Mizrach , Poland
This is a papercut Mizrach that marks the direction of Jerusalem and thus the direction for prayer. While it is known that this "Mizrach" was created in Poland, it is not clear when.
The text on the Mizrach says “Mizrach” (East) and also the continuation of the verse from Psalms 113:3
"עד מבואו מהולל שם ה' " “Until its setting, the name of the Lord is praised.” At the top is a sentence that typically appears in synagogue designs:"דע לפני מי אתה עומד" “Know before whom you are standing.”
Below this text is an illustration of the Ten Commandments on the two tablets of stone and at the bottom is a seven-branched Menorah. Above it, there seems to be a hat, which may be alluding to the priestly hat.
This Mizrach is illustrated with birds and deer and other unidentifiable animals and painted in bright colours. The inspiration for choosing these animals might have come from the teaching in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers: “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a deer and mighty as a lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”
The first record of Jewish papercuts dates back to 1345. A Spanish Rabbi, Rabbi Shem-Tov ben Yitzhaq ben Ardutiel, wrote that when his ink froze, he resorted to cutting the letters out of paper. However, Jewish papercuts only became popular in the early nineteenth century when materials became fairly cheap. The papercut style was applied to many types of religious works which were displayed in the Jewish home: Megillat Esther, Ketubot, and calendars for counting the Omer. Papercuts were particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews. Some of the common features of these papercuts, evident also in this example, included a Menorah, animals, flowers, two columns, greenery representing the Tree of Life, and the tablets of the Law.
The most popular types of papercuts were Mizrach wall plaques. They featured the word Mizrach (East) and would be hung in the direction of prayer. Despite living far away, the focus of Jewish prayer was on Jerusalem, the Holy City in the East. Sometimes they also included the acronym for Mizrach – the words mitzad ze ruah hayyim, meaning "from this side is the spirit of life". The custom of hanging Mizrach plaques in Ashkenazi homes originated in the eighteenth century. They are sometimes combined with the Shiviti, a picture which includes the verse that begins with the word Shiviti – "I have set the Lord always before me." They are also hung in the direction of prayer. Sometimes they would also be used as decoration for the walls of the Sukkah. These decorative images became an art-form. Jews would have looked at the Mizrach when praying three times a day. Despite living far away from Jerusalem, their focus was on the Holy City. In most synagogues, in addition to the Mizrach, the Ark also faces towards the East.
This plaque can be used in Jewish Studies lessons when learning about the tradition of praying towards Jerusalem.
It can also be used in Jewish History lessons when learning about Jewish life in Poland.
Art teachers can use this as an example of religious art and of the specific art form of papercuts.
Teachers can use this as part of a unit on Jewish Holidays to discuss the difference between the Menorah in the Temple and the Hanukah Menorah.
What is this?
What language is it written in?
What is its purpose?
When do you think it was created?
Where would it have been found?
What images and characters do you see on it?
What do they have in common?
Reading Between the Lines
Why do you think these particular images or characters were chosen for the Mizrach plaque?
Why do you think the artist used the papercut style?
Have you ever seen a Mizrach plaque before? If so, describe the ones you have seen. How are they similar or different to this one?
What is the purpose of the Mizrach plaque?
Compare this Mizrach plague to one from Bukhara. What are the similarities or differences?
Take a look at other Jewish papercuts.
Using ideas and elements from these, design your own Mizrach. Explain the elements you have chosen to include.