A history of the Jewish people in 30 objects
In celebration of its 30th anniversary, this year’s Limmud conference will run its adaptation of the BBC series ‘The History of the World In 100 Objects’. Here we present a selection of some of the items.
● Pomegranates are the oldest known Jewish symbol. They were the fruits that the scouts brought to Moses to show that the promised land was fertile. Exodus describes the robe of the High Priest's ephod as having pomegranates embroidered on the hem. It is traditional to eat them on Rosh Hashanah because the pomegranate, with its numerous seeds (said to total 613, the number of mitzvot), symbolises fruitfulness. It appeared on ancient coins of Judah, decorative bowls were crafted in its shape. But there is nothing quite like the real thing: my favourite was the one growing on a tree in the garden of Shay Agnon's house in Jerusalem this Succot (above).
Akedah Mosaic from Beit Alpha Synagogue
● The synagogue on Kibbutz Beit Alpha in Northern Israel was discovered in 1928, but remains as stunning now as it was then, and must have appeared to the sixth-century shul-goers who prayed there. The most fascinating part of the floor is the beautiful depiction of the Akedah, the story of the binding of Issac. The mosaic has an almost cinematic quality to it, showing on one side of the picture the two servants waiting for their master; on the other side Abraham is about to thrust a young Isaac into a fire which seems to crackle as we look at it. Centre stage, bound to a bush, is the ram, above which is a hand reaching from heaven with the words "al tishlach" - "lay not your hands upon the boy". The mosaic speaks to us from 1,400 years ago, showing how dramatically our fellow Jews of that time also saw the wonder and the pain of this biblical narrative.
Chafetz Chaim's Kiddush Cup
● A small kiddush cup of the Chafetz Chaim is said to be in the possession of one of his grandchildren in Israel: it holds only 3.4 ounces. In an article "The Lost Kiddush Cup", Professor Menachem Friedman explains that many such cups were handed down from pious families but put away by their descendants for not being big enough to fulfil the halachah. This highlights a rupture wherein many Torah scholars decided to give more weight to their own interpretations of legal texts than to the tradition received from their communities. It means contemporary Orthodoxy is quite different in its relation with texts than what it was 80 years ago.
● There seems no connection between a smart phone and one of the world's oldest religions. What the iPhone signifies, however, says something deep about how Judaism will be practised and lived this century. The iPhone is about creating innovative ways of obtaining access to personalised information. Jews are increasingly thinking about Judaism not as peoplehood ("I'm Jewish because I was born Jewish") but as identity ("I am a social justice Jew"). As opposed to peoplehood, identity is dynamic; one seeks and searches for information about their identity. Like the iPhone, to be successful, identity needs access to personalised information.
● Is the tallit a man's garment? The sight of a woman wearing a tallit has led to tears, screams and abuse. But what if a woman does not wear a tallit if she is called to the Torah? And what of its beauty? Do women bring an added mitzvah to those already associated with tallit? I have five tallitot. The tallit above was presented to me by my ordaining bet din when I received semichah as the first woman chazan in the UK. But I did my studies abroad - in New York at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a transdenominational, pluralistic rabbinical and cantorial school. British Jewry has nothing like this and its motto is sewn into the atarah (crown) at the edge of the tallit that is presented to all its graduates. Its words mean "All shall unite in one bond to do God's will with a whole heart." The only way it could be described here would be, maybe, a Limmud rabbinical/cantorial school.
Toledo Paving Stone
● A few years ago I was wandering around the old city of Toledo when an old man approached me and asked if I was Jewish. His front room had a big hole in the floor. He had been watching television one evening when he noticed that the wall was uneven. He knocked it down and discovered a hidden room. Extensive excavations uncovered the original street from the Jewish quarter of 15th-century Toledo and a range of other artefacts. He gave me this paving-stone from the 15th century street because he wants the story of Jewish Toledo - once home of such luminaries as the poet and philosopher Judah Halevi - to remain alive among modern Jews.
Dr Helena Miller is UJIA research director: Marc Shoffren is assistant head, Clore Shalom School: Rabbi Ari Weiss is director of Orthodox social justice organisation, Uri L’Tzedek: Jaclyn Chernett is chazan at Kol Nefesh Masorti Synagogue : Francis Nataf is an Orthodox educator in Jerusalem: Rabbi Chaim Weiner is director of the European Masorti Beth Din: Limmud begins on Sunday week: see www.limmud.org/conference