According to rabbinic interpretation, Shavuot
is the "season of the giving of our Torah." Many illustrations have come down
to us, especially from medieval Hebrew manuscripts, highlighting this supreme
moment in Israel's history. One fine example is a page from a tripartite south
German mahzor (festival prayerbook) from around 1320 containing the medieval
poem beginning with the word Adon ("The Lord [has faith in me]" ), which
is recited during the first day's morning service on Shavuot.
The miniature illustration depicts the theophany at Sinai
below the gold Hebrew letters of the word Adon. A beardless young Moses
kneels at the foot of the mountain as two rectangular inscribed tablets of the
Ten Commandments are handed to him. Behind Moses stands Aaron, hands folded,
wearing the miter of a medieval bishop. The men and women of Israel are assembled
reverently in separate groups to witness the revelation at Sinai. In the first
group are seven men wearing pointed medieval hats; behind them, in the second
group, stand animal-headed women gazing piously at the heavens and praying.
Shofars and trumpets emerge from the sky, alluding to the biblical passages
that "the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder
and louder" (Exodus 19:18-19).
The original agricultural nature of the biblical
Shavuot one of three pilgrimage festivals was not forgotten by
the rabbis in synagogal celebrations. The Book of Ruth is read during the morning
service of the second day of Shavuot (in Israel, on the first and only day).
The reasons for its adoption for the holiday are many and varied. One of them
may have been that the story takes place during the grain harvest and deals
with the treatment of the impoverished during the harvest season. Unlike the
Scroll of Esther, the Scroll of Ruth never received lavish ornamentation. Only
isolated scenes from medieval manuscripts exist in addition to those made by
contemporary Jewish artists.
Another splendid miniature from the same south German mahzor
(c.1320) we looked at above, has scenes of Ruth amid the reapers of the harvest.
Stylized medieval fortified towers enclose the composition at both sides; a
blossoming tree divides it into two parts. The Hebrew word Vayehi ("and
it came to pass"), which opens the Book of Ruth, appears on the right.
On the right side, Ruth appears with an animal head; she holds a sickle in her
hand and gleans among four figures; one holds a rake while another binds the
sheaves. The figure at the back may be Boaz (with an ass' head), and the scene
may be referring to the verse in the Book of Ruth (2:15-16) in which Boaz admonishes
his people to "let her glean among the sheaves and do not reproach her. And
also let fall for her some of the handfuls, on purpose, that she may glean them,
and do not rebuke her." On the left side of the composition, Ruth appears again,
this time wearing a different animal head (similar to that of Boaz's on the
right); she appears to be speaking with two men who are threshing the harvest.
Whether the animal heads of some of the figures are rooted in medieval Jewish
mysticism or are attributable to the prohibition of images has yet to be determined.
It is also unclear why characters in this manuscript (such as Ruth) change heads
in different presentations, and why only certain figures are singled out for
The script and style of the miniatures in this
Hebrew mahzor and in other Hebrew manuscripts from south Germany in the
early 14th century, strongly resemble that of a group of south German Latin
manuscripts from the same period; there is a striking resemblance in the use
of color, in the flat treatment of floral elements, and in the style of the
figures' dress and hair.
Joseph Gutmann's essay "Shavuot in Art," in The Shavuot Anthology
(Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, 1992).