Tag Archives: circumcision

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) []: Made for David b. Yonah (Bechhofen, Germany, 1742)

Wimpel (Torah Binder) []: 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: