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The Image of the Temple and Jerusalem in Ketubot

The Image of the Temple and Jerusalem in Ketubot

The Image of the Temple and Jerusalem in Ketubot

Ever since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 B.C.E., Jews have hoped and prayed for the day when Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Eventually, the city also became holy for the other two monotheistic faiths. It was passed from hand to hand for hundreds of years. However, during all those years the Jews continued to long for Zion and Jerusalem. This fierce longing was expressed in the spiritual creations of the Jewish people, mostly prayer and poetry, both religious and secular. A popular expression of these hopes can also found in Jewish art. As early as the second generation after the destruction of Temple, the façade of the Temple appeared on coins minted by Bar Kochba. On the other side of the coins the words, "For the liberation of Jerusalem" appeared. In the following centuries these symbols of the Temple (mostly the seven branched candelabra) and Jerusalem became the foundation of Jewish visual art in Eretz Yisrael and out of it. During antiquity these symbols could be found on the bases of pillars, synagogue mosaics, ceramic candle holders and coffins, etc. During the Middle Ages, images such the Sanctuary vessels, the Temple and the Messiah entering the Holy City riding a donkey, were widespread in Hebrew illustrated manuscripts, mostly from France, Germany, Spain and Italy. Depictions of Jerusalem multiplied after the invention of the printing press, and realistic and fantastical images of the city were widespread in European Renaissance and Baroque art- both Jewish and Christian. From this time period on, symbols of Jerusalem and the Temple could be found in almost every category of Jewish art: manuscripts and printed books, Hanukkah menorahs and religious artifacts for the house and synagogue, Sukkah decoration, and so on.

Between the 17th and 19th centuries in Spain, Italy and Islamic countries, it became fashionable to order beautifully decorated ketubot. This brought about a new medium for the expression of the image of Jerusalem. While ketubah illustrators had many images from traditional Judaism from which they could draw inspiration at their disposal, they (or their advisors) chose to create a new and unique connection between the marriage document and Jewish weddings in general and the dream of rebuilding of the Holy City. For instance, the sages' famous requirement to elevate the memory of Jerusalem and its destruction over every happy occasion every happy occasion (from the verse," if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy" [Psalms 137: 6]), is given a lovely graphic expression in Italian ketubot where the image of Jerusalem is raised to the top of the ketubah. In other cases, the illustrators creatively connected between Jerusalem and the establishment of a Jewish house and family. In two of these cases the artists are referring to the "building of a new house" in Israel- something which will not be perfect and solid until the two worlds- the national and individual- will be united, and the new couple will be able to achieve their personal dreams in a rebuilt Jerusalem. Specific examples of how the artists integrated this vision can be found in a small selection of ketubot from the largest and richest collection of ketubot in the world, found in the National Library in Jerusalem. / Prof. Shalom Sabar

Mantua, Italy, 1619



In this unique ketubah, which was created in Mantua during the first half of the 17th century, the text is bordered by a frame made up of architectural motifs formed by micrography – the scribal practice of employing minuscule Hebrew scripts to create abstract shapes or figurative designs.

The gate motif that serves as the dominant frame of the text is well known in art history, mostly from Christian manuscripts from the 6th century C.E., onwards. In Hebrew manuscripts the gate motif took on a symbolic meaning beyond a decorative frame for a text. It became the gate through which the righteous pass through into the Kingdom of Heaven, as it says: "This is the gate of the Lord the righteous shall enter into it" (Psalms 118: 20).

In order to depict this motif, the artists used a pair of Solomonic pillars decorated with entwined greenery and winding cracks, which, in Renaissance culture, symbolized the pillars of the Temples of Solomon, Jachin and Boaz (I Kings 7:15). Pillars such as these stood over the tomb of Saint Peter in the Vatican.

Today we know that these pillars created in the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the 2nd century C.E., and that they were given to the Church in the 4th century by Constantine the Great. However, during the Middle Ages the common belief was that they came from Solomon's Temple.

