Tag Archives: ritual

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.

Studying (and Teaching) Piyyut in the Age of Social Media

This week we discuss both the general lines of the historical development of Jewish liturgy, and the history of its study in modern times.

And yes, rest assured that we do put “liturgy” between quotation marks, as we evaluate the relevance and value of this term and its original etymological implications, both in the democratic system of the Greek polis (very important in our upcoming examination of the political aspects of synagogue life), and in the varying dimensions of Christianity. We also touch upon the related notion of “ritual” in anthropology, as well as in everyday life (and perhaps even the reasons why “ritual” is often perceived as sexy, but liturgy certainly isn’t, in common knowledge and in popular culture).

We discuss as well the meaning of core Hebrew words/concepts related to liturgy, especially ‘avodah (“service”), tefilah (“prayer”), and minhag [ha-maqom] (“[local] liturgical custom”). But also piyyut (aka “Hebrew liturgical poetry,” probably from the Greek, poieo, a much celebrated verb that indicates poetical creativity).

In doing all of this, we confront both history and historiography. On the one hand, we discuss the development of liturgy from the Temple into the Synagogue, from Palestine to Babylon (and back), and then, of course, the myriad of differentiations across the global Jewish Diaspora. On the other, we face the evolving reasons that brought scholars of different cultural (and religious) backgrounds to engage with the study of Jewish liturgy, from the Rabbis of the Talmudic era to the Christian Hebraists of the European Renaissance and their Jewish Kabbalist counterparts, the 19th-century “scientists of Judaism” (from Samuel David Luzzatto in Italy to Leopold Zunz in Germany), and 20th-century scholars like Abraham Zvi Idelsoh and Ismar Elbogen (followed by many others!), on whose shoulders we all timidly stand today.

But then, looking around our very own digital courtyard, we cannot but mention the pivotal role of an independent Israeli website (hosted by the servers of the Hebrew University), oddly named piyut.org.il. The brainchild of a handful of highly creative Israeli cultural operators–among whom stands out a musician, Yair Harel (see my post on Harel in musicinisrael)– the piyyut website has created a stunning database of Hebrew poetical texts and their scrumptiously diverse musical renditions across the global Diaspora.

See for example a selection of twelve most representative Hebrew liturgical poems from the piyyut website here.

In a few years, this site has perhaps done more to spread knowledge and awareness about one of the most fertile aspects of Jewish life, culture and creativity, than most realize. It certainly banks on the scholarship of others (but not enough, and its interpretive materials could certainly be improved) and on the thorough work of musical documentation carried out since 1964 by Israel’s National Sound Archives (a gem of an institution in its own right; see a related post here). But it adds something more, and perhaps more valuable. I am not referring only to the real or perceived immediacy afforded by the Internet and especially its social media aspects. I am specifically pointing to the collective mind that the site fosters, and to the resulting collaborative practice it generates, a practice that allows repositories of cultural heritage, individual culture bearers (synagogue cantors and others), scholars, poets, and artists, to seamlessly share global knowledge about an exciting, albeit seldom recognized as such beyond select scholarly circles, global cultural phenomenon.

A Prayer is a Prayer is Prayer (A New Gallery Show in Chelsea)

Andrea Popowich Meislin is an art historian, writer, and independent curator. She was formerly the associate curator of photography at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem), and an independent research associate at the Phoenix Art Museum. Meislin has organized museum and gallery exhibitions, and cataloged numerous significant private collections.

Andrea Meislin’s new gallery space is about to open with a group show featuring nineteen artists whose photographs capture Christian, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists practicing rituals of prayer across the world — including in China, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Ukraine, and the US.

Read the full press release below, and do take a look at the exhibition website. It may be an additional resource for us to focus on the relationship, and the distinctions, between liturgy and ritual (which, incidentally, is our goal for next week).

History, Ethnography and Synagogue Life

Our readings this week are split on two separate (but hopefully converging) “fronts.”

