Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey 5759/1999

Dr. Bracha Yaniv

Jewish Art

Contributions of the Israelites to the Tabernacle

and Contributions of Jewish Women to the Synagogue

Va-Yaqhel describes the contributions brought by the Israelites to make the Tabernacle:

And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Lord his offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, ... came bringing brooches, earrings, rings and pendants--gold objects of all kinds. And everyone who had in his possession blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats' hair... (Exodus 35:21-23).

Just as for the Tabernacle, so too for the synagogue, members of the community give donations, be it to the building and its upkeep, or for ritual objects used in the synagogue. Some donate money, others give of their belongings, the proceeds being dedicated to the synagogue. But there is another sort of contribution, less well-known to the public: the contribution of fine garments, especially women's clothes. One such contribution came to our knowledge from an inscription embroidered on the parokhet or curtain for the holy ark, dedicated in 1783 to the Mainz synagogue in Germany: "Donated in fulfillment of a vow by the generous officer, patron and leader, R. Isaac Naphtali ... to perform and fulfill the bidding of his late wife, the devout Madame Surele (?), of blessed memory, who vowed to donate her clothing for the sacral vestments. Her will has been done for the beneficence of her soul..."

If we look at this parokhet, shown in picture 1, we see that it is no different from other parokhot made in Mainz during the same era. Were it not for the inscription, we would not have known that it was made from fabric which had previously served as a garment of the late-departed. The parokhet is comprised of two rectangular panels of silk, the smaller of the two, which bears the inscription, sewn in the center of the larger one. The inscription is flanked by two embroidered columns, and above it is an embroidered crown. Any trace of this having been a garment worn by Mme. Charlotte, wife of R. Isaac Naphtali, has disappeared completely.[1]

Making a parokhet out of clothes that had been in personal use was not a general practice in Europe, yet neither was it exceptional. Usually ritual objects were made of new materials, designated for the purpose from the outset. This is based on the text in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menahot 22a: "Just as the commoner does not serve at the altar, so too, the wood and fire must be taken from that which has not been used by the commoner." In other words, just as the altar is intended only for the sacred, so too the wood and fire that are used at the altar must be intended for sacral purposes from the outset; thus one is not to use wood that has previously served human needs.[2] From the case of the altar and its wood the Rabbis drew an inference with regard to ritual objects in the synagogue and generally forbade making ritual objects from items that had been in personal use,[3] certainly from women's clothing such as we see here. The reason was concern lest this arouse certain thoughts: a person looking at a ritual object made from a woman's garment might be led astray in his thoughts. As R. Joel ben Samuel Sirkes put it: "Colorful women's clothing arouse thoughts and that being the case, they serve the evil inclination and are not fit for ritual use."[4]

This concern is well-founded if the original form of the garment is preserved, as in the Ottoman parokhet dedicated by Bekhorah Peretz in memory of her husband Raphael, who died in 1941 (picture 2).[5] The trapezoidal form clearly evident in the center of the parokhet is the back section of the original dress, and the two diagonal sections on the sides are made from the bodice of the dress, inverted. This parokhet is not the least surprising, since it was customary in Sephardic communities of the Ottoman Empire to make a parokhet out of ornate women's clothes. The practice, however, was not confined to these communities. In Iraq, for instance, women would dedicate their izar to the synagogue. This was an ornate silk wrap used by women to cover their body when outside the home. By adding a dedication it became a parokhet. A similar custom existed among the Jewish of Cochin, India, where the parokhet was often made from a mondo, the silk cloth used for a wedding dress. In Cochin, however, the mondo served an additional purpose before being dedicated to the synagogue: when a member of the family died, it was used to cover the coffin during the funeral procession. Later, when it was made into a parokhet or a covering cloth for the Torah scroll, the name of the deceased was memorialized in the inscription dedicating the object.

In Ashkenazi communities the practice in this regard was altogether different. Signs of a former garment can be detected in only a few objects, and inscriptions about the dedication of a garment are extremely rare. Nevertheless, we know that ritual objects were made from clothes; not only from the personal garments of the donors but also from fancy used clothes purchased to this end. Our information on this, however, comes primarily from responsa literature, where questions about this practice came up time and again over the centuries. The issue came up in this body of literature primarily because of the Rabbis' reservations concerning the practice, for the two reasons mentioned above: "Just as the common man does not serve at the altar," and "lest this arouse certain thoughts."

From these writings we learn that dedicating an expensive garment answered the woman's spiritual need and in many instances was done in fulfillment of a vow. Such a case was brought before Rabbi Judah Asad of Hungary in the 19th century: "A certain woman, in time of trouble, vowed to give one of her silk garments, which she had from her father's house, to make it into a ritual object--a parokhet for the ark or a mantel for the Torah scroll..."[6] In this case the Rabbi did not turn down the woman's request. The Rabbis' reactions to making ritual objects of women's clothes, however, were not uniform. Some forbade making Torah mantels, which are extremely sacred since they come in direct contact with the scroll itself, but permitted making a parokhet, which is a ritual object serving another ritual object (the ark) and hence less sacred.[7] Others, like the Maharil, took a more strict stand and disallowed the practice altogether.[8]

An interesting way of permitting ritual objects to be made from women's clothing was set forth by R. Yair Bachrach, who lived in Germany in the 17th century. His solution is based on this week's reading itself, Parshat Va-Yaqhel, which mentions the donation of jewelry: "Moses accepted contributions of brooches, earrings, rings and pendants without the slightest hesitation because they were melted down and changed." Accordingly, he proposed that such an irreversible transformation be made with women's clothes, as well: "Thus the garment must be changed by cutting it, so that the change is irrevocable and the garment cannot be restored to its former state."[9]

Thus, by changing the form of the clothes beyond recognition, women's garments donated to the synagogue were made acceptable by those who wished to permit this practice. Therefore, one seldom finds a trace of a woman's garment on parokhot and Torah mantels from Europe. The parokhet made from the garment of Madame Charlotte, R. Isaac Naphtali's wife, is a rare expression of this practice.


[1] Courtesy of the photo archives of the Anne and Isidore Falk Information Center on Judaica and Jewish Ethnography, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. The upper part of the photograph also shows the kaporet of the ark, which is a separate item from the parokhet and will not be discussed here.

[2] Cf. also Pesahim 20b; Niddah 61b; Shabbat 64a.

[3] Resp. Maharil 114; Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 153.21. Also see the comprehensive responsum by R. Ovadiah Yosefin Yabia Omer, Orah Hayyim 13.

[4] Resp. Bayit Hadash (older responsa), 17, s.v. "Teshuva lo." Also cf. Midrash Tanhuma, Pekudei, 9; and Rashi on Ex. 38:8.

[5] Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Index of Jewish Art, Center for Jewish Art, Hebrew University.

[6] Resp. Yehudah Ya'aleh, Even ha-Ezer- Hoshen mishpat, 45.

[7] Resp. Bayit Hadash (older responsa)17, s.v. "Ve-od nir'eh."

[8] Resp. Maharil, 114.

[9] Resp. Havat Yair, 161, also cf. Magen Avraham on the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 147, 4.

1. Parokhet, Mainz, Germany, 1783.

2. Parokhet, Jerusalem, 1941.