The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

BookThe Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

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The carved wooden Torah arks found in eastern Europe from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries were magnificent structures, unparalleled in their beauty and mystical significance. The work of Jewish artisans, they dominated the synagogues of numerous towns both large and small throughout the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, inspiring worshippers with their monumental scale and intricate motifs. Virtually none of these superb pieces survived the devastation of the two world wars. Bracha Yaniv’s pioneering work therefore breathes new life into a lost genre, making it accessible to scholars and students of Jewish art, Jewish heritage, and religious art more generally. Making use of hundreds of pre-war photographs housed in local archives, she develops a vivid portrait of the history and artistic development of these arks, the scope and depth of her meticulous research successfully compensating for the absence of physical remains. In this way she has succeeded in producing a richly illustrated and comprehensive overview of a classic Jewish religious art form. Professor Yaniv’s analysis of the historical context in which these arks emerged includes a broad survey of the traditions that characterized the local workshops of Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. She also provides a detailed analysis of the motifs carved into the Torah arks and explains their mystical significance, among them representations of Temple imagery and messianic themes—and even daring visual metaphors for God. Fourteen arks are discussed in particular detail, with full supporting documentation; appendices relating to the inscriptions on the arks and to the artisans’ names will further facilitate future research. This seminal work throws new light on long-forgotten traditions of Jewish craftsmanship and religious understanding.

In-depth survey of a Jewish religious art form lost in the Holocaust and its symbolism.

Bracha Yaniv is Professor Emerita of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. She is the author of two pioneering books on the the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects in eastern Europe: Ma’aseh hoshev (1997), on the Torah case, and Ma’aseh rokem (2009), to be published in English translation by the Littman Library as Ceremonial Synagogue Textiles from Ashkenazi, Sephardi, and Italian Communities. The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe is her first book-length publication in English.

‘Bracha Yaniv has made a meticulous study of lost arks and of the lost Jewish crafts of joinery, woodcarving, painting and gilding that made them possible. She demonstrates that these arks cannot be dismissed as mere folk art. They exhibit a high level of artistic accomplishment.’
- Sharman Kadish, Jewish Chronicle

Author Information

Bracha Yaniv is Professor Emerita of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. She has published two pioneering books in Hebrew on the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Note on Transliteration11
1. The Emergence of the Torah Ark from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century16
2. Historical and Cultural Background32
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth32
The Rise of Hasidism and the Influence of Kabbalah37
3. Construction and Design42
Crafts, Artisans, and Workshops42
The Lithuanian Workshop of Jacob ben Solomon of Raseinai50
The Workshop of the Vase in a Niche52
The Rococo-Style Workshop52
The Belarusian Workshop54
The Ukrainian Workshop54
Constructing the Ark57
Materials and Techniques60
Style and Design62
Introduction: The Architectural Structure of the Torah Ark84
4. The Kingdom of God in the Little Sanctuary88
The Throne of Glory88
The Three Crowns115
The Eagle as a Metaphor for God108
Praise of God123
Perek shirah123
Music in the Temple140
5. The Temple151
The Gateway to Heaven151
The Passageway154
The Inscription Avinu Malkenu158
Yakhin and Boaz162
The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple Appurtenances169
The Kaporet and the Cherubim175
The Tree of Life: Symbol of the Torah183
The Seven-Branched Menorah189
The Menorah and the Showbread Table193
The Menorah as a Solitary Motif197
The Menorah in Zechariah’s Vision199
The Menorah as a Mystical Symbol202
The Temple Rituals: Avodat Hakodesh206
The Sacrificial Offerings206
The Priestly Blessing210
Offering of the First Fruits213
6. Messianic Expectations216
Personal Redemption: The Leviathan and the Ox216
National Redemption225
Aaron’s Rod, the Manna Jar, and the Jug of Anointing Oil225
The Four Species and the Shofar232
I. Fourteen Torah Arks: Comprehensive Description, Technical Data, and Supporting Documentation242
1. The Ark of Kamyanka-Buzka, Western Ukraine, c.1775243
2. The Ark of Vyžuonos, Central Lithuania, 1784245
3. The Ark of Zabłudów, North-East Poland, 1765247
4. The Ark of Druya, Northern Belarus, 1774/5249
5. The Ark of Zelva, Western Belarus, 1849/50252
6. The Ark of Lukiv, Western Ukraine, c.1781256
7. The Ark of Hrodna, Western Belarus, Late Eighteenth Century259
8. The Ark of Nowe Miasto nad Pilica, East-Central Poland, after 1800262
9. The Ark of Šaukenai, Central Lithuania, 1885/6264
10. The Ark of Przedbórz, Central Poland, c.1775267
11. The Ark of Valkininkai, South-East Lithuania, 1804269
12. The Ark of Kepno, West-Central Poland, 1816/17273
13. The Ark of Vowpa, Western Belarus, 1781276
14. Unidentified Ark, Ukraine, Nineteenth Century279
II. Biblical Quotations and Liturgical Phrases Adorning the Arks282
III. Carpenters and Woodcarvers of Arks285
IV. Alphabetical List of the Arks Comprising theVisual Database for This Study289
List of Illustrations300
List of Institutions305