Objects documenting the sphere of personal and family rituals in the global Jewish diaspora constitute a prominent aspect of the museum holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. These objects, which are often small and portable were created in different locations around the world, were carried by migrant individuals for generations. While some were donated to the Judah L. Magnes Museum by individual families, the majority were added to the collection through a selective acquisition process. The Strauss Collection, for example, was purchased by The Magnes in 1967.
Personal and family ritual objects unite several aspects of Jewish life. These aspects include the observance of Jewish customs – kasherut, or dietary laws, and the laws of "family purity" (taharat ha-mishpachah) governing marital relationships – the celebration of the Life Cycle – marked by the ritual circumcision of male children and the celebration of the religious adulthood of youth of both sexes (bar and bat mitzvah), by engagement and marriage ceremonies, and by death and burial – and the celebration of the yearly cycle – Sabbath and holidays which mark the Jewish calendar – by individuals and Jewish households.
The thousands of ritual objects in the collection originate from the entire Global Jewish Diaspora, including Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, and present a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of Jewish life from a variety of perspectives. When considering the social and historical contexts that presided over their making, ritual objects provide new understanding of everyday life, social structures, gender and generational roles, beliefs, practices, Jewish relationships to normative religions, aesthetic currents, and the interactions between the makers of these objects and the individuals and families that commissioned them.
Personal and family rituals are represented in the collection by a wide spectrum of item types including objects relating to the sphere of personal prayer, to life cycle events, to magic beliefs, to the Jewish home, and to the celebration of the Sabbath and other holidays,
While typology is generally uniform across the Diaspora, ritual objects also are different depending on the different personal and family lifestyles across the Diaspora. They thus provide detailed insight into the specific characteristics of the many cultures of the Jews. The dynamic set of behaviors governing the performance of ritual by individuals and entire families within the Jewish home introduce scholars to the most intimate realms of the Jewish experience across time and space.
An expanding item list (with approximate item counts) includes:
- Head coverings: 50
- Prayer shawls: 40
- Tefillin sets: 10
- Ornamented bags for prayer shawls and tefillin: 200
Life Cycle Events
- Circumcision sets: 30
- Wimpel (Torah Binders made from circumcision cloths): 120
- Wedding clothing (dresses, shoes, head coverings, jewelry): 50
- Ketubbot: 200
- Burial and memorial items: 20
Personal and Jewish Home Objects
- Amulets: 150
- Mezuzot (doorposts): 100
- Mizrach plaques: 50
- Home furnishings: 350
- Kiddush cups: 50
- Lamps for the Sabbath and Holidays: 350
- Hallah covers,table coverings for the Sabbath and Passover Matzah covers: 70
- Havdallah sets and spice boxes: 60
- Passover Haggadot: 600
- Knives (for cutting the Sabbath bread, or hallah): 10
- Plates for the Passover Seder and other holidays: 100
- Sukkah decorations: n/a
In-depth descriptions of individual items and item are available in the pages listed below.
Amulet for newborn children depicting Lilith, inscribed with biblical quotations and kabbalistic formulas listing the letters of the “name of god”
Iran, 18th century
Judah L. Magnes Museum purchase, Siegfried S. Strauss collection, 126.96.36.199
Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn children
Collected in India (before 1976)
Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew square script
Ink on vellum, pasted on stitched cardboard
Judah L. Magnes Museum purchase, Bernard Kimmel collection, 68.83 (2007.0.65; A5)
The collection, which was donated to The Magnes in 2011, includes objects collected and photographs taken in Djerba, Tunisia by Keren T. Friedman.
Painted manuscript of the Book of Esther, rolled for use on the holiday of Purim. The Hebrew text, in Ashkenazi squared Hebrew script (without Masoretic punctuation), is set in 15-line sections throughout the manuscript.
The first thirteen sections (until Esther 4:1) are decorated with painted scenes illustrating the story narrated in the text. The remaining sections bear marks made in preparation for further decorations.
The Haggadah (Heb. הגדה, "narrative;" pl. haggadot) is a Jewish text performed at the Passover Seder, a ritual feast that marks the beginning of the Festival of Passover (Heb. פסח). The Seder (Heb. סדר, "order") is one of the core events of Jewish life. In modern times, it is celebrated by families within the Jewish home, or by communities and congregations, inside synagogues, community centers, university campuses, as well as hotels and even cruise ships.
Passover textiles include specially designed covers for the matzah (Heb. מצה; Yiddish matsoh), the unleavened bread eaten during the Passover Seder, and pillow cases used to cover pillows on which those attending a Seder ritually recline.
The detailed description of Jewish ceremonial customs by Kirchner, a Jewish convert to Christianity, first published in 1717, was re-edited by the Christian Hebraist, Sebastian Jugendres (1685-1765), in 1724.
In 2015, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley welcomed the gift of the Peachy and Mark Levy Family Judaica Collection, which represents the largest donation of objects to The Magnes since its founding in 1962, and the largest addition to its Judaica holdings since the purchase of the Siegfried S. Strauss collection in 1967.
Knives of different size and shape (and their cases) are used for ritual purposes,such as cutting bread (challah) at festive meals, ritual slaughtering (shechitah) of animals considered pure according to Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), and the circumcision of male newborn children (brit milah or bris).
Shiviti manuscripts, found in Hebrew prayer books, ritual textiles, and on the walls of synagogues and Jewish homes, have been produced since the early-modern period. Wrestling with ways to externalize the presence of God, these documents center upon the graphic representation of God's ineffable four-letter Hebrew name, the Tetragrammaton. The four letters, yud-he-vav-he, serve as a source of inspiration in prayer and daily life.
A "Torah binder" is a Jewish ceremonial textile used to keep a Torah (Hebrew Bible) scroll closed tightly when it is not being used for synagogue reading. In some Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe, Torah binders were made from the linen or cotton cloth used to cover new-born males during the Circumcision ceremony (brit milah).