Among the Jewish communities in the Islamic lands, it was often customary to enshrine the Torah scroll in a hinged case made of wood and often sheathed in copper or precious metals. The scroll is wound on two rollers within the case and is never removed. During readings the open case stands upright on a table.
This important case is one of a small group of Jewish ritual objects made by Chinese artisans for the Baghdadi Jewish communities of India. The Baghdadi Jews arrived on the Indian subcontinent from Syria, Iraq, and Persia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Settling primarily in port cities, they were renowned traders, merchants and financiers with commercial interests stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific. This case was once one of the treasures of the Magen David Synagogue, the preeminent Baghdadi synagogue in Bombay (Mumbai). According to one of the Hebrew inscriptions, it was dedicated by a rabbi as a memorial to his wife.
Religious objects tend to be conservative in design, and the Chinese artisans respected the domed cylindrical form of a traditional Iraqi Torah case. However, the surface decoration—an opulent pattern of flowers and leaves—is unmistakably East Asian in its delicate naturalism. Symbolically, the case encloses the sacred scroll in a silvery garden, alluding to the beauty of life and perhaps of Eden. The ornamental finials are capped by crowns reminiscent of the British crown, a reminder perhaps of the privileged position of the Baghdadi Jews under the Raj.
tags: power, function, ritual
Gift of Carlos and Terri Union Zukowski, their children, and grandchildren in loving memory of Bettye and Ben Saslaw, Del Saslaw, and Doba and David Zukowski