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Hebrew Manuscripts on View during High Holy Days at Metropolitan Museum's Main Building and The Cloisters

Two important medieval Hebrew manuscripts—a Mishneh Torah made between 1300 and 1400 in Germany and an illuminated leaf from a prayer book made in Austria around 1360—are on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Cloisters, respectively, in conjunction with the Jewish High Holy Days this fall. The Cloisters is the Metropolitan's branch museum dedicated to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The High Holy Days are ten days of penitence and prayer that commence with Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the most solemn day of the Jewish year. This year, the High Holy Days begin the evening of September 8.

On view in the Gallery for Western European Art from 1050 to 1300 in the Main Building of the Metropolitan, and on loan from The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, is a manuscript of the Mishneh Torah—the "Repetition of the Law"—a complete codification of Jewish law. Organized by subject matter, the Mishneh Torah was compiled by the renowned rabbi, physician, and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) between 1170 and 1180. Written in Hebrew, it is organized into 14 books. The manuscript is open to the eighth book, or Sefer Avodah (the Book of Divine Service), which contains the laws of the Temple in Jerusalem. Its full-page diagram of the Temple is a particularly appropriate image at this season, because remembering the ancient sacrificial services of the Temple plays an important role in the observance of Yom Kippur. Made in tempera and ink on parchment between 1300 and 1400 in Germany, this copy of the Mishneh Torah is noteworthy for its precisely ruled and brightly colored drawings.

Maimonides' text also provides crucial rules and regulations for an eventual rebuilding of the Temple. There are restrictions against building at night and specifications about appropriate building materials. Maimonides notes, moreover, that "Everyone is obligated to build and to assist both personally and financially; [both] men and women as in the [construction of the] Sanctuary in the desert." Children, however, "are not to be interrupted from their studies." Once the Temple is built, "Everyone who enters the Temple Courtyard should walk in a dignified manner…he should conceive of himself as standing before God."

On display in the Treasury at The Cloisters is a beautifully illuminated leaf in tempera and gold on vellum, from the collection of Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn. Originally part of a mahzor (festival prayer book), the page was created in Austria around 1360. Drawn from the afternoon liturgy for Yom Kippur, this sumptuously decorated leaf would have been one of many in an oversize manuscript containing the prayers for the entire year, according to the Ashkenazic (Germanic) rite, as well as liturgical hymns, poems, and commentaries. The decoration draws attention to the first word of a piyyut or liturgical hymn, "Eitan hikir emunatekha" (The mighty [Abraham] recognized Your truth). Commentary on the hymn appears in the right-hand margin.

The leaf's whimsical images of dogs, rabbits and birds, which are also seen in contemporary Christian manuscripts, suggest a shared aesthetic, an awareness of book culture between the two communities, and, possibly, a common workshop or an artist who worked in dialogue with members of a different faith community. The sheer size and splendor of the manuscript indicate that it was likely commissioned for use and display in a synagogue.

Featured on the Museum's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History are two essays on Jewish art co-authored by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb of the Museum's Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters: "Jewish Art in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium"and "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe". Relevant works in the Museum's collection are listed along with suggested further readings and additional resources. "Jews and the Arts in Medieval Europe" is produced in cooperation with and includes relevant works from The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Both curators have participated in the Institute in Jewish Art of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The two images will remain on view through the High Holy Days. Afterward, the Mishneh Torah in the Metropolitan's Main Building will be opened to another illuminated page, and a second illuminated leaf from the same manuscript will be displayed at The Cloisters.

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August 23, 2010

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