THE BLOG

Understanding the Art of Shavous

04/16/2013 12:27 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2013
J. Greenstein & Co.

The holiday of Shavous celebrates the giving of the Five Books of Moses also known as the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. It is a holiday that is not only festive, but is the only holiday that we specially decorate the synagogue, usually with greenery. This act symbolically beautifies the synagogue in preparation for the arrival of the Torah from G-d.

The Torah is the essential manuscript of Judaism. It prescribes the blueprint of how life should be lived. It documents the history since the creation of the world. Most Jewish text is -- in one way or another -- commentary on the Torah. There is no higher level. As my Rebbe, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would say, it is the "holiest of the holy" and "the highest of the high."

In Judaism, there is a concept called hiddur mitzvah, which literally means "beautification of the mitzvah (ritual)." This concept encouraged the use of art to enhance ritual objects. The most decorated object in Jewish life is the Torah. In just about any synagogue in any town in the world, you will find the Torah scrolls in the ark covered with silver crowns and breast plates. In Hebrew, the finials are known as Rimonim (literally, pomegranates), crowns are known as Keters and breast plates are known as Tassim (singular:Tas). The reason for decorating the Torah with silver is not only Hiddur Mitzvah, but here it is also to give it honor. If the Torah is G-d's word, and G-d is the king of the universe, we need to crown it.

Over the centuries, there have been many different ways to decorate the Torah. Like all Judaica, there is no particular style of Jewish art. Jews adapted their decoration to whatever surrounding local style they were living in.

Here are some examples:

A SILVER TORAH SHIELD. Poland or Ukraine, 1832. Embossed with two lions flanking a Decalogue. Cohanic hands can be seen in the upper quadrant. Engraved with the Ten Commandments and "Length of days are on the right and wealth and honor on the left." What makes this Torah shield very unique is the circular portion control in the center that indicates the proper placement of the underlying scroll.

torah

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A SILVER TORAH SHIELD. Poland or Ukraine, 1828. Embossed with two rampant lions flanking the Decalogue, grapevine and floral designs and and addtional crown. Engraved with the Ten Commandments and "Shlomo Yehuda, son of our teacher Reb Moshe, Yakov Yonah, son of our teacher Reb Moshe, the child, my son Yitzchak son of Shlomo Yehuda. my wife mrs Rachel Leah, daughter of Yehuda Leib in the year 1828."

torah

Credit: J. Greenstein & Co.

A SILVER TORAH SHIELD. Brunn, Bohemia 1814. Chased with two rampant lions flanking a Decalogue under an embossed crown. Additionally decorated with Moses and Aaron.

torah

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SILVER FINIALS FOR A SEPHARDIC TIK- Holy Land, 19th century. Simplistically made. Engraved with lengthy dedication and criss-cross engraving.

torah

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A MONUMENTAL PAIR OF SILVER TORAH FINIALS London, 1773. In urn shape. Decorated with numerous bells, gilding and crowns.

torah

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A PAIR OF SILVER TORAH FINIALS. Iraq, 19th century. In the shape of actual pomegranates. Further decorated with hanging bells.

torah

Credit: J. Greenstein & Co.

A SILVER TORAH CROWN. Germany, 18th century. In rare oval shape. Constructed of six chased bands, each soldered to an upper, second crown. With applied stones and two Hebrew letters for Crown of the Torah.

torah

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A SILVER TORAH SHIELD BY JOHANN CONRAD WEISS. Nuremberg, 1698 - 1703. Parcel gilt. With applied crown, two Solomonic columns, lions and Hebrew dedication.

torah

Credit: J. Greenstein & Co.