Lee I. Levine is a historian and archeologist. His book on The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years constitues a phenomenal attempt to bridge several fields, from archeology to philology to anthropology, in order to reconstruct the genesis of the establishment of the synagogue as a foundational institution in Jewish life. In the Introduction (p. 2), we read about how the synagogue, since its inception in the early centuries of the common era, was a revolutionary institution when compared to the Jerusalem Temple, in at least four ways:

1. Location. The synagogue was universal in nature. Not confined to any one site, as was the ‘‘official’’ sacrificial ritual of the post-Josianic era, the synagogue enabled Jews to organize their communal life and worship anywhere.
2. Leadership. The functionaries of the synagogue were not restricted to a single caste or socio-religious group. In principle, anyone could head the institution. Priests may have played a central role in its religious affairs as well, owing to their knowledge and experience in liturgical matters and not necessarily because of their priestly lineage per se. Synagogue leadership was— in theory, at least— open and democratic (in certain functions and places, regarding women as well).
3. Participation. In addition to the communal dimension, the congregation was directly involved in all aspects of synagogue ritual, be it scriptural readings or prayer service. This stands in sharp contrast to the Jerusalem Temple setting, where people entering the sacred precincts remained passive and might never have even witnessed the sacrificial proceedings personally unless they themselves were offering a sacrifice. In many cases, visitors to the Temple remained in the Women’s Court without being able to view what was transpiring in the inner Israelite or Priestly Courts. Moreover, non-Jews were explicitly banned from the Temple precincts under penalty of death (warning inscriptions were set up around the sacred precincts), whereas the synagogue was open to all; in many places, particularly in the Diaspora, non-Jews attended the synagogue regularly and in significant numbers.
4. Worship. Perhaps the most distinct aspect of the synagogue was that it provided a context in which a different form of worship other than that of the Jerusalem Temple developed. Over the course of Late Antiquity, the synagogue came to embrace a wide range of religious activities, including scriptural readings, communal prayers, hymns, targum, sermons, and piyyut. Instead of the silence that characterized the Temple’s sacrificial cult, the synagogue placed a premium on public recitation— communal prayer, as well as the reading, translation, and exposition of sacred texts.

Levine’s study moves on to examine archeological evidence and literary sources about the historical development of the synagogue in ancient Palestine (emerged primarily through excavations in the State of Israel) and the Diaspora. It then focuses on the ancient synagogue as an institution, isolating the following aspects (all reflected in dedicated chapters):

  1. Architectural buildings
  2. Communal dynamics
  3. Leadership
  4. Rabbinic involvement
  5. Women
  6. Priests
  7. Liturgy

Samuel Heilman based his study on Synagogue Life on a participant-observer approach that combines “the ethnographic approach, which in its description embodies explanation, with the sociological one, which tends toward analytic generalization.” His research was based on a year-long fieldwork process, during which he assiduously frequented a “modern-Orthodox” synagogue in Queens, NY (which in the book he calls “Kehillat Kodesh,” or Holy Community, an alias designed to preserve the anonymity of the congregation and its members), describing what he experienced there according to a specific point of view.

Heilman considers synagogue life as “the interaction generated within and by the members of [a] synagogue.” (Incidentally, in the book he refers to the synagogue with a Yiddish term, shul, that is popular among Ashkenazi Jews in the United States). Synagogues offer a specific “setting” for the interaction among individuals who, in the context of daily worship, study and assembly, fulfill definite symbolic roles, acting within a space of “institutional sanctity.”

The symbolic roles are outlined by Heilman as those of a predefined “cast of characters.” The theatrical and performative connotations of this approach are obvious, and inspiring in many a way. The characters that act on the stage of synagogue life include:

  1. males and females
  2. the gabbai (a dispenser of “kibbudim,” or ritual honors)
  3. the synagogue’s lay leadership (the “President”)
  4. the chazan (cantor)
  5. the “quasi-chazan” (a figure that stands in a dynamic relationship
  6. with the cantor)
  7. chiyuv and yartsayt (those whose presence at services is mandatory)
  8. rabbinic authority
  9. strangers and guests
  10. mendicants, beggars, shnorrers and meshulachim
  11. children

Both scholars adopted an inter-disciplinary approach to study synagogues and synagogue life. History and archeology, sociology and ethnography are all at play in describing this extremely dense aspect of culture. Comparing Levine’s study with Heilman’s is also useful in identifying some elements of continuity in the development of synagogue life after its “first 1,000 years.” We are thus keeping their respective efforts, and the lists of categories we can derive from them, in mind while continuing our study.

In the exhibition, Case Study No. 2: The Inventory Project, which opened yesterday at The Magnes, there are several items that illustrate some of the dynamics of synagogue life highlighted by both Levine and Heilman. You may want to single them out on your own. (I Spy-style hints: a textile with the names of a man and a woman; a synagogue seating chart; a list of the value of ritual honors; a schedule of liturgical services; a reminder of yartsayt dates; and more…).