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(Redirected from LEGALISM.)

That religious tendency which aims at the control of both social and individual life by legalism, making the law the supreme norm. The term "nomism" or "legalism" is sometimes used to imply an externalizing tendency of religion when it degenerates into mere formalism of conduct, and ceases to be a moral conviction and ethical purpose, mere outward correctness in the fulfilment of the letter of the law being regarded as representing the highest religious ideal. In this latter sense nomism has never been regarded by the Jews as a basal principle of religion, but has been regarded as discreditable and earnestly combated; and though such nomistic views and tendencies have been manifested by Judaism at different periods, they were caused by external factors. In the first sense of the word, however, nomism has always formed a fundamental trait of Judaism, one of whose chief aims has ever been to mold life in all its varying relations according to the Law, and to make obedience to the commandments a necessity and a custom, so that any deviation therefrom becomes in itself an impossibility.

In Biblical Statements.

As early as the Biblical period the pious had the Law ever before their eyes and in their hearts, meditating day and night how they might regulate their lives according to it (Ps. i. 2; xviii. 22-24; xxv. 4-6; cxix. 11, 13, 15, 44, 55, 97, et passim). To fear God and keep His commandments was the whole duty of man (Eccl. xii. 13). Yet this was not mere external legalism, observed without delight and sincerity of soul. The true ideal was rather that the heart should be inclined unto the Law (Ps. lxxxvi. 11, cxix. 36); and the earnest hope was felt that in the covenant to be made with Israel the Law would be written in the hearts of the people (Jer. xxxi. 33). The basis of this enthusiasm for the Law was the invincible belief in its divine origin, as well as the firm conviction that God leads both the individual and the nation to salvation by the Law, which reveals His will, and that all mankind must trust to this guidance. Human wisdom, however, has not the power to show mankind the right way in all the vicissitudes of life or to reveal the will of God: this can be done only by the law of the Lord, which is perfect, "making wise the simple" (Ps. xix. 8). Man's knowledge is nevertheless sufficient to recognize that the divine law is a guide whose judgments "are true and righteous altogether" (ib. verses 9-10), and to find in the Law no fettering chain of formalism which leaves the spirit cold and untouched, but rather judgments which are sweet, "restoring the soul" and "rejoicing the heart" (ib. verses 8 [A. V. 7]-11); God thus showing mercy to the people of Israel by the revelation of the Law.

In Post-Biblical Times.

This conception of the Law as loving-kindness shown by the Lord to Israel formed in post-Biblical times the basal motive for the high esteem in which it was held and for the rigid observance of all its precepts. The Sabbath, with its many rules and overcautious observances, was regarded as a gift of God to Israel (Shab. 10b), while the entire Law, with all its regulations, is described as a costly jewel with which the Lord has blessed His people (ib. 88b). He gave them the commandments because of His love for Israel, whom He regards as His children (Ex. R. xxx. 5); and, since He would show them great benefactions, He gave them yet other commandments and precepts (Mak. 23b), each one magnifying the sanctity and the morality of Israel (Mek., Mishpaṭim, 20 [ed. Weiss, p. 103b]). The sole object of the commandments is to purify and sanctify mankind; for it is inconceivable that it should really matter to God whether a victim is slaughtered according to the Law or not, these prescriptions being commanded simply to ennoble man (Ex. R. xliv. 1; Tan., Shemini, 12 [ed. Buber, p. 15b]; Maimonides, "Moreh," iii. 27). In the Messianic kingdom, where righteousness and the knowledge of God will be spread universally, many commandments will lose their force (Niddah 61b); for sacrifice and the laws pertaining to it will be abrogated as being no longer needful (Pesiḳ. ix. [ed. Buber, p. 79a], and the citation from Abravanel, ib. note 98). The fast- and feast-days also will be abolished (Midr. Mishle ix. 2). That the commandments of the Law were only a means to purify and hallow even daily life, and to keep afar all error and false belief, is shown by the Bible itself, which in the case of some ceremonial laws gives a reason for them, e.g., in Lev. xvii. 7, Num. xv. 39 (comp. Men. 43b), and Deut. vii. 4, xvii. 17.

Object of the Law.

The principle was retained both by Talmudic and by post-Talmudic Judaism, that the Law, with its commandments, rules, and regulations, is not a collection of meaningless forms demanding blind obedience without the approval of human reason, but is rather a body of symbols of religious or ethical concepts (Maimonides, l.c. iv. 36). The rabbis of many ages, therefore, sought to determine the elements which form the basis of these symbolicforms, asking continually: "Why has the Torah ordained thus and so?" (comp. Sifre, Deut. 192 [ed. Friedmann, p. 110a]; Sanh. 21a); and the reasons underlying the commandments were subjects of investigation like the individual requirements of the Law (Niddah 31b; Ḳid. 32b; B. Ḳ. 79b; Mek., Mishpaṭim, Neziḳin, 2, 12 [ed. Weiss, pp. 83b, 95a]; Mek., Yitro, Baḥodesh, 11 [ed. Weiss, p. 81a]; Maimonides, l.c. iii. 28-50). The 613 commandments may all be traced to a few ethical concepts; and the basal principle upon which they all rest is belief in God, who granted the Law to man as a revelation of His will (Mak. 23b-24a). He who receives even a single commandment in true faith is worthy of the spirit of God (Mek., Beshallaḥ, 6 [ed. Weiss, p. 40b]; comp. Joseph Albo, "'Iḳḳarim," iii. 29). This belief is also the moral foundation of the observance of many ceremonial laws for which human intelligence can find no sufficient reason, although such a basis must be assumed (comp. Maimonides, l.c. ii. 26). Those prescriptions of the Law which are unintelligible or mutually contradictory are defended by the view that God has ordained them; so that they surely have some beneficent object, because of their divine origin, and man with his limited understanding may neither despise nor transgress them (Yoma 67b; Pesiḳ. 40b; Num. R. xix. 1). The observance of all the commandments presupposes a knowledge of God and the conviction that He guides man by the Law in the way of righteousness (Ber. 63a). Before attempting their fulfilment, therefore, it is necessary that God be recognized as the revealer of them, while mankind must be subject to His will (ib. 13a). As a necessary consequence, this view of the Law demands true faith in its observance (comp. Albo, l.c. iii. 27); and all commandments must be obeyed in this spirit of piety (Pes. 114b; Ber. 13a).

The Good Will Makes the Good Act.

In case one has the earnest wish to observe a commandment, but is unable to fulfil it, the will is taken for the deed, since God requires only righteous intent (Ber. 6a, 20; Shab. 63; Sanh. 106a); and it is holy purpose and true faith rather than good works which lead to salvation (13th aphorism of David ben Yom-Ṭob Bilia of Portugal, in Eliezer Ashkenazi, "Dibre Ḥakamim," pp. 56-60, Metz, 1849; comp. Mek., Beshallaḥ, 6 [ed. Weiss, p. 40b]). The commandments must not be performed, moreover, with any secondary object in view (Sifre, Deut. 48 [ed. Friedmann, 84b]); and whosoever so obeys them, it were better for him had he never been born (Ber. 17a). On the other hand, their fulfilment with righteous intent and joy of heart is the highest nobility, so that the spirit of God may rest upon him who acts according to the Law (Shab. 30b; comp. Albo, l.c. iii. 33). The observance of the commandments without this ideal purpose and yet without any ignoble secondary object is merely of disciplinary value, leading mankind by the continual practise of their fulfilment to a recognition of their content and a consequent acquisition of the ideal attitude toward them (Naz. 23b). Higher than this merely disciplinary observance of the Law stands its transgression with true purpose and good intent (ib.); for even by the transgression of a law one may confess and recognize God (Ber. 63a). The fulfilment of the legal prescriptions is not the greatest virtue; for above it stands the study of the Law and the recognition of the ethical ideals contained in it. The corresponding moral actions are a necessary consequence of this recognition (Ḳid. 40b). All the ceremonial laws together are not worth as much as one commandment of the Torah (Yer. Peah i. 15d). On the other hand, the abrogation of many of these laws has frequently contributed to the preservation of true doctrine (Men. 99b); so that, in case such considerations demand it, the actual fulfilment of many ceremonial laws should be omitted (Ber. 63a).

Transgression Permitted for Higher Object.

