Jewish name was Mordechai Gumprecht ben Shlomo, and he was originally from the city of Frankfurt. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Shabbtai Zvi, and after the Muslim conversion of this false messiah, the Rabbi from Frankfurt abandoned his Judaism for good, converting to Christianity on November 6, 1713. After becoming a Christian, he barely eked out a living teaching Hebrew, until he was offered to publicize the story of his conversion so that other Jews would follow. The idea appealed to Kirchner, and in 1717, he published his book Jüdisches Ceremoniel, or “Jewish Ceremonies,” in the city of Erfurt.
Throughout his book, Kirchner the apostate Rabbi provides his Christian readers with a great deal of material, an extended peek into all the central Jewish rituals and holidays. Although most of the information in the book is accurate, Kirchner often exaggerated his description of Jewish customs in a way that would flatter his Christian readers and mock the prejudices and superstitions of his former brethren.
Yom Kippur, for instance, is correctly presented as a central holiday in Judaism, focused on repentance and atonement for the sins of the past year. But what Kirchner chooses to emphasize is the ritual of physical atonement. He presents the ceremony literally: in order to atone for his sins, the Jew must lie on his belly like an animal and receive a series of purifying blows. Thus, a custom which is primarily symbolic becomes (in the hands of an auto-antisemite and apostate) a perfect example of how the Jews refuse to accept the Christian gospel in order to preserve their degrading and absurd customs.
Kirchner was not the only or even the first apostate Jew to use the custom of flogging on Yom Kippur to mock Jews. He was preceded by Friederich Albert Christiani (born Baruch), who in 1700 published his book Der Juden Glaube und Aberglaube or “Jewish Beliefs and Superstitions,” which included an illustration of the flogging custom. It’s interesting that it also includes a description of Kapparot – a custom which a number of important Rabbis also opposed.
More than a century before these two apostates, the book Der Gantze Jüdisch Glaub or “The Whole Jewish Faith” was published in 1530. The book was the work of Antonius Margarita, an apostate born into a well-known rabbinical family – his father was Shmuel Margaliyot, the Rabbi of Regensburg. In his book, Margarita claimed to reveal the lie on which the Jewish religion was based, while warning innocent Christians from maintaining any contact with their Jewish neighbors. He also used the flogging custom on Yom Kippur as a way of bashing the people he abandoned. The illustration added to his book manages to mock the flogging custom even further – this time, the faithful are whipped on their exposed behinds.
We obviously can’t stop here, ending with these exaggerated and grotesque images. In the aforementioned article by Professor Tzabar, we found a number of Jewish visual images of the flogging custom. These are postcards which came out during the golden age of illustrated postcards – the early twentieth century – produced in Poland by Jews and for Jews. And indeed, they more authentically represent this unique ritual as it was marked at the time.
Let us end with a thorough description of the ritual in Eastern Europe, quoted by Tzabar in his article. The quote is taken from the writings of Zionist leader Shmaryahu Levin (1867-1935), born in the town of Svislach, Belarus, who recalled experiences from his childhood:
After the Minchah prayer that day [the eve of Yom Kippur] […] I saw with my own eyes, how elderly Jews prostrated themselves on the floor of the Beit Midrash and Elazar the Psalms-sayer or, as he was called publicly for his craft, Elazar the bathhouse attendant, stood over them with a strap and whipped them without mercy. Of course I knew, that this whipping was the flogging, but memories of the cheder [a religious school for children] unconsciously arose in my heart. And the whippings came in perfect order: one below, on the section of the body that was prepared for the worst, and which was the common target of the rabbi and his strap in the cheder, and two above, on the back. And so he would repeat and count: one, one and one, one and two – sometimes fifteen times. And my confusion grew sevenfold, in seeing how the whipped person would get up and throw a few bronze coins into the bowl, which Elazar the bathhouse attendant would serve. It is indeed a wonder and will be a wonder: They are whipped and pay the fee for whipping!
שלום צבר, בין פולין לגרמניה: טקסים יהודיים בגלויות מאוירות מראשית המאה העשרים, מחקרי ירושלים בפולקלור יהודי (כרך כז), הוצאת מאגנס, 2011