web analytics
January 30, 2015 / 10 Shevat, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

A Mohel’s Siddur by Aryeh ben Judah Leib

From the Braginsky Collection

Photography and Website design by Ardon Bar-Hama



Imagine you are a mohel and, thank God, business is booming.  It’s a good living and you even have time to sit and learn in between the jobs that seem to crop up at least once a week.  In addition, you do a bit of doctoring and tutoring a few children in heder.  You think, “Perhaps I should have a siddur to replace my father’s worn-out printed volume that he got from his father and then from his father oh so many years ago.  Here I am in Trebitsch who can help me find something…nice.  Oh, I know, Aryeh ben Judah Leib.  He is getting really famous for making hand written books with beautiful decorations over in Vienna where he has set up shop.  He makes his seforim for important people, even those Yidden who serve at the royal Court – just like they used to do maybe two hundred years ago before we had Hebrew printing.   Why not, I’m doing well, doing God’s work.  It’s a hiddur mitzvah.”


And so a patron of Jewish art is born.  Indeed, Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch was a Moravian scribe living in Vienna who started what would become a major movement in Jewish art – the return to the handwritten illuminated Hebrew manuscript in the 18th century.  His clients were frequently men of power, Court Jews who could afford a handwritten sefer.  But occasionally, a simple man like our mohel approached him for a special commission.  Indeed, the manuscript we have is a siddur with numerous piyutim and commentary for a mohel by David ben Aryeh Leib of Lida (1650-1696), nothing terribly fancy or elaborate, except for one rather unusual illumination right at the beginning.


Raphael and Tobias – copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch

Courtesy The Braginsky Collection

The siddur, currently in the Braginsky Collection (reviewed in the Jewish Press, February 26, 2010), is called “Sefer Sod Adonai im Sharvit ha Zahav (Book of the Lord’s Mystery with the [commentary] Golden Scepter.”  It was copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch in 1716 and features a title page showing three men and two women in a synagogue setting. After that is the prayer Adon Olam illuminated with two rampant lions unfolding a cartouche with the Hebrew word Adon inscribed. Next are the first morning blessings: “Blessed are you Hashem regarding washing the hands.  Blessed are You Hashem who heals all flesh and is wondrous in His acts.”  The blessing on washing the hands is surrounded by an illumination that depicts an angel on the left and a young man carrying a big fish on his shoulder on the right.  Rather surprisingly the subject is from the Book of Tobias, part of the Catholic cannon and known as a book of the Apocrypha (from the Greek meaning “hidden things”).

What’s this subject doing in a pious Jew’s siddur


Tobias (detail) copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch

Courtesy The Braginsky Collection


First of all the subject, the Book of Tobias, while not included in the Jewish canon, is distinctly Jewish.  It was composed in Aramaic sometime between the 4th and early 2nd century BCE.  Four copies in Aramaic and one in Hebrew were found in the Qumran Caves among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  According to scholars several medieval Jewish versions survive and there is evidently a shortened version of the tale in Midrash Tanhuma (Encyclopedia Judaica).  It even surfaces in an early painting of Moritz Oppenheim, “Return of Tobias” 1823.  It is unknown why it was not included in the canon although the Mishnah Yadayim 4:5 seems to imply that books included in the canon can be written in Hebrew, or Hebrew and Aramaic, but not totally in Aramaic. 

Set in Nineveh, capital of Assyria, around 722 during the exile of the ten northern tribes (2 Kings: 17:6).  Tobias was a deeply pious Jew of the tribe of Naphtali, zealous in observance of all the mitzvot - giving charity, keeping kosher and being especially careful about the mitzvah of burying the unclaimed dead even in the face of persecution.  In spite of his selfless piety he was blinded in an incomprehensible divine test similar to the one we see in the Book of Job.


Raphael (detail) copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch

Courtesy The Braginsky Collection


Tobias had a son also named Tobias who was raised to be as pious and righteous as his father.  He meets a stranger, actually the angel Raphael, and together they set out on a journey to recover a loan for his aged and blind father.  As they rest by a riverside Tobias is attacked by a fierce fish, only to be saved by his new friend who teaches him to use parts of the fish in miraculous ways.  They come to the distant house of his father’s brother and discover the man’s only daughter, Sarah, has been preyed upon by the vicious demon Asmodeus who has slain her seven prospective husbands each on their wedding night.  Tobias destroys the demon and frees the young woman to marry him.  They finally return to his old father and mother and cure his blindness with the gall of the fish.  They all thank God for their deliverance and the angel now reveals himself, blesses them and departs.  The book ends with a prophecy of their return to Israel and Jerusalem.


The story is a tale of deep faith, filial devotion and divine assistance.  It relates two tales of suffering 1) Tobias’ blindness and 2) Sarah’s demonic curse that are resolved by a pious Jew’s constant faith and divine intervention by the angel Raphael.  This parable of individual redemption reverberates in national redemption that was witnessed in the return of the Jewish people to their land and the building of the Second Temple.

