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Genizot - Findings in Bohemian and Moravian Synagogues

 

Spanish Synagogue 4. November 1999 - 30. January 2000

Ze ha-shulhan, end of 18th century (Luže)Rescued testimony
The exhibition Genizot documents one of the lesser known aspects of Jewish tradition. According to Jewish law, discarded Holy Scriptures which contain the name of God must be deposited in a safe place, where they are protected from desecration and subject to natural processes of decay. This also applied to other texts of a religious and even secular nature, written in the Hebrew language or script. The place of storage is known as a genizah (plural: genizot, from the Hebrew root GNZ - literally ”hiding, storing”).

Books and other objects were either gathered in a special place and later buried en masse, or were deposited in synagogue attics. Very few genizot have remained intact to this day, the majority being destroyed as a result of fire, rebuilding or expulsions of Jews. As part of research carried out by the Jewish Museum, genizah remnants were found in only 12 of over 50 synagogues examined. The most significant discoveries were made in Luze, Breznice, Zaluzany, Rychnov nad Kneznou and Holesov.

Liturgical calender, Luže, ca 1800Alongside Torah scrolls and their remains, the genizot mostly contained 17th - 19th century Hebrew and Yiddish printed texts: prayer-books, editions of the Bible, Passover Haggadot, Talmud with commentaries, and other Halacha literature; and, to a lesser extent, Kabbalistic writings, popular Yiddish literature, textbooks of Hebrew, religion and even mathematics.

Among the most valuable discoveries are those of manuscripts - mostly transcripts of rabbinic writings or records of lectures by contemporary rabbis from Prague, Golčův Jeníkov and Bratislava, but also fragments of tablets with prayers and blessings for the synagogue and home and liturgical wall calendars. Also to be found in the genizot are official documents and private correspondence.

Damaged ritual objects and synagogue furnishings were also deposited in the genizot. Unique sets of textiles were found in Luze and Breznice: synagogue curtains, mantles and Torah wimples with folk ornamentation, tallitot of various sizes and design, and bags for tefillin, in addition to children’s skullcaps and shoes.

Entrance to the attic of the Luže synagogueLuze
The only genizah to be found completely intact was in Luže, a small town in East Bohemia where Jews settled as early as the 16th century. In the 19th century it was the seat of the district rabbi and a local Jewish centre. The synagogue was built around 1780; the genizah was used up until the early 20th century. 600 fragments of prints, over 100 manuscripts and about 100 textiles have been selected from a wealth of discovered material. Unique finds include notifications of the election of alms collectors, or stencils for tombstones. Fragments of decorative mizrahs and tablets with blessings, adorned with folk woodcuts or cut-outs, are invaluable records of the traditional religious life of rural Jews.

Breznice
Březnice (SW Bohemia) had a Jewish community from as early as the beginning of the16th century and was also the seat of the district rabbi. The synagogue building, which in addition housed a school, was built in 1725 and renovated after a fire in 1820. Only scattered relics have survived to this day in the genizah. Alongside a series of rare textiles (e.g., a mantle dating from 1758) it contains printed books, hand-written drafts of sermons and Halacha notes. Teaching material and exercise books were also found.

The attic of the Zalužany synagogueZaluzany
We still have little information on the small Jewish community of Zalužany, a town not far from Breznice. The small Empire-style synagogue was built at the beginning of the 19th century and was used for liturgical purposes for around 100 years. It is now in private hands and the attic is being used as a storage space for junk . A few fragments of common Hebrew prints were found, which is to be expected considering the size of the community. What was surprising, however, was the discovery of embroidered wimpels, one of which (1748) is amongst the oldest of its kind in the collections of the Jewish Museum.

 

Rychnov nad Kneznou
Like Luze and Breznice, Rychnov (East Bohemia) was a regional Jewish centre. Jewish settlement here is recorded from the 16th century. The genizah in the synagogue (built in 1782) was damaged during earlier refurbishment work . Alongside Halacha fragments, the manuscripts that were found included special prayers (e.g., for pregnant woman) and a 1767 record of a legal decision (psak din) settling a dispute between two community members. A leather case for a mezuzah and a leather shoe for the halitzah ceremony were also found.

 

Holesov
The Jewish community of Holesov was one of the oldest and largest Jewish communities in Central Moravia. The genizah in the Shakh Synagogue (built after 1559), however, dates from as late as the mid-19th century. A unique discovery is that of a machzor fragment (Prague 1529) with figurative Renaissance woodcuts, which were first used in the famous Prague Haggadah (1526). Records of rabbinic lectures originate from pupils of Moses Sofer, Yehezkel Landau and other authorities. The genizah also contained painted wooden fragments from synagogue furnishings, shards from ceramic pitchers and a paper Purim mask .

These genizah discoveries provide us with valuable insights into the customs and interests, standards of living and craft traditions of the rural Jewish population from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries. Bringing them to light is only the start of a long-term process of conservation and research. The material has to be sorted and identified, and the most interesting items cleaned, registered, conserved and restored. Damaged fragments and items of lesser interest have been buried. Only a small selection of this rare testimony to the past can, however, be displayed in this exhibition.

 

Exhibition curator: Olga Sixtova, Dr. Arno Parik
Installation: Pavel Brach

 

 

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