The Synagogue

“And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”

According to the Bible, Moses, charged by God, organized the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, as a portable sanctuary. Housing the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle became the focus of divine worship for the Children of Israel. After the settlement in Canaan, the Tabernacle was replaced by the First Temple built in Jerusalem by King Solomon. When the Second Temple was destroyed and the Jewish people dispersed, the synagogue (Greek, “meeting place”) became the house of prayer. Every Jewish community has synagogues which serve as houses of worship — centers for religious life.

Synagogues today are standard in many aspects. Several of the ancient traditions in synagogue art and architecture, reflected in the Miller Museum Collection, derive from the influence of the Second Temple that once stood in Jerusalem. The Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple occurred between 66 and 73 C.E. With that destruction came an end to the major Jewish presence in Palestine and to the focus of Jewish worship until relatively recent times. The destruction of the Second Temple resulted in a great dislocation of Jewish populations (The Diaspora) and marked changes in Jewish religious practices.

In ancient times the principal method of worship was animal sacrifice. Those who made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem brought doves, goats, lambs, etc. that were purchased for special holidays. These would be presented to the priest, who would sacrifice them. The sacrifice was an individual act of faith, communal or congregational worship was developed by the Jewish people during periods when they did not have access to the Temple itself. With the destruction of the Temple, it became necessary for the scattered believers to develop religious observances that did not depend on either the Temple or the priestly caste who were responsible for the Temple service. The destruction of the Temple never ceased to be a tragic event for the Jewish people.

Ever since, synagogue decoration has recreated elements of the Temple and attempted to retain interest in Jerusalem as the place where Judaism was born and developed. For instance, synagogues are built so that, in facing the Ark of the Torah, the congregation also faces Jerusalem. Within the Temple, the Jews of the ancient world had listened to the prayers offered by the priests and departed, taking no real role in the ceremonies. After the destruction of the Temple, the dispersed Jewish communities of the ancient world developed a new means of worship centered on the reading of the Torah. (The Torah is comprised of the first five books of the Jewish Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, the writings traditionally believed to have been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The reading of portions of the Torah now constitutes the focus of Jewish worship services. It has been used in this form for more than 2500 years.)

Traditional synagogue elements that reflect the period of the Second Temple include the Eternal Light and the Torah Ark. The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) is meant to symbolize the eternal presence of God and to be a modern version of the lampstand that stood in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. It was and is kept burning day and night to symbolize the permanence of the covenant between the Jewish people and their God. The Museum owns a number of beautiful examples of these synagogue lamps.

When synagogues were first built, they had to provide a special space for the Torah to be kept. In older structures, the Torah Ark is sometimes separate from the area where the congregation gathers. The platform in front of the Ark is called the bimah and services are conducted by the clergy from this area. At certain points in the service the Torah is brought out from the Ark, placed on the reader’s desk (amud) and read aloud before being replaced in the Ark. In many synagogues the reading platform is separated from the Ark because everything connected with Torah, as the Word of God, is absolutely sacred and of royal significance.



“Were it not for the Torah, heaven and earth would not continue to exist.”

Jewish survival since the Roman Destruction of the Second Temple is attributed to devotion to the Torah, which is the basis of Jewish religion and education and the most revered and sacred object used in Jewish ritual. The first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — are contained in the Torah. It is made of sheets of parchment sewn together to form a continuous scroll. The scroll is wrapped on two wooden rollers known as etz hayim (trees of life).

Each Torah scroll is entirely written by hand by a specially trained sofer (scribe). Over a period of between nine and twelve months, a new scroll is copied, using either a feather quill or a reed pen. Not one word is inscribed from memory, the scribe pronounces each Hebrew character before copying it. The scribes go through years of religious education in order to learn how to write out an entire Torah scroll because their function is of supreme importance. There are numerous restrictions that concern the inscribing of the Torah — the style in which the letters are formed, the actual space allotted to the text, etc., requirements that have been handed down from generation to generation. This has served to keep the text of the Torah intact, so that Jews today read the same words that were read by their ancestors over 2,000 years ago.