The life of a person of moral conduct, moreover, was regarded as superior to the Law. With the exception of the three mortal sins (which, however, were not connected with the ceremonial law), every transgression of the Law was permitted, and even commanded, in case a human life was at stake; since the maxim was current that the commandments were given to man that he might order his life in righteousness, and are not obligatory, therefore, when his life is imperiled. "The Sabbath with all its precepts is given unto you; but ye are not given unto the Sabbath," is another proverb (Mek., Ki Tissa, i. [ed. Weiss, p. 109b]).

Rewards and Punishments Not Motives.

Belief in divine recompense should, as a matter of course, have no influence on the observance of the Law; and this basal principle was expressed in the proverb of Antigonus of Soko: "Be not like slaves who serve their master for reward, but like those who perform their duties without regard to recompense" (Ab. i. 3). Ps. cxii. 1 is explained as meaning "Blessed is the man that delighteth greatly in the commandments of the Lord, but not in the reward for them" ('Ab. Zarah 19a). All the laws must be fulfilled with equal zeal without regard to recompense, since no man knows wherein the reward for keeping them now consists or will consist (Ab. ii. 1; Ex. R. xxx. 21); indeed, the real reward is only that of a good conscience (Ab. iv. 2; 12th aphorism of R. David ben Yom-Ṭob Bilia, l.c.). In this world no other recompense can be gained (Ḳid. 39b), while in the world to come ("'olam ha-ba") only the sight of God and the recognition of His majesty reward fidelity to the commandments (Ber. 17a). On the other hand, in the fulfilment of the Law fear of punishment for sins of omission and commission must not be considered. The ideal is obedience to the Law through love and with joy of soul (Soṭah 31a; Shab. 88b; comp. Albo, l.c. iii. 33, 35), while observance of it through fear is considered disgraceful (Soṭah l.c.; Albo, l.c. 31-32). With such a concept of the Law and of the object of its fulfilment, it is self-evident that there could be no rigid adherent to the letter of its commandments; and the Halakah shows many instances of deviations and even violations of its literal injunctions (see Midrash Halakah; Oral Law; Philo, and His Relation to the Halakah).

The view was held, therefore, that the Law originates from God and that it contains the most sublimetruths, being based upon the noblest principles of humanity, inasmuch as it teaches man to love and treat his neighbor as himself (Shab. 31a), and to make smooth the rough places in the daily life of men (Giṭ. 57b). Such a concept, united with that which granted the right to test and to judge the Law in cases in which its letter militates against humanity or generally received truth, permitted the surrender of the exoteric sense of a commandment and the search for another meaning of the divine word. Although it was the right of the sages to abrogate a provision of the Law (Yeb. 89b-90b), this power was naturally entrusted only to the supreme court, which properly represented the opinions of the majority of teachers and the voice of popular opinion. On the other hand, it was held that individual teachers should not be allowed to abrogate in this fashion, since it was feared that such a course would produce irremediable confusion in religious life.

This idealistic conception of the commandments as being of only relative importance is a characteristic of rabbinical Judaism, and was maintained as a principle by teachers of the Law and philosophers of religion throughout the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods. There arose, however; among the Jews at various times and under various circumstances other ideas and concepts which attributed intrinsic value to the ceremonial code and attached essential merit to the merely formal observance of the Law. Thus, when even before the present era the idealistic view of the Law which led in Alexandria to an allegorical method of exegesis resulted among the Hellenistic Jews in a tendency to regard practical observance of the Law as worthless and unimportant, Philo ("De Migratione Abrahami," § 86 [ed. Mangey, i. 449]), in combating this antinomian tendency, urged the practise of the Law and the fulfilment of its precepts. Still more urgent was the appeal by the Rabbis, which seemed the more necessary since even at that time many Jews were living outside of Palestine; and far from their native land, the powerful bond which connected them with their brethren at home was the Law, whose every precept in their native land was a national law, and whose usages were hallowed customs. At a later time Pauline Christianity combated the validity of the ceremonial law, uniting with this antinomian tendency an antinational one, so that against this influence, hostile to Judaism and imperiling its very existence, it was again held necessary to emphasize the intrinsic power of the Law, especially as it was characterized in great part by national traits.

