Jewish Ceremonial Objects

Jewish Ceremonial Objects

    Israel's Jewish population today displays a wide diversity of attitudes towards Jewish tradition and religious observance. For some, Jewish ceremonial objects are an indispensable part of life's rituals, while others simply admire their beauty, craftsmanship and historical significance.​

    Israel's Jewish population today displays a wide diversity of attitudes towards Jewish tradition and religious observance. Ranging from ultra-Orthodox to secular, Israelis vary greatly in their lifestyles and religious practices. While only 20 percent adhere strictly to all religious precepts, the majority of Israelis follow some combination of Jewish customs, in accordance with their personal preferences and ethnic or family traditions.
    This spectrum of beliefs and habits is attested to by Jewish ceremonial objects - some of which are found even in largely non-observant homes, others only in the most observant of families. For some, such objects are an indispensable part of life's rituals, while others simply admire their beauty, craftsmanship and historical significance.
    Despite, and perhaps because of, its prohibition of graven images, Judaism has developed a wealth of ceremonial objects that adorn both synagogues and homes. Beauty was lauded by the rabbis of the early Common Era, who shaped Jewish practices and ceremonial objects; in one such context (the Festival of Tabernacles), pursuit of beauty is deemed part of a Biblical commandment.
    Ceremonial objects may be made of clay, stone, brass, pewter, copper, porcelain, glass, silver and gold, as well as wood, cloth, parchment and other materials. To distinguish them from graven images, they avoid all human likenesses.
    The objects described below can be found in synagogues and in homes. All are intended for use, and are often used regularly even if considered family heirlooms.

    The Mezuza
    The Bible twice enjoins Jews (Deut. 6:9 and 11:20) to "write [the words of God] upon the doorposts of your house and on your gates." The Hebrew word for doorpost, mezuza, has come to designate the object itself, the mezuza (pl. mezuzot), a parchment rectangle inscribed with the relevant Biblical passages (Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21). Appearing on its reverse side is the word Shadai, one of the Names of God and an acronym for shomer dlatot yisrael - "protector of the doors of Israel." The parchment is rolled tightly and mounted diagonally on the right-hand doorpost of all rooms except for bathrooms.
    To protect the parchment, it is placed in a slot engraved in the doorpost, which is covered with glass, or in a case, which may be of simple plastic, although artistic forms and materials are also used. Examples of doorpost slots can be observed in old Jewish neighborhoods in Israel, such as the Old Cities of Jerusalem and Hebron. Jews have also been known to wear mezuzot around their necks.
    The earliest material evidence is a mezuza parchment found at Qumran, where a Jewish sect lived in the first century BCE. Today, mezuzot can be found on most doorposts in Israel. Among observant Jews, various beliefs about the protective properties of mezuzot have developed. Some habitually touch it as they pass it and kiss their fingers. Mezuzot are checked twice every seven years for wear and tear, and many Jews inspect or replace their mezuzot when afflicted with personal or collective woe.

    The Sabbath Meal
    Although observed to a different degree by each family, the Sabbath (Saturday) is Israel's official day of rest. For observant Jews, the Sabbath involves a variety of rituals relating to the special holiness of the day, which have given rise to a collection of ceremonial objects.
    In many homes, the day of rest is greeted shortly before sundown on Fridays with the lighting of candles by the woman of the house. Two candles or more are lit in candlesticks or a candelabra, which in some cases are extremely ornate and often valuable. They are placed within sight of the Sabbath dinner table. The Sabbath evening meal is preceded by the kiddush (sanctification over wine), for which goblets with or without matching saucers are used. "Kiddush cups" are prized gifts and heirlooms; they are often engraved with the recipient's name, as well as the occasion that prompted the gift.
    The meal itself is consecrated with two Sabbath loaves (hallah, pl. hallot), that are covered as the kiddush is recited. This has resulted in beautifully embroidered hallah covers. The knife used for slicing the hallah often has an engraved handle with inscriptions such as "Reserved for the Holy Sabbath."
    At the end of the Sabbath, for havdala ("division" in Hebrew, a short ceremony that marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the new week), three ceremonial objects are used: a multi-wick candle, a container of spices and a goblet. The kiddush goblet may be used, but many homes have separate havdala sets, with spice holders shaped as miniature towers with removable lids or hinged doors. Kiddush and havdala objects are often of gold and silver.