In Renaissance and Baroque art, these pillars were often represented in pictures that depict events related to the Temple. A famous example of this is Raphael's sketch from 1515, depicting the healing of the cripple, which occurred, according to the New Testament, at the gates of the Temple (Acts 3: 8).

The Jews of Italy copied this motif in their own religious art. Solomonic pillars symbolizing the entrance to the messianic Temple and Heavenly Jerusalem appear on the cover pages of Hebrew books printed in Mantua as early as the 50's of the 16th century.

Ketubah decorators sought to connect this popular motif to the marriage ceremony itself. In many Italian Ketubbot "the Messianic Gate" is also a symbol of the bride and groom’s new house, or of marriage as a rite of passage – that is to say, a passage from regular life to a life of sanctity (the marriage ceremony is known in Judaism as "Kiddushin – sanctification") and the ideal family life.

Casale Monferrato, Italy, 1671



During the second half of the 17th century – in many regards the golden age of ketubah decoration in northern Italy, particularly in Venice and its surroundings – the meanings associated with the image of Jerusalem on ketubot became established and set.

One of the most complicated and sophisticated types of decoration that developed in Venice is displayed here in a ketubah commemorating a wedding held in Casale Monferrato (a suburb of Piedmont in north-west Italy).

In this ketubah, in which the vision of Jerusalem is intergrated in a fascinatiny way, a complete and encompassing picture of the Jewish world is depicted. The Holy City appears in the large medallion in the center of the top part of the ketubah, in likeness to the way it is displayed in the ketubah from Venice, 1674.

However, Jerusalem has a deeper meaning in the decorative plan of this ketubah. Surrounding the picture of the city are three miniatures that illustrate Psalm 128 – a Psalm that describes the ideal family life in Messianic Jerusalem. This Psalm is read in marriage ceremonies of Italian Jews to this day.

Each one of the six miniatures directly relate to the words of the Psalm. In the top miniature, for instance, an elderly person can be seen standing next to a young boy, his son, as an illustration of the words "And see thy children's children" (verse 6). In the miniature below, a woman is seen in a vineyard – "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine" (verse 3), etc.

And where is this happy family meant to reside? The answer lies within verse 5: "The Lord bless thee out of Zion; and see thou the good of Jerusalem all the days of thy life". This combination of the image of Jerusalem and the miniatures surrounding it are an expression of both personal and collective longings – the Messianic hope for the return to Jerusalem and the hope to establish a family there.

Reinforcement for this idea is also found in the rich colorful background in which a series of pictures is integrated: between twined strands of grape vines, hung with bunches of heavy grapes, various birds are seen. On the side are two Renaissance fountains with flowing water. This is a depiction of the verse: "For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel" (Isaiah 5: 7). A vineyard that bears its fruit is a known metaphor for the redemption of Israel at the End of Days as well as for a family that is blessed with descendants.

Two sets of miniatures surround the frame of the text. In one set appear the symbols of the twelve Tribes of Israel. Above the symbol of each Tribe appears the matching zodiac sign (according to Midrash Yalkut Shimoni). The second set appears intermittently between the symbols of the Tribes-zodiac, and includes allegorical figures of the senses, the four seasons and the four foundations of the world according to Aristotle (air, water, fire and earth).

[In comparison- Psalms 128 also appears in a ketubah from Rome, Italy 1739 (335), but only in decorated verses that appear in the frame of the page, not in the illustrations themselves.]

Venice, Italy, 1674



Ketubah illustrators, mainly in Italy, sought ideas that would enrich the imagery on the marriage document and give it appropriate meaning. This process started with the borrowing of a well-known motif and using it for something new and more fitting.

In the case of Jerusalem, the meaning of the motif on the ketubah was a reference to the traditional custom of elevating the memory of the destruction of the Holy City during special events in the lives of the individual and the community.

During the 17th century a large medallion held by two allegories began to appear on top panel of the parchment. The medallion contained a picture of the city of Jerusalem seen from a bird's eye view. The city itself is walled and inside the wall there are domes, towers, small houses, hills and a few cypress trees. This depiction of the city is well-known both from general art and from Italian Jewish art. Among the Jews, it was most common in Venice, and appeared on curtains for synagogue arks the 17th century, and in the famous Venice Haggadah, which was first published in 1609.

