Salomon Maimon.

Solomon Maimon : an autobiography online

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A Jewish scholar, at that time well known on account of
his piety, Simon of Lubtsch, had undergone the severest
exercises of penance. He had already carried out the
Tshubath Hakana — the penance of Kana — which con-
sists in fasting daily for six years, and avoiding for sup-
per anything that comes from a living being (flesh, milk,
honey, etc.). He had also practised Golath, that is, a
continuous wandering, in which the penitent is not
allowed to remain two days in the same place ; and, in
addition, he had worn a hair-shirt next his skin. But
he felt that he would not be doing enough for the satis-
faction of his conscience unless he further observed the
Tshubath Hamishkal—'dx^ penance of weighing — which
requires a particular form of penance proportioned to
every sin. But as he found by calculation, that the
number of his sins was too great to be atoned in this
way, he took it into his head to starve himself to death.
After he had spent some time in this process, he came
in his wanderings to the place where my father lived,
and, without anybody in the house knowing, went into
the barn, where he fell upon the ground in utter faint-
ness. My father came by chance into the barn, and
found the man, whom he had long known, lying half-
dead on the ground, with a Zohar (the principal book of
the Cabbalists) in his hand. As he knew well what sort
of man this was, he brought him at once all sorts of re-
freshments ; but the man would make no use of them in
any way. My father came several times, and repeated

134 Solomon Maimon :

his urgent request, that Simon would take something ;
but it was of no avail. My father had to attend to
something in the house, whereupon Simon, to escape
from his importunity, exerted all his strength, raised
himself up, went out of the barn, and at last out of the
village. When my father came back into the barn
again, and found the man no longer there, he ran after
him, and found him lying dead not far from the village.
The affair was generally made known among the Jews,
and Simon became a saint.

Jossel of Klezk proposed nothing less than to hasten
the advent of the Messiah. To this end he performed
strict penance, fasted, rolled himself in snow, undertook
night-watches and similar severities. By all sorts of such
operations he believed that he was able to accomplish
the overthrow of a legion of evil spirits, who kept guard
on the Messiah, and threw obstacles in the way of his
coming.* To these exercises he added at last many
Cabbalistic fooleries — fumigations, conjurations, and
similar practices — till at length he lost his wits on the
subject, believed that he really saw spirits with his eyes
open, calling each of them by name. He would then

* In the same way a fool, called Chosek, was going to starve the
city of Lemberg, against which he was enraged ; and for this pur-
pose he placed himself behind the wall, in order to blockade the
city with his body. The result of the blockade, however, was that
he nearly died of hunger, while the city knew nothing whatever of
a famine.

An Autobiography. 135

beat about him, smash windows and stoves under the
idea that these were his foes, the evil spirits, somewhat
after the manner of his forerunner Don Quixote. At last
he lay down in complete exhaustion, from which he was
with great difficulty restored, by the physician of Prince

Unfortunately I could never get further in pious exer-
cises of this sort, than to abstain for a considerable while
from everything that comes from a living being ; and
during the Days of Atonement I have sometimes fasted
three days together. I once resolved indeed on under-
taking the T^shubath Hakaiia ; but this project, like
others of the same sort, remained unfulfilled, after I had
adopted the opinions of Maimonides, who was no friend
of fanaticism or pietism. It is remarkable, that at the
time when I still observed the rabbinical regulations
with the utmost strictness, I yet would not observe cer-
tain ceremonies which have something comical about
them. Of this kind, for example, was the Malketh
(Beating) before the Great Day of Atonement, in which
every Jew lays himself on his face in the synagogue,
while another with a narrow strip of leather gives him
thirty-nine lashes. Of the same sort is Haphorath
Nedarim^ or the act of setting free from vows on New
Year's Eve. In this three men are seated, while another
appears before them, and addresses to them a certain
form, the general drift of which is as follows : — " Sirs, I
know what a heinous sin it is, not to fulfil vows ; and in-

136 Solomon Maimon:

asmuch as I have doubtless this year made some vows
which I have not fulfilled, and which I can no longer re-
collect, I beg of you that you will set me free from the
same. I do not indeed repent of the good resolutions
to which I have bound myself by these vows ; I repent
merely of the fact, that in making such resolutions I did
not add, that they were not to have the force of a vow,"
etc., etc. Thereupon he withdraws from the judgment-
seat, pulls off his shoes, and sits down on the bare
ground, by which he is supposed to banish himself till
his vows are dissolved. After he has sat for some time,
and said a prayer by himself, the judges begin to call
aloud, " Thou art our brother ! thou art our brother !
thou art our brother ! There is no vow, no oath, no
banishment any longer, after thou hast submitted thyself
to the judgment. Rise from the ground and come to
us ! " This they repeat three times, and with that the
man is at once set free from all his vows.

