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40 years of active presence

Saturday, June 10, 2023

    RELIGIOUS LIFE synagogual textiles and objects

    The holy book of Judaism is the Pentateuch and is called the Sefer Torah or Scroll of the Law, handwritten on parchment. It is always stored in an upright position in a special niche in the synagogue, in accordance with age-old dictates on the storage of precious books. Jews all over the eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and Near East still keep the Torah scroll in a tik, which derives from thiki, the Greek word for a case. The tik has a fabric covering and is only opened for the Reading of the Law. Romaniote religious practice requires the Holy Books to be read while still in the tik and still upright. Sephardic Jews secure the scroll with a binder approximately halfway up, drape it with a cloth and hold it at a slight angle while reading.

    The outside of the wooden tik is decorated with scenes engraved or drawn on its surface, or it may be covered with silver leaf, often parcel gilt. It is usually draped with an embroidered cloth called a mappah. The parchment scrolls are rolled up on wooden or ivory staves, the etzei haim, or Trees of Life, tipped with silver or mother of pearl rimonim, i.e. pomegranates, an ancient symbol of fertility and life. The rimonim often have small bells dangling from them to represent the joy of reading the Torah. Each scroll with its staves is placed in a wooden or ivory receptacle. In Sephardic custom, a metal crown, called the keter or atarah, is placed at the top to signify the importance of the Crown of the Pentateuch.

    The tas, a silver plaque, which recalls but does not resemble the breastplate worn by Biblical high priests, and the yad, a pointer, often decorated with a tiny silver hand, which protects the parchment from damage, are both associated with the Reading of the Torah.

    For centuries now Jewish people have been decorating the interior of their synagogues and the sacred objects in it with heavily embroidered cloths. The Jews of Greece uphold this tradition in their synagogues.

    The most definitive of all synagogue embroideries is the parohet, the curtain draped in front of the Sacred Ark that separates the recess or cabinet containing the Torah scrolls from the main hall. Many of the synagogues in Greece have different parohot for weekdays, Sabbath days and holy days. The Romaniote parohot were usually made from festive gold embroidered dresses or bedspreads. The most usual designs from the late 19th century onwards are fluted, twisted pillars reminiscent of Jachin and Boaz at the entrance to the Temple of Solomon, the Tablets of the Law, which symbolise the Torah, with the Keter Torah, the Crown of the Pentateuch, or the Star of David. Parohot usually have their donators’ dedications embroidered on them. Romaniote Jews in Ioannina used to sew silver dedicatory plaques, or tahshitim onto their parohot.

    The mappah, a cloth wrapper, covers the tik. The motifs embroidered on it are similar to those embroidered on the parohet; floral motifs and Jewish symbols, such as the Tablets of the Covenant and the Keter Torah. Romaniote Jews in Ioannina used to dedicate parts of their clothing or gold embroideries and incorporated them to the mappot. The Romaniote mappah is broad, has loops along the top and covers the outside of the tik. The mappot in Ioannina dating to the second half of the 19th century have dedicatory ribbons on them, which are made by the women of the city and called garters, referring to the equivalent component of the male costume. The Sephardic me’il is different. It is like a sleeve made of cloth and hugs the tik closely. It is open at the bottom, closed at the top and has circular openings to accommodate the tips of the staves.

    The mappah, an embroidered cloth which covers the lectern, is embroidered with motifs similar to those on the parohet and meil. The Torah rests on it while it is being read.

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