The Temple Destruction and its Visual Expression in Sephardic Bibles


The catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction in the year 70 stimulated a treasury of Jewish symbols that expressed visually the yearning for the Temple and the desire to preserve its memory. Symbolic imaging of the Temple appears on the coins minted by Bar Kochba, in funerary art sites as well as in synagogues and in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts. Among these manuscripts stands out a group of twenty Sephardic bibles with opening pages filled with illustrations of Sanctuary/Temple vessels.

The unique features of the Perpignan Bible are the names appearing next to each implement. It could be that the purpose for these titles was to clarify and teach the function of each vessel.  In addition, each frontispiece is framed by a verse written all around it.  The verse chosen to frame the right frontispiece (Numbers 8:4) : “ Now this is how the Menorah was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal, according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the Menorah made,”  is taken from the chapter commanding Aaron to light the Menorah and treat its candles.The picture of the frontispieces of the Perpignan Bible of 1299 seen above presents an assortment of Temple implements.  These Temple vessels are divided into several registers.  On the right frontispiece, in one register, appears the golden Menorah, the censers and two stones that the priests stood upon to treat the candles.  In the second register are the jar of manna, Moses’ staff and Aaron’s staff that sprouted blossoms.  In the third register are the two stone tablets (with the opening words of each command-ment. The commandment of Shabbat (the fourth commandment appears with two words ZACHOR and SHAMOR).  The Cherubim are seated on the KAPORET (ark-cover} and beneath them is the show- bread- table with the BAZICHE LEVONA (cups of spices).  On the left frontispiece, all in one register, appear the golden altar (the incense altar), two silver horns, and the shofar.   The altar of the daily sacrifice, and its utensils, the ramp, the laver and its base are in the third register.

The text framing the left frontispiece is not biblical and its source is unclear. It says:  “All these were chosen when the HEICHAL stood on its place, and the Temple sanctified its base.  Happy was he who witnessed this great, glorious sight and each deed in its splendor and magnitude.  Happy is he who waits and will be worthy to see it again.  May it be G-d’s will that it be rebuilt soon in our day, that our eyes behold it and our hearts rejoice in it.  Amen. Amen. Selah.”

Interestingly, part of this text is found in the SEDER HA-AVODAH of the Musaf service of Yom Kippur. Just before the PIYUT describing the Temple and its vessels it says:

“All these [were present] when the HEICHAL stood on its foundation, and the Temple sanctified its base, when the High Priest stood to perform the service and his generation bore witness and celebrated. ”

The  PIYUT following  this inscription mentions the  glory and the grandeur of the Temple and its priests:

When the Ark was in the house of the holy of holies.
When the staves were in the loops of the Ark …
When the sprinkling of the blood on the pure altar
When the cherubim spread their wings from above …
When the priests offer the incense
When the stone tablets were in the ark ….
When the sweet smell of daily sacrifice…

The words of this PIYUT, as well as the Temple’s vessel and the text framing the left page, all accentuate the fact that now that the Temple has been destroyed, the Bible serves as MIKDASH-YAH (God’s Temple) and the Temple’s implements decorate its opening pages to emphasize the importance of remembering and studying them.

To what can we attribute the Spanish bible’s preoccupation with the Temple implements at this time?

It seems that during the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries the study of the Mishna and the Babylonian Talmud flourished.  Maimonides, who wrote a commentary to the entire Mishna and composed the Mishna Torah, stimulated a new interest in the Temple’s worship by devoting an entire volume (the eighth book- SEFER HA’AVODA) to the laws of the Temple and its sacrifices. His observations are apparent in some of the utensils that appear in these frontispieces. For example, the two stones on both sides of the Menorah are not mentioned in the Bible but in the Mishna (Mishna Tamid 3:9) and in Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishna. The same with the BAZICHE LEVONA (cups of spices) that appear as part of the showbread table (Mishna Menachot 11:5).

Maimonides, in his commentary to Mishna Avot (1:1) changes the order:  “On three things the world stands – on Torah, on AVODAH and on acts of loving kindness”- and mentions AVODAH at the end of the list, after acts of loving kindness.  He explains AVODAH as the sacrifices which were the laws that have no obvious explanation, as distinct from “Torah” being rational commandments whose purpose is understandable, or “acts of loving kindness” which are also self-evident, being ethical in nature.   According to him, the sacrificial service symbolizes the laws that G-d commanded us to observe without question.  Therefore, their observance is considered a foundation upon which the preservation of the world exists.

Thus, in the spirit of Maimonides’ writings it is possible to understand the frontispieces of the Perpignan Bible as a symbolic message, according to which the images of the different Temple implements reinforce the preservation of the Temple’s memory and the belief in the coming of the Messiah who will rebuild the Temple and reinstate its SEDER HA-AVODAH (rituals) being the foundation of God’s Torah and His Creation (Mishne Torah, Hilchoth Melachim 11:1).


Dr. Shula Laderman, Kekst Fellow, is Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and advisor for its Judaism and the Arts M.A. program. She is currently writing God’s blueprint of Creation, to be published by E.J. Brill in Leiden.

Photo: Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez.

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