Torah Ornaments

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The sacred and ceremonial objects in the synagogue revolve around the Torah scroll. These objects differ from one place to another and not every object exists in every community.

Storage of the Torah Scroll

The length of cloth known in Hebrew as the mitpaḥat (plural mitpaḥot) is the earliest known means for storage of the Torah scroll. The mitpahḥat, also known in the sources as mappah, is mentioned in the Mishnah and in the Tosefta and later in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (Mishnah, Kel. 28:4, Meg. 4:1, Kil. 9:3; Tosef. bm 9:5; tj, Ber. 6:4; tb, Meg. 26b, etc.). It is known from these sources that in ancient times woolen or linen mitpaḥot were used, sometimes with colorful stripes woven in; some were provided with bells. It is also known from Greek and Latin literature that in the ancient Middle East important scrolls were regularly wrapped in cloth. In time, the Jewish communities of the East Mediterranean Basin, as well as the Eastern communities, began to keep their Torah scrolls in special cases. Such cases were common in the classical world; they are referred to as theca in Greek or capsa in Latin. Archaeological finds from all parts of the Roman Empire attest to the shape of the case: a cylindrical or prism-shaped container used to carry various objects, including scrolls. Used in the Jewish world to carry Torah scrolls, such cases eventually became the main permanent receptacle for Torah scrolls in the communities of the East and the East Mediterranean Basin.

Torah Case and Mitpaḥat

The case is a small wooden cabinet, either cylindrical or prism-shaped with eight, ten, or twelve faces in two parts that open lengthwise. There are three main types of case: the flat-topped case used in Yemen, Cochin, Eastern Iran, and Afghanistan; the case with a circular or onion-shaped crown used in the Babylonian communities, i.e., Iraq and Western Iran; and the case with a coronet used in Libya, Tunisia, and the Greek Romaniot communities. The ornamentation of the case differs from one community to another. Cases may be adorned with colorful drawings or covered with leather, fabric, or beaten silver plates. In some communities, such as Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, the case is usually wrapped in a rich fabric. The Torah cases generally have inscriptions around the edges, on the front, or inside. Two types of inscription are characteristic: biblical verses extolling the Torah, mainly from the books of Proverbs and Psalms, and personal information about the donor.

Our knowledge of Torah cases and mitpaḥot in pre-modern times is meager; the process whereby the case evolved from a mere receptacle for carrying the Torah into a sacred artifact can at most be conjectured. It may be assumed that in the first stage, when the case was used only for storage, the scroll was wrapped in a mitpaḥat when placed in the case. However, it was difficult to handle the Torah scroll wrapped in the mitpaḥat in its case, and most communities therefore removed it from the case. Only the Jews of Yemen continued to wrap the Torah in two or three mitpaḥot, and until they came to Israel they used colorful, geometrically patterned, cotton-print mitpaḥot of Indian manufacture. There, the mitpaḥat is used to cover the text adjacent to the text being read, thus preventing its unnecessary exposure. In other communities, the mitpaḥat is used only to cover the scroll during pauses in the reading, when it is placed on the case and not on the Torah scroll itself.

Wrapper, Binder, and Mantle

Two textile objects developed from the mitpaḥat in European communities. One, found only in Italy and in communities of the Sephardi Diaspora, is a wrapper (Hebrew yeriʿah), of height equal to that of the parchment sheets from which the Torah scroll is made and rolled up together with the scroll, a custom which is gradually disappearing. Another textile object wound around the Torah scroll in Ashkenazi communities, in Italy, and in the Sephardi Diaspora is the binder. The binder is a long narrow strip of cloth with which the Torah is bound, either on top of the wrapper or directly on the parchment. Its purpose is to keep the scroll securely bound when not in use.

In Italy and in the Sephardi communities, the binder is known as a fascia; it is made of a costly material or of linen embroidered in silk thread. From the 16th century it became customary in Northern Italy for girls and young women to embroider binders with biblical verses or original personal dedicatory inscriptions. In Germany it became customary in the second half of the 16th century to prepare a binder for the Torah scroll on the occasion of the birth of a son. This binder, called a mappah or wimpel, was fashioned from a piece of square linen cloth which was placed near the infant during the circumcision ceremony. The infant's name, his father's, name and his date of birth were embroidered or written on the cloth, as well as the blessing recited during the ceremony: "May he enter into the Torah, the nuptial canopy, and into good deeds." By the 17th century, binders often had pictures illustrating the three elements of "Torah, the nuptial canopy and good deeds."

The Torah mantle is as it were the clothing of the Torah scroll. In Sephardi communities, Italy, and Germany, and in halakhic literature, it was indeed occasionally known as beged, "garment," or mappah, but later the term meʿil became standard in most communities. The earliest attestation to the shape of the mantle appears in the 14th-century Sarajevo Haggadah, created in Spain. The mantles shown there are made of a costly material, probably not embroidered. This tradition is still common today in Sephardi communities, with the exception of Morocco and Algeria, where Torah mantles are made of velvet with elaborately embroidered patterns and dedicatory inscriptions. Common motifs on these mantles are the Tree of Life (in Morocco) and a gate (in Algeria). The shapes of the mantle differ from community to community – some are wide and open in the front (Italy and the Spanish Diaspora), others have a small cape atop the robe, still others are of simple rectangular length with material gathered at the upper borders (Algeria).

