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
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
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.