Many synagogues have a number of Torah scrolls in the Ark, all containing exactly the same text. During a regular service only one scroll is read aloud. On occasions when major holidays are being celebrated, more than one Torah scroll may be used. The Torah itself is read in a 54-unit cycle which allows the entire text to be read in the course of a year. In the most traditional synagogues there is a service four times a week and, during three of these occasions, the Torah is read. On major holidays there are special passages from the Torah which would be read for only those particular holidays.

It is not usual to display a Torah scroll unrolled the way it is shown in the picture, but it is permissible to use this one for an educational display. This scroll, together with a vast collection of treasures from synagogues all over Europe was stolen by the Nazis during the Second World War and stockpiled in Prague, Czechoslovakia. The job of sorting, cataloging and packing confiscated ritual items and other Jewish works of art was assigned to a group of Jewish museum workers who were later transported to the death camps. The Germans collected these items to form the basis of a museum depicting the culture of a “vanished race.” They meant to exhibit Jewish culture and history after they had killed all the Jews. The former owners of these works of art were to be referred to as a “race” because the Nazis would not acknowledge Jews as volk (people).

When the Nazis were defeated, one of the world’s greatest collections of Jewish art had been seized from the deported and murdered European Jews. After the war, the Government of Czechoslovakia used this material to organize one of the best Jewish museums in the world. They also sold many of the artifacts to Ralph Yablon, an Englishman who wanted to save the Torah scrolls so that each could be entrusted to a caring Jewish community. Each scroll — there were thousands — was examined and its condition and place of origin, if known, were noted. Many were found to be bloodstained, or damaged by fire or water and concealed within some of them were messages of despair and prayers for deliverance. The Miller Museum Holocaust Torah Scroll was inscribed in 1840 and came from the town of Bzenec in Czechoslovakia. Too damaged by the course of its history to be used in a synagogue service, it survives as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. A potent article of Jewish history, it also commemorates those innocent people whose congregation once treasured it.

Because of the centrality of the Torah in Jewish worship, and the reverence in which it is held, the adornment of the scrolls and the Ark which houses them is usually decorative, in keeping with the Talmudic injunction of hiddur mitzvah, “commandment of adornment.”

The Torah Ark has many symbolic elements which are connected to the ancient Temple. The Ark curtain (parochet) like so many elements of synagogue decoration and ceremonial objects used in Jewish worship services, does not have a directly functional purpose, but is a memory — a symbol of the veil that in ancient times in the Temple of Jerusalem hung over the Holy of Holies. It hung in front of the most sacred spot in the Temple, the empty space where the presence of God was believed to dwell eternally — a room that in some ways contained the sacredness of everything that was Jewish. It was a room that could not be entered by anyone but the High Priest himself and he could only do so once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The symbol of that ancient veil is continued in the parochet. The Miller Museum Collection contains numerous examples of synagogue textiles, including ark curtains and the regal garments worn by the scrolls themselves — cloth coverings called Torah mantles. These beautify the Torah, thereby showing respect for the scrolls themselves. When the Torah is stored in the Ark in the synagogue, it is usually covered with a mantle.

Often an inscription referring to those who donated the mantle is embroidered on the cloth. In its shape, the mantle recalls the robe of the High Priest in the ancient Temple. The burgundy velvet mantle pictured above is heavy with symbolism — designs common in Jewish art, like the Crown of Torah and the Lions of Judah flanking it, signifying the most prominent of the ancient Hebrew tribes. Each lion stands on a pillar which symbolizes the pillars that stood in front of the Temple of Solomon. (Other common Jewish symbols include the Ten Commandments, the Star of David, the Tree of Life and the Eternal Light.)



Other textile objects associated with the Torah are wimpels, a special type of Torah binder used by German Jews. Around 1600, in the German-speaking parts of Europe, it became the custom to inscribe a child’s name and birthday on strips of cloth torn from blankets used to swaddle a male infant after the ritual circumcision was performed. These strips are used to tie up the Torah scroll, to keep the two staves in place while the scroll is stored in the Ark. Like birth certificates, they are of historical importance in themselves, but they also represent this Jewish custom. They were embroidered with the baby’s name and date of birth and a standard blessing expressing the hope that the child would grow up to study the Torah, perform good deeds and be married. These binders were made in Jewish homes by family members who were not professional embroiderers or weavers, which gives them a special importance in Judaica collections.

