Due to the partial prohibition of plastic arts (see *Art), Jews found an outlet for their artistic abilities in the synagogue and in producing ceremonial objects. The high regard in which the fashioners of religious art were held is evident from the biblical description of *Bezalel as being filled "with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship" (Ex. 31:3). The rabbis, commenting upon the verse, "This is my God and I will adorn him" (Ex. 15:2), declare it meritorious to observe the precepts with attractive objects such as "a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful fringes, and a beautiful Scroll of the Law" (Shab. 133b). Such an interpretation imposes upon the Jew the necessity of utilizing aesthetically pleasing appurtenances in the performance of his religious duties. The ceremonial objects of the Jews are used in religious worship in the synagogue and home, on the Sabbath and festivals, and in observance of the life cycle. The focal object in Jewish worship is the Torah Scroll (*Sefer Torah) and ritual art in the synagogue centers around it. Since the scroll itself may not be directly touched by the bare hand (Shab. 14a), it became customary in oriental communities to enclose the scroll in an ornamental case (tik). These cases are usually of wood, often decorated with metal inscriptions, but are occasionally of silver, and sometimes even gold. In other communities, the Torah scroll is wrapped in a mantle. Before the mantle is placed on the Torah, the scroll is fastened together by a long strip of material or "binder." In Germany, it became customary for the mother to fashion a binder, termed "Wimpel," for the scroll from the piece of linen used on the occasion of her son's circumcision. The child presented it to the synagogue on his first visit, and it usually was embroidered and inscribed with a blessing for him.
Torah-crowns (keter) or finials (rimmonim) are placed on top of the staves of the Torah. These are usually decorated with bells whose chime symbolizes both the joy of the Torah and the bells which were attached to the robe of the high priest (Ex. 28:31–35). The Torah is also adorned with a breastplate which often contains semi-precious stones. To obviate the touching of the sacred text by hand when reading from it, a pointer is provided. In most countries the form ultimately developed for this was a rod terminating in a hand with an outstretched forefinger. It is therefore generally termed *yad ("hand"). The Torah is often housed in a specially built and elaborately decorated *Ark of the Law, placed on the eastern wall of the synagogue. It is popularly known as the "aron ha-kodesh" or
Ceremonial objects were not restricted to the Jewish holidays, but were also created for other important events in the life cycle of Jews. A beautifully carved chair or bench, known as the "chair or throne of *Elijah," was used at the circumcision ceremony since the prophet Elijah traditionally attends this ritual. Even the circumcision instruments themselves have been embellished, the knives sometimes having on their handles scenes from the life of Abraham, the sacrifice of Isaac, or simply representation of a circumcision scene. Since ancient times the bride has been adorned on her wedding day. In some communities, she wore a crown, diadem, or wreath on her head, as is still customary in Oriental Jewish communities. The ḥuppah ("canopy") used for the wedding ceremony has also been richly decorated, and the rings given by the groom to the bride were occasionally adorned with filigree and enamel decorations. Sometimes they were inscribed with the words mazzal tov ("good luck") and were crowned by a house which symbolized at the same time the Temple and the future home.
Most Jewish communities possess an organization known as the *ḥevra kaddisha which is responsible for the burial of the dead. Generally, once a year, often on the legendary anniversary of the death of Moses (Adar 7), the members of the ḥevra kaddisha observe a special day of fasting and the recitation of penitential prayers. The day is concluded with a banquet for which large wine beakers were made. These wine beakers, made of glass, frequently were decorated with scenes of the society carrying out its pious work. Large silver beakers were sometimes engraved with the names of the members of the society. To remind a Jew of his daily ritual obligations, he was commanded to affix a *mezuzah to the doorposts of his home (Deut. 6:9). These have been fashioned from precious metals and wood in innumerable designs and figurations. On the wall of the home, it became customary to hang a *mizraḥ (east)-tablet to indicate the direction which should be faced when praying. These tablets were often painted with biblical and holiday scenes. Sometimes they were decorated with the verse, "From the rising of the sun unto the going down thereof the Lord's name is to be praised" (Ps. 113:3).
The earliest known collector of Jewish ritual art was the court Jew Alexander David (1687–1765), whose collection was later housed in the synagogue which he built in Brunswick, Germany. After 1850 such collections began to be assembled more widely and systematically. One of the most important was that of Joseph Strauss, the musician and conductor, which was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition, Paris, in 1878, and at the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, London, in 1887. Subsequently, the collection was acquired by Baron Nathaniel de *Rothschild who presented it to the Musée de Cluny in Paris, where it was on exhibit for some time. In England, Philip Salomons (1796–1867), the brother of Sir David *Salomons, gathered some outstanding pieces of liturgical silver for use in his private synagogue in Brighton. They were later acquired by Reuben *Sassoon, in whose extensive family collection these
In about 1890 Ephraim Benguiat brought from Smyrna to the United States an uneven collection, which, however, included some fine pieces. Benguiat's collection was exhibited at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, during 1892 and 1893. After his death it was placed with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Cyrus *Adler and I.M. Casanowicz cataloged the collection in 1901. In 1925 it was acquired for the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and comprised the nucleus of the exhibits at the Jewish Museum in New York during the 1930s. The greatest benefactor of the Jewish Museum was Harry G. Friedman (1882–1965), who responded to the museum's requirements with large-scale yet discriminating purchases. In 1941 he made an initial gift of 850 objets d'art. Subsequently, his gifts totaled 5,000 objects, amounting to about 50 percent of the museum's holdings. The remarkable medal collection of Samuel *Friedenberg also went – in 1960 – to the Jewish Museum. Another American collector of renown was Michael Zagayski (1895–1964) who, after having lost all he owned when the Germans occupied Warsaw in 1939, built an unrivaled collection anew in the United States. This collection, which comprised mostly ritual silver, was dispersed at Parke-Bernet auctions held from 1955 to 1968. Another American collection is the small but exquisite one of Judge Irving L. *Lehman, which on his death passed to Congregation Emanu-El in New York City, where it is now displayed. Other important U.S. collectors include Joseph B. Horwitz of Cleveland, S.B. Harrison of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, and Charles E. Feinberg (d. 1988) of Detroit, whose collection was dispersed in 1967. The S. Salomon collection, formerly in Paris and London, was sold in New York City in 1949. This collection formed the basis for the illustrations in H. Guttmann's Hebraica, Documents d'art juif (1930). By the late 1960s, the collection of Jewish ritual objects had become more widespread than in any former period, particularly in the United States. In addition, there sprang up commercial collectors, who from time to time put their acquisitions up for sale. At present, authentic 15th-century Jewish ceremonial objects are difficult to find, 17th- and 18th-century objects are rare, and good 19th-century pieces are snatched up. And with the various Jewish museums competing for the finest specimens, it is virtually impossible now to build up private collections on a level with those of the past.
J. Gutmann, Jewish Ceremonial Art (1964); Roth, Art, 308–50; Mayer, Art, index, S.V. Collections.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.