Beautifying mitzvot

On display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is some of the stunning Judaica in the Jewish Art and Life wing.

The Amsterdam Haggada (photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
The Amsterdam Haggada
(photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
 “This is my God ve’anvehu…” (Exodus 15:2).
Our sages derive from ve’anvehu’s connotation of beauty that we should try to serve God in a beautiful manner, by seeking out a beautiful etrog, succa, tefillin, and so forth. Jews the world over have always tried to increase God’s glory by beautifying the objects that are used to perform the mitzvot. On display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is some of the stunning Judaica in the Jewish Art and Life wing.
1. The Bird’s Head Haggada
(ca. 1300, southern Germany)
Sometime during the 12th and 13th century, copies of the Haggada began to be produced as an entity separate from the Siddur. The Bird’s Head Haggada is the first known illustrated Haggada, and contains biblical scenes such as the gathering of the manna and the giving of the Torah. Its name derives from its depiction of human figures with birds’ heads.
“The enigmatic practice of drawing bird and animal heads in place of human faces is found in other Ashkenazi manuscripts of the 13th and 14th centuries and has been interpreted in various ways... none of them fully satisfactory,” says Rachel Sarfati, curator at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.
Handwritten on parchment with dark brown ink and tempera (a long-lasting painting medium) by a scribe named Menahem who used the square Ashkenazi script, this treasure came to the Israel Museum by chance.
“The original owners of the Haggada had perished in the camps, leaving some Judaica to a family friend,” says Sarfati. After this man made his way to Israel, he approached Mordechai Narkiss, director of the Bezalel National Museum, which was later integrated into the Israel Museum. Almost as an afterthought, he showed the Haggada to Narkiss, who recognized its rarity.
2. The Amsterdam Haggada
(Amsterdam, 1695)
The illustrator of this beautiful Haggada, Avram bar Ya’acov, a convert, brought with him illustrations that were influenced by the Christian art he had seen. The type used in the Amsterdam Haggada, made in the engraving technique, became extremely popular in European Jewish communities. This popularity carried over to the 18th century, when handwritten Haggadot were again in vogue, and scribes boasted of using the very same script, which came to be known as Amsterdam letters.
3. Ceramic Seder plate (ca. 1480)
This intricately patterned 57-cm. Seder plate dates back to pre-expulsion Spain. Sent into exile, the affluent Spanish community managed to take with them Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other manuscripts, which were preserved for posterity. While few of their material possessions survived, this Seder plate is an exception, all the more remarkable because of its fragility.
“A close look at the letters in the center of the plate reveals a simple spelling mistake – the word “Pessah” was written with a reish instead of a het,” says Sarfati.
“Evidently, the wealthy Jews were able to commission non-Jewish artisans and mistakes crept in,” she explains.
4. Rollers versus combs
In preparing matzot for Passover, communities around the world used different methods to perforate the thin dough. In late 19th-century Sweden, for example, iron combs were used. In Morocco, however, artifacts from the early 20th century show a preference for wood-handled iron rollers, similar to the plastic disposable ones used in hand-baking factories today. Certainly, rollers were faster and more efficient.
5. A fine rolling pin
This late 20th-century carved and painted wooden matza rolling pin, which once belonged to the Bene Israel community in Pune, India, could grace any kitchen today. There were three Jewish communities in India: the Cochin Jews, who arrived after the destruction of the First Temple; the Bene Israel, who arrived from Judea about 2,100 years ago; and the Baghdadi community, which arrived about 280 years ago from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries.
6. Cups of silver and glass and stone
In Italy and Germany, where the communities were more established, silver kiddush cups and “cups of Elijah” were the norm. In Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), where the glass industry was well developed, glassware was popular. In Israel, the cup was carved of stone and embellished with scenes of the Western Wall and other holy sites.
7. Tell your children
According to sources from Morocco, Libya and Algeria, this collection of miniature glazed earthenware was used by children to play with on Passover.
8. And you shall count
The history of the Jews in Suriname, in South America, can be traced back to 1639, when the British government allowed Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands, Portugal and Italy to settle the region. Here they founded sugar cane plantations, which they named after biblical sites, e.g., Hebron, Goshen and Carmel.
During the 18th century two synagogues were built in Paramaribo, the capital city: the Ashkenazi Neveh Shalom and the Sephardi Tzedek Veshalom.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the community began to dwindle. Today, with only 200 people remaining in Suriname’s once vibrant Jewish community, the decision was made to transfer the interior of the Tzedek Veshalom synagogue interior and its ritual objects to the Israel Museum.
The 19th- and 20th-century carved wood Counting of the Omer calendars from the synagogue were made in Holland and shipped to Suriname. Note the letters that denote the day reached in the counting, the week and the day.