Torah and its commentaries


Torah scroll. The first unit of the Hebrew Bible is the Torah, which comprises the five books of Moses. According to Jewish belief, Moses received the Torah from God on Mount Sinai, along with its verbal explanations and commands (Talmud). Each week a larger chapter from the Torah is read publicly, which called the weekly portion. The Torah scribe, called the Sofer, writes the Torah on a parchment prepared according to strict rules, and with ink proper of ritual requirements. One must follow the specifications laid down in the tradition when writing and using the Torah, otherwise the Torah is “pasul”, the opposite of kosher.

Torah on Display?

The Torah is respectable even if damaged or defective, i.e. it is not fit for ritual purposes. In such instances, in order to preserve its dignity, it is ritually buried. The Torah must not be left unfolded, revealing the text. We can still put it on display, in line with the decision of Rabbi Samuel Kohn of Budapest, who, in 1896 permitted to reveal the Torah on exhibitions and for educational purposes. 


Miniature Torah scroll with tiny Torah finials. The small, paper printed scroll was supposedly shown as a jewel in a display case in a Jewish family home.

Miniature Torah scroll of Miksa Domonkos. The miniature Torah scroll was owned by Miksa Domonkos, one of the members of the Jewish Council set up in 1944. The Hebrew monogram “MD” on the velvet mantle covering the scroll refers to the name of the owner. According to family tradition, during the Holocaust, Miksa Domonkos carried the little scroll in his pocket as an amulet.


Torah mantel. In European, Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the scroll is first tied, and then dressed in a fine Torah-coat made of silk, velvet, or simpler materials. The embroidery on the tobacco-colored Torah mantle refers to symbols associated with the Torah. Above the simple, embroidered houses a growing olive tree towers. The text surrounding the composition in a semicircle is a quote from the book of Proverbs: “She is a tree of life to those who grasp her” (Proverbs 3:18), which clearly refers to the Torah. At the same time, the two shafts to which the parchment containing the text of Torah are wound up are called the tree of life (aitz chayim). Yet the not these shafts but the olive tree is displayed on the mantel, which is identified in Jewish folklore and mystical thinking as the real tree of life. The embroidered text on the protective mantle can be interpreted in very specific terms, referring to the physical content inside the mantle. But it can be also understood, in a poetic sense, referring to the spiritual significance of the Torah. Visual appearance, however, shows the “tree of life” motif that plays a role in the Jewish mysticism as well. 

Torah Ornaments

In Ashkenazi communities the rolled up Torah scrolls were dressed in richly decorated Torah mantles; additional Torah ornaments, made usually of precious metal were hung over the Torah mantle. The use and production of such decorative elements is not a requirement, they symbolize the appreciation of the Torah, and they emerged only in the past few centuries.  


Torah crown. Crowns were the first to appear as ornamentations placed on the top of the two wooden shafts attached to the Torah scrolls. The three-story, enormous Torah decoration once belonged to the accessories of the Dohány Street Synagogue. On the top the motif of the tree of life rising from the crown, which is a symbol for displaying God. When moving around the scroll, the sound of the bells placed in circles enhance the solemnity of the synagogue service. Vienna, 1855.


Torah pointer, Vienna, 1804. It is considered improper to touch the Torah with one’s hand during the reading of the Torah, so as to not damage the carefully written letters. In the Middle Ages, the parchment was covered with a piece of cloth, which was also used to point to the line being read. There are references of specific items made for this purpose from the sixteenth century onwards. The most common form of a Torah pointer is a hand with an outstretched pointing finger, made of metal, wood, bone, or nowadays even from glass or plastic. This object is traditionally called by its Hebrew name, yad.


Pair of Torah finials. The oldest ornaments of the Torah scroll are the finials placed on top of the two wooden rolls that hold the parchment. In Hebrew they are called rimon, or rimonim in the plural, which means ‘pomegranate’, which is an ancient symbol of fertility, wealth, and figuratively also represents the Torah. The palm tree shaped Torah finials were donated for the inauguration of the Synagogue of Miskolc (1863). Vienna, 1863.


Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Brachot tractate. Together with the written Torah the oral laws of Judaism was also received, which were written down after the destruction of the Temple between 200-500 C.E. The Talmud is an encyclopaedia consisting of two parts: the Mishnah, and the Gemara, which has detailed explanations and discussions of the laws of Mishnah. The Gemara contains the teachings and opinions of more than three thousand scholars about the interpretation of the laws of the Torah. Mishnah is written in Hebrew, while the Gemara in Aramaic. The Talmud is not a code of law, but rather a case-book of law, where rabbis decide on the controversial issues, taking into account the typical cases. There are two versions of the Talmud: the Talmud Yerushalmi, edited in Jerusalem, and Talmud Bavli, edited in Babylonia. The Talmud Bavli was first printed between 1488 and 1519, while Yerushalmi was published in 1523. All releases of the Talmud are stereotyped, meaning that the same text is on the same page and line. Studying the Talmud has become a sacred duty of Jewish men, not just for rabbis and scholars, but for ordinary people as well. It also became a target for anti-Jewish movements: numerous fake translations appeared, resulting in burning and distructing those books. Vienna, 1808


Torah crown, 1875. Sephardic Jewish tradition at times also couples the Torah finials together with an open crown, which further emphasizes the motif of the tree of life as it springs from the crown. Therefore, the crown exhibited certainly had two wooden shafts (Etz Hayim), which did not become part of the collection.


Torah shield. In the middle of the Torah shield a gold plated silver Torah scroll is visible behind the tiny opened doors, which evoke the doors of the Torah Ark.  


Torah shields and breastplates first appeared by the end of the 16th century. They were meant to decorate and protect the Torah scroll and with the help of the exchangeable plaques to help find the relevant Torah portion to which a particular scroll is rolled. These plaques showed the names the holidays or the weekly Torah portions. 


Sefer Ruach Chen. The earliest Hebrew printed book in the collection is an excellent example for the migration of Jewish ideals, books, and communities, and the networks between them. The book itself is an explanation, a dictionary of philosophical terms, and a commentary made on the translation of the book of Maimonides: ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’. Maimonides originally wrote ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ in Arabic but with Hebrew letters. A contemporary of Maimonides, Smuel ibn Tibbon, from Béziers, translated the book into Hebrew and for the sake of an accurate translation they corresponded with each other. ‘The Guide for the Perplexed’ became instantly popular and its manuscripts spread all over the Jewish world. The first printed edition of the Sefer Ruach Chen was published in Venice in 1549, by the printing press of Israel Cornelius Adelkind. On the margins of the collection’s copy of the Sefer Ruach Chen we could observe unidentified early modern Sephardic handwriting notes.


Torah shield. According to the cycle of the Torah reading the parchment of Torah is continuously shifted from one rod to another. On Simchat Torah (the holiday for rejoicing over the Torah) at the turn of the annual reading cycle, the scroll is ritually rolled back to the beginning. In European, Ashkenazi Jewish communities, the scroll is first tied, and then dressed in a fine Torah-coat, which is further adorned by various Torah-ornaments, typically made from precious metals. The making and use of these ornaments is not required by law, but they are symbols of how greatly the Torah-scroll is admired, prompting the desire to adorn it. The Torah-shield is the most recent of these items; it developed in the sixteenth century. A possible reason for its development is a functional one. Most probably they were made in order to use the small slots on the Torah-shield to indicate to which Torah portion that scroll was rolled. Vienna, 1805.


Codex page with micrographic decoration. On the parchment sheet there is a detail of a micrographic representation: Eve holding palm leaves in front of her with one hand and with the other offers an apple to Adam, whose only one hand and leg is visible. Between them, there is a tree with a serpent coiling on it. The second commandment’s provisions that prohibit figural representations have been many ways tackled to overcome by Jewish artists. The most typical micrographic depictions are when the sacred texts are written in very small letters and are rendered into a variety of abstract, plant, animal or human figures. Each corners of Hungary’s most precious Jewish codex remnant are sharply cut off and from the way they are creased, it becomes obvious that the original codex was dissembled and this parchment had been reused for another book as a cover. According to Fülöp Grünvald, this fragment of a codex could come from the Jewish community of Buda that was burnt down in 1686, during the re-conquest of Buda from the Turks. In Sándor Scheiber’s opinion, this parchment could even belong to the famous Corvina library of King Matthias. Enlarge the picture!


