Manners and Customs of the Jews by Henry Benton


We are plainly told that the commandments were “the writing of God, graven upon the tables.” These tables were flat, thin pieces of stone. Also the names of the children of Israel, worn upon the high priest’s shoulders, were to be engraved on different sorts of precious stone, with the work of an engraver, like the engravings of a signet. And for the high priest’s mitre it was directed, “Thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it like the engravings of a signet, Holiness unto the Lord.”

The letters were engraved or cut into these hard substances that they might last, and not be rubbed out like common writing. When Job wished that his words should be preserved, he says, “Oh, that they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever,” Job 19:24. This method of writing is still used for inscriptions on buildings, etc., but it was much more used formerly. Among the ruins of ancient cities in Persia, Egypt, Greece, etc., many very long inscriptions are found, engraved upon the walls of buildings, and upon rocks. In a part of Arabia, near mount Sinai, there are large mountains or rocks covered with writing, though the meaning of the words cannot be made out.

Among the ruins of Babylon, bricks are found with inscriptions upon them. The letters or marks are something like the heads of arrows or nails, but no one has yet been able to make out their meaning. It is supposed they may have been part of the tower of Babel; whether this is correct or not, they must be very ancient. The writing has been engraved or impressed into these bricks. Major Denham, who lately traveled in Africa, also found long inscriptions cut into the rocks in several places.

This engraving of writing, or cutting the letters upon hard substances, was very generally practiced in cases of importance, as being much more lasting than other methods. When Dr. Buchanan was in India, the Jews in Malabar showed him a brass plate, on which was engraved the grant of some privileges from an ancient king, about the year AD 490. He also found similar tablets in the possession of the Syrian Christians in the south of India. Some of these, and copies of others, are now in the public library at Cambridge. And some persons have supposed that Samuel engraved the word Ebenezer upon the stone he set up when God had smitten the Philistines, I Samuel 7:12. This method of writing was practiced in later times, upon wood and other substances.

To the law of God being engraven the apostle refers, when describing the work of the Holy Spirit upon the heart of the believer; he speaks of it as written, not with ink, (which might be rubbed out,) but as engraved or cut into the substance, and not upon tables of stone, but upon the heart of the believer, II Corinthians 3:3, see also Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 11:19. O That this may be the case with our hearts. My dear readers, may the Lord write his law in your hearts, and be your God, making you his children, forgiving your iniquity, and blotting out the writing that is against you. For dreadful is the state of those in whom sin is graven upon the table of their hearts, Jeremiah 17:1. O let us earnestly pray, that this may not be our case; but that God will put his truths into our minds, enabling us to do his will in all things.

And if the law of the Lord be thus engraved on our hearts, we must beware lest we should be satisfied to let it be obscured or covered with the evil which by nature cleaves to our hearts, even as a writing engraved upon a stone may be covered over with dirt or rubbish. Remember, God says, “My son, give me thy heart,” Proverbs 23:26. He will not be satisfied with a divided heart, and he also commanded, “Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life,” Proverbs 4:23. But it is the Lord himself who engraves the graving thereof, Zechariah 3:9, and upon him that overcometh will be written the name of the Lord; see Revelation 3:12, and that writing shall not perish or decay. Reader, watch over your heart; pray that the Holy Spirit may sanctify or make it holy.

We may inquire farther respecting the substances used for writing upon. Job, chapter 19:24, expresses his desire, that his words should be written upon lead as well as upon a rock. Montfaucon says, that in the year 1699, he purchase at Rome an ancient book, entirely of lead, about four inches long and three inches wide; it had six leaves, and two covers, and was written over with ancient Egyptian figures, and writing which he could not understand.

Brass was used for matters of importance. In the first book of Maccabees we read of treaties between the Romans and the Jews, written on tables of brass, chapter 8:22 and 14:18, and although the books of Maccabees are not the word of God, yet they may be referred to for information as to history and customs, as they were certainly written a very long time ago. It was the custom of the Romans to preserve their laws and records upon tablets of brass; and it is related that a fire in the capitol at Rome, in Vespasian’s reign, destroyed three thousand of these tablets. The ancient tablets of brass, discovered by Dr. Buchanan in India, have been already noticed; they are six in number, and, upon the plate said to be the oldest, the writing is very like that upon the bricks found at Babylon.

