Aron ha-kodesh from the synagogue in Dašice near Pardubice, East Bohemia, ca. 1822
donated by the East Bohemian Museum of Pardubice
polychrome and gilt wood, wrought-iron hinges,
bolt and rods for attaching Torah scrolls
dimensions: 167 x 118.5 x 47 cm
size of cabinet: 137.5 x 92.5 x 34 cm
restored by L. Krejcar in 1997
inventory number: 176.990
acquisition number: 1996/0193
The holy ark (Hebrew (aron ha-kodesh) from the synagogue in the eastern Bohemian town of Dašice (built in 1822, demolished in 1958) is a small wooden polychrome painted cabinet with a base and two pillars along the sides, surmounted by capitals and a pediment with flowers and a cornice with a carved acanthus and Hebrew inscriptions. The pedestal cornices, pillars and entablature, forming the outer frame, have a dark base with gilt carvings of foliage and flowers. The central part is adorned with richly coloured red-white marble and contains a two-winged, semi-circular door with ornate frames and a gilt carved moulding in the middle. The inside of the cabinet is without paint and is divided by wrought-iron rods that mark out the place for three Torah scrolls.
The gilt Hebrew inscriptions on the upper cornice recall two quotations. On the right is the start of Psalm 16:8 – “Shiviti ha-Shem l´negdi tamid…“ (“I have set the Lord always before me…”); on the left are inscribed the first words of Rabbi Eliezer's Talmudic dictum reminding worshippers of the Lord's presence and helping them to concentrate on prayer – “Da lifnei mi ata omed…” (“Know before whom you stand…”). Both of these quotations usually appear on shiviti plaques on the pulpit used by the cantor who leads the prayer service or on the synagogue's east wall above the holy ark. The text in the middle is separated by a large gap in the place where there may originally have been the motif of a small crown (Keter Torah), symbolic of the Torah's majesty. The two columns alongside the holy ark symbolize Jachin and Boaz, the two columns in front of Solomon's Temple. The outer decoration of the cabinet has a very elegant design, despite its simplicity, and was undoubtedly the work of a local painter.
The most interesting part of the decoration on the holy ark, however, is concealed on the inner side of the door for the holy ark and can only be seen when the Torah scrolls are taken out or during certain prayers when the ark is opened. This features two traditional and symbolic motifs – the seven-branched candelabrum (menorah) and the table for the showbread (shulchan). These objects were placed in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tent of Meeting (Mishkan) and subsequently in the first and second temples in Jerusalem, which is why in synagogues they are sometimes depicted on the inner (or outer) side of the door for the holy ark or on the opposite west wall (e.g., in the Baroque synagogues in Boskovice and Třebíč) in memory of the Temple of Jerusalem.
The inner side of the left door wing contains a picture of a gold menorah with an inscription of Psalm 67. The first verse appears between the candle flames, the other seven on in its seven branches. The words relating to Psalm 67 that are inscribed on the sides of the stem are an example of Kabbalistic speculation: they have the numerical value 136 or 65 in gematria and signify that anyone who reads this psalm with kavanah (devout concentration) will prevail over their enemies. This multivocal symbol was used as early as the Middle Ages and also appears on amulets and shiviti plaques. As explained by Rabbi Menahem Mendel Krochmal, the Chief Rabbi of Moravia in 1650–61 (Tzemach Tzedek, par. 50): “... on the inner side of the door of the holy ark, for it protects against [God's] punishment... and [people] consider [the depicting of this image] to be an important sacred duty and one that everyone wishes to contribute to.”
The right door wing contains a depiction of the table for the showbread (Ex 25:23-30; Lev 24:5-9) which was placed on the right-hand side in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Jerusalem. Inscribed between each pair of bread loaves is a quotation from Ezekiel (41:21) – “Ze ha-shulhan asher lifnei Adonai” (“This is the table that is before the Lord.”). The twelve loaves of bread, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, were traditionally placed on the table in the Temple of Jerusalem every Shabbat and divided among the priests a week later. The showbread is symbolic of the prosperity that God blesses his people with, but also represents the Torah as spiritual nourishment which is just as essential for life. In Kabbalist terms, this motif also signifies the world to come where it will be the food of the Divine presence for the chosen ones. While the menorah motif represents the Written Torah or the Law (the Book of Moses), the table for the showbread symbolizes the Oral Torah, the traditional interpretation of the Law as passed down by generations of teachers and recorded mainly in the Talmud. The upper and lower sections of the door are adorned with motifs of leaves with tendrils, similar to those that appear in the wall paintings of the synagogues in Boskovice and Dolní Kounice, dating from the seventeen and eighteenth centuries.
The inner side of the door was painted using a different technique and style than that of the cabinet's outer decoration or the wall paintings of the synagogue – bright red and black on a white base (now mostly worn off) and with bold alla prima brush strokes. The work of Galician synagogue muralists, this achieves a highly professional look. This is all the more surprising as it is a modest ark that was made for a small synagogue in a not-too-large community in eastern Bohemia where we would not expect to find such a vibrant tradition of synagogue painting. The local community – mindful of Rabbi Krochmal's words – probably employed a professional synagogue muralist from Moravia or the Cracow region to decorate their new holy ark as beautifully as possible. The discovery of the Dašice ark proves that the tradition of synagogue painting was still vibrant at the beginning of the nineteenth century and that its master muralists were also active in the Czech lands. The painted aron ha-kodesh from Dašice is now completely unique, although there must have been dozens of similar and even more spectacular arks in synagogues across Bohemia and Moravia at the time it was made.
Captions for illustrations:
1) Holy ark (closed) from the synagogue in Dašice, ca. 1822, photo by K. Bulín
2) Holy ark (open) from the synagogue in Dašice, ca. 1822, photo by K. Bulín
3) Dašice¬, Jewish house no. 389 and the synagogue in Dašice, 1957, photo by J. Herout
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