The change in the ketubot was mostly contextual: above the city wall a ribbon is waving, hinting at the verse: "I will set Jerusalem above my cheifest joy" (Psalms 137: 6). Added here to the commandment to remember the destruction of the city is the tradition "to set Jerusalem above joy", meaning the wedding. Ketubot artists interpreted this tradition literally, drawing Jerusalem at the top of the ketubah.

Padua, Italy, 1722



This lovely ketubah is decorated in the finest artistic tradition of the Jews of northern Italy, specifically in the Veneto region where Padua is found (west of Venice). The ketubah illustrations contain symbols of weddings, verses and a lovely wedding poem set with couples standing at the sides.

At the top of the ketubah, for instance, the bride is adorned with a large symbolic crown that illustrates the verse "A virtuous woman is a crown to her husband" (Proverbs 12; 4).

The arch above the pair of pillars is made up of the zodiac, organized from right to left, according to the early Hebrew calendar: Aries, the symbol of the first Biblical month; Nissan, is in the right-hand corner; and Pisces, the symbol of the last month, Adar appears in the left-hand corner.

Among the many verses and illustrations, set in in the bottom center, is a small picture of a structure. Below it appear the words "the Temple". The Temple here is the image of an Italian structure with a dome, and a façade with three gates. It is surrounded by city walls on two sides and above it there are cypress trees, symbolizing Solomon's  Temple (see Jerusalem Ketubah, 1860 – no. 472

Venice, Italy, 1732



The connection between the marriage contract and the hope for the renewal of the Temple service in Jerusalem is expressed in this ketubah through drawings of the Sanctuary vessels in four medallions on the four corners of the frame. Pictures of the Sanctuary vessels on the ketubah are the continuation of an ancient Jewish decorative tradition.

​In the first centuries, C.E. the Sanctuary vessels and the rituals in the Temple served as a foundation of Jewish art in Eretz Yisrael and outside of it. They adorned the mosaics in early synagogues, ceramic candle holders, coffins, the base of pillars, glass vessels, and more. 

The preoccupation with the image of Jerusalem and the Temple continued in medieval Jewish art as well. In miniatures on Hebrew manuscripts from various countries  Egypt, Spain, Germany and Italy  the Sanctuary vessels appear again and again as the expression of the longing for the redemption of Israel, the return to Zion and the renewal of the ritual service in the Temple that will be built in Jerusalem. 

In many ketubot that were written over the course of the 18th century, the Sanctuary vessels are integrated into the 12 signs of the zodiac drawn on the rectangular border that surrounds the written text of the ketubah. The Sanctuary vessels, which are described in the Book of Exodus, can be identified by their titles in the medallions: "the laver and its base" (Exodus 30:18), "the candelabra and its vessels" (Exodus, 25:31), "the ark of the cherubim" (Exodus 25: 10), "the showbread" (Exodus, 25:30).  

In other ketubot of this sort, in place of the Sanctuary vessels, the four medallions contain allegories about the four seasons. This is perhaps a hint that the Sanctuary vessels, when they are integrated into the zodiac, are considered an essential element of the yearly cycle, or, alternatively, to the strong connection in Jewish tradition between the Jewish holidays  specifically the Three Festivals of Pilgrimage when Jews would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem and the Temple  and the seasons of the year during which they were celebrated.

Venice, Italy, 1750



During the course of the 18th century, an additional type of decoration connected to Jerusalem began to appear among the Jews of Italy: Pictures of Jerusalem inside a decorated rectangular frame, the most prominent component of which is a colorful octagonal building at the center of the picture.

This building represents the Temple on the Temple Mount. The building is situated between other buildings, with a stone wall in front of them. In the background are a series of mountains bearing the phrase: "As the mountains are round about Jerusalem" (Psalms 125: 2).

The fact that the shape of the building is surprisingly reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock, which was built by the Muslims in Jerusalem (691 C.E.) is not at a coincidence. It was the Crusaders that first gave the Dome of the Rock the name, Domini Templum (the Temple of the Lord), and this is how it appears on maps of Jerusalem and other artistic artifacts that were created in their capital city in the Holy Land.