Wood was very frequently used. Sometimes the tablets of wood were engraved, the letters being cut into them. Or a thin coat of wax was spread over the wood, and the words were scratched upon the wax, with a sharp pointed metal bodkin, or a stick. And sometimes the words were written with ink upon the tablets. The writing upon sticks, mentioned in Ezekiel 37:16 appears to have been engraved or cut into them. In our own country, in former times, words were engraved upon sticks, which were put into a wooden frame; some of these still exist. Almanacs also were cut upon sticks; these may be found among the inhabitants of Sweden.

The ancient letters sent by persons one to another were in general written upon tablets of wood. The different pieces were tied together with a thread or string, and a seal put upon the knot, so that no one could read what was written till the seal was broken.

Among the natives of Africa and the east it is very common to have writing boards, like schoolboys’ slates, upon which persons write with ink, and rub it out when done with. When Mr. Park was at Koolkooro, in Africa, his landlord brought him a writing board, asking him to write upon it. Mr. Park did so; the African then washed the writing from the board and drank the water, for the poor ignorant man thought it would be of use to protect him from harm! Such tablets of wood are commonly used in schools in those countries. The prophets sometimes wrote upon tables of wood; see Isaiah 30:8, Habakkuk 2:2 and the writing table which Zacharias made signs for, when desired to name his son, Luke 1:63, was a wooden tablet; perhaps it was covered with wax. Such tablets are mentioned by Greek and Roman writers, and were used in England till after the year 1300.

Leaves were formerly used, and still are so, for writing upon; many ancient authors mention them. In India, and particularly in Ceylon, they make use of the leaves of some trees which are very broad and thick; these are cut into slips, and smoothed, and they write upon them with sharp pointed bodkins. To make a book, several leaves are strung together. These leaves are called Ollas, and the missionaries have frequently used them for writing tracts upon. But this way of preparing tracts is very expensive, and the leaves are liable to break, so that they now use paper, and print the tracts. For this purpose, large quantities of paper are sent out every year, by the Religious Tract Society. The missionaries are very glad to receive this paper, but they wish to have a great deal more, as the grown people and children are very eager for the books they print.

The bark of trees has been used in all countries to write upon., The word book, in Latin, (liber) is the name by which the inner bark of trees is called in that language. In Sumatra bark is still much used for books; and the North American Indians have made great use of it for their picture writing.

Linen was used in former times, particularly by the Egyptians; many of their linen books, and writings upon linen, remain to this day. They are frequently found with the mummies, or dead bodies of persons who died a long time ago, which have preserved or embalmed in the same manner as the bodies of Jacob and Joseph. See Genesis 1, 2, 26.

Skins of animals were also used, and that long before people had found out how to make them into parchment. These leather and linen books were in the form of long rolls. It is probably that the book of the law, written by Moses, and given by him to the priests, Deuteronomy 31:24ff was of linen or leather; and that the book of the law, found by Hilkiah, II Chronicles 34:14, was of this sort. It may have been the same book that was written by Moses. When Dr. Buchanan was in India, he found a very old copy of the law, written on a roll of leather about fifteen feet long. Many such rolls exist; some of them more than a hundred feet in length. Perhaps you will wonder how they could read in such a book or rolls, which was the general form of books in ancient times. I will try to describe it. The rolls were several feet long, but not very wide, generally about twelve or fourteen inches; the writing upon them was in pages, beginning at one end of the roll and so proceeding to the other. The ends of the rolls were often fastened upon sticks; the roll was opened at the beginning just enough to allow of a page or two being read. The ancient manuscripts were all written in capital letters, and without divisions of the words, so that the roll when first opened looked something like this:







(John 1:1-5)

Of course there were more lines in a page, and more letters in a line than in this representation; see also the representation on an ancient manuscript, page xxx. How it would puzzle my readers if their books were printed in this manner. It shows how improvements are introduced by degrees.

The part read was then rolled up, and more opened, so that the whole book could be read without the difficulty which there must have been if the lines had gone all along, from one end to the other, so as to require the whole roll to be opened at once. Sometimes both sides of the roll were written upon, Ezekiel 2:10.

The rolls, or books rolled up, are often mentioned or alluded to in the Bible, Ezra 6:2, Isaiah 8:1, 34:4, Ezekiel 2:9, Revelation 6:14. The scribes, or persons employed in writing, were considered to be persons of some importance. From Ezekiel 9:3,5,11, it appears they wore their inkbottles, or inkhorns, at their girdles. The prophecy of Jeremiah, sent to Jehoiakim, was written by Baruch, with ink, in the roll of a book; and it is plain that this book was of some soft substance, as the king was able to cut it to pieces with a penknife, before he cast it into the fire, Jeremiah 36:23.

