Jewish Museum in Prague, Robert Guttmann Gallery, Praha 1, U Staré školy 3
June 22 – July 26, 2006, open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. except Saturdays and Jewish holidays
If we were to seek a material object that most aptly symbolizes Jewish culture, we would probably choose the Torah scroll. This strip of parchment contains the Hebrew text of the Pentateuch, the public reading of which constitutes the core of the synagogue liturgy. Both the text and the object itself have a unique position in the Jewish religion and are considered to be holy.
The archaic scroll form – in biblical times the only known form of book – has also been preserved for several other texts that are used within the synagogue rite, particularly the Book of Esther. The latter book, moreover, became the model for a genre of local and family scrolls that describe miraculous rescues from dangers threatening an individual or the whole community. The scroll remains also an inspiration for artists, whether they create illustrations to the Book of Esther or use the scroll form and its traditional decoration in their own work.
The collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague contain about 600 scrolls, mostly of local provenance, from the 18th and 19th centuries: about 100 Torah scrolls and fragments, 440 Esther scrolls and several examples of other types of scrolls. The most interesting of these have been selected for this exhibition.
The earliest preserved Biblical scrolls were discovered in 1947 and in the following years in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea. They date from between the 2nd – 3rd centuries BCE and the end of the 1st century CE. The manner of writing of the Torah scroll and its use in the synagogue are discussed in the Mishnah and the Talmud and in the later halakhic literature.
The Torah scroll (Heb. sefer Torah, literally “Book of Torah”) must be written in Hebrew square script with permanent ink on parchment that is prepared from the skin of a kosher animal. It must not contain signs for vowels and accents, and other additions or decoration. The scroll is copied by a professional scribe (sofer) from a model copy and the finished scroll is wound onto wooden rollers (atzei hayyim, literally “trees of life”).
The reading of the Torah – during a yearly cycle which begins with the holiday of Simhat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah) – forms the core of the Divine service in the synagogue and constitutes a complex ceremony governed by Halakhic regulations and ritual customs. When not in ceremonial use, the rolled-up scroll is dressed and deposited in the Ark; in the Czech lands, its appurtenances include a pointer, binder, mantle, shield and finials or crown. Scrolls containing errors or damages which can not be corrected, must be discarded, or buried in an earthenware vessel.
During the Second World War, about 1,800 Torah scrolls were shipped from Bohemian and Moravian synagogues to the then Central Jewish Museum in Prague. Some of these were returned to congregations that were re-established after the war, but the majority – nearly 1,600 scrolls – were sold by the Czechoslovak authorities in 1964 to a private person in England, where the Memorial Scrolls Trust was set up to care for their “second life”. From here, the scrolls are loaned to Jewish congregations and institutions across the world as mementos of the Bohemian and Moravian victims of the Shoah (Holocaust).
Apart from the Torah, the Book of Esther (megillat Esther, literally “Scroll of Esther”) is the only biblical book that the Talmud requires to be read in the synagogue, on the holiday of Purim, from a parchment scroll. The form of several other biblical books read in the synagogue on other specific occasions depends, in modern times, more on local custom. The JMP’s collections contain a small number of scrolls of the Song of Songs, Ruth and Ecclesiastes and the Haftarot (selected passages from the Books of Prophets). Large scrolls may be wound onto two rollers; the smaller scrolls are sometimes wound onto one roller, which may be provided with a wood, silver or ivory case. Nowadays, however, most scrolls are without cases.
Occasionally, the form of the scroll may be used for copies of other texts, e.g. for the Counting of the Omer (a period of 49 days between Pesah and Shavuot), for prayers for the New Year, and for souvenirs. Small pieces of parchment inscribed with passages of Scripture which are placed in phylacteries and in the mezuzah (a case attached to the doorframe of Jewish households) are also rolled up like scrolls.
Decorated Esther scrolls
Unlike the ceremonial scrolls, private scrolls of Esther, from which the participants of the Purim service follow the reading of the book, may be decorated. Illuminations for the Book of Esther appear in medieval Hebrew codices, but the earliest decorated scrolls to have been preserved come from 16th century Italy. The JMP collection contains about 20 scrolls of Esther with ornamental or figurative decoration.
For illuminated scrolls, the decoration consists most often of a plant ornament, sometimes with animal figures and signs of the zodiac or architectural elements. But for the two scrolls of local provenance, dating from the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th, most of the JMP’s illuminated scrolls are probably from Italy and date from the 17th and 18th centuries.
The oldest cycles of illustrations for the story of Mordecai and Esther date from the same period and stem from Netherlands and Italy. These engravings – e.g. by the Amsterdam engraver and draftsman, Shalom Italia – indicate knowledge of contemporary painting and, in the depiction of scenes, sometimes draw inspiration from non-Jewish models. In the late 18th century, these engravings served as a model for other printed and hand-drawn versions and copies.