At serio-comic scenes of this sort I could only with
the greatest difficulty refrain from laughing. A blush of
shame came over me, when I was to undertake such per-
formances. I sought therefore, if I was pressed on the
subject, to free myself by the pretext, that I had either
already attended to it, or was going to attend to it, in
another synagogue. A very remarkable psychological
phenomenon ! It might be thought impossible for any
one to be ashamed of actions which he saw others per-
forming without the slightest blush of shame. Yet this

An Autobiography. 137

was the case here. This phenomenon can be explained
only by the fact, that in all my actions I had regard first
to the nature of the action in itself (whether it was right
or wrong, proper or improper), then to its nature in rela-
tion to some end, and that I justified it as a means, only
when it was not in itself incapable of being justified.
This principle was developed afterwards in my whole
system of religion and morals. On the other hand, the
most of men act on the principle, that the end justifies
the means.

138 Solomon Mainion



Friendship and Enthusiasm.

In the place where I resided I had a bosom friend,
Moses Lapidoth by name. We were of the same age,
the same studies, and nearly the same external circum-
stances, the only difference being, that at an early period
I already showed an inclination to the sciences, while
Lapidoth had indeed a love of speculation, and also
great acuteness and power of judgment, but had no wish
to proceed further than he could reach by a mere sound
common sense. With this friend I used to hold many
a conversation on subjects of mutual interest, especially
the questions of religion and morals.

We were the only persons in the place, who ventured to
be not mere imitators, but to think independently about
everything. It was a natural result of this, that, as we
differed from all the rest of the community in our
opinions and conduct, we separated ourselves from them
by degrees ; but, as we had still to live by the community,
our circumstances on this account became every day
worse and worse. 'Tis true, we noted this fact, but
nevertheless we were unwilling to sacrifice our favourite

An Autobiography. 139

inclinations for any interest in the world. We consoled
ourselves therefore, as best we might, over our loss, spoke
constantly of the vanity of all things, of the religious and
moral faults of the common herd, upon whom we looked
down with a sort of noble pride and contempt.

We used especially to open our minds, a la Mande-
ville^ on the hollowness of human virtue. For example,
smallpox had been very prevalent in the place, and
thereby many children had been carried off. The elders
held a meeting to find out the secret sins, on account of
which they were suffering this punishment, as they
viewed it. After instituting an inquiry it was found, that
a young widow of the Jewish people was holding too
free intercourse wath some servants of the manor. She
was sent for, but no sort of inquisition could elicit from
her anything beyond the fact, that these people were in
the habit of drinking mead at her house, and that, as
was reasonable, she received them in a pleasant and po-
lite manner, but that in other respects she was uncon-
scious of any sin in the matter. As no other evidence
was forthcoming, she was about to be acquitted, when
an elderly matron came flying like a fury and screamed,
" Scourge her ! scourge her ! till she has confessed her
sin ! If you do not do it, then may the guilt of the
death of so many innocent souls fall upon you ! " Lapi-
doth was present with me at this scene, and said,
"Friend, do you suppose that Madam is making so
fierce a complaint against this woman, merely because

j^o Solomon Maimon :

she is seized with a holy zeal and feeling for the general
welfare ? Oh no ! She is enraged, merely because the
widow still possesses attractions, while she herself can no
longer make claim to any." I assured him that his opin-
ion was thoroughly in accordance with my own.

