Objects Tell Stories: Simchat Torah in the Jewish Museum Collection

Torah Scroll, Ioánnina, Greece, mid-late 19th century. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Leon and Selma Cohen in memory of Morris and Mollie Cohen. © Photo The Jewish Museum, New York by Ardon Bar Hama

Torah Scroll, Ioánnina, Greece, mid-late 19th century. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Leon and Selma Cohen in memory of Morris and Mollie Cohen. © Photo The Jewish Museum, New York by Ardon Bar Hama.

 

The Torah, as the Old Testament is called in Hebrew, is the core narrative of the Jewish faith. Every Sabbath, a portion of the Torah is chanted in the synagogue. It takes a year to complete the entire cycle through the five major portions of the Torah, also called the five books of Moses or the Pentateuch. Simchat Torah celebrates the completion and restarting of the cycle of reading the entire Torah.

Torah ark from Adath Jeshurun Synagogue, Sioux City, IA, The Jewish Museum

Abraham Shulkin, Torah Ark from Adath Yeshurun Synagogue, Sioux City, Iowa, 1899. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the Jewish Federation of Sioux City.

On Simchat Torah, which literally means “Rejoicing with the Torah,” all of the Torah scrolls are removed from the ark—a cabinet designed to hold Torah scrolls—and amid festive singing and dancing are paraded around the synagogue in their ornaments. Torahs are housed and decorated in different ways throughout global Jewish cultures.

In Western European, or Ashkenazi culture, the Torah ark is often an elaborate cabinet with carvings and ornamentation to signify the Torah’s place of honor.

Abraham Shulkin, a peddler and junk dealer, carved this particular ark for the Orthodox synagogue in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1899. Shulkin was among the Russian Jewish immigrants who arrived in Sioux City in the late 19th century. In creating this ark, he drew heavily from the artistic traditions of his homeland(?). The intricate style of the carving, as well as many of the ark’s motifs, show a close connection to wooden Torah arks of Eastern Europe. In fact, the synagogue of Izabielin, Lithuania, not far from Shulkin’s native village, had a wooden ark similarly carved with animals and vegetal motifs.

Shulkin’s ark also includes numerous Jewish symbols—six-pointed Jewish stars, seven branched menorahs, lions, the tablets of the Ten Commandments called the Decalogue, representations of the priestly blessing—as well as an eagle, a symbol often used in Eastern Europe as an emblem associated with the ruling power.

Matar Ishmael ha-Ramhi, Samaritan Torah Case (Tik), Damascus (Syria), 1568. The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of the H. Ephraim and Mordecai Benguiat Family Collection.

Samaritan Torah Case (Tik) Matar Ishmael ha-Ramhi, Damascus (Syria), 1568.

On either side of the Ten Commandments is written in Hebrew, “This is the hand-work of Abraham Shulkin.” Below the Decalogue is a dedicatory inscription, which reads, “This Torah ark was donated by Simhah, daughter of the esteemed David Davidson.” David Davidson owned a department store in Sioux City, and he provided the lumber to build the ark.

By contrast for Sephardic Jews of Spain and the Arab world, the Torah was housed in its own standing case. Many eastern communities use a hard case, or tik, to house and protect the Torah scroll. A tik can be made of wood, leather, or metal. This tik, made of copper and inlaid with silver floral arabesques, was created for the Samaritan community, which lives and worships in northern Israel. Created in the mid-16th century it reflects the Mamluk style of art that continued to be used in the region even after the Ottoman conquest of Syria in 1516.

Various ornaments were developed to safeguard the sanctity and protect the Torah from damage (mantle, case, and binder), to facilitate its public reading (shield and pointer), and to emphasize its majesty (crown and finials). Search the Jewish Museum collection for torah ornaments, a major facet in Jewish ceremonial art.

In observance of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah the Jewish Museum galleries, shops, and Russ & Daughters close early on Sunday, October 23 at 3 pm and will be closed on Monday, October 24, as well as Tuesday, October 25. Learn more about the Jewish holidays with our downloadable resources for educators to build a curriculum illustrated by works in our collection.