The earliest German mantles are depicted in 15th-century manuscripts. This Torah mantle is generally narrower and smaller than the Sephardi mantle, while the robe-like part is made of two rectangular lengths of material sewn together. Two openings at the upper end of the mantle enable the staves to protrude. The designs on Torah mantles in Germany and Central Europe are influenced by the ornamentation of the Torah Ark curtain, with such motifs as a pair of columns, lions, and the Torah crown most frequent.

Torah Crown

The earliest Torah ornaments are the Torah crown and the finials mounted on the Torah case or on the staves of the Torah scroll. We first hear of a Torah crown in the 11th century, in a responsum of *Hai Gaon concerning the use of a crown for a Torah scroll on *Simḥat Torah. The use of the Torah crown is linked in this responsum to the custom of crowning the so-called "*Bridegrooms of the Law," i.e., the persons called up on Simḥat Torah to complete the annual cycle of the Torah reading and to initiate the new cycle. At the time, the Torah crown was an ad hoc object made from various decorative items, such as plants and jewelry. About a hundred years later, fixed crowns, made of silver and used regularly to decorate Torah scrolls in the synagogue, are mentioned in a document from the Cairo *Genizah. Their earliest depiction is in the 14th-century Spanish Sarajevo Haggadah.

Torah crowns are used in almost all communities (the exceptions are Morocco and Yemen), their design being influenced in each locality by local tradition. The onion-shaped or conical crown of the Iraqi-Persian Torah case follows the tradition of the crowns of the Sassanid kings, the last Persian dynasty prior to the Muslim conquest. In Cochin, India, and in Aden, the independent port of Yemen, a tapering dome-like crown developed through which protrude finials mounted on the staves on which the Torah scroll is wound; the crown is not fixed to the case. By the 20th century, the Torah crown in Cochin showed distinct European features. In Eastern Iran, where the Torah had a small crown, the outer sides of the crown lost their spherical shape and became flat dedicatory plaques. Today this crown looks like a pair of flat finials, and only their designation as "crowns" hints at their origin in the Torah crown. The circlet or coronet on the Mediterranean case, which became an integral part of the case, was based on a local medieval crown tradition typified by floral patterns. The European crown is shaped like a floral coronet with arms closing over it. In Eastern Europe a two- or three-tiered crown developed, inspired by the crown motif on the Torah Ark in this region. In Italy, on the other hand, the Torah crown was a coronet, known in Hebrew as the atarah.

Torah Finials

The finials evolved from knobs at the upper end of the staves (eẓei ḥayyim) on which the Torah scroll is wound. Since the shape of the spherical finial recalled that of a fruit, it was called a tappu'aḥ, "apple," among the Jews of Spain and in the Sephardi Diaspora, and a rimmon, "pomegranate," in all other communities.

The earliest known reference to Torah finials occurs in a document from 1159, found in the Cairo Genizah, from which we learn that by the 12th century finials were already being made of silver and had bells. Around the same time, *Maimonides mentions finials in the Mishneh Torah (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:4). Despite the variations on the spherical shape which developed over the centuries and the addition of small bells around the main body of the finial, the spherical, fruit-like form was the basic model for the design of finials in Oriental and European communities.

A most significant variation appeared in 15th-century Spain, Italy, and Germany, where the shape of finials was influenced by that of various objects of church ritual, whose design often incorporated architectural motifs, The resulting tower-like structure, which seems to have appeared around the same time in different parts of Europe, became the main type of finial in 18th-century Germany and Italy, as well as Morocco, brought there by Jews expelled from Spain.

Breastplates and Metal Shields Hung in Front of the Torah Scroll

Breastplates – ornamental metal plates or shields hung in front of the Torah scroll – are found in all Ashkenazi communities, as well as Italy and Turkey, but designed differently in each community. In most cases the breastplate is made of silver or silver-plated metal. In Italy the breastplate is shaped like a half-coronet and known as the keter, "crown." In Turkey, the breastplate is called a tass, and assumes a variety of shapes – circular, triangular, oval, or even the Star of David. In Western, Central, and Eastern Europe the breastplate is called either tass or ẓiẓ; its function there is not merely ornamental: it designates which Torah scroll is to be used for the Torah reading on any particular occasion, with interchangeable plaques. The most notable early breastplates, from 17th-century Germany and Holland, were either square or rectangular, but over time they became rounded and decorative, and bells or small dedicatory plaques were suspended from its lower edge. During this period, the design of breastplates was influenced by that of the Torah Ark and the *parokhet (curtain) concealing it, featuring various architectural motifs, the *menorah (the seven-branched candelabrum), Moses and Aaron, lions, or Torah crowns.

Objects Used in the Torah Reading

torah pointer

The pointer used by the Torah reader to keep the place is known in European communities as the *yad, "hand," or the eẓba, "finger," and in Sephardi and Eastern communities as the moreh, "pointer," or kulmus, "quill," the former because of its function and the latter because of its shape. Halakhic sources also use the terms moreh or kulmus. The pointer was originally a narrow rod, tapered at the pointing end, usually with a hole at the other end through which a ring or chain could be passed to hang the pointer on the Torah scroll.

The original form of the pointer was preserved in Eastern communities, the differences from one community to another being mainly in length and ornamentation. In certain communities a hand with a pointing finger was added, and accordingly the pointer came to be known as a yad, "hand," or eẓba, "finger." Pointers are made for the most part of silver or silver-plated brass, but in a few European communities they used to be made of wood. In such cases the pointers were carved in the local folk-art style.


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[Bracha Yaniv (2nd ed.)]