The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

Bracha Yaniv

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9781906764371

Publisher: Liverpool University Press


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 pieces survived the devastation of the two world wars. This book 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, the author develops a vivid portrait of the history and artistic development of these arks. 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. The author 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. The book throws new light on long-forgotten traditions of Jewish craftsmanship and religious understanding.