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Parokhet and Kapporet

PAROKHET AND KAPPORET (Torah Ark curtain and valance). The Torah Ark curtain is a screen hanging over the Torah Ark which serves as a partition between the Ark and the prayer hall. The Hebrew term parokhet is based on its identification with the curtain, parokhet, which separated the holy section of the Tabernacle and the Temple from the Holy of Holies (Ex. 26:31–35; 40:21). This identification is based on the concept of the synagogue as a "lesser sanctuary" (Ezek. 11:16). According to the available literary and visual sources, the curtain became a fixture in Ashkenazi and Italian synagogues during the Middle Ages. We have no information about the existence of Torah Ark curtains in communities outside Europe until the 20th century. According to the literary and visual material from Spain, it seems that the outer curtain was not customary in Spanish communities. On the other hand, they did apparently use an inner curtain, as evidenced by the presence of an inner curtain in all Sephardi Diaspora communities. In Italy all arks have inner curtains, whereas an outer curtain is present only in some communities – perhaps out of reluctance to hide the ornate doors. Since the curtain serves as a cover for the Ark, its position within the hierarchy of ceremonial objects is that of a "secondary" ceremonial object. Only when the need arises to use it as a covering for the bimah, that is, as the cloth on which the Torah itself is rested, does it become a primary ceremonial object, requiring genizah.

Like other ceremonial objects in the synagogue, the Torah Ark curtain is usually donated by individual members of the congregation, frequently to commemorate life-cycle events. This has engendered the custom of embroidering the name of the donor and the occasion of the donation directly on the curtain or on an attached piece of cloth. In the 20th century, dedicatory plaques of beaten silver appeared in Iraq.

The traditional design of the Torah Ark curtain varies from community to community. In most, the curtain was made of a choice fabric according to the local cultural conception. In most communities a luxurious fabric, which had previously been in the family's possession, was used, and a common practice was specifically to use a costly piece of woman's clothing. The typical curtain in Iraq was made from the izar, the upper veil worn by a woman when she leaves her house. Torah Ark curtains in the communities of Iran and Afghanistan were principally made of suzani embroidered sheets, and in Iran a tradition also developed of using paisley-printed cotton material with Hebrew inscriptions.

Yemeni Torah Ark curtains were designed, as were covers for the tevah and for Torah scroll cases, in the form of a large sheet in the center surrounded by a broad patchwork frame with a chessboard pattern. In the Sephardi communities of the Ottoman Empire it became customary to make Torah Ark curtains from silk velvet with gold embroidery, or from women's dresses, also of silk-embroidered velvet. In such cases the different parts of the dress were disassembled and re-sewn in order to create a rectangle.

It appears that neither in the eastern communities nor in the Sephardi Diaspora did this custom arouse opposition on the part of the rabbis. European rabbis, however, differed regarding the fashioning of Torah Ark curtains from used material, especially from clothing in general and from women's clothing in particular. The circumstances under which pieces of clothing were used generally involved vows taken by women in times of stress, or used elegant clothing purchased for reuse of the cloth. Rabbinical objections to the practice abound in the responsa literature, where we find repeated questions on this subject. Those objecting to the reuse of fabrics relied on the law that the Temple utensils must be made of new material, which was not previously used (Men. 22a). The more permissive rabbis, who were willing to take popular feeling into consideration, cited midrashic commentaries on the episode of the copper mirrors donated by the women of Israel for the Tabernacle (Midrash Tanhḥuma, Pekudei 9). According to this interpretation, it is permitted to use a piece of clothing, provided its form is changed.

Alongside curtains of costly materials, European communities began to use embroidered Torah Ark curtains. In Italy, a center of the art of embroidery, many communities traditionally embroidered curtains using the Florentine stitch technique, which is particularly conducive to the execution of detailed and precise patterns. Community women used it to embroider a variety of Jewish motifs, including biblical themes, such as the Giving of the Torah, and scenes from calendar and life-cycle events.