When they returned to Europe, the Crusaders brought this image of the Temple with them; tens of artistic creations are based on this stereotypical image of the Temple. This image passed from Christian art to the folk art of the Jews of Italy as early as the 15th century and was accepted as the most widespread image of the Temple during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In truth, this false attribution continues until today, even in Jerusalem itself – possibly due to nostalgia for the art of previous generations. In this ketubah, once again the Sanctuary vessels and the zodiac appear – just as in the ketubah from Venice, 1732 (271).

Rome, Italy 1771



This magnificent ketubah faithfully represents the golden era of ketubah illustration in the Jewish community of Rome during the second half of the 18th century.

Despite the difficult living conditions for the Jews in Christianity's stronghold, under the patronage of the Pope, members of the community – particulary the rich – tried to order beautiful and compelling ketubot.

Roman ketubah illustrations often included allegorical figures that symbolized characters, ideas, places and so forth. Folk artists used popular guidebooks in which the allegories were arranged in alphabetical order in Italian. The artists would choose the characters most fitting to the values of the wedding, such as in this ketubah, which was identified by its Italian name as it appears in the aforementioned guidebooks.

​Roman ketubot are also decorated with beloved Biblical figures. Often, these pictures depict stories of heroism and the righteousness of Biblical figures, chosen to serve as an example for the bride and groom who bore the names of the heroes being depicted.

This is how Jerusalem came to be portrayed in this ketubah. The groom was Yedidyah Chaim the son of David Bondi. Yedidyah, according to the Midrash, is the name of King Solomon, who was the friend, "yedid", of God. Therefore, the artist drew a scene from the life of King Solomon in the large cartouche above the text: the visit of the Queen of Sheba. The Queen, with a crown on her head, is marching towards the King who is sitting on his throne in his fancy palace on the left. The writing at the top of the picture quotes the verse: "And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon" (I Kings 10: 4). This is a rare imaginary depiction in Jewish art of Solmon's palace, which stood next to his Temple in Jerusalem.

It is interesting to note that Yedidyah Bondi was either widowed or got divorced just a few years after his wedding commemorated in this ketubah and was re-married in 1775. The same anonymous artist was again called upon to decorate Yedidyah's ketubah, now preserved in a private collection in Italy. The decorative pattern is very similar to that of the ketubah at the National Library, but in place of the Queen of Sheba the artist drew Solomon's Judgment (Kings I 3: 28).

Modena, Italy, 1831



This ketubah is a perfect example of the fact that even if a ketubah is not necessarily decorated with colors or rich decorations, Jerusalem still makes an appearance. The scribe set Biblical verses in square calligraphy around the central text, creating a double frame for the parchment. In the inner frame is Psalm 45, which praises the character of the king (the groom) and his bride. In the outer frame there is a symbolic description of the bride and groom (Isaiah 61:11-62:1) which ends in this significant verse: "For Zion's sake will I not hold My peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest".

[A similar ketubah decorated with flowers: Modena, 1790 – Ketubah no. 145].

Jerusalem, Eretz Yisrael, 1860



The art of decorating and adorning ketubot in Jerusalem itself was the birthright of the Sefaradi community, who brought this artistic tradition to Eretz Yisrael from the cities of the Ottoman Empire and Islamic lands.

The earliest surviving examples of these are from the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th. During this era a set form of visual symbols referring to the most holy place in the city – the Temple Mount and the structures contained on it – were established.

One of the most widespread symbols of Jerusalem in the Sefaradi ketubot was the cypress tree. The “cypress trees” are, in general, drawn at the top of the page. In this ketubah this type of tree is prominently displayed against the background of greenery.

Cypress trees characterize the folk tradition of depictions of Holy Sites in Eretz Yisrael. On traditional artifacts and in various folk images that were created in Jerusalem they appear as part of the conventional view of the Temple Mount, which shows the Dome of the Rock (as the Temple), the Al-Aqsa Mosque (as “Midrash Shlomo”), and between them the Western Wall. Rising above this whole scene are cypress trees (see, Jerusalem ketubah, 1896).

