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Jewish Depictions Of Hell


There are countless other stories, from Reb Moshe Leib of Sossov (1744/5 -1807) leaping into hell and forcing the angels to order the Satan not to fuel the fires to the Maggid of Mezhirich (Reb Dov Ber of Mezhirich, 1710-1772) planning to teach Torah in gehinnom, which would draw the righteous to visit from heaven, effectively creating a satellite heaven there. Other Talmudic stories address the appearance of the Satan and demons, most notoriously, perhaps, in the Kabbalistic tractate of Chibbut Ha’Kever.

But it’s not surprising that many erroneously believe Jews don’t believe in hell.  What is interesting is that many in the art history community aren’t aware of Jewish representations of hell.

Ezekiel narrative at the synagogue at Dura Europos.

A fresco at the third century synagogue at Dura Europos (present-day Syria) doesn’t necessarily depict hell, but the gaping hole in the ground—from which the dry bones emerge, representing Ezekiel’s vision—could be a representation of She’ol. The Dura fresco is really difficult to decipher, which might be expected given the opacity of the text. Three bearded figures with curly brown hair, all dressed in red robes with green pants and white socks (or boots), occupy the central position, gesticulating and waving their arms as if they are about to fly away. Above them, four hands (cropped to the wrists) reach down, presumably angels or God refashioning the bodies. Beneath their feet lie several disembodied heads and hands, not yet restored, and in a chasm to the right, more severed heads and hands emerge from the abyss.

Although the narrative in Ezekiel 37 does refer to graves, it does not suggest that the resurrected bones came from any kind of pit. The artist (or artists) who frescoed Dura’s walls chose to render the abyss in a deep black color, which evokes the pit that swallowed Korach, Datan, and Abiram in Numbers 16:32.

Representations of demons as grotesques appear in various Hebrew manuscripts, such as the 14th century Barcelona Haggadah from Spain. Depictions of the angel of death also surface in haggadot. The 15thcentury Ashkenazi (“Washington”) Haggadah, named for its author Joel Ben Simeon (called Feibusch Ashkenazi), represents the 10 plagues of Egypt on the same page in which the text addresses the plague. For the final plague, the illuminator painted an Egyptian firstborn lying dead on the ground, with a figure bearing an enormous sword hovering above. This demon has no legs, and thus might be compared to another depiction of the plague of the death of the first born.

“The Plague of the first born.” Unknown illustrator of the Golden Haggadah. Catalonia, early 14th century: British Library.

The representation of “The Plague of the first born” in the early 14th century Golden Haggadah (Catalonia) also shows a truncated angel of death wielding a sword. The angel of the Golden Haggadah is far more stylized than that of the Ashkenazi Haggadah and has wings and wears a red robe. Both of these haggadot show an angel as the mediator of the final punishment on Egypt.

Yet there is also another visual and scriptural tradition with respect to the plague. In Meir Jaffe ha-sofer’s so-called First Cincinnati Haggadah (named for its location, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati), also published in the 15th century in Germany, the final plague is represented by three corpses lying on the ground. A hand emerges from the clouds above bearing a sword. The disparity between the Ashkenazi haggadah and the Cincinnati haggadah can be accounted for by a discussion in the text of who killed the first born. The text simultaneously maintains that “God Himself” took the Jews out of Egypt alone, “and not an angel; and not a Seraph; without a messenger; but God Himself and alone with His glory,” per Exodus 11:4-5, and that, per Exodus 12:23, the “mashchit” (literally, “destroyer,” i.e. the Satan) is to be let loose on the population.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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