The image in the mohel’s siddur is artfully simple, showing the angel in typical Baroque costume, staff in hand, accompanying the steadfast Tobias dutifully carrying the fish and accompanied by their faithful dog in the lower right corner.   In the context of the Tobias story it is an image of determination to cure the ill and render kindness and mercy for their families that need help.  In the context of a book on circumcision it proclaims that circumcision is in fact a cure, making the child fully whole and fully Jewish.  It is of course symbolic of our partnership with God, our role in completing God’s creation of the child with the mark of the Covenant.


Shacharis – copied and illuminated by Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch

Courtesy The Braginsky Collection


The featuring of the archangel Raphael in this narrative is especially apt since he is traditionally associated with healing by his name alone, Raphael = God is healing.  Even more revealingly Raphael is cited in the Talmud, Yoma 37a, as one of the three angels who visit Abraham as he is recovering from his circumcision.  In the much latter literature of the Zohar “he is the angel who dominates the morning hours to bring relief to the sick and suffering (Encyclopedia Judaica).”  Suddenly the use of Raphael couldn’t be a more apt image to have in a mohel’s siddur. One almost wonders why the Book of Tobias wasn’t used more often in Hebrew illumination.

Perhaps the fact that Jews did not venerate its text while the Christians did chased off Jewish artists and thinkers from utilizing the rich material found in this abandoned Jewish book.  Not surprisingly, following Jewish tradition, in Christian lore the angel Raphael is the patron saint of apothecaries and physicians, guardian saint over children, also watching over travelers.  But for Aryeh ben Judah Leib of Trebitsch, the man who started a rebirth of Hebrew manuscript illumination, it was fair game to create a totally unique and deeply meaningful image for a mohel’s siddur.  We are blessed with his creativity and insight.


I am deeply indebted to curators Emile Schrijver and Sharon Liberman Mintz for their research in the catalogue “Highlights from the Braginsky Collection.”  I especially thank Sharon Liberman Mintz for directing my attention to this fascinating manuscript.

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art.
Contact him at

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “A Mohel’s Siddur by Aryeh ben Judah Leib”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
Photo of Al Qaeda founder and former leader, Osama Bin Laden, seen above a Palestinian Authority flag.
Shin Bet Sting Nabs Israeli Arabs Joining Al Qaeda, ISIS
Latest Sections Stories

The musical production was beautifully performed by the middle school students.


Greige offered a post of her own. She said, “I was very cautious to avoid being in any photo or communication with Miss Israel.” She contends that she was photobombed.


This year, 40 couples were helped. The organization needs the support of the extended Jewish community so that it can continue in its important work.

In the introduction to the first volume, R. Katz discusses the Torah ideal, arguing that the Torah’s laws are intended to craft the perfect man and are not to be regarded as ends unto themselves.

A highlight of the evening was the video produced by the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center on the legendary Agudah askan Reb Elimelech (Mike) Tress, a true Jewish hero.

Until recently his films were largely forgotten, but with their release last year on DVD by Re:Voir Video in Paris they are once again available.

Though the CCAR supported the Jewish right to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael, it strenuously objected to defining Palestine as the Jewish homeland.

“Well, you are also part of this class! If someone drills a hole in the boat, the boat will ultimately sink, and even the innocent ones will perish as well. The whole class must be punished!”

Nouril concluded he had no choice: He had to become more observant.

I find his mother to be a difficult person and my nature is to stay away from people like that.

Here are some recipes to make your Chag La’Illanot a festive one.

Does standing under the chuppah signal the end of our dream of romance and beautiful sunsets?

We aren’t at a platform; we are underground, just sitting there.

More Articles from Richard McBee
Jerusalem to Jericho Road: photograph by Chanan Getraide
“Chanan Getraide Photographs”: 2004 exhibition at Hebrew Union College Museum

“We are living in a Golden Age of Jewish Art, but don’t know it.”


He refuses to flinch from our painful history, perhaps finding a kind of solace in the consistency of irrational enmity directed against us.

“Vidduy: The Musical” breaks through the formidable barrier of repetitive confession to allow us to begin to understand what is at the heart of this fundamental religious act.

A fascinating glimpse into the rich complexity of medieval Jewish life and its contemporary relevance had intriguingly emerged.

Silverstein’s work has long concerned itself with the intersection between the personal and Jewish Biblical narrative, significantly explored in this column in “Brighton Beach Bible” (July 27, 2009).

Not surprisingly the guardians of synagogue tradition is male dominated in both Moses Abraham, Cantor and Mohel and Synagogue Lamp Lighters.

Neither helpless victims nor able to escape the killer’s clutches, the leaders had to make impossible choices on a daily basis in a never-ending dance with the devil.

Bradford has opted to fully exploit the diverse possibilities of the physical surface by concentrating on the three-dimensional application of paint (impasto) and other material.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/a-mohels-siddur-by-aryeh-ben-judah-leib-2/2010/08/04/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: