Visu­al Arts

The Carved Wood­en Torah Arks of East­ern Europe

Bracha Yaniv
  • From the Publisher
January 2, 2018

The carved wood­en Torah arks found in East­ern Europe from the sev­en­teenth to nine­teenth cen­turies were mag­nif­i­cent struc­tures, unpar­al­leled in their beau­ty and mys­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance. The work of Jew­ish arti­sans, they dom­i­nat­ed the syn­a­gogues of numer­ous towns both large and small through­out the for­mer Pol­ish-Lithuan­ian Com­mon­wealth, inspir­ing wor­ship­pers with their mon­u­men­tal scale and intri­cate motifs. Vir­tu­al­ly none of these superb pieces sur­vived the dev­as­ta­tion of the two world wars. Bracha Yaniv’s pio­neer­ing work there­fore breathes new life into a lost genre, mak­ing it acces­si­ble to schol­ars and stu­dents of Jew­ish art, Jew­ish her­itage, and reli­gious art more gen­er­al­ly. Mak­ing use of hun­dreds of pre-war pho­tographs housed in local archives, she devel­ops a vivid por­trait of the his­to­ry and artis­tic devel­op­ment of these arks, the scope and depth of her metic­u­lous research suc­cess­ful­ly com­pen­sat­ing for the absence of phys­i­cal remains. In this way she has suc­ceed­ed in pro­duc­ing a rich­ly illus­trat­ed and com­pre­hen­sive overview of a clas­sic Jew­ish reli­gious art form.

Pro­fes­sor Yaniv’s analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal con­text in which these arks emerged includes a broad sur­vey of the tra­di­tions that char­ac­ter­ized the local work­shops of Lithua­nia, Belarus, and Ukraine. She also pro­vides a detailed analy­sis of the motifs carved into the Torah arks and explains their mys­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance, among them rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Tem­ple imagery and mes­sian­ic themes-and even dar­ing visu­al metaphors for God. Four­teen arks are dis­cussed in par­tic­u­lar detail, with full sup­port­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion; appen­dices relat­ing to the inscrip­tions on the arks and to the arti­sans’ names will fur­ther facil­i­tate future research. This sem­i­nal work throws new light on long-for­got­ten tra­di­tions of Jew­ish crafts­man­ship and reli­gious understanding.

Discussion Questions