Animal-headed harvesters  J. Gutmann

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).

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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 animal heads.

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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.

excerpted Barnes & Noble linkFrom: Joseph Gutmann's essay "Shavuot in Art," in The Shavuot Anthology (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1974, 1992).
related The medieval, S. German Birds' Head Haggadah

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