Jedaiah Bedersi: Behinat HaOlam. Jedaiah Bedersi (c. 1270 – c. 1340) wrote a book with the title ‘The Examination of the World’ after the banishment of the Jews from France (1306). The poem that deals with Jewish history also sums up the events of the expulsion from France. His work became such a great success that it was one of the first Hebrew printed books, and was followed by an additional sixty-seven edition, completed with commentaries. There were manuscript copies as well, like the one in our collection, which was written in 1562.  


Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious laws. A more literal translation might be “the way of walking”. We use this term as a common name for Jewish laws, derived from the Bible or the rabbinical literature. There are many formal codes of Jewish law that have developed over the past centuries and are used as sources of law even as we speak. 


Maimonides: Mishneh Torah. Maimonides was born in 1135, in Córdoba, from where he had to flee after the Almohad conquest. He settled down in Fostat (once the capital of Egypt), where he made a living as a physician and wrote his philosophical works; among others, between 1170 and 1180, his masterpiece the Mishneh Torah. His intention was to collect and systemize the Jewish legal rules accumulated in the Oral Law (halacha). Maimonides died in Egypt in 1204, and his body was later buried in Tiberias. The Mishneh Torah endures as an influential work in Jewish religious thought, and it is still one of the most studied and most frequently cited halachic work, published in many various editions.  


Prayer book, Trebic. The importance of handwritten prayer books remained unchanged even after the spread of printing, because of Judaism’s tradition to written letters. Illustrated and hand written luxurious prayer books for personal use became fashionable in the 18th century, mostly among Central European wealthy Jewish families. The first page, following the cover page of the prayer book, helps the reader meditate and contemplate. The most typical text here is the Psalm 67, which is arranged in the shape of a Menorah. Psalm 67 is a part of the daily prayer, asking for the time when every nation recognizes the divine truth and brings peace to the world. According to Jewish tradition, the author of this psalm is not David, but the wind, which played on his harp. Since the menorah is the symbol of miracle and salvation, it is the appropriate form for the miracle expecting content of the text; but more mystical explanations are also known regarding the connection between the two. The 49 words of the seven-verse Psalm are distributed in a 7-6-6-11-6-6-7 pattern. Writing them bellow each other they form a rotated menorah. A protective power was attributed to this typographic layout of the Psalm, written in the form of the menorah, which frequently appeared in the Jewish visual culture from the 16th century onwards. Trebic, 1723.

Secret Message?

Certain motifs of the items on display here are references to the entire system of Jewish textual legacy.  Cherubim appearing on the crown, or the text of a psalm written out in the shape of a menorah evoke subsequent commentaries on biblical texts. They provide explanations to the Bible on the one hand, and by adding mystical contents, they proclaim the eternal presence of the Almighty whose portrayal is forbidden.


Central panel of the Torah Ark curtain. The elaborate central panel of the Torah Ark curtain, called mirror, was one of the curtains that used to decorate the Torah Ark of the Nagykanizsa synagogue, built between 1807 and 1821. Made in the fashionable style of the era, the donors’ names inscribed in Hebrew are surrounded by laurel wreath. Above, similar to the Austrian imperial crown, is a raised embroidery crown, symbolizes the crown of the Torah scroll. The two figures beneath the crown cite a sentence from the second book of Moses and its subsequent commentaries. “And you shall make two golden cherubim; you shall make them of hammered work, from the two ends of the ark cover.” (...) “I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark cover from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, all that I will command you unto the children of Israel.” The nature of cherubs has been widely discussed. Yalkut Shimoni, a very popular midrash collection of the early modern period says that the cherubs hide the in the crown. We see the visual expression of this idea on the Torah Ark curtain. This motif made synagogue goers understand the text, and reminded them of God’s protective power over Jewish communities. Nagykanizsa, 1808.


Torah finials and Torah shield. Free royal cities and guilds operating in the cities exercised their rights not to allow Jews within the city walls or be a member of their guilds. This restriction that started in the Middle Ages and lasted until the dawn of the modern era, resulted that we hardly find any Jewish craftsman during this period of time. There were only two towns in the Hungarian Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries where Jews were allowed to work as silversmiths: Óbuda (Alt-Ofen) and Bratislava (Pressburg-Schlossberg). In those communities, Jewish craftsmen created Judaica as well, which was unusual in Central Europe, where even Jewish ceremonial objects were normally crafted by Gentiles. The members of the Becker dynasty from Pressburg (Bratislava today) were outstanding silversmiths. Along with ordinary silver objects they also produced objects to beautify the Torah scroll for the surrounding Jewish communities. There are at least 14 pairs of Torah finials created by Fredericus Becker, Sr. (active ca. 1800-1826). Two of them belongs to our collection: one is the Torah finials he made for the community of Óbuda and the other one is the Torah shield made for the community of Pest.