According to scholars, these trees symbolize the Temple and Jerusalem for a number of reasons. One of the theories is that they appear due to the fact that cypress trees grow on the Temple Mount. According to others, the Jews were not able to discern which trees grew on the Temple Mount, since they could not clearly see it from the narrow plaza in front of the Western Wall. And so, they mistakenly identified the cypress trees with the cedars that made up the building material of the Temple (Kings I 5: 20). (See also, “House of Cedars” [II Samuel 7:7]). Therefore the cypress trees in this ketubah, just as in other Sefaradi ketubot from Jerusalem, represent the Temple.​

Jerusalem, Eretz Yisrael, 1896



In but a few examples of Jerusalem Ketubot appear structures, simple though they may be, that can certainly be identified with the Temple.

Such a rare example may seen in this interesting ketubah that arrived from Georgia during the course of the 19th century. In 1891, the Georgian community in Jerusalem numbered some 600 people. The ketubot from “the Georgistan Kolel" generaly keep with the traditions of their country of origin. However, this ketubah also displays local sites.

At the top half of the ketubah are two structures, both of them with crescents at their tops, set against the background of decorative flowers. The outlines of the ketubah are sharp and clear and bring to mind, not coincidently, the Muslim structures on the Temple Mount.

In the folk art that developed in Eretz Yisrael during the 19th century the depiction of the Western Wall, with a row of cypress trees above it and these two structures, was very widespread. In these depictions the Al-Aqsa Mosque is to the right, and the Dome of the Rock is to the left. The Dome of the Rock had been misidentified in previous generations with the Temple, while the Al-Aqsa Mosque was identified with “Midrash Shlomo”. There is no doubt that in this ketubah these structures symbolize Solomon’s Temple and his academy.

Jerusalem, Eretz Yisrael, 1920



Despite the simplicity of this ketubah, it bears the clear mark of Jerusalem where it was created.

On the top of the ketubah are two small stamped pictures; on the right, the conventional depiction of Jerusalem – a view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives, a depiction of the Western Wall with the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and a row of cypress trees above them. Under the picture appear the words: “The Western Wall”. On the left is a picture of structures in the Old City of Jerusalem and identifying words: “The Holy City Zion and the Tombs of the House of David”. Stamped in the center, between the two pictures, are the words: “The signature of the Committee of the Kolelot of Safaradim in the Holy City of Jerusalem, may she be built and established, amen” (in Hebrew, French and Arabic). Underneath, in large, bolded letters, appears the prophecy of Haggai about the greatness and glory of the Temple that will be built during the days of the Messiah: “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than that of the former” (Haggai 2: 9).

At the top, in the form of an arch, appears a blessing from the Book of Ruth: “The LORD make the woman that is come into thy house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel” (Ruth 4: 11). This refers to the newly wed couple. The blessing was originally said during the marriage ceremony of Ruth and Boaz, one of the most important couples in Jewish tradition, who are represented in the sources in an idyllic light, as a symbol and example of a blessed married life. Their marriage led to the birth of David the King. In addition, the matriarchs Rachel and Leah who built “the house of Israel” are mentioned.

The connection between the private marriage ceremony and the national longing for the establishment of the messianic Temple and the revival of the Jewish nation is expressed through the combination of words and pictures from Jerusalem.

Aden, Yemen, 1925



This ketubah represents the combined traditions of eastern illustrations and Eretz Yisrael influences. The ketubah was printed in Jerusalem by A. Weiss Printers, but the text was filled in by hand in the city of Aden in southern Yemen. The families in this far-away Jewish community were without a doubt happy to use this illustrated document that came from the Holy City.