The wimpel would be given to the synagogue and used for any occasion of special importance to the child whose name was on it — such as a bar mitzvah celebration or a marriage. In a sense, wimpels are documents constituting genealogies for whole communities of German Jews. Almost all of them were destroyed by the Nazis, but a few have survived. The oldest in the Miller Museum Collection is dated 1770, which is quite rare. (Because of the dispersions and dislocation of Jewish communities, the survival of any Jewish art or ceremonial object, even very recent material, is often almost miraculous. Artifacts from the 18th or early 19th century are exceptional, because of the great destruction that these things have suffered.) The other wimpels in the collection date from somewhat later. Gradually, the embroidery skills were replaced by painting and printing.


Torah Crown

Especially in earlier times, the Torah might also have been decorated with a Torah crown. The Torah is associated with crowns to emphasize the respect due to it, as if it were royalty. The Hebrew phrase Keter Torah means Crown of Torah and symbolizes that respect. These crowns amplify the symbolism of the Torah as being the equivalent of royalty, essentially the royalty of the Jewish people. In former times, they were actually placed over the Torah staves in addition to, or instead of, finials. Now, because such crowns are often antique, beautiful and somewhat cumbersome objects, they are often merely placed on display shelves within the Torah Ark. The crown pictured below is from the Samuel Fisher Collection and was presented to the Miller Museum by the Jewish community of Ponca City, Oklahoma.



When a Torah crown is not in use, finials (rimon, singular; rimonim, plural) are decorations sometimes placed on tops of the staves to which the Torah scroll itself is attached. Rimon means pomegranate in Hebrew, a shape often reflected in the form of the finials. Some, especially the older rimonim, have bells on them (as Torah crowns sometimes do). The bells symbolize those that adorned the robes of the High Priest, according to Exodus 28:22. The bells were used so that when the Torah was brought from the Ark for reading, the members of the congregation could hear the bells, know that the Torah had been brought out, cease their own private devotions and attend to the service.



Torah Shield

A metal shield (tas) hangs from the wooden Torah staves. It recalls, but does not resemble, a breastplate, decorating the Torah with a symbolic reference to the garb of the High Priest as described in the Book of Exodus. Mainly, it serves as another item of beautification, often designed in an ornamental fashion with Jewish symbols and the names of the people who presented it to the synagogue. These breastplates (tassim) have been a standard feature of Torah decoration for hundreds of years. The origin of the Torah breastplate was in fact functional. The tas originated about 500 years ago as a tag to identify the passage to which a Torah scroll had already been rolled when more than one scroll was needed for a particular service; one of the elements of the Torah shield is often an exchangeable plaque used to show the holiday to which a particular scroll is rolled. From that function the tas has become something basically decorative.

One of the most significant of the silver Torah shields or breastplates in the Museum’s collection is pictured here. It is significant because it was made by a Jewish silversmith. In Europe, Jews were not normally allowed to be silversmiths or goldsmiths because they were excluded from membership in the guilds. So, many of the ceremonial objects in Judaica collections, though used by Jewish communities, were made by non-Jewish manufacturers or artisans on commission. As a result, there are often mistakes in the Hebrew because the people who made the objects didn’t know Hebrew and could only copy it from inscriptions written out for them. In the Jewish community where this tas was made, however, there was a Jewish silversmith, who is known to have made this object.

Another element often included in Torah decoration is the pointer. It is called a yad, the Hebrew word for “hand.” The pointer usually hangs on a chain from the Torah staves. Because everything connected with the Torah is particularly sacred, it is considered disrespectful to touch the text when reading the passages. This is not only for reasons of respect but also because the constant touching with the finger would eventually soil the Torah and require it to be reinscribed. When not in use, the yad is hung next to the Torah shield and over the mantle.

Jews whose ancestors come from central and western Europe are known as Ashkenazim. Jews descended from the Jews who flourished throughout Spain during the Middle Ages are known as the Sephardim. In 1492, King Ferdinand (patron of Christopher Columbus) issued an edict ordering that all Jews and Muslims on the Iberian peninsula had to leave or convert to Christianity. Thousands did convert to Catholicism, of course, but hundreds of thousands emigrated to other parts of the world. A significant number of Spanish Jews settled in Turkey (Ottoman Empire) where the sultan was an enlightened ruler; they lived in harmony within the wider Muslim culture for centuries. Some who stayed in Spain continued to practice Judaism at home, while practicing Christianity in public.