Pair of Torah finials, around 1800. They were made for the Jewish Community of Óbuda by a well-known goldsmiths in Pest, called Ferenc Pasperger.  


Hatam Sofer, Pressburg (today Bratislava). The Jews of Pressburg living on the Pálffy estate was the biggest Jewish community of Hungary at its time. They invited Moses Schreiber to be their rabbi in 1806, who, according to family legends, was the descendant of Rashi, the renowned Bible Commentator living in the 11th century. Moses Schreiber (or traditionally ‘Hatam Sofer’ as he is referred to in the Jewish world, after the title of his book made on rabbinic decisions) has radically opposed any kind of innovation. He believed, based on his experiences in Germany, that adaptation and integration to the rising middle class of the Christian world would eliminate the strict separation of Jewish communities, which secured the survival of Judaism for centuries. He wanted to build “fences and limits” around the tradition in order to make lessen the effects of modernization in the Jewish world. He established a yeshiva, that became the most influential rabbinic seminar in the world. He had such a great respect that he had visitors coming even from Africa asking questions on Halacha (Jewish law). His answers were only printed after his death, in 1859, in Pressburg.


Moses Mendelssohn: Sefer Netivot Hashalom. The first, widespread, modern translation of the Jewish texts is a work of Moses Mendelssohn, the prominent rabbi of the Jewish enlightenment, the “Haskalah”. He first published the German translation of the five books of Moses with commentaries. The text though is literary German, but was printed with Hebrew letters. His work divided the contemporary Jewish society. While the advocates of modernity welcomed it, many considered it a blasphemy. Vienna, 1818.  


Torah crown from Galicia, end of the 18th century


Shiviti plaque. The shiviti plaque is found in synagogues in front of the podium from which the prayer service is led. These plaques received their name from the Biblical verse inscribed on them. Verse 8 of Psalm 16 says: Shivviti Adonay ke-negdi tamid, “I have set the Lord always before me”. Mordecai ben Eliezer, the cantor of Megyer (in Western Hungary) made this Shivviti plaque using the entire text of the Book of Psalms and the Five Scrolls (the Song of Songs, the Book of Ruth, Book of Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Book of Esther). The three tympanums on top of the pillars that divide the plaque is from the Book of Psalms. The figure of King David playing on the harp and the picture depicting Jacob’s dream are also made using the text of Psalms. In the fields divided by the pillars, the text of the five scrolls appears in the form of a biblical character each: In the bottom row on the left King Solomon is formed from the text of the Song of Songs, and on the right Ruth is formed from the Book of Ruth. Above them, Esther from the Book of Esther, and on the right again Solomon, from Ecclesiastes. In the same row as Jacob’s dream, on the left hand side there is an envelope with the text of the Book of Lamentations. On the bottom of the plaque, in the middle, there is a menorah, formed of flower-buds and blossoms according to the Biblical description. On the top of the page, between the tympanums, there are two birds holding the Torah scroll. Mordecai ben Eliezer made this plaque in 1828, in Megyer.


The building of the Jewish Museum carries the memory of several symbolic historical events. The ornate row of windows in the second hall belonged to the original furnishing of the building that was transmitted in 1931 and miraculously survived the 20th century intact. The windows serve as reminders of the fact that the Museum was created with the support and donations of the rich and influential Jewish elite. All the windows enshrine the memory of a prestigious family, who often appear among the founders and donors of other charitable institutions in Pest.
On the glass pictures, there are mostly images of biblical stories: David and Goliath, the sacrifice of Isaac, inding Moses, Haman and Mordechai, Daniel’s vision, the Pharaoh’s dream, King David’s prayer, by the rivers of Babylon, Solomon's Prayer of Dedication, Daniel in the lion’s den, Deborah, and Betzalel. The biblical themes are complemented by two historical images: the death of Judah Halevi and Maimonides surrounded by his disciples.