    Jewish Holidays and Festivals
    Jewish festivals, with their rituals, special foods and festive family gatherings, are widely celebrated in Israel. For the more observant, these special events involve elaborate customs, but some holiday traditions are followed even by the non-observant. Certain holiday-related objects are therefore widely found, even in secular homes.
    The most basic of the ceremonial objects used for holidays is a Hanukkah lamp (hanukkiya), a straight-line candelabrum with nine holders for wax candles or cups for olive oil. Eight holders are used for the ritual; the ninth is raised or separated from the others and is used to light the other eight. Hanukkiyot may be made of any non-flammable material, from precious metal to copper and treated wood. Schoolchildren typically make hanukkiyot with the approach of the festival.
    For the Passover Seder (the ceremonial recounting of the Exodus), a large platter is used. In its most elaborate version, the "Seder plate" - of porcelain or silver - has separate compartments for the food items that the ritual entails, each item symbolic of an aspect of the Israelites' bondage and deliverance. Some seder platters are three-tiered, to hold the three matzot (sing. matza - flat, unleavened bread, reminiscent of the bread baked by the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt). Each matza is wrapped and alternately revealed and concealed during the seder; for this, various embroidered covers and pouches are used.
    Shortly before Sukkot (the Festival of Tabernacles), families acquire a set of the "four species" - palm frond, sprigs of myrtle, short branches of willow, and citron - that are used during the seven-day festival in thanksgiving prayers and rituals. The unblemished beauty of these items is considered part of the observance of the "four-species" commandment, especially with respect to the citron, a citrus fruit that is grown, harvested, and sold under exacting conditions. An elaborate literature has developed regarding the required characteristics of the four species, and the financial outlay can reach hundreds of dollars. Citron containers are used in functional and/or ornate models, in all manner of materials; the other items are often kept in utilitarian pouches.
    The sukka itself (the tabernacle, pl. sukkot) is a ceremonial object, a ritual "home" in which the family takes its meals and men and children may sleep during the week-long festival. Made of wooden or cloth walls and thatched with branches, fronds, or slats, the sukka is elaborately decorated inside. Prominent decorations are illustrations on the theme of the Biblical figures whom the family "invites" into its tabernacle. Re-usable sukka kits, some including roof thatching, are widely used today.
    Personal Objects
    For the observant, religious rituals are a part of everyday life, and require personal ceremonial objects. These are different for men and women, and in fact apply mostly to men, because personal ritual requirements focus on them.
    The skullcap (kippa in Hebrew) is the outward indicator of the Orthodox Jew. It carries no sanctity, and may be crocheted with designs, religious motifs and (in the case of children) the wearer's name. It is often worn by secular men during religious ceremonies.
    Two types of fringed garments are worn by men. The better-known is the tallit (pl. tallitot), or prayershawl - a blanket-sized rectangular mantle with fringes (Heb.: tsitsit) attached to its corners, as ordered in Numbers 15:38-41. Tallitot are usually white and made of wool, cotton, or silk. Many are striped, mostly in black, some in blue. The fringes are made of four ordinary strands tied in a prescribed way. Tallitot may have ornamentation at the corners and at the neck lining, where silver threads and/or a silver band create a "collar," sometimes embroidered with the words of the blessing spoken upon donning the tallit. The tallit is allowed to rest on the shoulders or on the head in the manner of a cape.
    In some communities, tallitot are not worn by unmarried men; in others, teenagers and even younger boys wear them. The shawl itself has no intrinsic meaning, but the fringes are considered holy. At the recitation of shema yisrael (the phrase "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One," a twice-daily recitation of the declaration of God's unity) in the morning service, worshippers clutch the four corner fringes and kiss them upon the mention of the word tsitsit. It is customary to bury male Jews in their tallitot, from which the fringes have been removed.
    The second type of fringed garment is the tallit katan ("small tallit"), worn by adult men and by boys from the age of three or four. The purpose of this sleeveless undergarment is to observe the commandment of fringes at all waking hours.
    The Bible (Exodus 13:1-10 and 11-16; Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) enjoins men to bind God's words on their heads and arms, and this commandment is observed literally in the wearing of tefillin, a pair of cubical, black-painted leather boxes mounted on bases, containing the relevant scriptural passages on parchment. They are bound by black leather straps to the arm and to the head. The wearing of tefillin begins at the age of 13. Tefillin are worn during weekday morning prayers, with a few exceptions. They are treated with great respect, and must not be dropped or taken to an unclean place.
    Josephus Flavius (1st century CE) reported Jews wearing tefillin, and fragments of tefillin were found at caves in the Dead Sea area. The Hebrew term "tefillin" is often mistranslated as phylacteries, Greek for "amulet," as mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 23:5). However, Jews do not regard them as such.
    Women's ceremonial objects are associated with marriage. Weddings are conducted under a huppa, a canopy supported by poles, generally stationed outdoors and supported by friends of the bride and groom. The nuptials themselves are often termed "the huppa." The certificate of marriage, the ketuba (pl. ketubot), sets forth the husband's obligations toward his wife, financially and in other areas of their life. Prepared and signed before witnesses shortly before the nuptials, the ketuba is kept by the wife. As prosaic as ketubot are, they are customarily decorated in various ways, some very elaborate. For centuries, ketubot made of parchment have been embellished in bright colors and ornamented with Jewish symbols.

