PRINT October 1978

The Woven Word

“There is a metaphysics of embroidery and weaving for the detailed description of which a whole volume might be required . . .”
—Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

IT WAS INITIALLY TEMPTING to experience “The Fabric of Jewish Life” at the Jewish Museum for the sheer sensual pleasure afforded by this display of rare textiles. These ornate artifacts, made of weave-patterned silks, cut velvets, handmade laces of gold and silver and polychrome silk embroidery, are almost too rich to digest. Yet the form and symbolism of the works, so intriguingly unfamiliar, led one on, until the desire to decipher their meaning had to be satisfied. The full beauty of these objects, it turned out, is only fully revealed when the cultural context of the works, and of the artisans who made them, is illuminated. The exhibition, a representative sample of the museum’s permanent textile collection, sought to clarify this issue of context. Through “form, inscription, iconography, function, and oral history” these objects are related to Jewish life; “the critical feature is that they functioned and were meaningful in Jewish settings,” to quote the catalogue.

Largely formed after World War II, the Jewish Museum collection contains examples of textiles and tapestries from major Jewish settlements of the last five centuries. Many of the pieces come from communities that were destroyed during the Holocaust. There is a variety of genres, ranging from the most sacred ritual objects to the most popular iconography.

Based on the Bible, these artifacts evidence the twofold intentions of their creators: to beautify and to personalize. The intention to beautify traces back to the rabbinical translation of a phrase from the “Song of Moses”: “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (which translates literally as, “I will make Him lovely I will beautify or adorn Him”; Exodus 15:2). From sacred worship to festival feasting, every ritual act entailing the use of objects is subject to this imperative.

The second intention, personalization, maintains the Jewish concept of a personal God, which originated over 4000 years ago as the response to the economic and social needs of a nomadic patriarchy. The story is well known: Yahweh chose the Jews as his people and formed a Covenant, or personal agreement, with them, in which he promised to send a Messiah who would lead them to the Land of Milk and Honey in exchange for their observance of His law, the Ten Commandments. If Christians usually think of this promised land in terms of an afterlife (although the “Kingdom of God” is somehow this world transformed), Judaism continues to regard the Covenant in thoroughly earthly terms. It is the observance of this primitive belief in a unique, and personal, destiny that has enabled the Jews, through centuries of exile, to survive and to exert on all aspects of culture an influence so disproportionate to their number, wealth and political power.1

Certain limitations are imposed by esthetic and personal considerations on the creation of the artifact that we are considering. They are, first of all, subject to the binding precepts of the Talmud—the traditional body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law. Even more fundamental, and quite specific, are the limitations of the Second Commandment, which forbade “any manner of likeness in anything in Heaven above or the earth beneath . . .”2 Above all, these textiles were restricted by the existential limitations inherent in the condition of exile, the necessary adjustments to alien cultures and problems posed by discrimination. The objects can therefore be viewed as tributes to the scope of human inventiveness and imagination within rigidly defined strictures. Moreover, Jewish custom may therefore be justifiably described as collaborative, with the creativity of the artisans working in tandem with the proscriptions of destiny: hence the personal experience is reinforced by the collaborative efforts to beautify.

The focus on cloth as a medium for the glorification of God has biblical roots. Exodus 25–27 gives instructions for the construction of the first portable tabernacle in the desert (concurrent with the Covenant). Structurally supported by gilded acacia wood with silver joints, its interior was lined with curtains and divided by a veil into two sections: the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies—the repository of the Ten Commandments. This physical proximity of cloth to the Tablets was prescribed by Exodus 26:1: “You shall have a veil woven of blue, purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen with cherubim embroidered on them.” And the subsequent importance of curtains, veils and other cloths in Jewish ritual may be largely attributed to this sacred proximity. (Later on, the inclusion of textiles in religious rites was expedited by the coincidence of extensive Jewish involvement in the textile industry, which was one of the few industries open to European Jews at the time of the creation of these artifacts.)

The actual tablets of Ten Commandments were lost in 586 B.C., when the Babylonians conquered Israel. The Covenant is now represented by the Torah, a scroll containing the first five books of the Bible. This ancient format serves to remind the Jews that the word of God was received before the existence of books. As the Torah succeeded the Ten Commandments tablets as the highest embodiment of the word of God, the Torah curtain and its accessories assumed great religious significance. Reserved for the glorification of the Torah, these pieces were the most widely represented type in “The Fabric of Jewish Life.” Rabbinical interpretation instructs the Jews to “make a beautiful Torah scroll with fine ink and a fine reed by a skilled scribe, and wrap it about with beautiful silks” (Shabbat 133b). These scrolls, then, are secured with a cloth binder, covered with a cloth mantle and placed in a wooden cabinet, in front of which is hung a curtain with a valence. The valence represents the slab of gold that covered the box containing the original stone tablets of Moses.