Lapidoth had poor parents-in-law. His father-in-law
was Jewish sexton, and by his slender pay could support
his family only in a very sorry style. Every Friday the
poor man was therefore compelled to listen to all sorts
of reproach and abuse from his wife, because he could
not provide her with what was indispensable for the holy
Sabbath. Lapidoth told me about this with the addi-
tion : — " My mother-in-law wants to make me to believe
that she is zealous merely for the honour of the holy
Sabbath. Nay, verily ; she is zealous merely for the
honour of her own holy paunch, which she cannot fill as
she would like ; the holy Sabbath serves her merely as
a pretext."

Once when we were taking a walk on the wall round
the town, and conversing about the tendency of men,
which is evinced in such expressions, to deceive them-
selves and others, I said to Lapidoth, " Friend, let us be
fair, and pass our censure on ourselves, as well as on
others. Is not the contemplative life which we lead, and
which is by no means adapted to our circumstances, to
be regarded as a result of our indolence and inclination
to idleness, which we seek to defend by reflections on
the vanity of all things? We are content with our pre-

An Autobiography. 141

sent circumstances ; why ? Because we cannot alter
them without first fighting against our inclination to idle-
ness. With all our pretence of contempt for everything
outside of us, we cannot avoid the secret wish to be able
to enjoy better food and clothing than at present. We
reproach our friends as vain men addicted to the plea-
sures of sense, because they have abandoned our mode
of life, and undertaken occupations adapted to their
powers. But wherein consists our superiority over them,
when we merely follow our inclination as they follow
theirs ? Let us seek to find this superiority merely in the
fact, that we at least confess this truth to ourselves, while
they profess as the motive of their actions, not the satis-
faction of their own particular desires, but the impulse to
general utility." Lapidoth, on whom my words produced
a powerful impression, answered with some warmth,
" Friend, you are perfectly right. If we cannot now
mend our faults, we will not deceive ourselves about
them, but at least keep the way open for amendment."

In conversations of this kind we two cynics spent our
pleasantest hours, while we made ourselves merry some-
times at the expense of the world, sometimes at our own.
Lapidoth, for example, whose old dirty clothes had all
fallen into rags, and one of whose sleeves was wholly
parted from the rest of his coat, while he was not in a
position even to have it mended, used to fix the sleeve
on his back with a pin, and to ask me, " Don't I look
like a Schlachziz (a Pohsh noble)? " I, again, could not

,^, Solo?non Maimon :

sufficiently commend my rent shoes, which were quite
open at the toes, because, as I said, "They do not
squeeze the foot."

The harmony of our incHnations and manner of Hfe,
along with some difference in our talents, made our con-
versation all the more agreeable. I had more talent
for the sciences, made more earnest endeavours after
thoroughness and accuracy of knowledge than Lapidoth.
He, on the other hand, had the advantage of a lively
imagination, and consequently more talent for eloquence
and poetry than I. If I produced a new thought, my
friend knew how to illustrate it, and, as it were, to give
it embodiment in a multitude of examples. Our affection
for one another went so far, that, whenever it was prac-
ticable, we spent day and night in each other's company,
and the first thing we did, on returning home from the
places where we severally acted as family-tutors, was to
visit each other, even before seeing our own families. At
last we began to neglect on this account the usual hours
of prayer. Lapidoth first undertook to prove, that the
Talmudists themselves offered up their prayers, not ex-
clusively in the synagogue, but sometimes in their study-
chambers. Afterwards he pointed out also, that the
prayers held to be necessary are not all equally so, but
that some may be dispensed with altogether: even those,
which are recognised as necessary, we curtailed by
degrees, till at last they were totally neglected.

Once, wiicn we went for a walk on the wall during the


An AiitobiograpJiy, 143

hour of prayer, Lapidoth said to me, " Friend, what is
going to become of us? We do not pray now at all."

" What do you mean by that? " I inquired.

" I throw myself," said Lapidoth, "on the mercy of
God, who certainly will not punish his children severely
for a slight neglect."

" God is not merely inerciful^^ I replied ; " He is also
just. Consequently this reason cannot help us much."

" What do you mean by that ? " asked Lapidoth.

