Synagogue and Communal Life

Since its inception, The Magnes Collection has focused on documenting the public sphere of Jewish ritual. The thousands of ritual objects in the collection originate from the entire Jewish Diaspora, including Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas, and present a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of Jewish public life from a variety of perspectives.

 Synagogue and Communal Life 
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Synagogue and communal life is represented in the collection by a wide spectrum of item types including: architectural fragments from synagogues in Europe, Asia and the United States, Torah scrolls and objects used to read them and embellish them, and other objects specifically created to be used in performing a variety of rituals.

Ritual objects highlight how synagogue life differs greatly among varied communities and thus provide insight into specifics of different Jewish cultures. The dynamic set of ritual behaviors that govern general synagogue life as well as the performance of particular rituals allow for better understanding of the cultural histories of the communities from which these objects come.

An expanding item list (with approximate item counts, when available) includes:

  • Torah and other Ritual Objects and Texts
    • Torah Scrolls: 20
    • Torah Arks: 15
    • Torah Ark Curtains: 50
    • Torah Mantles: 75
    • Torah Binders: 200
    • Torah Finials: 50 pairs
    • Torah Pointers: 100
    • Hebrew Bibles: n/a
    • Prayer books and manuscripts: n/a
    • Shofar horns: 25
  • The space of the synagogue:
    • Mizrach, Shiviti and other devotional plaques (synagogue wall hangings): 150
    • Synagogue architectural fragments and furnishings: 35
    • Synagogue lamps: 200 
  • Communal Life
    • Memorial plaques
    • Honorific awards
    • Ephemera
  • Depictions of Synagogue and Communal life
    • Books
    • Prints and drawings
    • Documentary photographs 

In-depth descriptions of individual items and item groups are available in the pages listed below. 

To go directly to a specific entry, begin typing a name (e.g. "Haas," "Jewish Community Center," or "Emanu-El") in the filter box below. To search for a name or term that may not be included in a collection's title, use the search box at the top of this page, or go to the advanced search page.

Etrog Containers

The etrog (Heb. אתרוג, citrus fruit) is one of the "Four Species" used during the rituals relating to the Festival of Sukkot (or Tabernacles). 

Following rabbinic interpretations (based on the Mishnah and the Talmud, Sukkah), the "Four Species" (a date palm frond, myrtle and willow branches, and an etrog) are typically acquired during the days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and, when not locally grown, are often ordered months in advance. 

Painted Esther Scroll (Northern Italy, 18th century)

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.

Passover Haggadah Collection (הגדה של פסח)

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.

Peachy and Mark Levy Family Judaica Collection

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.

Ritual Knives


Circumcision SetKnives 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 Plaques

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.

Wimpel (Torah Binder) Collection

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).