Postcard of Shavuot, Germany, Nineteenth Century
This is a postcard from Germany in the nineteenth century showing a Shavuot scene in a synagogue. The text at the bottom explains that this is the ceremony of taking the Torah scrolls out of the ark on Shavuot.
The scene shows two men dressed in smart clothes – i.e., breeches and patent shoes – holding Torah scrolls. They are both wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and are being handed the scrolls by an older man, who is also wearing a tallit. In the background the ark is open, and several other scrolls can be seen inside. The phrase “Know before whom you stand” has been written in Hebrew on the upper lintel of the ark. Two scrolls have been taken out of the ark, indicating that this is a festival and not a regular Shabbat or weekday when one scroll is taken out.
The fact that it is Shavuot is also indicated by the decorations in the synagogue. Both the ark and a chair to the left of the image are draped in vines and flowers, and there are plants on both sides of the ark. Plants are not usually found in synagogues except on Shavuot.
Would You Like to Know More?
Decorating the Synagogue on Shavuot - Shavuot falls exactly seven weeks after Passover. It celebrates the date that the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also signifies the Harvest time which is why it is customary for some Synagogues to be decorated with greenery.
The earliest known source for the custom of decorating synagogues with plants for Shavuot was the Maharil in the fourteenth century: “It is our custom to spread the floor of the synagogue with fragrant spices and roses in order to enhance the joy of the holiday.” Other commentators have suggested that the tradition is based on the midrash (Talmudic story) that plants miraculously sprouted on Mount Sinai just before the Torah was given in order to beautify the area. This custom, which began in Germany, spread across the Ashkenazi world and is common nowadays in many synagogues and communities.
Jewish Postcards - This postcard was created in Germany during the latter part of the nineteenth century as part of a series of postcards designed to portray religious Jewish life.
Jewish History teachers can use this postcard to discuss the Jewish communities of Germany and their traditions in the nineteenth century.
Jewish Studies teacher can present this postcard when discussing the various customs of the festival of Shavuot.
Art teachers can use this and other postcards created in the nineteenth century and discuss which elements of Jewish life were chosen and how they were depicted.
What is taking place in the picture?
What are the men doing?
What are the men wearing?
How has the synagogue been decorated?
Reading Between the Lines
Is this an Ashkenazi or Sephardi synagogue?
Explain your answer.
What festivalis illustrated?
When was this postcard created?
Why are the men holding Torah scrolls?
What does this picture tell us about the Jewish community in Germany?
This picture shows a Shavuot tradition in Germany in the nineteenth century.
Is this tradition still common today?
Do you go to synagogue on Shavuot? Is your synagogue decorated?
If not, search for images of decorated synagogues on the internet.
What other traditions are characteristic of Shavuot?
How has festive clothing changed since the nineteenth century?
Choose a festival and create a postcard illustrating it. What have you chosen and why?
Suggest a way to decorate your home or synagogue with plants for Shavuot.