The impulse to personalize complements the impulse to beautify in a unique practice called “pious recycling.”3 During the 17th and 18th centuries, silks and brocades were quite costly. Garments were frequently remade when they were no longer stylish and donated to a synagogue when no longer wearable. These were incorporated into holy cloths. Often the design in the resultant tapestries commemorated the donor. The practice of pious recycling was hierarchical: fabric reached the holiest use in its last stages, and then it became venerable. The fact that the fabric had a history rendered it more valuable for purposes of worship. Furthermore, it contributed to the collaborative aspect of the art, enabling the viewer of the finished artifact to relate to the acknowledged personal effects of another.

Many levels of symbolism exist in the various Torah cloths. There is that of the cloth itself, which represents the veil in the original tabernacle’s Holy of Holies. There is the imagery appliquéd to and woven into the pieces. And there are the multiple levels of symbols reflecting and symbolizing themselves.

Besides the obvious color symbols, observed now only in the use of gold and silver, the most important recurring biblical motif is that of cherubim. Unlike the chubby angel putti who appear in Christian works, these figures are derived from the griffins, or hybrid creatures, seen in Oriental art. Usually depicted as lions, these cherubim are seen in the valence over the Torah curtain, as well as on the curtain itself. Often winged, they may represent strength. Columns represent the columned brass monuments that flanked the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Solomon, the first permanent temple. Modeled on the tabernacle, this edifice may symbolize structure, and the columns are often encircled by vines, which represent fertility. The Menorah—an actual object used in the tabernacle—stands for the light of truth, knowledge and God’s presence. The Magen David, the six-pointed star of Judaism, is commonly misapprehended as having its beginnings in antiquity and being nearly as sacred as the Torah itself. Actually, it cannot be found on tombs earlier than the third century A.D. (and it carries certain negative historical connotations, besides); it came into use as an emblem relatively recently, not appearing on Torah curtains until the 19th century.

Words and verses frequently appear as well, to mark an event or to commemorate a person. The two tablets of the Ten Commandments are almost always present in some form, and the opening words of each commandment are sometimes represented. The viewer is reminded that it is not the Torah, but God Himself, who is worshipped by the recurrence of the words “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalms 16:18). A single crown represents the sovereignty of the Torah, while three together depict the tripartite roles of royalty, priesthood and law in the original Covenant. Jerusalem also appears, as a geographical and cosmological reference to the Covenant.

The central square area of the Torah is usually imageless (except for a repeating pattern) and is referred to as the “Mirror.” This nondescriptive patterned area represents the Shekinah, a primitive notion of the presence of God, thought to have rested between the two cherubim in the tabernacle. The Mirror is intended to operate as a kind of projection screen for each individual’s personal vision of God. Frequently appearing between two columns, the central Mirror may even be read as an image of the Torah curtain itself, mirror within mirror.4

The styles of these holy cloths divide into two areas of influence: the Sephardic (Spanish, North African and the Mediterranean) and the Ashkenazic (Eastern European), with much overlap resulting from exchanges between the various communities. Regardless of their native origin, the Torah curtains are often described as having an Oriental-carpet format. The tradition of collaboration, therefore, advanced with an initial synthesis of the European and the Jewish with the earlier Oriental.

In these various ways Judaism informed the hands, eyes, and mind of the Jewish textile artist. One could not, then, pass judgment on the success or failure of a given piece without acknowledging the contextual factors. From a culturally informed perspective, however, the viewer is able to perceive a developmental sequence. In some of the more exciting Torah curtains, abstract pattern imagery reveals itself as Jewish symbolism. Not surprisingly, this occurs in two pieces made by pious recycling. In the first (c. 1800), an ivory and tan, vertically striped, weave-patterned silk provides the background for the Mirror, made from a Polish nobleman’s polychrome silk and metallic sash (such sashes had been an indispensable part of the dress of the 18th-century Polish gentleman). That one can read the verticals as column imagery, or the vegetation as the symbolic vines—even as crowns—suggests the existence of an ultimately very broad, even archetypal, relationship between symbol and pattern in general. Similarly, the design in a silk brocade curtain of unknown origin appears as column, tablet and mirror imagery by the simple addition of a small crown of Torah in relief. This sort of iconographic switch is, of course, more generally encouraged by Baroque and Rococo stylizations of nature in textile pattern.

These two Torah curtains are formally naive. Their creators, while perceptive and ingenious, were limited technically. Artists with greater technical and material resources at their disposal may have been theologically limited, but they seem less limited formally.

