Jewish Studies

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe – 5 Minutes with Bracha Yaniv

Bracha Yaniv was recently named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards for her book The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe. We caught up with her this Jewish Book Week to discuss the sources of inspiration for Jewish motifs and the influence of Torah arks on the design of the synagogue.

Congratulations on being named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards. What made you focus on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe?

There was a student of mine who wanted to write a seminar paper on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe, but she could not find enough images of arks from Eastern Europe. So I decided to help her in this search. Indeed, at that time no book was available on this subject, or any monographic work on Torah arks of any diaspora.

As most of the Torah arks of Eastern Europe were destroyed during the first half of the twentieth century, any research is dependent on pre-WWII photographs. So this was the first step of my research – the search of what ended up in about 120 images, upon which the research is based.

What can we learn from the arks discussed in The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe?

The Torah arks of Eastern Europe are unique in their iconographic richness. Unlike Torah arks in most masonry synagogues, which were designed by non-Jewish architects, the wooden arks were designed and carved by Jewish artisans. This accounts for the fact that the arks display Jewish motifs, inspired by Jewish literary sources and the reason why they are the focus of the book.

 Your book throws new light on long-forgotten traditions of Jewish craftsmanship and religious understanding. What were your findings when conducting your research? Did you discover anything that you found particularly surprising?

Discussions concerning Jewish art often start with the Second Commandment which accordingly limits the artistic figurative expressions. But the carved Torah arks discussed in this book prove that when Jewish content is expressed limitations are minimised and creative solutions are found. Perhaps the most surprising motif I found was the metaphor of God presented in the form of an eagle, in this case, inspired by biblical literary sources.

 How do you think The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe paves the way for further research into Jewish traditions, art and culture?

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe assembles a collection of motifs, part of which were known – others, revealed and deciphered for the first time. So, for the reader who is interested in the meaning of Jewish motifs, the book will be most useful. The contribution of the book to the research of other fields of Jewish art is based on the fact that the Torah ark is the focus of the design of the synagogue as well as the focus of worship in the synagogue. As such, the design of the Torah arks influenced the design of other kinds of artistic media, for example, wall paintings and paper cuts. Now that we understand the motifs carved on the Torah arks, other fields of Jewish art can be better understood.


Bracha Yaniv is Professor of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. She has published two pioneering books in Hebrew on the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects.


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