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Standing at Sinai in Medieval Germany


A leaf from manuscript 22413 f.3r of the Tripartite Mahzor, 1300-1329 CE, Germany. Part of the Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts, housed in the British Library.

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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.

About the Author

Marc Michael Epstein is a professor of Religion and visual culture and director of Jewish Studies at Vassar College. He is the author of several works on Jewish art, and is currently working on a book titled People of the Image: Jews & Art.

Comments

Beth Haber on May 27, 2018 at 8:47 am
Wonderful rich reading- of placement of the womens' gaze-and in denoting the vine/mechitza, that is a kind of visual echo to the tree/vine separating Moses and Aaron from the men. The overall additions of these white tendrils give the flowing dynamism of this page a fresh read. Thank you for illuminating.

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