An entirely different embroidery tradition developed in the communities of central and western Europe, where there were professional embroiderers who specialized in gold embroidery on a silk velvet background. The most outstanding motif of the 18th-century Torah ark curtain in these communities is that of a pair of columns, topped by a pair of lions flanking a Torah crown. Between the two columns is an ornate sewn or embroidered rectangular sheet. This motif dates back to the earlier architectonic motif of an actual gate, above which is the verse that identifies it as the gateway to heaven: "This is the gateway to the Lord – the righteous shall enter through it" (Ps. 118:20). Underlying the depiction of this motif on Torah Ark curtains is the identification of the Torah Ark with the "gateway to heaven." Originally found in Italy, the motif spread eastward to Turkey, northward to Bohemia and Moravia, and westward to Germany.

The Torah Ark valance (Heb. kapporet) is a short curtain hung on the Torah Ark, above the curtain (parokhet). This ceremonial object, which first appeared in eastern Europe at the end of the 17th century, evolved in connection with the identification of the Torah Ark in the synagogue with the *Ark of the Covenant, and of the upper part with the kapporet on the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle (Ex. 25:21). Accordingly, it was customary in eastern Europe to inscribe the verse "He made a cover of pure gold" (Ex. 37:6) on the upper part of the Ark. The identification then came to be applied to the short curtain hung over the upper part of the Ark to conceal the rod on which the main curtain (the parokhet) was mounted. Indeed, we find the verse "Place the cover (kapporet) upon the Ark of the Covenant" (Ex. 26:34) embroidered on early Torah Ark valances. As part of the synagogue furnishings, the valance was probably introduced under the influence of 17th-century interior decoration in Europe, where such valances were integral parts of curtains in general. Further influence of the cultural environment is evident in the scalloped lower edge of the valance.

The identification of the valance hung on the Torah Ark with the gold cover on the Ark of the Covenant is also evident in the motifs used in its decoration. Thus, most early valances employ the motif of a pair of cherubim flanking a Torah Crown, as per the biblical description of two golden cherubs with outspread wings mounted on the ends of the cover (Ex. 37:7–9). The depiction of the cherubim as a pair of eagles, lions, or griffons is based on the traditional interpretation of the creatures figuring in Ezekiel's Vision of the Chariot (Ezek. 1:5; 10:14–15). Another characteristic motif of the valance is the Tabernacle utensils embroidered on the scalloped edges. The Ark of the Covenant is embroidered on the central scallop below the Torah crown; the showbread table and the seven-branched candelabra are generally embroidered on matching scallops on either side of the central one, as are the golden altar and sacrificial altar on another pair of matching scallops. Later an additional motif, the motif of "three crowns" (Pirkei Avot 4:13) appeared in the upper part of the Torah Ark valance.

The Torah Ark valance spread from eastern Europe to central and western Europe (but not to the Italian communities), and by the beginning of the 18th century it had already become common. In most instances, valances were donated separately from the Torah Ark curtain. During the 18th century, a workshop in Prague specialized in the embroidery of Torah Ark valances. A unique feature of the Prague valances is the addition of a pair of freestanding wings attached to the upper part of the Torah Ark on either side of the valance. These wings were fashioned from rigid materials and covered with an embroidered cloth. German valances are more varied than those from Prague, displaying a richer vocabulary of iconographic motifs.

In eastern Europe, where Torah Arks typically show greater iconographic variety, the motifs on the valance disappeared in the course of the 18th century, most of the valances known from this area being made of patterned fabrics without embroidered motifs or inscriptions. In contrast, in central and western Europe, velvet valances with motifs and dedicatory inscriptions in rich gold embroidery continued to be fashioned up to the 20th century. The existence of valances in distant communities at the beginning of the 20th century, and even in our time, is evidence of the influence of the European valances.


D. Cassuto, "A Venetian Parokhet and its Design Origins," in: Jewish Art, 14 (1988), 35–43; J. Gutmann, "An Eighteenth-Century Prague Jewish Workshop of Kapporot," Visible Religion, 6 (1988), 180–90; F. Landsberger, "Old-Time Torah Curtains," in: J. Gutmann (ed.), Beauty in Holiness, Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art (1970), 125–63; V.B. Mann, "Jewish-Muslim Acculturation in the Ottoman Empire: The Evidence of Ceremonial Art," in: A. Levy (ed.), The Jews of the Ottoman Empire (1994); B.Yaniv, "The Origin of 'The Two-Column Motif ' in European Parokhot," in: Jewish Art, 15 (1989), 26–43; idem, "The Cherubim on Torah Ark Valances," in: Assaph, 4 (1999), 155–70.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.