Alongside sayings and verses that are connected to the marriage ceremony and Jerusalem, small stamped pictures appear bearing symbolic meanings related to the Temple and holy sites in Eretz Yisrael – the Tomb of Absalom, the Tomb of Elisha the Prophet, Nabulus (where, according to tradition, Joseph is buried), Jericho the City of Palms, the Sanctuary at Shiloh, Elijah's altar on Mount Carmel. On the top appear conventional representations of Jerusalem – the Western Wall with the Temple and Midrash Sholomo with the unique addition of figures flowing toward it from the ends of the earth, an expression of the longing for the ingathering of exiles in Jerusalem during the Messianic era. The medallion surrounds a quotation exhorting those present to: "Remember the LORD from afar, and let Jerusalem come into your mind" (Jeremiah 51: 50).

Besides the longing for the holy sites of the land of the forefathers, these places are mentioned due to the belief that the benevolence of the forefathers and the merit of the righteous serve as magical protective powers. And indeed, in order to magnify the protection that the document offers, other sayings with magical influence were added, such as the prayer "Answer, with strength" which is made up of the 42 Kabbalistic names of God. The holy sites, the illustrations and the talismanic sayings therefore turn the ketubah into an amulet for the happy couple.

The printed Jerusalem ketubot made their way to many countries in the east, and indirectly led to the decline of the tradition of written ketubot and hand-made illustrations. The printed ketubah (with or without decorations) slowly took the place of the hand-made ketubah throughout almost the entire Jewish world, and the ancient artistic tradition died.

Some other examples of printed Jerusalem ketubot that were used among the eastern communities include: Casablanca, Morocco, 1900 (ketubah no. 363); Herat, Afghanistan, 1926 (ketubah no. 812); Herat, Afghanistan, 1900 (ketubah no. 489).

During the 1970s the decorated ketubah and motifs connected to Jerusalem revived. In an era where many people were “searching for their roots” and acquired a renewed interest in Jewish art in its various forms, many couples began ordering hand-decorated ketubot for their weddings.

In addition, this ketubah contains many common symbols from Jewish art, such as: the Tablets of the Law, the Crown of Torah and Priesthood, the hands of the priest spread in blessing. Another interesting motif that appears in the ketubah is a picture of a handshake which represents the agreement that is documented in the ketubah, signed by the groom in the presence of two witnesses.

Isfahan, Iran, 1927



The connection to Jerusalem in this ketubah is original and surprising, and is related to the place of the city Isfahan in the Iranian ethos, and specifically the Jews of Isfahan. The Jewish community in the city, one of the oldest in Persia, connects its origins to the foundation of the city during antiquity.

During the Safavid dynasty, when Isfahan served as the capital of Persia (1590-), the Jews enjoyed economic and religious prosperity. In order to showcase their antiquity, loyalty, and importance, the Jews of Isfahan used the early symbol of Persian rule: the image of a lion with a sun on its back, usually holding a drawn sword.

In ketubot from Isfahan, rather than a lone lion, a pair of lions is shown (possibly for purposes of symmetry). The two lions pounce toward each other, a half sun bearing the face of a man on their backs. Between the two lions blooms a cypress tree, evidently symbolizing the most beloved figure in Persian literature and folklore – a beautiful, tall young girl who sways like a cypress tree. It is also possible that this is not a cypress tree, but a flame that symbolizes youth and warmth.

In general, ketubah illustrators in Isfahan sufficed with the Persian-national symbol of the lion, a symbol that also received the stamp of approval from the modern Iranian government (it graces Iran's official documents such as stamps, coins and the national flag).

However, with the rise of the Zionist Movement in Iran and the expression of the longing for Eretz Yisrael and Jerusalem, a new and more relevant national symbol was added to the Persian national symbol: the Star of David, with the word "Zion" inside. In the Jewish east this became the most widespread symbol of Jerusalem and it often also appeared on artifacts and buildings that were created in the Old Settlement in Eretz Yisrael by Jewish artists from Islamic lands, mostly from Iran (such as in the works of the folk artist, Moshe Shah Mizrachi who immigrated to Eretz Yisrael from Teheran during the end of the 19th century). In ketubah no. 510 the symbol of Zion and Jerusalem still appears with the lions, while in ketubah no. 603 the national-Persian symbol is deleted entirely and in its place appear three Stars of David with the word Zion in them.