Both the written and the spoken word have enormous importance in Jewish religious practice. One of the foundational prayers, for example, is the Shema, which starts with an exhortation to listen ("Hear, oh Israel!"); and congregations treasure the Torah scrolls upon which the five books of Moses are carefully handwritten by highly trained scribes. The Torah is read at least weekly (every Shabbat and more often when other holidays intervene) and each movement of the Torah in and out of its ark, as well as the beginning and end of every reading, is marked by prayer. (See the discussion of Simchat Torah in Feast of Tabernacles section.)
It is not only the ceremonial reading of the Torah, however, that bears weight in Judaism. Study of Jewish law and Jewish texts and commentaries is an obligation of every Jew, considered as important as prayer, the keeping of dietary and clothing rules, and other practices.
Given the centrality of the book to Jewish practice, it is not surprising that some of the most striking Jewish artistic endeavors are to be found within their covers and that many Jewish homes contained at least a few beautifully bound books, including both prayer books and printed guides to living well as a Jew. Images of Jews praying and studying, sometimes joyfully, sometimes somberly, are also omnipresent in visual depictions of European Jewry; and these genres are well represented in the Sondheim collection.
|3. Alphonse Lévy (1843-1918). [Rabbi and Student Studying the Weekly Torah Portion, or Parshah] Lithograph, ca. 1903.|