Parashat Truma

The Vessels of The Tabernacle in Jewish Art

Dr. Bracha Yaniv

Department of Jewish Art

The vessels of the Tabernacle described in Parshat Trumah have been a central motif in Jewish art from ancient times till the present. This motif appears in the art of synagogues, burial sites, illuminated manuscripts, amulets and more. The Vessels which represent the Holy Temple appear in various combinations, depending on the period and on the context in which they were used. Despite the different meanings of the various usages of these symbols, the central message of the motif of the vessels of the Tabernacle has been preserved through the years: The longing for Redemption .

After the destruction of the Second Temple the description of the vessels of the Tabernacle in the procession of the captives of Judea on the Arch of Titus in Rome became the symbol of the destruction of the People of Israel. Later on, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora communities of the time there emerged a figurative pattern for expressing the longing for Redemption : Description of the vessels of the Tabernacle generally arranged in some symbolic structure. Thus the vessels of the Tabernacle became the image of the Temple which would be built in the future, at the time of Redemption. At the center of the symbolic structure appeared either the seven-branch candelabra (Menorah) or the Ark of the Covenant (Aron Habrit) in the form of a Holy Ark (Aron Hakodesh). Alongside the Menorah appeared a Ram's Horn (Shofar) and beside the ark, two candelabra. In many cases the four species (Arba'at Haminim) were added to these compositions, hinting at the Sukkot Holiday to be celebrated at the end of time, the time when the gentiles will come to worship the Lord in the Temple (Zechariah 14,16). Such descriptions appeared in the fourth to the sixth centuries especially on Mosaic floors of synagogues in Eretz Yisrael and in the funerary art in Israel and Rome (Illustration 1). The significance of their use in public buildings was that of national renaissance. On coffins or monuments of the deceased the implication was personal Redemption which also hints at the end of time.

In the Middle Ages the motif of the vessels of the Tabernacle was used also in a different context: in the opening pages of Bibles which were called "Mikdashiya" in reference to their identification with the Temple (Mikdash). These were highly decorative Bibles written in Spain and Provence during the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, in which it was customary to insert various decorative pages in the beginning of the volume and as separations between the individual books included in them. One example of this tradition is a description of the vessels of the Tabernacle in the Perfinian Bible created in 1299 in Aragon, Spain (Illustration 2). The group of vessels is arranged in squares, unrelated to the structure of the Taberanancle or the Temple and most of the vessels are included. The vessels are identified by their captions and each grouping is surrounded by a written framework.

The illustration on the right page brings quotations from parts of passages which describe the vessels of the Tabernacle, while the framework on the left page contains a sentence referring to the Temple, hinting at its future reconstruction: "And happy is he who waits and survives to see it. May it be His will that it be built speedily in our days and our eyes will see it and our hearts rejoice...".

In the sixteenth century the vessels of the Tabernacle motif appeared on the inner sides of the doors of the Holy Arks in Synagogues. This context had great significance since the Synagogue was a Minor Sanctuary (Mikdash Me'at) and the Holy Ark of the Torah scrolls was perceived as the ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle or as the sanctuary in the Temple. This accounts for its name - "Aron Hakodesh" among Ashkenazi Jews or "Heichal" in other communities. Based on this perception Italian Synagogue Arks portrayed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments which were in the Ark of the Covenant and were therefore symbolically "placed" inside the Ark - on the inner sides of the doors. These portrayals showed the shape of Tablets - one on each door - and the first words of each of the Commandments written on the Tablets. The perception of the Holy Ark as the Ark of Covenant influenced the design of the inside of the Ark in the seventeenth century in other European countries, as well. Often instead of the Tablets a candelabra would appear on the right door and the Shew Bread (Lechem Hapanim) on the left. In many places the verses of Chapter 67 of the Book of Psalms would be written on the branches of the Menorah. This tradition is beautifully reflected on a pair of doors from the Holy Ark in the Synagogue of Cracow, Poland, from the seventeenth century (Illustration 3). The emphasis on the inside of the Ark is indicated also by the sharp contrast between the beauty of the inside and the simple, unadorned external form.

The perception of the Holy Ark as the Ark of the Covenant generated another use of the vessels of the Tabernacle motif in European synagogues - their appearance on the skirts of the curtain which covered the Holy Ark. We refer to the small curtain hung on the upper part of the Ark, which appeared initially in Eastern European synagogues in the eighteenth century. Placed as it was it became identified with the curtain (Kaporet = cover) which covered the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, and therefore was called by the same name in Hebrew. This was also the factor which determined the nature of the decoration woven into the curtain - a pair of Cherubim poised over the Ark of the Covenant. A Kaporet from Prague from the year 1824 exemplifies this new tradition (Illustration 4). It includes among the vessels several items from among the vestments of the High Priest as well as the Menorah and the Table of the Shew Bread, which belong to the normally portrayed vessels. Early examples the Kaporet show the Ark of the Covenant in the center surrounded by a group of vessels and above it all the Crown of the Torah. In time the design of the Kaporet changed and the vessels of the Tabernacle gave way to other motifs.

In the eightneenth century the vessels of the Tabernacle motif began to appear on the crowns (Rimonim) of the Torah scrolls, on Menorah tablets and those used for various purposes in the Synagogue (Mizrach, Shiviti)as well as in personal amulets. In most of these portrayals the outstanding element is the centrality of the Menorah.

In modern times the group portrayal of the vessels became less frequent and the Menorah began to appear on its own, thus becoming an even more significant symbol.

The Menorah, which on the Arch of Titus symbolized the destruction of the Jewish People, appears today as the symbol of the Jewish State and the Rebirth of Israel.


Illustration 1

Illustration 2

Illustration 3

Illustration 4