jews and carpets_ rita

Sacred Textiles
History of Synagogue Textiles


Synagogue textiles are called parokhet. Torah-Ark cover or curtain in Hungarian, or curtain of the Covenant in archaic language. These richly decorated parokhets are the characteristic ornaments of the Synagogue (beyt knesset in Hebew) interiors.

The sacred function of the curtains is to hide the Ark of Covenant (aron kodesh) - containing the Torah - from uninitiated eyes. The name refers to the original Ark of the Covenant, where the two stone tablets of the covenant were safeguarded. In the beginning, the ark stood in the Mishkan or the Tabernacle. The ark was divided into two sections, the Holy Place with a table for showbread, the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum and the gold plated altar of incense and the Holy of Holies, with the ark. A richly ornamented curtain, suspended on columns, divided the two sections of the tent. The method of preparing this curtain is detailed in Exodus 26:31-33:

„Make a curtain of blue, purple and scarlet yarn and finely twisted linen, with cherubim worked into it by a skilled craftsman. Hang it with gold hooks on four posts of acacia wood overlaid with gold and standing on four silver bases. Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the Testimony behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place.”

The tent housed the ark before Solomon constructed the First Temple (966-959 BCE).
The Temple was built on a rectangular base. The Temple, surrounded by courts, was small and it was divided into three sections: the Eastern porch (Ulam), the Holy Place (Hekhal) and the Holy of Holies (Kodesh Hakodashim) on top of a few stairs. The Ark of Covenant was placed in the Holy of Holies, following the arrangement of the tent. This room was also separated from the Holy Place by a curtain as it was written. No one else was allowed to enter other than the High Priests. According to Judaism, this is where heavens and earth meet.

The First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE during an attack by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar when his army burned Jerusalem.
After the Babylonian exile, Ezra  constructed the Second Temple. The renewed form of the Temple was called Herod’s Temple  (19 BCE – 70 BC). A curtain, setting it apart from the Holy of the Holies, covered the entrance of the ceremonial room. It was decorated with scarlet red, blue and purple embroidered motives of the sun, moon and the planets . The curtain was very valuable. The Holy of Holies stood empty because the Ark of the Covenant disappeared during the Babylonian exile. The High Priest was the only one allowed to enter here, once a year, on the day of Yom Kippur . 
The Roman emperor, Titus destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE.

After its destruction, the role of the Temple was taken over by the synagogues that became the centers of religious and community life of the Jewry.
No sacrificial offerings were held in the synagogues from the start since the role of the sacrifice was taken over by the prayer. Since then these places have been designated for prayer, reading the Torah and learning. The Torah – the five Books of Moses - handwritten on parchment rolls is the most sacred book of the Jewry. In the synagogues, the Torah is guarded in the Ark of Covenant, which is also covered by a curtain.

 The textiles covering the Torah Ark serve ritual purposes as well, besides their beauty. However, they present a rich collection of motives and symbols. The post braided with two grape branches is one of the most popular motives for example, referring to the posts (once standing in front of the Temple), the tribe of David and the lushness of Canaan. The inscriptions of the parokhets are placed between the columns. Two lions facing each other hold a crown on the tops of the columns. The motives of the lions and the Torah crown can be found on most textiles. The lion is the king of the animals and also the symbol of the tribe of Judah and the House of David. The throne of Solomon was also decorated with carven lions. Angel Uriel appeared as a lion frequently, descending from the heavens and eating from the holy sacrifice on the altar. This became a favorite decorative motive of synagogues, and even the prohibitions have escaped it.

The crown motive first appeared on Ashkenazi  textiles in the 17th century, after the flower garlands. The double stone tablet - held by lions in many cases - became a characteristic ornament, as well, representing the covenant between the Almighty and the Jewish people. The hands forming a priestly blessing  are also a frequent decoration, symbolizing the hands of Aaron, the first high priest.

A similarly well-known, ancient Jewish symbol the Star of David consists of two triangles turned into each other. The Hebrew name of our symbol (Magen David) refers to the Shield of David. Jewish tradition has it that the soldiers of King David (around 1000 BCE) carried shields like that or this sign was engraved on their shields, to make themselves visible to each other in their scaly armor, as well. However, in reality this symbol is even older. By certain ancient peoples, the two triangles symbolize the peaceful and harmonious coexistence of heaven and earth or man and woman. The Jewish people have added a religious meaning to it and connected this ancient symbol with proclaiming important ideas in two groups of three.

We can read about the teaching of Simeon the Just in the Talmud. "The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of loving kindness.” These are the duties of humans; this is what the upward triangle of the star means. According to another saying, attributed to Simeon, as well, “the world stands on three things, natural law, justice and peace.” These ideas all depend on God, and are symbolized by the downward triangle. And indeed, if the practice of the law and the Torah, service and justice, peace and love meet, harmony materializes in the world…
According to the Kabbalah, the six corners of the Star of David and the six little triangles represent the six directions of the world. The triangle in the middle of the star signifies the center of the universe, as well as the middle branch of the Menorah.

The first mention of the hexagram as the symbol of Jewry is interestingly related to Hungarian history. According to a historical source, Jews also participated in the festive wedding march of King Mathias and Beatrice in 1476. At the entrance of the City of Buda “ahead of the Jews rode their aged alderman on horseback, with a sword at the carry, with a basket hanging over it, with ten silver forints. His son rode next to him also on horseback, with a sword and a silver basket. Twenty four knights followed them, all wearing purple robes and three ostrich feathers on their hats”. The celebrating Jewish group joined the wedding march with a Star of David on their flag.

The bird is also a frequent motive on textiles. It was believed that the Almighty created them from mud on the fifth day. Several miraculous birds are portrayed in Jewish folklore, like the brent goose on the trees, the “where” that lives for a thousand years and dies in fire but resurrects from its ashes (phoenix) and the “Ziz” that blocks the sun with its wings. King Solomon is said to have understood the language of the birds and in the Talmudic era birds delivered heavenly messages to the Rabbis. Cabbalists believe that the Almighty revealed the birds his intentions regarding the world, but on the other hand, the messages of the birds must not be interpreted due to the prohibition on fortune telling.
The Torah ark always stands on the Eastern wall of the synagogues raised a few steps and decorated with the parokhet. In the ancient synagogues, the curtain hung in front of the Ark, inside of the Ark by the Sephardim  and in front of the Ark by the Ashkenazi Jewry.

Therefore Jewish sacred textiles originate from the Old Testament as it can be read in Exodus:

„He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver—by any sort of workman or skilled designer.” 

 The parokhet is changed to white for Rosh Hashanah  emphasizing forgiveness. The parokhet is a symbolic divider of sacred and profane. A spiritual curtain (Pargod) also exists between the divine world and the rest of heavens, separating them. Those who can infiltrate the Pargod or can hear what the otherworldly voices say will be able to tell the future of humankind…

Rita Rusznák 

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