Vayak’heil (Assemble the Community)

Exodus 35:1 to 38:20Jewish Art

The Tabernacle, as described in Torah, was a work of art. Until the late 19th Century, Jewish history, art has mainly taken the form of ritual objects with few human forms depicted. With the enlightenment and Jewish assimilation of the late 1800’s, Jewish art entered mainstream world art.

This week’s parsha focuses on instructions for building the Tabernacle. Great detail is provided regarding the fabricating of structure and its contents.

But this is not the first time we have read about these construction details … and, next week they will be repeated again as the structure is assembled. This is done for several reasons…. First, in the days of the early Temple the Torah was read orally to the people. This repetition insured that the message was heard and remembered…. A second reason could have been to pass these building instructions on to future generations if the Tabernacle had to be repaired or rebuilt.

Upon reading the details of the building instructions, it seemed that they could have also been building a work of art…. I am not so sure the Tabernacle that was as elaborate as described. It can be assumed that as the details were retold through the ages, the artistic details of the “House of God” became more and more elaborate …. It’s almost as if the Israelites were creating a work of art.

A few months ago I saw a book on the history of Jewish art in my Temple’s library. I was curious to see how Jewish art compared to Christian art of the middle ages and earlier. I was surprised to see that there were no paintings of the Torah stories… and no paintings or sculptures of religious leaders or common people. It seemed from the book that the human art form wasn’t common until the middle of the nineteenth century. Until then, art mainly consisted of religious items like menorahs, candle sticks, kiddush cups, havdallah sets, and illuminated Bibles.

I did some research on Jewish art and found the absence of the human form to be partly true. Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman (Associate Rabbi at Temple Beth El, Boca Raton, Florida) noted in an article for that the human forms did appear in the early centuries. Frescos portraying human figures in biblical scenes were found in excavations of third century (C.E.) Synagogues of Egypt and Syria. Other mosaics were also found in Israel’s sixth century Beit Alpha synagogue. Talmudic texts also acknowledge the existence and tolerance of human images.

However, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, most of the Jewish art was without human forms and this art was restricted to the synagogues and illustration of manuscripts. Many commentators think that this is a result of the restriction of the second commandment: “You shall have no other gods besides Me: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth….” (Ex. 20:3-4) The Jewish Virtual Library states that toward the close of the Second Temple period there was an almost frenzied Jewish opposition to human images of any sort. A few generations later this view seemed to lessen. Rabbi Brockman notes that this lack of human and animal art and sculpture was more likely a result of the strong Muslim influences in areas like Spain and Northern Europe that prohibited such art.

Another factor that may have influenced the seemingly small amount of Jewish paintings and sculpture resulted from the nature of Jewish education. During the Middle Ages most of the world’s art was related to Biblical stories. The Encyclopedia Judaica states “For the Jews, with their high degree of literacy due to their almost universal system of education and their familiarity with the scripture story, this type of art was superfluous.” Because the Christian world was composed of many illiterate masses, biblical based art helped convey the stories to these people.

Illuminated Bibles from the 15th Century did have pictures of King David, Jonah, and Balaam. But, Bibles from areas like Yemen with heavy Muslim influence had no human figures.

In Western Europe the coming of the Enlightenment (late 19th and early 20th centuries), brought a greater acceptance of Jews and a greater melding of Jews into the community. This cultural revolution resulted in the rise of many artists familiar to both he Jewish art community and the larger, world art markets. As the world of art changed, Jewish art encompassed both ritual and non-religious content. Artists included Camille Pissarro, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, and Mark Chagall. (Rabbi Jessica S. Brockman, Jewish Art: A Brief History,

Earl Sabes

Photo source: Part of Torah Ark from Westend Synagoge, Frankfurt am Main, Germany as shown on Wikipeidia Commons

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