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 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 Mantles: 75
    • Torah Binders: 200
    • Torah Finials: 50
    • Torah Pointers: 60
    • Hebrew Bibles: n/a
    • Prayer books and manuscripts: n/a
    • Shofar horns: 15
  • The space of the synagogue:
    • Mizrach, Shiviti and other devotional plaques (synagogue wall hangings): 150
    • Synagogue architectural fragments and furnishings: 35
    • Synagogue lamps: ca. 200 (estimated from a total of ca. 400 lamps in the museum collections)
  • 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 are available in the pages listed below. 

Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn childrenCollected in India (before 1976)  Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew square scriptInk on vellum, pasted on stitched ...

A "Scroll of Esther" (Heb. מגילת אסתר, megilat ester) is a manuscript copy of the biblical Book of Esther, which recounts the story of the salvation of the Jews in the Persian Empire, read in ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

  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 ...

Dr. Guy Benveniste, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, donated a Hebrew manuscript and four photographs of his family in Salonika (today Thessaloniki, Greece) to The ...

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 ...