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New Course on Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts

For the spring 2020 semester, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought is offering a new course, “Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts: Torah as Art in Medieval Ashkenaz,” taught by Dr. Chaya Sima Koenigsberg, a Straus Center Resident Scholar. The course explores the interaction of Jewish philosophy, history and art in the study of medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts.

Dr. Koenigsberg received her BA in psychology from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women and an MA and PhD in Jewish philosophy from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Her doctoral research focused on Midrashic esotericism in medieval Jewish thought, and her dissertation, “Prayer as a Prism,” conceptualized the relationship between the Written and Oral Torah in the thought of R. Eleazar of Worms.

Refaiya at the University Library in Leipzig Refaiya at the University Library in Leipzig

Jewish illuminated manuscripts are among the most treasured artifacts that have survived the trials of Jewish history. The imagery provides a window into the Torah-centric worldview of the Jews that commissioned them hundreds of years ago. The course traces the origins and structure of the Jewish communities of the German Rhineland, and provides an overview of their unique teachings and customs related to prayer, repentance, Biblical exegesis, and piety.

One of the most lavish illuminated manuscripts is The Leipzig Mahzor, produced in Worms, Germany, in the 14th century. The Mahzor is a collection of piyyutim [Jewish liturgical poems] for holidays whose vibrant imagery reflects the teachings of the community’s famed rabbi, R. Eleazar of Worms, the pre-eminent student of R. Judah the Pious, who led the Hasidei Ashkenaz [German Pietists] movement, a Jewish mystical, ascetic movement in the German Rhineland during the 12th and 13th centuries.

“My background is in Jewish philosophy and mysticism, with a particular focus on the writings of R. Eleazar of Worms,” said Dr. Koenisgberg. “Art historians like Katrin Kogman-Appel have noted that illuminations in the Leipzig Mahzor must be understood in light of his teachings, which most art historians are not aware of, so they only address the imagery and style and not the philosophy that informed it.”

Kogman-Appel’s thesis inspired this course, which examines the imagery found in the Leipzig Mahzor and more broadly addresses how Jewish philosophy and Jewish-Christian interaction and polemics influenced and were incorporated into the art produced in medieval Ashkenaz (Germany and Northern France). Though Worms was a vibrant center of Judaism in the 11th and 12th centuries and drew celebrated rabbis, little is known about the city’s Jews in the later Middle Ages.

Medieval mahzorim were used only for special services in the synagogue and “belonged” to the whole congregation, so their visual imagery reflected the local cultural associations and beliefs. As the Leipzig Mahzor pays homage to one of Worms’ most illustrious scholars, Eleazar ben Judah, its imagery reveals how his Ashkenazi Pietist worldview and involvement in mysticism shaped the community's religious practice.

Students are gaining an appreciation of the historical background in which the Mahzor was produced and how its imagery and that of other illuminated Jewish manuscripts reflect the outlook of medieval Jewish communities. Course topics include The Origins of the Jewish Communities of Ashkenaz, The Medieval Jewish Library, The Making of Illuminated Manuscripts, What Kinds of Hebrew Texts Were Illuminated? and Is There “Jewish” Art?

On Feb. 5th and again on Feb. 12, Binyamin Goldstein, a doctoral student studying Semitic languages at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, was a guest lecturer in the class. Goldstein presented the various scribal elements involved in the production of medieval manuscripts and their illumination. He demonstrated parchment selection, scribal techniques, how to create inks, paints and gilding, and showed videos and samples of a medieval-style Haggadah that he has been working on at home as a hobby for the past year.

A sample of Binyamin Goldstein's work A sample of Binyamin Goldstein's work

The class also welcomed Dr. Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, on Feb. 17; Dr. Marc Michael Epstein, professor of religion and visual culture at Vassar College, will be speaking on March 16.

The goal of the Straus Center is to demonstrate the interaction of Torah and other disciplines, in this case the intersection of Torah and art and how one informs the other.