    In the Synagogue
    Synagogues range from ordinary buildings and even rooms (in Israel, air-raid shelters are often used) to palatial halls. The main ceremonial object is the Holy Ark, which may take the form of a simple wooden cupboard or an elaborate ornamental closet. Arks are often raised, to be approached by stairs, and embellished with representations of the Ten Commandments.
    The Ark is positioned at, or embedded into, the wall facing Jerusalem. It has an embroidered or otherwise ornamented veil, commonly of heavy velvet, or decorated wooden doors. A synagogue may have several sets of Ark veils: plain for weekdays, embellished for the Sabbath and festivals, white for the High Holidays.
    The most important ceremonial object is the Torah scroll, the Pentatuch, which retells the history of the Jewish people and carries universal messages of monotheism and ethical behavior. It is kept in the Ark at all times save for public reading. The scroll, comprised of large sheets of parchment sewn together, may reach a height of up to 80 cm. It is mounted on two wooden staves for rolling, raising and carrying. In the Ashkenazi (European) custom, the finely-tooled handles of the staves are often sheathed in crowns or finials of fine metal. The Torah is bound with a scarf, plain or embroidered, which is removed only when it is read in public, and protected by a sliding jacket, often elaborately embroidered. A breastplate, reminiscent of that of the High Priest, is suspended from the stave handles and allowed to lie upon the jacket. In Middle Eastern ("Sephardi") communities, the Torah scroll is placed in a cylindrical case, polished and embellished, often draped with a scarf. Most cases are of wood, but silver and gold models exist.
    The Torah scroll is treated with the utmost reverence, although, of course, it is not worshipped. Like tefillin, it must not be dropped or brought into an unclean place. The parchment of a Torah scroll is not touched except when absolutely necessary. Its reader holds a wooden or silver pointer, which has a hand and an outstretched forefinger at its end.
    Synagogues may have additional scrolls; the most common are Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, and Esther, which are publicly recited on Pesach, Shavuot (Pentacost), Sukkot, and Purim, respectively. Some synagogues have a separate ark containing scrolls of Biblical books from which the haftarot, supplementary public readings on the Sabbath and festivals, are read. The scroll most commonly found other than the Torah is Esther, which retells the account of Purim. Because it does not mention God's name, it is of lesser sanctity than the other scrolls, is the least demanding to write, and is found in many homes. It is kept in a canister made of wood, silver, silver plating or other materials.
    An ornamental lamp, symbolic of the "eternal light" in the Temple in Jerusalem, is placed in front of the Ark. Synagogues are fully serviceable without this lamp, and many Israeli synagogues lack it. Ceremonial objects in the synagogue include a shofar (pl. shofarot), a ram's horn, sounded at the end of morning services during the month preceding the New Year (Rosh Hashana), on Rosh Hashana itself and on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Shofarot are usually unornamented, but may be engraved as long as the mouthpiece remains unchanged.
    Synagogue walls are adorned with various objects. One is the Shiviti, an embellished representation of Psalms 16:8 - "I have set [Heb.: shiviti] the Lord always before me" - in a ornamental frame. Other objects are synagogue notices and a sign indicating the direction of Jerusalem.
    Many synagogues are equipped with a richly carved and ornamented elevated armchair, which is left unoccupied during the circumcision ritual, performed on infant boys at the age of eight days. This piece of furniture is known as "Elijah's Chair," after Malakhi 3:1, in which the Prophet Elijah is called the "angel of the covenant" - brit in Hebrew, which also means circumcision.

    Caring for and Disposing of Ceremonial Objects
    Jewish ceremonial objects are used regularly, and therefore suffer wear and tear. Writing on parchment fades and flakes; the leather of tefillin bends and rips. Tallit fringes fray and tear, and books, especially those used in the synagogue, shed pages.
    These items are revered, and require special treatment when no longer usable. Along with anything bearing the name of God, they are placed in a special receptacle called a geniza (archive). When the geniza is full, its contents are given a ritual burial.