Some scenes are not based on the actual biblical text but on traditional Jewish interpretation, e.g., the killing of Vashti. The illustrators also depict Purim festivities, such as dances and masquerades or draw inspiration from popular stage adaptations of the story of Esther. The depiction of the main protagonists in theatrical poses has been ascribed to this inspiration.
Local production is represented by two printed scrolls from Prague. The earlier of the two – dated c. 1700 and signed [J. I.] Franck – has a hand-written text and an engraved border that was pre-printed on parchment and contains several illustrative scenes. The later scroll, printed by letter press and provided with several naive woodcuts, dates from the second half of the 18th century. The scroll printed in Brno in 1766-67 by the Christian printer Franz Leopold Neumann, is decorated only with the Habsburg eagle emblem and the printer’s mark (an eagle and the year 1755). The scroll illustrated by Otto Geismar and published in Berlin in 1936 is one of the most recent artefacts of its kind in the JMP’s collection.
Local and family
The provisions on celebrating the holiday of Purim (Esther 9:20-32) became a model for anniversary “Purims” within local communities and families. The life threatening situations that are commemorated may have been caused not only by external enemies but also by natural disasters or Jewish opponents. The story of the event is read during these celebrations, as in the case of Purim, and is called a megillah after the model of the Book of Esther. The intense personal experience of a past danger, described soon after the event by its involuntary protagonists, adds authenticity and poignancy to these depictions.
As an expression of gratitude to the Lord for his timely assistance and protection, the celebration of local Purims spread to central Europe from the Mediterranean via Italy and Germany. The Prague Purim of 1622 is among the earliest family celebrations. The event, which involves an arrest in connection with the purchase of rare stolen textiles, condemnation to death and final release, is described in two megillot – the Hebrew Pure ha-kela’im and the Yiddish Firhengpurim (both mean “Purim of the Curtains”) – by the two protagonists, Hanokh Altschul and Josef Thein.
The most famous family megillah associated with Prague is Megillat Eivah (Scroll of Adversity), which was written by the Chief Rabbi of Prague, Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1654). It tells of Heller’s arrest (1629) on account of an offence he had allegedly made to the Christianity in his writings (in the end, the death penalty was reduced by the emperor to a considerable fine).
The megillah of the Edels family contains a narration by Joshua Edels, proprietor of a bar in the Prague ghetto, about how, in 1646, he escaped punishment for allegedly mocking Christianity. The story is introduced by a prologue written by a descendant of Edels almost 200 years later. The main features of the story of Hirsch Yampls Segal of Prague resembles Thein’s ordeal more than a hundred years earlier; the event took place between May 1716 and January 1721.
The shortest and the most moving of the family megillot is a scroll from Golčův Jeníkov where, in May 1817, part of the house belonging to Simon Meir and his wife Rinah collapsed and the rubble fell on two sleeping children who miraculously survived without injury. The only genuinely local scroll in the JMP’s collection is a megillah which, in a rendition by the Rabbi of Sušice Abraham Schwarzkopf, describes the disturbances that occurred in Sušice in the spring of 1866.
The scroll form is also used for texts of a secular character. Among those who turned to its form was the avant-garde Russian Jewish artist El Lissitzky (1890-1941). In 1917 Sikhes Kholin (Small Talk), a poetic Yiddish narration of a legend found “in the chronicles of the Prague Jewish Community” – which was written by the poet and theatre director Moshe Broderzon (1890-1956) – was published in Moscow, along with Lissitzky’s illustrations. Some copies were given the form of a paper scroll provided with a decorated oak case and the JMP scroll is one of the few copies which were hand-coloured by the artist. The illustrations interlace the text, which was copied by a professional sofer in the “Assyrian script”, with whose beauty Lissitzky wanted to merge his highly ornamental drawing, in order to achieve a perfect harmony with the content and style of narration. The story is located in the Prague ghetto but is illustrated with scenes and figures inspired by art, architecture and the inhabitants of an eastern European shtetl.
The theatre actor, puppeteer and artist Matěj Forman has been making watercolour sketches of illustrations for the Book of Esther in his mobile workshop in southern France since the spring of 2006. In their final form, the sketches are to be executed as woodcuts or wood engravings and printed together with the Hebrew text as a scroll. Forman can also utilize his theatre experience when depicting the dramatic story of Esther and Mordecai, a little like the 17th century illustrators of the Book of Esther, who were also inspired by the theatre.
Coinciding with this exhibition is an installation in Libeň Synagogue by Markéta Cudlínová, entitled Wanderings. In addition to a set of large-format oil paintings, this comprises a 12-metre-long linen scroll which tells of the birth of the desert and is loosely inspired by the Books of Genesis and Exodus and by visual experiences of the desert landscape of Israel.
A catalogue to the exhibition is also being issued.