The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe

Bracha Yaniv

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ISBN: 9781906764371

Publication: August 1, 2017

Series: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

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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.

Bracha Yaniv is Professor Emerita of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. In addition to many articles on the topic, she has published two pioneering books in Hebrew on the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects; Ceremonial Synagogue Textiles is the first to be translated into English. Her first book-length publication in English, The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe, is also published by the Littman Library.

Note on Transliteration


1. The Emergence of the Torah Ark from Antiquity to the Seventeenth Century
2. Historical and Cultural Background
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
The Rise of Hasidism and the Influence of Kabbalah
3. Construction and Design
Crafts, Artisans, and Workshops
   The Lithuanian Workshop of Jacob ben Solomon of Raseinai
   The Workshop of the Vase in a Niche
   The Rococo-Style Workshop
   The Belarusian Workshop
   The Ukrainian Workshop
Constructing the Ark
   Materials and Techniques
   Style and Design

Introduction: The Architectural Structure of the Torah Ark
4. The Kingdom of God in the Little Sanctuary
The Throne of Glory
The Eagle as a Metaphor for God
The Three Crowns
Praise of God
   Perek shirah
Music in the Temple
5. The Temple
The Gateway to Heaven
   The Passageway
   The Inscription Avinu Malkenu
   Yakhin and Boaz
The Ark of the Covenant and the Temple Appurtenances
   The Kaporet and the Cherubim
   The Tree of Life: Symbol of the Torah
The Seven-Branched Menorah
   The Menorah and the Showbread Table
   The Menorah as a Solitary Motif
   The Menorah in Zechariah’s Vision
   The Menorah as a Mystical Symbol
The Temple Rituals: Avodat Hakodesh
   The Sacrificial Offerings
   The Priestly Blessing
   Offering of the First Fruits
6. Messianic Expectations
Personal Redemption: The Leviathan and the Ox
National Redemption
   Aaron’s Rod, the Manna Jar, and the Jug of Anointing Oil
   The Four Species and the Shofar

I. Fourteen Torah Arks: Comprehensive Description, Technical Data, and Supporting Documentation
1. Kamyanka-Buzka, Western Ukraine, c.1775
2. Vyzˇuonos, Central Lithuania, 1784
3. Zabłudów, North-East Poland, 1765
4. Druya, Northern Belarus, 1774/5
5. Zelva, Western Belarus, 1849/50
6. Lukiv, Western Ukraine, c.1781
7. Hrodna, Western Belarus, Late Eighteenth Century
8. Nowe Miasto nad Pilica˛, East-Central Poland, after 1800
9. Sˇauke˙nai, Central Lithuania, 1885/6
10. Przedbórz, Central Poland, c.1775
11. Valkininkai, South-East Lithuania, 1804
12. Ke˛pno, West-Central Poland, 1816/17
13. Vowpa, Western Belarus, 1781
14. Unidentified Ark, Ukraine, Nineteenth Century
II. Biblical Quotations and Liturgical Phrases Adorning the Arks
III. Carpenters and Woodcarvers of Arks
IV. Alphabetical List of the Arks Comprising the Visual Database for This Study

List of Illustrations

List of Institutions



Format: Hardback

Size: 275 x 210 mm

464 Pages

150 illustrations

ISBN: 9781906764371

Publication: August 1, 2017

Series: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

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