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Alessandra Di Castro, Museo Ebraico di Roma, Serena Di Nepi, University of Rome La Sapienza, Rav Amedeo Spagnoletto, Collegio Rabbinico Italiano, Olga Melasecchi, Museo Ebraico di Roma.
Every Saturday, in the Synagogue of Rome after the reading of the Torah, the community is blessed. According to the Italian rite a special blessing is added for “every daughter of Israel who makes a me‘il or a mitpachat in honour of the Torah”.
The me‘il is the outer garment of the Torah scroll, the mitpachat is an inner wimple (in Modern Hebrew it means handkerchief). The Italian rite is one of a kind. Elsewhere it’s hard to find special blessings for women. (Rav Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni)
The blessing of the women who dress the sacred text is the idea at the heart of the Rome Lab, the philological trace of a tradition that ties Roman Jews to Antiquity.
Eight women are said to have worked in the Temple of Solomon to weave the parochet, the curtain that shielded the sacred Ark. The connection between the dressing of the text and the women who make it possible is sealed in the Roman liturgy originating a space of interpretation that challenges historical method as well as the Jewish law.
Through examples of this unique tradition of ritual textiles, this presentation will delve into the symbolism of covering the sacred text, the history of its Roman artifacts and the way in which they mirror community history.
Ritual textile, especially the mappòt, are used to cover text and at the same time carry their own scriptures, dedications, commemoration of special events, of love and friendship, beginnings and ends. Thousands of them preserved at the Jewish Museum of Rome, embroidered on precious brocades and silks and lined with gold, are like pages of an abstract communal diary, a collective voice of the communal heart.
At the same time, this collection is historical evidence of the complexity of Jewish life in the capital of Catholicism.
The bull Cum nimis absurdum allowed the Jews to trade only second hand objects – the stracceria seu cenceria. These wonderful textiles seem to contradict the provision of the law. The word Stracceria has been interpreted as a self-evident sample of the extreme poverty and social distress in which all Jews were relegated for more then 3 centuries. This is a simplistic reading. As it lasted from 350 years, the Jewish cenceria evolved over this long period giving us information that other sources conceal.
What was the meaning of donating such precious fabrics in the ghetto? The Jewish upper classe used to donate luxurious liturgical objects to the synagogues. The art objects (silvers, wooden, ivories, coral) were often commissioned to famous artists, who normally worked for the aristocracy, the pope and the cardinals. It was the Hebrew dedication – and not only the shape and the use of symbolism with a certain Jewish feeling as pomegranate – to characterize their Jewish belonging and identity.
Textiles however, more than objects, contain a a mark of the intimacy between the patron and the gift. Since that of garments was a common trade for the Jews and the richest businessman dealt with luxurious drapery, it was common to chose the most beautiful cut and donate them to the community. The draperies were then elaborately embroidered with the aim to make them suitable to honor and protect a Sefer Torà.
Spending money to overtly signify self-identification and religious belonging to the community of the persecuted people, that were condemned by their own choice to live within the walls of the ghetto, must be regarded as a distinct and precise statement. The congregants praying in the synagogue deeply understood the multiple meanings of these luxurious objects at a time of pressing and sometime violent evangelization.
As the Church continue to promise a better life and concrete social and economic advantages, the Jews focused on their otherness, and displayed it proudly in the public space of the ghetto.
Rav Riccardo Di Segni gives us another insight on this tradition: Jewish women embroidered the precious mappòt preserved in the museum of the Jewish community of Rome. These mappòt were handmade by the Jews themselves, unlike the gold and silver decorations, which could be commissioned by Jews but would be carried out by Christian artisans due to the restrictive regulations of the papal authority. Therefore these embroidered fabrics represent direct Jewish participation, specifically female; the worthy women, descendants of ancestors who, in the desert had spun the fabrics for the tabernacle (Exodus 35:25).
Among the various aspects that characterize this exceptional collection there is one of a ritual nature that is worth emphasizing. Because of papal restrictions, Jews were forbidden from trading new fabrics. Many of the fabrics in this collection are recycled material. The ritual question is, whether or not this is allowed when the adornment is for a sacred object such as the Sefer Torah. The rule is codified in the main book of religious laws, the Shulchan‘Arukh (Orach Chayim 153:21) and in the addition of Moshe Isserles (147:1), it is prohibited. However, the Roman Jews did it, with the splendid results we have in front of our eyes. Examining the sources, we see that not everyone agrees with the prohibition (like Maghen Avraham, ibid. 147 n. 5 and other authors cited in the Mishnah Berurah, ibid. n. 13); the use of recycled fabric is allowed with the justification that there is a complete transformation of form, exactly as it is in the Roman work. Therefore, our ancestors did it by virtue of necessity, bypassing papal bans and ritualistic principles (well-founded, but not absolute) in order to express their religious devotion and to honor the Torah.