Sephardic Torah Scroll

Many of the ritual objects in the Miller Museum were crafted in the Near Eastern world and reflect the Sephardic style. Among these are the Sephardic Torah scrolls which are housed differently from the Ashkenazic Torah Ark — they each have their own cabinets. Sephardic Jews, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East, still protect the Torah in a box (tik) of wood or metal. The two halves of the cylindrical box are hinged and are opened to reveal the Torah, which is read without being removed — a tradition deriving from a time when the box served as a sort of mobile home for the Torah where no synagogue was permitted to exist. Sephardic Torah scrolls are also frequently handwritten on leather as opposed to parchment, which is favored in the European world. Every character, every mark of the text of a Sephardic Torah is exactly the same as the European; their “Oriental” style is reflected in the decoration of the containers. The boxed scroll pictured, from the late 1800’s, is Syrian, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl.

The Torah remains in a scroll form because that is the way all books were put together in the Greco-Roman period, when the Torah was finally collected, written down and then promulgated. It has always been permissible to use the sacred text in a book form for purposes of study or education, but that form is considered unsuitable for synagogue use. Only the scroll written out according to tradition may be used during the synagogue service. The Museum owns several manuscripts and parts of manuscripts containing sacred writings that are or were in book form. The manuscript pictured here comes from Yemen, an area of the Saudi Arabian peninsula that had a rather large Jewish community until recent times. The Yemenite Jews were so isolated from developments elsewhere in the world that, up until about 100 years ago, they continued to inscribe all of their books by hand because they were unaware of the printing press.


The Talmud

The Talmud is the transcribing of the oral tradition that accompanied the Torah and grew up around it over many centuries; in itself it is a great storehouse of learning and instruction as well as anecdotes. Comprised of centuries of scholarly commentary on the Torah, it contains the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial traditionary law. Talmudic scholars virtually spend their lives exploring the meaning and significance of Torah and the other biblical writings that are not included in the Five Books of Moses. The constant emphasis on Torah is because the study of these Books represents the highest aspiration of the Jewish people. It has always been considered very desirable among Jews to be able to devote oneself to the study of Torah or other sacred writings.

The wooden sculpture pictured below entitled, “The Sages of Vilna,” memorializes that romantic aspect of the Jewish past — scholars from the Baltic city of Vilna studying the Holy Books. The city of Vilna, which was a part of Poland from 1922-1939 and is now part of Lithuania (known as Vilnius) was once a great center of Jewish learning and culture — before the devastation of the Holocaust. This sculpture represents men of the Vilna community devoting themselves to Torah study. Among Jews there is a technique of education in the sacred texts that involves taking very small lines of text and debating their innermost meanings and their infinite details with other people. The kind of exchange that occurs can actually escalate into shouting and passion as part of the educational process. These old men are engaged in that practice.

In the 1920s, when this sculpture was made, Vilna was still the site of a major Jewish academy of learning, but, even then, that way of life had already changed dramatically. Millions of Jews had left Eastern Europe to go the United States, Australia, Palestine and elsewhere and the traditional way of life symbolized by this sculpture had begun to break down. Only two decades after the creation of this piece, the Holocaust and the destruction of European Jewry itself would take place. Polish Vilna was the home of a great Jewish community and cultural center with a world-famous library and seminary. When the Nazis decimated Vilna, a centuries-old center of Jewish learning was destroyed.


Tzedakah Boxes

The ethical code detailed in the Talmud requires that every member of the community participate in charitable efforts. To give to charity is the moral obligation of every Jew. Charity given freely with no ulterior motive is called tzedakah (justice). Tzedakah (alms) boxes are found in most synagogues and in many Jewish homes. Traditionally, they often appeared at funerals to provide support for the family of mourners.




Prayer was always integral to Jewish worship before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 73 C.E. Afterwards, the establishment of the daily order of prayers — for the morning, afternoon and evening — is traditionally ascribed to the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The prayers and rituals of home and synagogue serve as a constant daily reminder of God’s presence. Objects associated with daily prayer include tefillin — two leather boxes (phylacteries) enclosing passages from the Torah inscribed on parchment. These boxes have leather straps that are bound by adult males on their foreheads and left arms during morning prayer, except on the Sabbath and during festivals, carrying out the biblical commandment of the Word.