Yet certain professional embroiderers trespassed upon even the theological limits respected by their colleagues. The Polish artist Jacob Koppel Gans developed what might be called the High Ashkenazic style. In a curtain made of green and red velvet with metallic embroidery (c. 1772), he defied theological convention by incorporating within the Mirror area the clear and specific image of a Menorah. Also unorthodox is the Italian curtain created nearly a century earlier by a woman professional, Simha Levi: made of purple silk appliquéd with gold and silver, the Mirror of this curtain depicts a highly representational image of Jerusalem. Although both Jerusalem and the Menorah are traditionally accepted images outside of the Mirror area to depict them within the Mirror—ordinarily reserved for the unified image presented by an uninterrupted pattern—would appear to be a breach of the rules. This could be partly attributed to these artists’ access to Baroque technology, yet any apparent heresy could also be explained by Gans’ and Levi’s profoundly sophisticated interpretation of the theological tradition: they may have proceeded from the esthetic premise that the image of a single object becomes so integral a part of the surface of the Mirror itself that the resultant gestalt is a unified image, a single entity, just as a repeated object (a pattern) combines with its background as a single image.

The Torah curtains offer a personalized vision of the spiritual, while other types of objects reveal religion’s spiritualized vision of the personal. Sacred Sabbath cloths cover the table, the matzoh and the challah at feast meals, and special towels are used during ritual ablutions. Representing the bridal chamber, the place of marriage’s consummation, wedding canopies are integrated into the marriage ceremony. All of these items are meaningfully decorated in ways that reflect their use. The circumcision ritual, considered the most personal aspect of the Covenant with God, utilizes sacred swaddling clothes. In Eastern Ashkenazic tradition, family members embroider, appliqué or block print these clothes with the child’s birth date and the important events of his life. These same cloths will come to bind the Torah at the child’s Bar Mitzvah and his wedding.

Again, it is difficult to evaluate such artifacts by esthetic criteria alone. In their original context, artistic hierarchy was secondary to religious: a Torah shawl was deemed of a higher order than a prayer shawl, regardless of the formal indications of skill or virtuosity, or of the individual artist. A glaring lack of specific information concerning the status of artists in the Jewish community indicates a dearth of support for the independent development of an artistic identity such as occurred with Christian art. There were Jewish guilds in which embroiderers shared techniques with ecclesiastical embroiderers generally, but as far as a specific artist (such as Gans) is concerned, there is no historical certainty that his or her sole occupation involved creative production. The ambiguous role of the artist in the Jewish community over most of the last 400 years is reflected in these works. In the social structure of which the Catholic Church was a part, the aims of individual artists and the aims of the Church could, by and large, augment and foster one another. In the tightly knit Jewish community, on the other hand, there were, of necessity, other priorities. And status was not to be had in art, but only in religious study. Those who produced art subordinated any individualism of expression to a less flexible convention.

Although this does not in any way resolve the dispute that rages on, nowadays, over the distinction between high and low art, it does indeed serve to point out that such categories arise from particular historically derived value systems and cannot be determined absolutely.5 On the other hand, when they are presented as art, these objects acquire a new cultural definition. Because transcendent experience and self-awareness were ultimately achieved in these works through abstraction, the outlook of Jewish traditional art can be seen as similar to the outlook of modernism.

Certain specific similarities between Jewish ritual art and Western Christian art are both striking and relevant. Historically, both have depended on the depiction of texture and pattern, two formal elements derived from clothing and drapery, for some of their esthetic appeal. In addition, clothing functioned as symbolism, supplying many of the most important clues to the character and identity of the figures in a particular work of representational art, as well as connecting the religious or allegorical content to the life of a specific time and to the viewer. “The Fabric of Jewish Life” has shown that clothing was a major source of symbolic and formal content in Jewish art as well. In the Torah curtains, one can see the interplay between the conventional (religious) format and the “contemporary” (Sephardic or Ashkenazic) style and details.

Although these artists absorbed many alien forms into their personal shape and content, they never seem to have barbarized or plagiarized. In fact, they always carefully acknowledged their sources (as in the case of pious recycling). That they transposed previously existing forms into their own syntax makes their artistic achievement all the more awesome. Given shape and content, these artists took hold of form. One wonders what would happen if this were reversed that is, if artists were to impose their own form on the Jewish artifacts. This is really a viable proposition, since the value of these works as objects is not directly dependent upon ritual but only on respect for the ritual tradition, even as one’s appreciation of a language’s beauty does not depend on constant etymological reference. These artifacts, now available for study, can be understood, assimilated and artistically responded to, like any discovery.

Maureen Connor

I would like to thank Sharon Gold, Rosalind Eichenstein and Eva Saks for their invaluable assistance.



1. Daniel J. Silver, A History of Judaism, Vol. I, New York, 1974, pp. 19–33.

2. There is great range of interpretations for this text.

3. Crista C. Mayer-Thurman’s Art Institute of Chicago catalogue Raiment for the Lord’s Service, Chicago, 1975, p. 50.

4. Lillian S. Freehof and Bucky King, Embroideries and Fabrics for Synagogue and Home, New York, 1966, pp. 32–64.

5. For more on this, see Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff, “Art Hysterical Notions of Progress and Culture,” Heresies, Winter 1978.