I had by this time obtained from Maimonides more
accurate ideas of God and of our duties towards Him.
Accordingly I replied, " Our destination is merely the
atiammeni of perfection iht'ongh the knowledge of God atid
the imitation of His actions. Prayer is simply the ex-
pression of our knowledge of the divine perfections, and,
as a result of this knowledge, is intended merely for the
common man who cannot of himself attain to this know-
ledge ; and therefore it is adapted to his mode of con-
ception. But as we see into the end of prayer, and can
attain to this end directly, we can dispense altogether
with prayer as something superfluous."

This reasoning appeared to us both to be sound. We
resolved therefore, for the purpose of avoiding offence,
to go out of the house every morning with our Taleth
and TephilitJi (Jewish instruments of prayer), not, how-
ever, to the synagogue, but to our favourite retreat, the
wall, and by this means we fortunately escaped the
Jewish Inquisition.

144 Solo mo ft MaijHon :

But this enthusiastic companionship, like everything
else in the world, had to come to an end. As we were
both married, and our marriages were tolerably fruitful,
wc were obliged, for the purpose of supporting our fami-
lies, to accept situations as family-tutors. By this means
wc were not infrequently separated, and afterwards were
able to spend merely a few weeks in the year together.

A?i Autobiography. 145


The Life of a Family-Tutor.

The place, where I first occupied the position of family-
tutor, was at the distance of a league from my residence.
The family was that of a miserable farmer in a still more
miserable village ; and my salary was five thalers in
Polish money. The poverty, ignorance, and rudeness in
the manner of life, which prevailed in this house, were
indescribable. The farmer himself was a man of about
fifty years, the whole of whose face was overgrown with
hair, ending in a dirty, thick beard as black as pitch. His
language was a sort of muttering, intelligible only to the
boors, with whom he held intercourse daily. Not only
was he ignorant of Hebrew, but he could not speak a
word of Jewish ; his only language was Russian, the com-
mon patois of the peasantry. His wife and children
were of the same stamp. Moreover, the apartment, in
which they lived, was a hovel of smoke, black as coal
inside and out, without a chimney, but with merely a
small opening in the roof for the exit of the smoke,— an
opening which was carefully closed as soon as the fire
was allowed to go out, so that the heat might not escape.

J ^6 Soioriwfi Mavnon:

The windows were narrow strips of pine laid crosswise
over each other, and covered with paper. This apart-
ment served at once for sitting, drinking, eating, study
and sleep. Think of this room intensely heated, and the
smoke, as is generally the case in winter, driven back by
wind and rain till the whole place is filled with it to
suffocation. Here hang a foul washing and other dirty
bits of clothing on poles laid across the room in order to
kill the vermin with the smoke. There hang sausages to
dry, while their fat keeps constantly trickling down on
the heads of people below. Yonder stand tubs with sour
cabbage and red beets, which form the principal food of
the Lithuanians. In a corner the water is kept for daily
use, with the dirty water alongside. In this room the
bread is kneaded, cooking and baking are done, the cow
is milked, and all sorts of operations are carried on.

In this magnificent dwelling the peasants sit on the
bare ground ; you dare not sit higher if you do not wish
to be suffocated with the smoke. Here they guzzle their
whiskey and make an uproar, while the people of the
house sit in a corner. I usually took my place behind
the stove with my dirty half-naked pupils, and expounded
to them out of an old tattered Bible, from Hebrew into
Russian Jewish. All this together made such a splen-
did group as deserved to be sketched only by a Hogarth,
and to be sung only by a Butler.

It may be easily imagined, how pitiable my condition
here must have been. Whiskey had to form my sole com-

An Autobiography. 147

fort ; it made me forget all my misery. This was in-
creased by the fact, that a regiment of Russians, who
were rioting at that time with every conceivable cruelty
on the estates of Prince Radzivil, was stationed in the
village and its neighbourhood. The house was constantly
full of drunken Russians, who committed all sorts of ex-
cesses, hewed to pieces tables and benches, threw glasses
and bottles into the faces of the people of the house, and
so on. To give merely one example, a Russian, who
was stationed in this house as guard, and whose charge it
was to secure the house against all violence, came home
once drunk, and demanded something to eat. A dish of
millet with butter was placed before him cooked. He
shoved the dish away, and shouted an order for more
butter. A whole small tub of butter was brought, when
he shouted again an order for another dish. This was
brought immediately, whereupon he threw all the butter
into it, and called for spirits. A whole bottle was
brought, and he poured it likewise into the dish. There-
after milk, pepper, salt, and tobacco, in large quantities
had to be brought to him, the whole being put in, and
the mixture devoured. After he had taken some spoon-
fuls, he began to strike about him, pulled the host by
the beard, struck him in the face with his fist, so that the
blood flowed out of his mouth, poured some of his glo-
rious broth down his throat, and went on in this riotous
manner till he became so drunk that he could no longer
support himself, and fell to the ground.