Also associated with daily worship in both synagogue and home is the tallit, or prayer shawl. A tallit is worn by adult males during the morning prayer and on other special occasions. It is a four-cornered garment with fringes on each corner, knotted according to biblical prescription. (Numbers 15:37-41) In ancient times, these shawls were everyday garments; the tallit is based on a Roman garment called a pallium. The Jews made it a ritual object by attaching fringes to it, in accordance with the Psalm instructing Jews to put fringes on their garments so that they will be reminded of God’s commandments (mitzvot) when they look at them. Even the knotting system is symbolic; the fringes (tzit-tzit) are given a numerical value that, added to the numerical value that the knots represent, totals 613 — the number of positive and negative prohibitions in the Bible. The stripes are also the result of a biblical commandment, so the tallit is a heavily symbolic part of Jewish ritual tradition. In Reform synagogues, the use of the prayer shawl is usually optional, sometimes excluded. In the more traditional synagogues, it is used during prayer. Some very observant Jewish communities require that men wear the fringed prayer shawl all the time — every day.



Following the biblical commandment (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) a parchment scroll is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, usually encased in a protective cover. This object is the mezuzah (doorpost) which is inscribed with the text of the Shema, the basic precept of the Jewish religion. As a sign of devotion, a very traditional synagogue usually has a mezuzah on every doorpost except for bathrooms, closets or any other doors that might imply disrespect. Most Jewish households have only one mezzuzah — on the front doorpost.



Text of the Mezuzah Parchment

Deuteronomy 6: 4-9
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all they soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be upon thy heart. And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thy house and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of they house and upon thy gates.

Deuteronomy 11: 13-21
And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil. And I will give grass in thy fields for thy cattle and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you.

Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, talking of them, when thou sittest in they house, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the doorposts of thy house, and upon thy gates; that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which the Lord swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.


Called a siddur, this volume contains daily prayers, in contrast to the Machzor, which contains prayers for the festivals.




Also associated with the Jewish home are objects called mizrach (“East”) plaques. From the earliest times, Jewish prayer was oriented in the direction of Jerusalem. The Ark of the Torah in the synagogue is generally installed accordingly. In the home, a mizrach is placed in the living room on the eastern or mizrach wall of the house so that, during prayer, the worshipper faces Jerusalem.




“Keep the Sabbath day to sanctify it.”
(Deuteronomy 5:12)

The Sabbath (Shabbat) is called the day of delight by the prophet Isaiah (58:13). Jews observe it as a day of rest, abstaining from work; study is also a sacred duty. Shabbat lasts from twilight Friday until twilight Saturday. It is welcomed in a Jewish home by lighting candles at the Friday evening meal, toasting with wine and serving two twisted loaves of bread (challot). Regarded as a perpetual sign between God and the people of Israel, Shabbat is one of the strongest links in the chain of Jewish tradition. Adherence to the restrictions required for that day permits contemplation of how precious is an individual’s time on earth. The Sabbath is supposed to be separated in every way from the workdays of the rest of the week. The day is supposed to be given over to contemplation, prayer and rest from all work.

The Shabbat candlesticks, pictured, come from an 18th Century synagogue in Poland. The Museum also owns numerous other ritual objects connected with the celebration of Shabbat, including kiddush cups for serving wine and an 1840 tray that was used to serve the twisted or braided loaves of bread (challah). Typical of food cooked for the Sabbath meal, challah can be prepared ahead of time — the meal is cooked before the Sabbath begins — so that one does not have to violate the prohibition against work to make the meal. The holiday itself starts when the Sabbath lights are kindled by the woman of the house. It is usual to have two Sabbath lights, but any number of lights — more than one — is permitted.



“He who resides in Israel, he who teaches his children Torah and he who recites Havdalah at the conclusion of the Sabbath will enter the world to come.”

