This illumination of the revelation at Sinai is taken from the Tripartite Mahzor (Germany, ca.1300). Beneath a line of heavenly trumpets emerging from a thick layer of clouds, a clean-shaven Moses receives the law, with a heavily bearded Aaron close behind him. Rather surprisingly, Aaron is wearing a Christian episcopal mitre rather than traditional priestly regalia. Behind him a group of men, each wearing a Judenhut—the pointed hat that often distinguishes an Ashkenazi Jewish man in medieval manuscripts—look on. Behind a partition (a kind of synagogue mechitzah) of flowering vines, a group of women with normal human bodies, but with the faces of animals, look to the heavens. Such depictions in Ashkenazi manuscripts are common, though here it must be noted that (unlike, say, in the famous Griffins’ Head Haggadah) men are given ordinary human features.
As the men look across toward Aaron and Moses, the women gaze upward at the letter aleph, which begins the first word of the poem on the page, the Shavuot piyyut “Adon Imnani.” The endpoint of their gaze is the trumpets, which broadcast the divine voice. The foremost figure among the group of animal-headed women holds what I believe to be a siddur (prayerbook). If so, then she is the firzageren (or zogerke), the woman in medieval Ashkenazi Jewish communities who was responsible for reciting, translating, and interpreting the prayers for the female section of the synagogue. This illumination undoubtedly makes Torah the province of men, but I understand this small and easily overlooked detail of the siddur to indicate that the experience of the Divine Presence is accessible to women through prayer.
While not the most dramatic of all the biblical stories, the quietly moving book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, continues to resonate in Western literature.
Thirty years ago, a book was published that hit, in the words of the New York Times, “with the approximate force and effect of what electric shock-therapy must be like.” How has it held up? And what does that have to do with the Bible?
My grandfather had a way of mentioning the Kiev guberniya (province) that made it sound to me, when I was a boy, like it was our place in the Old Country—and more than half a century later, it still does.
Rutu Modan’s graphic novel The Property explores the uneasy coexistence of love and death.