1^8 Solomon Matmon :

Such scenes were at that time very common every-
where in Poland. If a Russian army passed a place,
they took with them a prowodnik^ or guide, to the next
place. But instead of seeking to be supplied by the
mayor or the village magistrate, they used to seize the
first person whom they met on the road. He might be
young or old, male or female, healthy or sick, it mattered
nothing to them ; for they knew the road well enough
from special charts, and only sought an opportunity for
outrage. If it happened that the person seized did not
know the way at all, and did not show them the right
road, they did not allow themselves to be sent astray on
this account; they selected the road all right, but they
cudgelled the poor prowodnik till he was half-dead, for
not knowing the way I

I was once seized as a prowodnik myself. I did not
indeed know the way, but luckily I hit upon it by
chance. Fortunately, therefore, I reached the proper
place, and the only violence I suffered, besides a good
many blows and kicks from the Russian soldiers, was the
threat, that, if ever I led them astray, I should certainly
be flayed alive — a threat which they might be trusted
with carrying into execution.

The other places which I filled as tutor were more or
less similar to this. In one of these a remarkable
psychological incident occurred in which I took the
principal part and which is to be described in the sequel.
An incident of the same kind, however, which happened

An Autobiography. 149

to another person and of which I was simply eye-witness,
must be mentioned here.

A tutor in the next village, who was a somnambulist,
rose one night from his bed and went to the village
churchyard with a volume of the Jewish ceremonial laws
in his hand. After remaining some time there he
returned to his bed. In the morning he rose up, with-
out remembering the least of what had happened dur-
ing the night, and went to the chest where his copy of
the ceremonial laws w^as usually kept, in order to take
out the first part, Orach Chajim or the Way of Life,
which he was accustomed to read every morning. The
code consists of four parts, each of which was bound
separately, and all the four had certainly been locked up
in the chest. He was therefore astonished to find only
three of the parts, Joreh Deah or the Teacher of Wisdom,
being awanting. As he knew about his disease he
searched everywhere, till at last he came to the church-
yard where he found the Joreh Deah lying open at the
chapter, Hilchoth Abheloth or the Laws of Mourning.
He took this for a bad omen and came home much
disquieted. On being asked the cause of his disquietude
he related the incident which had occurred, with the
addition, "Ah! God knows how my poor mother is !"
He bef^ged of his master the loan of a horse and per-
mission to ride to the nearest town, where his mother
lived, in order to enquire after her welfare. As he had
to pass the place where I was tutor, and I saw him riding

,ro Solomon Maimon :

in great excitement without being willing to dismount
even for a little while, I asked him the cause of his
excitement when he related to me the above-mentioned

I was astonished, not so much about the particular
circumstances of this incident, as about somnambulism
in general, of which till then I had known nothing. My
friend, on the other hand, assured me that somnambul-
ism was a common occurrence with him, and that it
meant nothing, but that the circumstance of the Hikhoth
Abheloth made him forebode some misfortune. There-
upon he rode off, arrived at his mother's house, and
found her seated at her frame for needlework. She asked
him the reason of his coming, when he replied that he
had come merely to pay her a visit, as he had not seen
her for a long time. After he had rested for a good
while, he rode back ; but his disquietude was by no
means wholly removed, and the thought of the Hikhoth
Abheloth he could not get out of his head. The third
day after, a fire broke out in the town where his mother
lived, and the poor woman perished in the flames.
Scarcely had the son heard of the conflagration, when he
began to lament that his mother had so miserably perished.
He rode off in all haste to the town, and found what he
had foreboded.

An Autobiography. 151

Also on a Secret Society, and therefore a Long Chapter.

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