With the fall of the Jewish state, and the Diaspora in foreign lands, came a new need to lay stress upon the external observance of the Law according to a definite form, even though inward conviction were lacking. Thus the Law became the bond which held the nation together, taking the place of territorial possessions and distinctive polity, both of which are so necessary for the existence and maintenance of a people. The value of each precept of the Law and of each established usage was now ennobled by the view that they must be regarded as a holy custom of the nation; and in their observance each Jew expressed his conviction that he belonged to his own people. That the nation might seem a unit in manners and customs, it was declared necessary that the very form in which the Law was fulfilled should be uniform, and that all legal requirements should be observed in one and the same manner. It was forbidden, therefore, to form various parties with divergent usages (Sifre, Deut. 96 [ed. Friedmann, p. 94a]); and the principle was laid down that the fulfilment of the Law was valid only in case it was carried out according to prescribed form (Yer. Peah vi.).

Nomism Versus Antinomianism.

Since Christianity asserted that through the destruction of the Temple, which resulted in the abolition of so many ceremonial laws, God Himself had shown that His law should no longer be followed (Justin Martyr, "Dial. cum Tryph." xl. 132), the Rabbis felt constrained in their anti-Christian polemics to emphasize the intrinsic validity of the Law in all its parts and for all times, so that even in the future its precepts might be binding and none of them be abolished; the laws connected with the Temple were abrogated for a time only; soon the sanctuary would be rebuilt and every commandment associated with it would again become operative. Whereas the statement had hitherto been made that Abraham had been justified by faith alone (Mek., Beshallaḥ, 6 [ed. Weiss, p. 40b]; comp. Rom. iv. 1 et seq.), it was now asserted that he had observed all the precepts and regulations of the Law (Yoma 28b), thus emphasizing, in opposition to Christianity, the importance of the ceremonial law. No longer was stress laid upon the moral idea underlying the individual precepts, but they were recognized as statutes concerning whose basis no inquiry was necessary (Ber. 33b). While, moreover, the opinion had formerly been held that he who voluntarily recognizes the value of a precept and performs it without being obliged to do so stands on a higher moral plane than he who obeys a commandment of necessity (comp. Rom. ii. 14), polemic zeal now declared that he who fulfilled a commandment because of his obligation to do so was the nobler (Ḳid. 31a). Indeed, the absolute validity of the Law was so exaggerated that it was regarded as eternal and as observed by God Himself (Ex. R. xxxvi.; comp. also Ber. 6a). See Antinomianism.

As a result of the pious care with which every word of a sage is preserved in Talmudic and midrashic literature, even those statements which depended merely on temporary conditions and external relations have been transmitted to posterity. These exaggerated assertions of the importance of the Law, however, made in the heat of polemics and through zeal for the preservation of a national unity, are not elements of Judaism; they have never been so regarded, nor have they been carried to their logical end either in the Talmud or by the medieval rabbis. But in view of the many sufferings and persecutions which befell the Jews on account of their fidelity to the Law, it seemed a psychological necessity for the benefit of the masses to lay stress upon the motives of reward and punishment. In times of oppression the popular mind sought comfort and consolation in picturing the glories destinedfor the pious in the world to come as a reward for their observance of the Law. These fantasies were never taken literally by the educated, however, but were sanctioned as comforting the people and as a stimulus which encouraged them to keep the Law; since it was believed that, once accustomed to obey the legal code, each man would be so filled with the right spirit that he would come to observe the Law for its own sake (comp. Maimonides, Introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah Sanhedrin, x.).

  • Weber, System der Altsynagogalen Palästinischen Theologie, Leipsic, 1880;
  • Wellhausen, I. J. G. pp. 284-296, Berlin, 1895;
  • Smend, Alttestamentliche Religionsgeschichte, pp. 419-433, Leipsic, 1899;
  • Schürer, Gesch. ii. 464-496;
  • Joël, Blicke in die Religionsgeschichte, i. 6-42, ii. 172-177;
  • Lazarus, Ethik des Judenthums, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1898;
  • Schechter, Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, in J. Q. R. vi.-viii., x.;
  • idem, The Dogmas of Judaism, in his Studies in Judaism, London, 1896;
  • I. Elbogen, Die Religionsanschauungen der Pharisäer, in Bericht der Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums, Berlin, 1904;
  • W. Bousset, Die Religion des Judenthums, pp. 87-120, ib. 1903.
E. C. J. Z. L.Anti-Nomistic Movements—The Prophets.

