In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ritual Objects and Folk Art

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Anthologies
  • Rabbinic Attitudes
  • Museum Collections
  • Private Collections
  • Museum Exhibitions
  • Materials
  • Ceremonial Art for the Synagogue
  • Personal and Home Objects

Jewish Studies Ritual Objects and Folk Art
Shalom Sabar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0036


Decorative ritual objects constitute a central category in the field of traditional Jewish art. In contrast with the limiting biblical-rabbinic approach to graven images, creativity in the field of ceremonial art was subject to a rather favorable attitude of the authorities, who often even encouraged the production of certain costly ritual objects. This attitude is closely related to the concept of hiddur mitzvah, the “beautification of the commandment,” which rabbinic authorities introduced in the Talmudic period. Though not referring to objects only, the concept called for producing costlier and rather attractive objects, if and when they were produced in the context of observing the commandments. The concept developed in diverse ways among the various Jewish communities residing in Europe or lands of Islam, and the objects strongly reflected local tastes and styles, particularly the popular decorative arts of the host society. Extant examples date from the late Middle Ages to the present era. They fall primarily under five basic categories: Ritual art for the synagogue (e.g., Torah finials [rimonim], Torah Ark curtain [parokhet]), Objects for the life cycle (e.g., circumcision implements, marriage contracts, Hevra Kadisha items), Objects for the year cycle (e.g., spice boxes for the havdala ceremony at the end of the Sabbath, Hanukkah lamps), Illustrated liturgical manuscripts and books (e.g., Esther scrolls, Passover Haggadot, Grace after Meals), and personal and home objects (e.g., tefillin, prayer shawl, mezuzah, mizrach tablet).

General Overviews and Anthologies

General books on Jewish art commonly differ from standard art historical surveys. Thus, the topics and chapters do not necessarily follow chronological and geographical order, but are arranged under major themes, such as synagogue architecture, the art of the Hebrew manuscript, etc. Ceremonial art is an essential part in such surveys, at times divided by categories (e.g., “The Sabbath,” “The Realm of Torah,”). In the general surveys, especially those published by scholars of previous generations, emphasis is placed on the art of European communities. The first major survey that attempts to cover a long history in various parts of the world, including the lands of Islam, is Roth 1971. More updated general overviews are provided by Grossman 1995 and Sed-Rajna 1997. The latter includes sections written by additional scholars. Ungerleider-Mayerson 1986 concentrates on a survey of the objects in the synagogue, and on the year and life cycles. A selection of classical essays on ceremonial art is provided in Gutmann 1970, while Gutmann 2002 is a more recent collection of studies. Mann 2005 presents a selection of essays by a leading scholar in the field. A guide to the field of Judaica from the collecting and market perspective is provided by Weinstein 1985.

  • Grossman, Grace Cohen. Jewish Art. New York: Hugh Lauter Levin, 1995.

    A general survey of Jewish art, written by the Judaica curator of the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles. Chapters are dedicated to objects related to the Torah and its appurtenances, the life cycle, Sabbath, and the holidays.

  • Gutmann, Joseph, ed. Beauty in Holiness: Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art. New York: Ktav, 1970.

    The book consists of reprinted important essays by leading scholars in the field of ceremonial art and Jewish customs, covering art and artisans (guilds and makers of ritual art), Torah decorations, Sabbath, Hanukkah, wedding, and customs and ceremonies.

  • Gutmann, Joseph, ed. For Every Thing A Season: Proceedings of the Symposium on Jewish Ritual Art. Edited by J. Gutmann, 76–101. Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University, 2002.

    A selection of essays from a 13 September 2000 symposium in Cleveland, dealing with the following aspects of Jewish ritual art: Italian Torah ornaments (Dorah Liscia Bemporad); Torah cases in the Islamic lands (Bracha Yaniv), exotic imagery in Viennese Esther scrolls (Sharon Liberman Mintz), and Danish Torah binders (Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig).

  • Mann, Vivian B. Art and Ceremony in Jewish Life: Essays in the History of Jewish Art. London: Pindar, 2005.

    The book contains sixteen essays written over many years, reflecting the research and curatorial work of the author at the Jewish Museum of New York. Following a discussion of rabbinic attitudes toward art, other essays deal with medieval ceremonial art, Judaica from Islamic lands, and ritual art of the early modern period.

  • Roth, Cecil, ed. Jewish Art: An Illustrated History. Rev. ed. Jerusalem: Massada, 1971.

    A pioneering and essential reader of Jewish art, which first appeared in Hebrew in 1957. The book contains essays written by experts in the various categories of Jewish art, and the chapters are largely arranged in chronological order. A few essays are dedicated to ceremonial art, including the first survey of Jewish art in Islamic lands (by Leo A. Mayer, a scholar of Islamic art). First published in 1961 (London: W. H. Allen).

  • Sed-Rajna, Gabrielle. Jewish Art. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1997.

    A comprehensive survey of the history of Jewish art from its origins to the 20th century. Discussions of central Judaic textiles and ritual objects are embedded in the survey. Some of the chapters were written by experts in their fields: Ronny Reich, Dominique Jarrasse, Rudolf Klein, and Ziva Amishai-Maisels.

  • Ungerleider-Mayerson, Joy. Jewish Folk Art: From Biblical Days to Modern Times. New York: Summit, 1986.

    Separate chapters in this large introductory book are dedicated to each of the major categories in the year and life cycles, home, and the synagogue. Despite the title, the author does not examine the folk nature of Jewish art.

  • Weinstein, Jay. A Collectors’ Guide to Judaica. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

    A guide written by Sotheby’s expert on Judaica at the time, aimed mainly at collectors who seek basic information on the various categories of Judaica from different lands and periods.

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