The Tablets of the Law at the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana
DECORATIVE TABLETS of the Ten Commandments, nowadays a common feature
of synagogue interior decoration, are a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish
art and tradition. It was in the eighteenth century that they became one
of the most widespread Jewish symbols among Europe's Sephardi and Ashkenazi
communities. In addition to the familiar Ark, it appears on numerous ritual
objects related to the Torah (for example, curtains and valances, Torah
crowns, breastplates and mantles), as well as amulets, marriage contracts,
and title-pages of Hebrew books. Although some rabbinical authorities objected
to the practice, large ornamental Tablets of the Law were sometimes displayed
on the walls of the synagogue.
The Rosenthaliana tablet comes within this last category. It is drawn on a large parchment, measuring 612 by 502 mm - obviously for public display. The page is divided into two round-topped columns, set in a delicate border of flowers and butterflies. The wide floral central column is topped by a large jewelled crown labelled 'Torah Crown' ; above, two oval wreaths of bright flowers contain the verse: 'Remember ye the law of Moses My servant / Which I commanded unto him in Horeb' (Malachi III, 22). Paralleling the top wreaths are two smaller ones underneath, with the following inscription: 'Written by Jekuthiel Sofer, son of the h[onored] r[abbi] Isaac Sofer, in the year "When I was gone up into the mount to receive the Tables of Stone, even the Tables of the Covenant" [Deut. IX, 9] / I wrote this for the eminent Levi, son of the late h[onored] Samson Borcum of b[lessed] m[emory]'. The numerical value of the larger, marked letters in the carefully selected words of Moses yield the date 528, namely 1767/8 CE.
Jekuthiel Sofer was a prolific scribe in eighteenthcentury Amsterdam, and many of his manuscripts are preserved. His proficiency is shown in the square Sephardi script, in which each letter is unusually crowned. Although Jekuthiel was probably not responsible for the decoration, the style, colours and selection of motifs undoubtedly point to Dutch provenance. The stiff, brightly coloured lines and the feeling for flat surfaces are reminiscent of popular hand-coloured Dutch engravings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, the combination of various local flowers with hovering birds or butterflies is also familiar from Dutch-Jewish art, notably the extremely popular copper-engraved border which adorned Sephardi ketubbot of Amsterdam since the 1650s for almost two centuries.
The most curious feature in Jekuthiel's tablet is the actual text of the Ten Commandments. On closer examination the words from Exodus XX appear to deviate significantly from the familiar Decalogue of Jewish and Christian works of art. Jekuthiel's tablet is evidently not inscribed with the two or three opening words of each commandment. It is even more puzzling that the first column appears to contain not five but six commandments. In fact, this peculiar division agrees with the Calvinist system in which 'l am thy Lord' serves as a prologue while 'Thou shalt have no other gods' and 'Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image' constitute two separate commandments. Except for this difference, Calvin's method is identical with the rabbinic enumeration, and, in contrast with the Catholic division, here the two parts of 'Thou shalt not covet' are merged as the tenth commandment.
Why did Jekuthiel employ this peculiar arrangement? An almost identical wording of the Ten Commandments appears in the large wooden tablets above the monumental Hekhal in the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam, the Esnoga, erected in 1675. But is it possible that Calvinist ideas influenced the Decalogue displayed in the Esnoga? Because of the importance attached by Calvin to the Ten Commandments, a special rounded-top tablet, called a 'Tiengebodenbord', decorated the otherwise bare walls of Reformed Dutch churches. These popular tablets clearly inspired Rembrandt and his pupils in their work. Indeed, Rembrandt's famous painting of 1659 'Moses and the Tablets' shows the tablets inscribed in Hebrew with an unusual mixture of Jewish and Calvinist methods of enumerating and dividing the commandments. Although the painting's patron is not known, the same peculiar formula was later incorporated on the two tablets in the Esnoga. In fact, placing the Decalogue above the Ark in the Esnoga was apparently influenced by a similar practice in Reformed churches. Under the influence of the Esnoga, other Sephardi synagogues in Holland and elsewhere adopted this practice and placed Tablets of the Law above their Holy Arks (although with the standard rabbinic formula). Living in Amsterdam and undoubtedly familiar with the magnificent Decalogue at the Esnoga, Jekuthiel Sofer elected to emulate this venerated monument in this attractive parchment tablet.
R. Mellinkoff, 'The Round-Topped Tablets of the Law. Sacred Symbol
and Emblem of Evil', Journal of Jewish Art I (1974) p. 28 - 43.
Ben Ami G. Sarfatti, 'The Tablets of the Law as a Symbol of Judaism' in: B.-Z. Segal & G. Levi, eds., The Ten Commandments in History and Tradition (Jerusalem 1990) P. 383 - 418.
S. Sabar, 'Hebrew Inscriptions in Rembrandt's Art' in: M.Weyl & R. Weiss-Blok, eds., Rembrandt's Holland (Jerusalem 1993) p. 169 - 187 (in Hebrew).
E.G.L. Schrijver, Towards a Supplementaty Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana (Amsterdam 1993) p. 115 -117.