At different times there have arisen various movements directed against nomism and some of its manifestations, for, as has been noted above, the tendency has often become evident to attach intrinsic value to the ceremonial code and to the prescribed forms of divine worship; and whenever this is the case there is danger lest the original purpose of the Law and the real object of worship, the elevation and purification of the soul, be not attained, and lest the finer moral sense of the people be blunted through the belief in outward compliance with the commandments as the means of winning the favor of the Deity. This was the reason the great prophets were so outspoken and bitter in their denunciation of all priestly ritualism: "This people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is but precept taught by rote" (A. V. "taught by the precept of men"; Isa. xxix. 13); wherefore Isaiah declares Sabbaths, festivals, and sacrifices to be abominations which the Lord can not endure; instead He requires righteous conduct (i. 13-17).

So Amos castigates the people for outwardly observing Sabbath and New Moon while they wait with impatience for the close of the day in order to be able to resume their fraudulent and unjust dealings (viii. 4-7). Hosea, likewise, finding that the "many laws" lead priest and people away from God, insists on love and knowledge of God (vi. 6, viii. 12 [A. V., incorrectly, "great things of my law"]; comp. Jer. vii. 21-23). The spirit of legalism in its most obnoxious form is shown by the wife of Uriah (II Sam. xi. 4) and is denounced by the Psalmist (xl. 7 [A. V. 6]; l. 8-10). The moment priestly legislation instead of the prophetic Torah determined the character of Judaism (Hos. iv. 6; Isa. i. 10; Jer. ix. 12; Prov. iii. 1, iv. 2), the Prophets warned against the danger of legalism (see Hag. ii. 11-13; Mal. i. 6-14). The moment "religion in Judaism took the aspect of law" (Montefiore, "Hibbert Lectures," 1892, p. 469) legalism easily became the concomitant of loyalty to God as the Giver of the Law, just as dogmatism became the logical consequence of that religious attitude which in Christianity laid all the stress upon belief.


The great question at issue between Judaism and Christianity is whether the predominant element of religion should be law or creed, Christian theology claiming that the latter has better preserved the spirit of prophecy by rejecting the legal view of religion, whereas Judaism asserts that by strict adherence to the Law it has maintained the monotheistic truth and the high ethical standard of the prophetic and Mosaic teaching far more effectively and consistently than the Church, which, by abandoning the authority of the Law, has often encouraged and sanctioned lawlessness and crime. Legalism is the chief burden of the New Testament attacks on Judaism, both in the speeches of Jesus (see especially Matt. xxiii. 23-26; Luke xi. 39-42) and in the Pauline writings, and from this point of view Judaism is treated by all Christian writers, among whom Schürer may be mentioned as the most prominent ("Gesch." ii. 28, "Das Leben Unter dem Gesetz").

But while, as has been said, it is true that the development of the Law has had a tendency sometimes to lower the lofty standard of prophetic teaching by "fixing men's minds on ceremonial details and putting these in the same category with moral duties," on the other hand "the debasing tendency of such ritualism was counteracted," as Toy has said ("Judaism and Christianity," 1890, p. 186), "by the ethical elements of the Law itself and by the general moral progress of the community"; and "the great legal schools of the second pre-Christian century did not fail to discriminate between the outward and the inward, the ceremonial and the moral." As a matter of fact, it is a mistake to lay the blame of legalism, as is done in the New Testament, upon the Pharisees, and to date "its triumph from the time of the persecutions of Antiochus" (Montefiore, l.c. p. 469) or from the compilation of the Mishnah (Grätz, "Gesch." iv. 214). The determining factors of the Law as laid down in the mishnaic code were the priests, whose minute rules and statutes regarding purity and sanctity were all, in some way or other, fixed and practised in the Temple and then adopted by the Pharisean scribes as tradition, as "halakah from Moses on Sinai."

