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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”).
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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