Life & Culture

Rembrandt’s gift

At Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Ten Commandments. But why do some shuls display tablets which seem to have 11?


When we finally travel again, what’s the nearest destination offering eco-friendly rail credentials as well as unparalleled historic and cultural appeal, notwithstanding a haunting Shoah background? Amsterdam, undoubtedly. And there are strong Shavuot connections too.

By 1675, when the city’s Portuguese Jewish community celebrated completion of its “Esnoga”, their majestic synagogue, (mercifully saved somehow from the Nazis hundreds of years later), with its exquisitely carved heichal (Torah ark) and teivah (bimah), its gracious gallery colonnade, its stunning chandeliers holding a thousand candles, they enjoyed civic and religious freedoms unparalleled in Europe.

Thriving in the comparatively tolerant Dutch Republic, they were prominent in developing Amsterdam as the greatest trading centre of the time, a far cry from their families’ earlier sufferings. Faced in 1497 with baptism on pain of death, or expulsion provided they abandoned their children in Portugal, (a barbaric refinement dreamt up by Manuel I which hadn’t occurred even to the Spaniards five years earlier), many opted with heavy heart for fake Catholicism, determined to keep their families both intact and secretly Jewish.

Not until the early 17th century did sufficient numbers of “conversos” find a safe haven in Calvinist Amsterdam to “come out” as its first Jewish community. How does a group of Jews, clandestinely keeping its learning and practice alive underground for more than a century, then produce scholars like Menasseh ben Israel and before long build the first of our world’s great synagogues? It’s a miracle of commitment and fortitude which we haven’t perhaps acknowledged as we should.

The Esnoga’s moreover unique for another reason. We’re familiar nowadays with the luchot habrit, the twin tablets placed universally over the Torah ark, carrying the first two words of each of the Ten Commandments, to remind us of our Shavuot covenant at Sinai each time we enter.

Not so in the Esnoga. As pointed out by Shalom Sabar, Emeritus Professor of Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, here each of the longer Commandments, their copper texts laid beautifully in the rich dark woodwork, features rather more than two words. Remarkably, the left tablet even shows the full ten-word text of the tenth, the prohibition against avarice.

Where have we previously encountered this unexpected arrangement? Not in any synagogue but, intriguingly, in Rembrandt’s dramatic painting, Moses with the Ten Commandments of 1659, now in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie,

Here Moses brandishes one carved stone before the other, so we can’t tell from the right tablet’s end lettering whether it matches the Esnoga’s as well. No matter, we have another work from Rembrandt’s workshop, Hannah and Samuel in the Sanctuary (1650), now in Scotland’s National Gallery, where both tablets give us the full Esnoga wording, again considerably longer than ours.

A Torah ark carrying a Rembrandt text! What’s the background here? We’re aware of the help Menasseh ben Israel apparently gave the artist with the Hebrew letters in his powerful Belshazzar’s Feast (1635/38) in London’s National Gallery. It’s possible they also collaborated on his Hannah painting, though not on his Moses, Menasseh having already died in 1657. Yet it’s clear from Rembrandt’s accomplished script in that work that he’d become wholly proficient in Hebrew by the time he painted it.

And that’s not all. As shown by Sabar, he’d also mastered the differences between the rabbinic and Calvinist versions of the Decalogue. Calvinism treats our first Commandment as an introduction, splits the second prohibiting the worship and making of idols into two, and transfers the duty of honouring parents from the first to the second tablet. Rembrandt, knowing the fifth Commandment’s place in the first tablet is fundamental to Judaism, maintained it there, but displayed the Calvinist division relating to idolatry.

Eleven Commandments? That didn’t appear to worry the venerable Ma’amad of the Esnoga when they resolved to place Rembrandt’s format above their heichal in the artist’s own colours. Yet what were the precedents? None of the remaining Ashkenazi or Sephardi synagogues of mediaeval Europe features a Decalogue text in that location.

Nor do the surviving Renaissance and Baroque interiors. Of the 16 ornate Italian Torah arks predating the Esnoga, none is crowned with the Commandments except Venice’s Scuola Grande Spagnola (1580) and the Italian in Padua (1548). Both were, however, remodelled extensively in the 18th and 19th centuries. A Decalogue on an ark from Urbino, revamped in 1624 and now in New York, was painted inside its doors only.

In short, there was no twin-tablet tradition for Amsterdam’s Ma’amad to follow. They were the first to establish our minhag, London’s Bevis Marks being next in 1701, in the format we’ve used ever since.

Yet the Esnoga were happy with Rembrandt’s unconventional 11 Commandments. Why? His singular relationship with Amsterdam’s community is explored in Steven Nadler’s captivating 2004 book Rembrandt’s Jews, in which he describes in remarkable detail the master’s life and work in his house on Jodenbreestraat (the “Jewish Broad Street”) surrounded on all sides by da Costas, Pintos, de Leons, Pereiras and other Jewish families.

After their torment in Catholic Iberia, in which they were invariably depicted as hooked-nosed aliens, their portrayal as ordinary human beings by the most prominent artist of the Dutch Golden Age must have been a revelation.

It’s clear those Esnoga tablets, like their building, are an expression both of renewed Jewish self-confidence as well as gratitude. No wonder someone eventually composed a brachah for the community’s good fortune, blessing God’s mercy for “Amsterdam, city of virtue”.

Its dark mid-20th century story notwithstanding, let’s remember that benediction when we visit.


Eli Abt writes on the Jewish arts

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive