Category Archives: material culture

Reading Ritual Objects: Torah Binders & the Jewish Life Cycle

This week’s topic is co-territoriality, a concept that anthropologists use when they discuss the sharing of cultural materials by different (ethnic, religious) groups within the same territory or region.

I find it interesting that, in considering Jewish ritual, co-territoriality can be best studied when we confront the Life Cycle, or the series of para-liturgical events that mark the life of individuals (and their families and groups) from birth to death. These include prominently the ritual circumcision (or brit mila; or, in Yiddish-influenced American English, bris), religious majority (Bar and Bat Mitzvah), and wedding ceremonies.

One of the essays we are using in our seminar (Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, “‘May He Grow to the Torah…’: The Iconography of Torah Reading and Bar Mitzvah on Ashkenazi Torah Binders,” in Langer and Fine eds. Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue, 2005: 161-176), presents us with the unique opportunity to build enough background information to conduct a study of the Ashkenazi Torah binders in The Magnes Collection.

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [67.1.21.17]: Made for David b. Yonah (Bechhofen, Germany, 1742)

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [67.1.21.17]: Made for David b. Yonah (Bechhofen, Germany, 1742), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The boy for whom this textile was created was born in the month of Sivan in the Jewish calendar, under the sign of Gemini, which are depicted in the detail above, along with the Hebrew inscription מזל תאמים (mazal teumim, or the Gemini constellation).

"Lilienthal" Wimpel (Torah Binder) (Germany, 1814) [80.83_03]

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [80.83]: “Lilienthal” Wimpel [Torah Binder made from Circumcision Cloth] (Munich, Germany, 1814), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. Textile commissioned by the Lilienthal family of Munich, Germany, in honor of their son, Menachem Mendel (later Rabbi Max) Lilienthal (1814-1882), to an embroiderer named Koppel Heller. The detail highlights three moments in the Life Cycle. From right to left: childhood (with a rare depiction of a young boy in a walker), religious majority (with a depiction of the ritual of “lifting the Torah” (Heb. hagbahah) before the congregation), and marriage (with the depiction of a couple standing under a wedding canopy; Heb. chupah).

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [88.0.14] (Rodalben, Germany, 1922)

Wimpel (Torah Binder) [88.0.14] (Rodalben, Germany, 1922), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The full name of the newborn boy for whom the textile was created appears in Hebrew (in painted Hebrew script) as Yosef bar Henekh, and, below, in smaller characters, in German as Joseph Jesias Koch.

A “Torah binder” is a Jewish ceremonial textile used to keep a Torah (Hebrew Bible) scroll closed tightly when it is not being used for synagogue reading. In some Ashkenazi Jewish communities, predominantly in Germany, Alsace and Denmark, Torah binders were made from the linen or cotton cloth used to cover new-born males during the Circumcision ceremony (brit milah). This kind of Torah binder, also known as wimpel, would be used to bind a Torah scroll once the child became bar mitzvah, and later again on the occasion of his wedding. The Magnes collection includes over a hundred examples of wimpel, most of them from Germany.

The wimpel, a ritual object that physically represents the ties between personal and family rituals on the one hand (the Life Cycle, beginning with the Circumcision), and synagogue and communal life on the other (Torah reading), is today a source of often unique biographical (and genealogical) information about the development of Jewish communities that have long disappeared.

The diverse decorative motifs and the varying quality of the textiles used in the embroideries offer precious insights in reconstructing the social history of the communities of origin, the dynamics of gender roles and relations, the financial status of the families that made them or had them made, as well as the overarching aesthetics that governed their production.

Below is a template that allows to detect, read and interpret the salient elements that compose a wimpel: 

Handle With Care: Performing Texts While Holding Delicate/Precious Ritual Objects

During the past two weeks, Performing Texts has been busy studying ritual objects, their function and their use in synagogue life.

As Vivan Mann writes, Jewish ritual objects:

fulfill  functions mandated by Judaism’s obligatory ritual practices, [but] their forms and decoration often are drawn from those of the surrounding cultures in which Jewish communities have lived. As a result, although the function of a ceremonial object made in a particular cultural area will be identical to one created within another culture, and while they may share a common vocabulary of symbols, their shape, techniques, and decorative motifs will differ. Therefore, a work of Jewish art or material culture must always be studied within two frames of reference: its place within the practice of Judaism, and its relationship to the art and material culture of its place of origin. (“Art and Material Culture of Judaism” in the Encyclopedia of Judaism, see the syllabus for a full reference).

Many of the examples we used to discuss this eminently multi-disciplinary topic came from the holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life (online database available here), as well as other cultural heritage collections. We have also used YouTube to see how objects (and the gestures that accompany them) are handled in “real life” performance settings. But museum collections seemed like an obvious go-to place to enhance the discussion.

We often see beautiful ritual objects in museum settings. They are kept with extreme care, and displayed with all the necessary precautions.

Lamp [83.46]: Oil lamp for Hanukkah (Morocco, late 19th century)

Lamp [83.46]: Oil lamp for Hanukkah (Morocco, late 19th century), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

 This is what cultural heritage collections do, and at The Magnes we pride ourselves of doing it very well. We take care of allobjects in our collection and we ensure that they are preserved “in perpetuity.” Whether they are indeed “beautiful” is not a primary concern, of course, and we are interested in display any item in the collection if the interest arises.