The legal view of religion carried with it the element of purity and holiness which lent to the whole life of the Jew its profoundly moral and spiritual character; it made the whole people strive for the crown of the priesthood vouchsafed to Israel the moment the Law was given to him (Ex. xix. 6); it made them fear sin rather than the punishment of sin. All the great domestic virtues of the Jew are the results of the predominance of the Law. Moreover, the emphasis laid upon the Law as the foundation and source of religion and as the means of insuring God's presence, made the Jew eager to study the Law and thus so developed his intellectual powers as to render him an independent seeker after truth. Thus while fettering the body by numerous mandatory and prohibitive statutes, religion was to him a real source of freedom for the mind; and thelegalistic definitions and ramifications of the Torah sharpened his reason, so that Abraham ibn Ezra could say, "The only mediating angel between God and man is reason."

On the other hand, it can not be denied that the eagerness to conform to the letter was sometimes conducive to results which met with opposition even from within Judaism itself. It produced a certain spirit of servitude or blind submission to the letter which was not fully counterbalanced by the joy of serving God through fulfilling His commandments—the "simḥah shel miẓwah" (Ps. cxix. 162; see Joy). It created casuistry in rabbinical literature, the hair-splitting distinctions in the Law which—though by no means as harmful as Jesuitic casuistry—did nothing toward improving the moral sense or the tenderer sensibilities of the conscience: as, for instance, the use of a "Sabbath goy," in antagonism to the very spirit of the law of rest for all employed in one's service; or as in the case of selling the "ḥameẓ" on Passover (see Passover; Sabbath).

Moreover, while the scribes of the pre-Christian centuries still claimed and exercised the power of changing, modifying, and at times abrogating a law (see Abrogation of Laws; Accommodation of the Law), the spirit of legalism at a later time crushed this spirit of independence; and the beautiful ceremonies connected with the various seasons of the year or with other incidents of life, which were intended to awaken the spirit of devotion, faith, and love, became overladen with legalistic injunctions. The counter-movement in Judaism, urged by the writers of the Psalms, was continued by the composers of the synagogue liturgy in their appeals to the emotional nature, by the haggadists, and by the class of ḥasidim who selected the hafṭarah frequently with the view of opposing the sacrificial worship and fasting enjoined by the Law; all of these manifest the tendency to replace legalism by a more spiritual view of the Torah. Then rose the Karaites in opposition to Talmudic legalism; and finally the cabalists insisted upon a profounder grasp of the Law and endeavored to spiritualize it by the help of mysticism (see Cabala).

In modern times a bold stand was taken against the legalism of the Talmud by the Reform movement. While defending Talmudism, Schechter has well said (Montefiore, l.c. p. 563): "The effect of evasive laws can only be pernicious in religion when people realize them as such." Reformed Judaism holds that these laws are evasive. All the legalistic definitions and decisions of religion—this is its contention—are no longer the true expression of the religious sentiment or of the will of God as manifested in the consciousness of the Jew. The legalistic forms of marriage and divorce as laid down in the rabbinical codes, Sabbatical restrictions based upon a view of the Sabbath in conflict with the idea that the day is to be one of delight and spiritual elevation, and similar ceremonies and ideas, have encountered opposition from the time of Baḥya ibn Paḳuda and Leon of Modena down to that of Abraham Geiger (see the latter's "Zeit. Jüd. Theol." 1839, iv. 1-12; et al.). "To the liberal Jew," says Montefiore ("Liberal Judaism," 1903, pp. 114-121), "the moral law is not and can not be contained in a book; it is an ideal whole" and must be progressively interpreted. "Conscious adherence to the ideal law of goodness and duty is the ideal of Judaism. . . . To love God is to love His Law; and the product of that love is the fulfilment of that Law for its own sake. In this conception of Law and Sanctification liberal Judaism possesses a doctrine which should help its adherents to realize the distinctiveness of its own faith. For though it has ceased to be a strictly legal religion, it does not abandon the great Jewish conception that religion is a discipline as well as faith."

The contention of M. Friedländer, speaking for the Conservative view ("The Jewish Religion," p. 234), is that the charge made against legalism "rests on prejudice; for the constant reminder of God's presence such as the precepts supply can not fail to have a beneficial influence upon man's morality." This is certainly true as long as these precepts are believed to be divine; the moment, however, their divine origin is disbelieved their beneficial influence becomes, as has been stated above, a matter of dispute and doubt.

  • Claude Montefiore, Hibbert Lectures, 1892, pp. 465-563;
  • Friedländer, Jewish Religion, London, 1891.
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