Jews Receive the Right to Take Oaths Without the Bible
During the ninth century, the Western world began incorporating oaths on the Bible into court testimonies. Three centuries later, this became standard practice in English courts; jury members were required to take an oath on the Bible. A transcript from the 13th century, now in a museum in Cambridge, detailed the reasoning behind this practice. In the New Yorker article “A Brief History of Oath and Books,” Hannah Rosefield summarizes the transcript: “By placing a hand on the book and then kissing it, the oath-taker is acknowledging that, should he lie under oath, neither the words in the Bible nor his good deeds nor his prayers will bring him any earthly or spiritual profit.” Over time, this courtroom practice spread throughout predominantly-Christian areas, and it also became a requirement to enter public offices.
In the 17th century, the many Jews fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition found refuge in Barbados. Although they brought the knowledge of how to refine sugar production — which contributed to Barbados becoming a world leader in sugar production — they were accused of committing illegal business transactions in trading. However, the Jews’ could not testify in court, as the courts required everyone to take an oath on the Bible before testifying. Unable to defend themselves against the allegations, in 1668 the Jews in Barbados were prohibited from engaging in any local or foriegn trade.
In 1669, the Jewish community petitioned for the right to provide testimonies in court after taking an oath on only the Old Testament. While there were no immediate reforms, on February 14th, 1674 — 8 Adar 5434 — Barbados granted Jews the right to take oaths on only the Old Testament in court. When taking the oath, they replaced the standard language with stating their faith in schar v’Onesh in Olam Haba, reward and punishment in the world to come.
On this same date, 151 years later, Maryland gave Jews permission to take a non-Christian oath as well. Furthermore, on February 26, 1825 — also 8 Adar 5585 — Jews could begin serving in public offices in Maryland. Initially, starting in 1715, anyone who entered public office was required to take an oath which contained the phrase “upon the true faith of a Christian.” In 1776 this was reaffirmed; entering office required a declaration of belief in the Christian religion. While many objected to this, only in 1825 did Maryland’s House of Delegates give Jews the ability to enter office without professing their belief in Christianity. Just as in Barbados over a century earlier, Jews replaced the standard oath by stating their faith in reward and punishment in the world to come.
History shows that Jews faced discrimination in many areas of society, and the events of Adar 8 show one example of how people strived to create equality.