Of all Jewish holidays, Shabbat, which comes once a week, is the most important; a ceremony marks its end as well as its beginning. At sunset on Saturday a ceremony called Havdalah occurs, lasting only a few minutes. The ceremony consists of benedictions recited over wine, symbol of joy; the kindling of a candle, permitting work to resume; and the inhaling of fragrant spices, recalling the sweetness of the Sabbath. An additional benediction emphasizes the distinction between the sacred and the profane. Havdalah means “separation,” and one of the elements of separating Shabbat from the rest of the week is the smelling of the spices, symbolically absorbing the departing sweetness of Shabbat. Ritual objects associated with Havdalah include wine cups, candlesticks and spice containers (besamin) which are hollow and can be filled with cinnamon, cloves or any sweet-smelling spices.

The traditional European spice container is crafted in the shape of a spire or tower. Besamin made in Europe from about the 16th Century on were crafted by Christian smiths, who used forms familiar to them from Catholic ritual objects. There is a text from 1558 — a notation in a book by a silversmith — that says he has crafted what he calls a Jewish “monstrance.” That style reflects the Gothic architectural forms used in church ritual items of the time. Spice containers have also been made in the shape of animals, flowers, musical instruments, etc. Some take other architectural forms, often reflecting the place they have come from — like the Dutch windmill pictured to the left.


PURIM (Feast of Lots)

Purim is one of the best loved Jewish festivals. The escape of the Jews of Persia from the threat of extermination is joyously remembered with a carnival celebration, so Purim symbolizes the hope of the Jewish people for deliverance from oppression. Purim is celebrated in the synagogue by a reading aloud of the Book of Esther. The Miller Collection contains a number of Scrolls of Esther, both leather and parchment, from different parts of the world. The Scroll of Esther is also called the megillah — the story of Esther written in Hebrew. According to the megillah, at some point during the Persian period, the evil courtier Haman attempted to engineer the destruction of the Jews in Persia. The Persian King Ahasuerus seemed willing to go along with this, but, at the last minute, the plot was foiled by the King’s beautiful Jewish wife, Esther, and Haman was killed instead of the Jews.

In particular, Purim has become a children’s holiday. Whenever the name of Haman, the villain, is read out in the scroll, children stamp their feet and make noises with rattles. Children (and adults) attend the megillah reading in costume, often costumes representing the characters of the story — Esther, the King, the evil Haman — in a carnival atmosphere where games are played and special foods are eaten. Besides the megillah, another object associated with Purim is the rattle or noise-maker (gregger) that is sounded when the name of Haman is heard.


PESACH (Passover)

Probably the oldest holiday now celebrated in the world, Passover commemorates the escape of the Hebrew slaves from ancient Egypt — the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and the founding of an independent Jewish nation. In the days of the Second Temple, Passover was a major pilgrimage festival. Jews converged on Jerusalem to mark the beginning of the agricultural year. In the Diaspora, Passover is celebrated, like Shabbat, in Jewish homes. A festive meal called the seder (order) is the focal point of the week-long festival. Central to this celebration is the reading of the Haggadah — a collection of prayers, didactic quotations, biblical narrative and hymns and songs. The purpose of the Haggadah is to instruct children about the events of the Exodus.

The seder table is set with foods which symbolize the bitterness of the bondage in Egypt. Matzah (unleavened bread) is the most widely recognized of these foods. It recalls the haste with which the Jews had to leave Egypt. Other foods are: a roasted lamb bone — reminder of a Temple offering; bitter herbs (maror) — reminder of the sorrow of slavery; a mixture of nuts and fruit called haroset — symbol of the mortar used in building the pyramids. During the seder, four cups of wine are drunk, symbolizing the four promises of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7, which were realized by the departure from Egypt. A fifth cup of wine is set aside for the Prophet Elijah. It is believed that one day he will announce the arrival of the Messiah. The 19th century seder trayto the left , is from Austria.


ROSH HASHANAH (Jewish New Year)

“In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, there shall be a solemn rest for you, a sacred convocation commemorated with the blast of the ram’s horn.”
(Leviticus 23:24-25)

The Jewish New Year traditionally marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, which is believed to have occurred on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri), Rosh Hashanah begins the most solemn portion of the holiday cycle known as the “Days of Awe.” Jews consider it the time when the deeds of the past year are judged by God.

This period is also associated with the Torah portion that describes the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. The sounding of the ram’s horn (shofar) in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah recalls the substitution of the ram for Isaac. To the right, a shofar from Yemen.

The New Year is also inaugurated with a ritual in which a slice of bread or apple is dipped in honey before being eaten, symbolizing hope for a sweet year. At left is a 20th century honey container.



