One of the aspects of the biblical construction narratives – both those about the Tabernacle in the wilderness in Exodus, and in 1 Kings about Solomon’s Temple in the Holy Land – that most troubled and confused me when I was young was the aesthetic status of the structures.
If the Tabernacle and Temple were based upon divine designs, I reasoned, they could not possibly be improved upon. Yet, having attended many art classes that included intimidating critiques which left no work unscathed, I could not imagine how the Temple design could possibly be so clever and original that critics and historians would put down their pencils and simply adore and worship.
Rear view of Esnoga
Of course, youth has a way of making one feel that one’s questions are unique, and this aesthetic controversy has been considered and analyzed enough times that the path need not be further trodden. But I could not help but be reminded of it reading The Esnoga: A Monument to Portuguese-Jewish Culture (1991, D’ARTS, Amsterdam), particularly David P. Cohen Paraira’s essay “A Jewel in the City: The architectural history of the Portuguese-Jewish Synagogue.”
In the outward slanted buttresses in the rear of the 17th century synagogue (image one), Cohen Paraira sees an echo of contemporary visions of Solomon’s Temple. For example, an illustration (image two) in a book by Rabbi Jacob Juda Leon – called ‘Templo’ for his obsession with the Temple – depicts similarly sloped supports in the rear of the Temple. The additions to the rear of the synagogue were added in 1773-1774 “on the basis of the model of the Temple made by Jacob Juda Leon Templo in 1642,” Cohen Paraira says.
In 1642, Leon (1602 – 1675) wrote the book Afbeeldinge vanden Tempel Salomonis (Illustrations of the Temple of Solomon), which would be translated into seven languages. Cohen Paraira credits the success of Leon’s book to its legibility, accessibility and illustrations, in sharp contrast to the more esoteric competing book by Jesuits Prado and Villalpando. Leon also had miniature models of the Tabernacle and Solomon’s Temple which he took on tour, and which, Cohen Paraira notes, resurfaced and commanded attention nearly a century after Leon’s death.
That the Spanish-Portuguese Sephardi community in Amsterdam went to great lengths to design the Esnoga based on Solomon’s Temple is indisputable.
Anonymous colored engraving of Solomon’s Temple according to Jacob Juda Leon Templo from Biblica Hebraica (published 1667). Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam
Just as Solomon’s Temple had two columns (named Jachin and Boaz, which the Catholic church later claimed to have recovered and reinstalled in St. Peter’s) at its entrance, Esnoga had pillars on the west side. The Temple had a separation between the courtyard, Holy section (Kodesh) and the Holy of Holies (Kodesh HaKedoshim); Esnoga’s interior design and its strategically placed railings mirrored the separation between Temple domains. Additionally, Esnoga’s 12 pillars might correspond to the 12 tribes of Israel, and its 72 windows might refer to a 72-letter divine name, Cohen Paraira suggests.
Furthermore, the iconographic representation of the Ten Commandments over the Ark – which feature much more extensive inscriptions than most arks do – reference Moses’ tablets, which were housed in the Holy of Holies. According to Cohen Paraira, the Ten Commandments at Esnoga is likely “the first example of an Ark with the tables of the law.” Although that is a tall claim, which might or might not be the case, it is interesting to note that Rembrandt, who lived in the Jewish quarter and who was friends with Menasseh ben Israel, seems to have worked from virtually the same type face and layout in his painting of Moses.
Interior of Esnoga. Photo: Menachem Wecker
This might explain why Rembrandt made the curious decision to include significant parts of the final commandment in his inscription, and why he skipped certain words – having run out of space, he tried his best to remain true to the Esnoga layout. It does not, however, explain his spelling errors.
However much the 17th century Spanish-Portuguese community sought to mimic Solomon’s Temple and its perfect architecture (though Cohen Paraira notes it also tried to imitate classical Greek and Roman models of symmetry), it would have probably surprised the founders and patrons to learn what transpired during the 250th anniversary of the synagogue.
The parnassim (synagogue trustees) hoped to add another pulpit to the synagogue, which would be styled exactly like the tevah (area where the chazzan led services). But the synagogue had been listed as a historic building, so the parnassim had to submit an application to the national historic monuments commission.
Interior of Esnoga. Photo: Menachem Wecker
The response was eerily evocative of my own question about perfect divine-inspired architecture. “Portuguese synagogue is a building of such beauty, in its lines, proportions and sober ornament,” the national historic monuments commission wrote, “that no change whatsoever which might be made to the interior could improve it.”
Electricity has yet to invade synagogue’s interior, which is lit solely by natural light and candles (1,000 of them, placed in the massive chandeliers), and even the dust in Esnoga is holy – or at least fulfills a holy mission. As my tour guide, Vera Querido, explained, the floor of the synagogue was covered with sand to absorb both sounds and dirt from people’s shoes.
The day I visited Esnoga it was painfully clear from the temperature in the room that the lack of insulation on the walls made them no match for the chilling Amsterdam winds. But although it is surely easier to worship and to focus on one’s prayers in a synagogue with a climate-controlled interior, there was an aspect of the atmosphere that made a strong impression on me.
The holiday of Sukkot is supposed to remind worshippers, who leave the comfort of their homes for the precariousness of the sukkah-hut, how fragile they truly are. That was precisely the same feeling one gets standing in Esnoga.
Not only does the massive scale of the interior make one feel small, and not only does the ripe old age of the structure command respect, but it feels like a time warp. I could almost see the distinguished ladies and gentlemen sitting in the pews, and perhaps even Rembrandt, sketchbook in hand, standing off in the corner in the shadows.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
This article is the fourth in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.