The Anatomy of an Exquisite Gilded Torah Shield
I n the penultimate decade of the 18th century, a supremely talented Jewish artist created three of the finest Torah Shields in existence today. These masterpieces of Jewish art were acquired by collector Reuben David Sassoon before 1887, and were treasured by the family since that time. When one of the shields (now in the Israel Museum) was offered by the Sassoons through Sotheby’s Tel Aviv on October 25th, 2000, it caused a sensation and achieved the then record-breaking price of almost $800,000. However, the full story and historic significance of these three works could not be deduced until now, when the two companion shields have appeared - for the first time since the historic 1906 Whitechapel exhibition Jewish Art and Antiquities.
The offered shield is signed and dated in Hebrew “Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, 1782.” Although his name appears only on this shield, their matching and highly distinctive decoration allows us to attribute to him all three shields. The significance of the role of a Jewish goldsmith in the creation of these treasures is of paramount importance in the history of Jewish art. Whereas the Jews of Western Europe were, for the most parSha’ar ha-ShamayimSha’ar ha-ShamayimHorowitzHorowitzt, barred from joining the guilds, in Bohemia and Moravia as well as in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Jews were granted membership in the guilds, and we have documentation of talented artisans rising to the top of the field. In 1684, the Jewish artist Hirscz Jelemowicz received the title “Goldsmith to His Majesty” from Jan III Sobieski, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1674-1696.
Elimelekh, the artist who signed this masterwork, was a member of a family of silversmiths as his last name, Tzoref, indicates (Tzoref is the Jewish surname given to gold and silversmiths, and is derived from the Hebrew word for smith). A small group of other examples of Judaica by Jewish artisans with the name Tzoref still exists, such as the silver Torah Shield created in Trebic by Joshua Tzoref in 1753 (Jewish Museum of Prague, no. 012.222), and a later Torah Shield created in Lviv by Abraham Joseph Tzoref in 1855 (Yeshiva University Museum, no.1986.188).
Stanislav was a small town in the 18th century, with an even smaller Jewish population; it would have been unlikely to have a patron for luxurious objects such as these shields. However, the present shield and its sister shield in the Israel Museum (B13.0558) are both marked with 1806 tax stamps from Lemberg (Lviv). Thus, at least two of the three shields can be placed within a generation of their making at this important center of 18th century Jewish life and culture. It seems likely that Elimelekh Tzoref, while originally from Stanislav, found in 1780s Lemberg both the scope and patron for his incredible artistry.
The first important aspect of these shields is their scale. These are not splashy large pieces, designed to impress from a distance in a synagogue, but small-scaled, exquisitely crafted objects created for a private patron’s enjoyment. The owner of these shields, when removing and returning them to the Torah scrolls before and after the Torah was read, would appreciate the delicate artistry, and reflect on the scenes carefully engraved on the reverse – an area almost never given decoration on Torah Shields.
The other significant characteristic of the three works by Elimelekh Tzoref is the wonderful overlay of pierced scrolls, breaking into fantastic beasts and enclosing roundels of emblematic animals. The crowned Tablets of the Law and the flanking figures of Moses and Aaron, while beautifully executed, belong to the the traditional iconography found on Torah Shields. The “screen” of inhabited gilt tracery, however, seems to have been derived by the goldsmith from the spectacular carved wooden Torah Arks seen in local synagogues; these show the same sense of pierced foreground over solid background, leafy scrolls, and animals both emerging from the decoration and set off by roundels. A particularly close parallel is the decoration of the magnificent wooden Torah ark created for the synagogue in Lukiv (Maciejów), north of Lviv (see image on previous page). This ark, dedicated in 1781 - just a year before the creation of the shield - features not just the carved openwor k and central Tablets flanked by columns, but also animals highly comparable to those on the Torah Shield in species and placement.
These animals reveal not just the skill of the artist, but also his deep familiarity with Jewish themes and motifs. Within interlaced branches, Elimelekh Tzoref has affixed plaques depicting (beginning top center) a bear, a goat, a bull, a deer, a leopard and an elephant with howdah. In addition, a pair of lions decorate the bottom of each column, a pair of birds below them, and most unusually, sea serpents which twist and turn, weaving their way from the top to the bottom of the shield. While disparate, the scholar Bracha Yaniv has presented an artistic and literary context for this specific panoply of creatures. Writing on the carved wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe, Yaniv shows that these animals are visual representations of a popular text known as Perek Shirah, literally Chapters of Song, which is comprised of (primarily biblical) verses with words of praise to God, spoken by all of His creatures. The text of Perek Shirah was first printed in Venice in 1576 and quickly achieved widespread popularity throughout Eastern Europe, where it was republished in numerous editions. All of the animals found on the carved arks can also be found on the trio of Torah shields, and it seems likely that Elimelekh Tzoref drew inspiration both from the monumental Torah arks as well as directly from the literary source of Perek Shira, wherein the entirety of creation sings a cosmic song of praise to God.