YOM KIPPUR (Day of Atonement)

“Mark the tenth day of the seventh month as the Day of Atonement.”
(Leviticus 23:26)

The ten “Days of Awe” conclude with Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the Jewish year. It is a day of fasting and self-denial, spent mainly in the synagogue. The prayers of the day stress the need for confession of sin. They also emphasize the joy that flows from the reliance on God’s love and mercy. Even today some traditional Jews wear a white garment while they’re in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, representing their abstention from sin as it were — their hope for redemption. Silver belt buckles like the one pictured here were used to belt the traditional white garment (kittel). They are engraved with Biblical quotes that refer to the Day of Atonement.

Today it seems strange that it was permitted to bring snuff into the synagogue on a holiday that is marked by fasting and prayer. Supposedly, it was allowed in order to give the congregant strength during the 24-hour fast and all-day synagogue services held on Yom Kippur.



SUKKOT (Feast of Tabernacles)

“And you shall dwell in booths seven days.”
(Leviticus 23:24)

Sukkot is the last of the three pilgrimage festivals associated with the Exodus from Egypt, the first two being Passover and Shavuot. A modern celebration of a traditional agricultural holiday, Sukkot recalls the tents in which the Israelites lived while they wandered in the wilderness and is marked by the building of a booth or tabernacle (sukkah). Meals are taken in the sukkah, which is reminiscent of the tabernacles that the Jews built in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. The sukkah is often decorated with fruits and vegetables and four kinds of symbolic plants are used to celebrate the richness of the harvest and of God’s earth during Sukkot services. The four species — lulav (palm), hadassim (myrtle), avaroth (willow) and etrog (citron) — symbolize the entire realm of vegetation and the types of Jews in the world. The etrog is a fruit that looks something like a lemon. Special containers are made for the storage of etrogim during this holiday.

The brass stamp to the right is the seal of a 19th century etrog seller in Jerusalem.


CHANUKAH (Festival of Lights)

“And you shall dwell in booths seven days.”
(Leviticus 23:24)

The term “anti-semitism” was coined by a German writer in 1879, in response to anti-Jewish political campaigns in Europe. Since then, it has come to represent anti-Jewish sentiment and attacks throughout history. One of the earliest recorded periods of anti-semitic actions occurred in Palestine during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.). The end result of forays against the Jews by the Seleucid Greeks was the revolt of the Maccabees, now remembered each year during the festival of Chanukah. This winter festival of lights is celebrated by the lighting of lamps for a period of eight days; one light is kindled on each day of the holiday season. For that reason Chanukah lamps have eight receptacles.

Originally, this festival was not connected to the number eight. During the late Roman period, after the ceremony of the lights had been celebrated for centuries, a legend developed maintaining that, after the Jews reconquered Jerusalem, they cleansed and rededicated the Temple and, although they ground only enough sacred oil to burn in the synagogue lamp for one day, it miraculously burned for eight.

Eight lights are meant to commemorate the deliverance of Jerusalem, and then Palestine, from the Assyrian Greeks by Jewish partisans fighting with Judah Maccabee and his sons. The Chanukah ritual remains a continuing symbol of hope and promise for the ultimate security of the Jewish people.

The Chanukah lamp is a menorah with eight branches for candles or containers for burning oil. From both Jewish and Roman chronicles (of the time and afterwards) we know that the candle holder or lampstand in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem had this general appearance, but it had seven branches. Since that time, the seven-branched candlestand, or menorah, has been a typical Jewish symbol, a recurring image in Jewish tradition.

The eight-branched candelabra used for the ritual lighting of candles on each of the eight nights of Chanukah is called a chanukiah. One of the most widely recognized forms of Judaica, the chanukiah has apertures for each day of the festival. A ninth light, the servant (shammash) does the work of lighting because the other lights cannot be used for any type of labor.

Two styles of chanukiot are common: the benchform type, which has a back wall which protected curtains when it was kindled in a window; and the menorah style, which recalls the seven-branched candelabra found in the Temple. Menorah types like the one above became popular in 18th Century Europe. Eastern chanukiot in the Miller Museum Collection include simple stone lamps from Yemen, metalwork lamps from North Africa and hanging lamps from Iraq, Iran and India.

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