That is an awful instance of the way in which many despise the word of God, and refuse to listen to its precepts and threatenings; often rejecting the promises of mercy, and the declarations of the love of God toward us, which are contained therein. It is indeed painful to think that some have even acted like Jehoiakim, and destroyed the word of God. The Romish priests often do so when they find Bibles or Testaments in the hands of people in Ireland; but it is very pleasant to find that there is an increasing desire to read the word of truth. There have been many instances of children refusing to give up their books, and rescuing them from the grasp of the priests. One very pleasing anecdote I must mention. A priest succeeded in tearing a Testament from the hand of a child; but the little Bible scholar had endeavored to hide the word of God in his heart, and exclaimed, “You may take away my Testament, sir; but you cannot take away the chapters I have learned by heart.” In the days when popery prevailed in England, many persons learned the Psalms, and as many chapters as they could, for they knew that they would not be allowed to possess the word of God, when the papists had power to take it away. One of these excellent men had learned all the epistles.

My dear reader, if you have been taught to prize the word of God, and the truths it contains, pray earnestly, and implore the Most High that the bloody, persecuting religion of the church of Rome may never prevail in our land, as in former times, and as it now does in some countries. Read the accounts of the poor Lollards, and the martyrs in the days of queen Mary; and be thankful that you live in the present times. There were no Sunday schools in those days, no instruction for the young in the truths of the gospel, none of the beautiful hymns children now have to learn, no prayers which people in general could understand, but only prayers in Latin, and bowing down to images; and if, parents attempted to teach their children any thing better they were punished. In the year 1519, six men and a woman were burned alive at Coventry, for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer and ten commandments in English! Be thankful, children, for your privileges, and be diligent in improving them.

Parchment is made of the skins of goats, sheep, or calves prepared with care. It was known to the Jews, and being a later invention, and more valuable than skins of leather, was used for writings of the greatest importance; thus the apostle Paul, when writing to Timothy, desires him to bring the books he had left at Troas, but especially the parchments, II Timothy 4:13. The value and scarcity of parchment was so great before the invention of paper, that the writing was frequently effaced from rolls or books already written, and other works written instead. Some of the most ancient manuscripts of the Bible now know, had been written over in this manner, but the first writing can still be made out, thought not without difficulty. Another substance much used for writing upon, was a kind of paper, made from the thin skin or film which covered a sort of bulrush that grows in Egypt, and is called papyrus or biblos. It is found in abundance on the banks of the Nile and other streams, Isaiah 19:7. Among these reeds, or bulrushes, Moses was placed when his parents dared not keep him any longer. The daughter of the king found him there as is related in Exodus 2:3. These bulrushes are also mentioned in Isaiah 18:2. This paper was much used by the Romans and other nations. The manuscripts or books found in Herculaneum, the city which was buried under the ashes and lava from mount Vesuvius, in the year 79, and which remained unknown till about a hundred years ago, are all written on this sort of paper. They are rolls or long slips of different lengths, and about twelve inches wide; but the heart of the lava, and the length of time they remained untouched, it is very difficult to unroll or open them.

Different sorts of paper have been made of bark of trees, cotton, silk, straw, and many other substances, but these as well as our paper, made of linen rags, were unknown to the ancient Jews. The paper mentioned in II John 12 was made of papyrus.

The ancients wrote upon many of these substances with ink. The first mention of this is in the writing of the prophecy of Jeremiah, by Baruch, which we read was written “with ink in a book,” or roll, Jeremiah 36:18. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a writer’s inkhorn; and the apostle John mentions writing with ink and pen, III John 13. Also the apostle Paul, II Corinthians 3:3. The pens were not of quills like ours, but of reeds, which are still used by eastern nations. Persons could write quicker with them than with the iron pens, or bodkins, which engraved or scratched the writing, this is alluded to in Psalm 45:1.

There were pens in some inkhorns found in Herculaneum, but they were merely pointed sticks like skewers.

And now I have said all that occurs to me respecting books and writing. Printing was not discovered till about the year 1450; before that time books were but few in number, and cost much money. Yet, even in those times, Solomon could say, “Of making books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes 12:12. How much more is this the case in our days, and how many vain, trifling, silly, and even wicked or profane books there are! My readers, beware of bad books. We read, I Corinthians 15:33, that “evil communications corrupt good manners;” and, as the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes has well observed, a man cannot touch pitch without being defiled. Be assured that you cannot read bad books without injury. Flee the temptation, and if a bad book comes into your possession, as soon as you are aware of its contents, commit it to the flames. Remember what is said of the heavenly Jerusalem, “There shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination or maketh a lie, but they which are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.”