Two creatures, the bear and elephant, have additional iconographic significance. The image of the bear in both the Torah Ark and on the Torah Shield is an eschatological allusion to the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 11:7, “And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together”. The elephant, specifically with a howdah, is an image that can be found in two of the profusely decorated synagogues from the same region. The walls of the domed ceilings of the synagogues in Hodorov (Khodoriv) and Gwoździec (now Ukraine), painted in the early 18th century, both feature an image of an elephant bearing a howdah, which the scholar Marc Michael Epstein has demonstrated is to be understood as the personification of Divine Law. In placing the attribute of the Divine Law alongside a diverse group of animals who sing praise to God and allude to messianic times, the goldsmith reveals a sophistication unusual in craftsmen of the period.
As noted above, the decorated backs are another element which sets apart the three Torah Shields by Elimelekh Tzoref from more standard productions. The overall arrangement of the back is probably drawn again from literary sources, in this case title pages of Hebrew books, hundreds of which from the period share the layout of pedestal base, central motif in an arch or flanked by columns, and surmounting scene, as on the title page of Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (Amsterdam, 1717) illustrated on the next spread. The quality of the engraving is also exceptional, being much closer to the fine copperplate-printed engraving of book illustrations than the usual decorative - but rarely figural - engraving on 18th century Galician metalwork.
The top level is a detailed engraving of the Binding of Isaac. Abraham stands dramatically with a long knife raised above his head, ready to sacrifice his son Isaac, who is bound on the altar. He is halted by an angel above who points to a ram stuck in the thicket who is to be sacrificed instead. Abraham’s two attendants (Ishmael and Eliezer according to Rabbinic tradition) stand passively watching from a distance at right and wait with the donkey, as Abraham bid them to do.
At the center is a spectacular high-rococo arch, an eruption of ruffled shells and pierced scrolls which probably has an untraced print source. Within this is depicted The Blessing of Isaac, with Rebecca standing protectively behind Jacob. Elimelekh has based this image on the engraving by Matthäus Merian which was first published in Icones Biblicae, a cycle of Biblical illustrations, printed in Frankfurt c.1625-30 (see image on next page). Merian’s illustrations of key events in the Bible were extremely popular and printed many times. In addition, they began to appear in Hebrew books as well as they were adapted and published most famously in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695 as well as in the multiple illustrated editions of Tsene-rene, a highly popular Yiddish adaptation of the biblical text.
The bottom tier of the shield back is particularly close to some of the title page prototypes, as seen in the aforementioned title page of Sha’ar ha-Shamayim (see image on next page). A central roundel depicts a man in 18th century garb washing the hands of another man who is wrapped in a prayer shawl. A young boy stands next to them and collects the water in a basin. This image, of a Levite washing the hands of the Cohen before the recitation of the priestly benediction during the prayer service, is almost always included on an object of Judaica to indicate that the patron who commissioned the object was a Levite.
Based on the multiple uses of the imagery of the Binding of Isaac which appears on the reverse of all three of the Torah Shields, as well as the prominence given to the image of the Blessing of Isaac, it is highly probable that the original commissioner of the three Torah shields was a man named Isaac, who was a Levite. Although the exact identity of this wealthy individual is unknown, further research may help identify this cultured and sophisticated patron.
All three shields were in the collection of Reuben David Sassoon by 1887, when they were shown at the great Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall. They were probably acquired by him after 1867, when he seems to have started his collection of historic Judaica by purchasing the bulk of the Philip Salomons collection. Reuben owned other pieces of Eastern European Jewish metalwork, including an impressive and large mid 18tn century Torah Shield of more traditional form, now on loan with the Victoria & Albert Museum (Loan SPJC.1:1 – 2010). However, these exceptional Shields, which can now be attributed to Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav, have always been stand-outs, whether in the 1887 and 1906 exhibitions, or just in views of the family Torah Ark, as the Sassoons have treasured this lot and the following one for over 130 years.
Malachi Beit-Arie, Jeremy Schonfield and Emile Schrijver, Perek Shirah; An Eighteenth-Century Illuminated Hebrew Book of Praise, London: 1996.
Marc Michael Epstein, “The Elephant and the Law: The Medieval Jewish Minority Adapts a Christian Motif”, The Art Bulletin, (1994) 76:3, pp. 465-478.
Sergey R. Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin: Synagogues in Ukraine Volhynia. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center and Center for Jewish Art, 2017. Vol. 1, pp. 95-96.
Gioia Perugia. Treasures of Jewish Art: The Jakob, Erna, and Charles Michael Legacy in the Israel Museum. Jerusalem: Israel Museum, 2015, pp. 44-49.
Maria and Kazimierz Piechotka: Heaven’s Gates. Masonry synagogues in the territories of the former Polish - Lithuania Commonwealth. Warsaw: Polish Institute of World Art Studies & POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, 2017. pp 440
Mark Wischnitzer, A History of Jewish Crafts and Guilds. New York: Jonathan David, 1965 pp. 206-236.
Bracha Yaniv, The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe. The Littman Library of Jewish. Civilization Series. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2018.