Tallit Bag, Morocco, ca. 1901-1930

Tallit Bag [75.183.142]: Bag for Yehudah bar Avraham Albo (Morocco, ca. 1901-1930), , The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

However, some objects are obviously more delicate than others, and need to be handled with extra care. I’ve often heard my registrar colleagues refer to “TLC” in such cases. Brittle paper, parchment, delicate glass, silver objects with tiny little movable parts… Not only all inherently fragile (and old) objects, but anything that “moves,” really, has the potential of breaking. And we cannot allow ourselves to risk breaking anything in the collection.

This necessary attitude towards collection items blends conflicting approaches:  curating with cherishing,  intellectual appreciation with pragmatic object handling guidelines, and emotional attachment with physical detachment. And it is not just an attitude towards the “past,” but rather towards the immediate presence of the (cultural) past.

As a student and an observer of Jewish liturgy and synagogue life, I often wonder about the difference of attitude towards Jewish ritual objects I witness in the “field.” Torah scrolls are meant to be rolled and unrolled, and lifted and raised, and carried around. And their embroidered covers are put on and taken off in a haste, to keep up with the pace of the liturgy and the rhythm of synagogue song. Torah arks are opened, and closed, and opened and closed again and again. And the beautiful curtains that cover them are pulled back and forth, from side to side. Silver cups are filled with wine (or grape juice, which is even stickier), lifted, drank from. Prayer books are leafed through, left open on a synagogue seat while performing other ritual duties. Passover Haggadah books are read during a meal, and are often stained with wine and food. And so on. Actual Jewish life is a museum curator’s nightmare. Or, is it?

I’ve often encountered the idea that the museum world and real life have opposite and conflicting attitudes towards cultural objects. But, in studying Jewish liturgical performance, I am no longer so sure that this paradigm always holds true.

In “actual Jewish life” we also come across special and delicate objects. Ancient prayer books and scrolls, often passed down from generation to generation within a family, are a well-known example. When used in the context of synagogue life, they often generate the “wow” effect of a Stradivari on the concert stage. They are the object of widespread admiration, and they are definitely handled with care. Perhaps not with white cotton gloves, as is the case of museum holdings, but definitely with TLC…

Manuscript [2012.2.1]: Decorated Esther Scroll (Salonika, 18th cent.)

Manuscript [2012.2.1]: Decorated Esther Scroll (Salonika, 18th cent.), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley. The Magnes recently acquired this manuscript as a gift from Prof. Guy Benveniste (UC Berkeley). It remained in the Benveniste family of Salonika, Greece, for two centuries.

Some of these fragile ritual objects can be very precious, and have great monetary value. Just like some of the objects in museum collections.

A type ritual object that epitomizes the notions of preciousness and fragility is the etrog container.

Etrog Container [76.272.2], 1849-1850 (front view)

Etrog Container [76.272.2], (1849-1850), The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, UC Berkeley

These containers, often in the shape of a box, are not only typically precious in their own right, but they are also designed to contain inherently precious (as in rare, and costly) objects: the citrus fruits that are counted as part of the “four species” used (waived, actually) during the liturgy of Sukkot (or Tabernacles; see notes about our recent Sukkot field trip here).

Following rabbinic interpretations (based on the Mishnah and the Talmud, Sukkah), the “Four Species” (a date palm frond, myrtle and willow branches, and an etrog) are typically acquired during the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and, when not locally grown, are often ordered months in advance.

Citrus fruits used on Sukkot are particularly rare items, found in limited quantities on the banks of the Mediterranean, and need to be especially grown, selected, ordered, and exported in time for the beginning of the Festival. At the end of the festival, the fruits are used in culinary recipes, or for their aromatic scent, according to customs that vary throughout the Jewish Diaspora.

Containers have been created throughout the Jewish Diaspora to house one’s etrog for the eight days of the duration of the Festival, so that the fruit can be kept safe when not in use, and thus remain unblemished and usable for ritual purposes. Their shape and materials vary greatly. On occasion, the containers bear inscriptions (generally in Hebrew), including the word etrog and the phrase peri etz hadar (Heb. פרי עץ הדר, “fruit of a beautiful tree,”), derived from Leviticus 23:40. (You can read the rest of my blog post on etrog containers here).

What is interesting to me in the context of ritual performance, is that these containers are not only designed to hold precious and delicate objects: they often are themselves precious and delicate objects. And, when used (I’ve seen some beautiful silver ones used in synagogues in Italy), they are handled with extreme care by their owners. A type of care that is not unlike that applied in a museum context.

Even though most ritual objects are supposed to be created to fulfill a function(see V. Mann above), and thus to be used in the context of ritual performance,  it is their form that bears a direct impact on their use. This is the case of fragile and precious ritual objects described above. Function and form, therefore, may not be the sole categories that allow us to frame the study of Jewish ritual objects. The examination of their performative use may also  yield fruitful  insights on the relationship between ritual and material culture.

A few simple questions then arise while considering ritual objects.

  1. What are the repertoires of materials and forms associated with each specific ritual functions?
  2. Who is allowed to use which ritual objects? (And who isn’t?)
  3. How is the material and form impacting the use of ritual objects? Does the way their users handle them in the course of ritual performance have an impact on the ritual itself?
  4. How is the relationship between form and use negotiated in the course of ritual performance? Is the form of a given object facilitating the performance, or not, or is it “neutral”?

These questions are quite similar to those that we explored in class in relation to the performative dynamics of music in the context of Jewish liturgy.