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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

All that Glitters…

by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (Posted on September 9, 2016)
Topics: Sefer Shemot, Terumah, Torah

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This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at


The building of the Mishkan naturally raises the question of why God needs all that gold and silver. What happened to מזבח אדמה תעשו לי? And if God doesn’t need it, is it to address a human need? And if that is true, why is there so little “splendor” in our בתי כנסת today?

Ramban, Parashat Terumah, Ch. 25

וסוד המשכן הוא, שיהיה הכבוד אשר שכן על הר סיני שוכן עליו בנסתר. וכמו שנאמר שם (לעיל כד טז) וישכן כבוד ה’ על הר סיני, וכתיב (דברים ה כא) הן הראנו ה’ א-להינו את כבודו ואת גדלו, כן כתוב במשכן וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן (להלן מ לד). והזכיר במשכן שני פעמים וכבוד ה’ מלא את המשכן, כנגד “את כבודו ואת גדלו”. והיה במשכן תמיד עם ישראל הכבוד שנראה להם בהר סיני. ובבא משה היה אליו הדבור אשר נדבר לו בהר סיני. וכמו שאמר במתן תורה (דברים ד לו) מן השמים השמיעך את קולו ליסרך ועל הארץ הראך את אשו הגדולה, כך במשכן כתיב (במדבר ז פט) וישמע את הקול מדבר אליו מעל הכפרת מבין שני הכרובים וידבר אליו…
והמסתכל יפה בכתובים הנאמרים במתן תורה ומבין מה שכתבנו בהם (עי’ להלן פסוק כא) יבין סוד המשכן ובית המקדש…
The secret of the Mishkan is, that the glory that dwelt on Mount Sinai is hidden in it. And as it says there, “and the glory of God rested on Mount Sinai.” And it says, “We saw God our God, God’s glory and greatness.” Thus it says about the Mishkan, “And the glory of God filled the Mishkan.” And it mentions twice in the Mishkan “and the glory of God filled the Mishkan”. The second time in parallel to “God’s glory and greatness.” And the glory that was revealed to Israel at Mount Sinai was wih them in the Mishkan constantly. And when Moshe would come, he had the same speaking that was spoken to him on Mount Sinai. And as it said at Matan Torah, “From the Heavens God let you hear God’s voice to test you, and on Earth God showed you God’s great fire.” Thus in the Mishkan it says, “And he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover (of the ark) from between the two Cherubim and God spoke to him.”…
And if one looks closely at the things that are said about Matan Torah, and understands what is written in them, will understand the secret of the Mishkan and the Temple.

Shemot, ch. 25

(א) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְקֹוָ֖ק אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר: (ב) דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי: (ג) וְזֹאת֙ הַתְּרוּמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר תִּקְח֖וּ מֵאִתָּ֑ם זָהָ֥ב וָכֶ֖סֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת: (ד) וּתְכֵ֧לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָ֛ן וְתוֹלַ֥עַת שָׁנִ֖י וְשֵׁ֥שׁ וְעִזִּֽים: (ה) וְעֹרֹ֨ת אֵילִ֧ם מְאָדָּמִ֛ים וְעֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים וַעֲצֵ֥י שִׁטִּֽים: (ו) שֶׁ֖מֶן לַמָּאֹ֑ר בְּשָׂמִים֙ לְשֶׁ֣מֶן הַמִּשְׁחָ֔ה וְלִקְטֹ֖רֶת הַסַּמִּֽים: (ז) אַבְנֵי־שֹׁ֕הַם וְאַבְנֵ֖י מִלֻּאִ֑ים לָאֵפֹ֖ד וְלַחֹֽשֶׁן: (ח) וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם: (ט) כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ:
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 2 ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering. 3 And this is the offering which ye shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass; 4 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair; 5 and rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood; 6 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense; 7 onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. 8 And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. 9According to all that I show thee, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the furniture thereof, even so shall ye make it.


  1. If the Ramban is right, that the Mishkan is supposed to be a miniature Mount Sinai, and a constant host of the divine revelation, why is it necessary to have so much gold and silver and precious stones? Doesn’t the addition of expensive, human aesthetics cheapen the experience of God’s revelation?

Talmud, Tractate Megillah, p. 29a

תניא, רבי שמעון בן יוחי אומר: בוא וראה כמה חביבין ישראל לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא. שבכל מקום שגלו – שכינה עמהן… גלו לבבל – שכינה עמהן, שנאמר: למענכם שלחתי בבלה… בבבל היכא? אמר אביי: בבי כנישתא דהוצל, ובבי כנישתא דשף ויתיב בנהרדעא…
It is taught, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: Come and see how beloved Israel is before the Holy Blessed One. For in every place that they were exiled – the Divine Presence was with them…They were exiled to Babylonia – the Divine Presence was with them, as it says, “For your sake I was sent to Babylonia”…Where is it in Babylonia? Abaye said: In the synagogue of Hutzal and in the synagogue of Shaf and Yativ in Nehardea.

Rashi ad loc

דשף ויתיב – ובנאה יכניה וסיעתו מאבנים ועפר שהביאו עמהן בגלותן, לקיים מה שנאמר כי רצו עבדיך את אבניה ואת עפרה יחוננו (תהילים קב).
Of Shaf and Yativ – And Yechonia and his group built it from stones and earth that they brought with them in their exile to fulfill what is said, “For your servants desired it’s stones and they longed for it’s earth.”

Talmud, Ibid. (Cont.)

…ואהי להם למקדש מעט, אמר רבי יצחק: אלו בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות שבבבל. ורבי אלעזר אמר: זה בית רבינו שבבבל. דרש רבא: מאי דכתיב ה’ מעון אתה היית לנו – אלו בתי כנסיות ובתי מדרשות. אמר אביי: מריש הואי גריסנא בביתא ומצלינא בבי כנשתא, כיון דשמעית להא דקאמר דוד ה’ אהבתי מעון ביתך, – הואי גריסנא בבי כנישתא.
…”And I shall be for them a small sanctuary,” Rabbi Yitzchak said: These are the synagogues and houses of study in Babylonia. And Rabbi Eleazar said: this is the house of our teacher in Babylonia. Rava expounded: What does the Psalm mean by “God you were a storehouse for us”? These are the synagogues and houses of study. Abaye said: At first I used to study at home and pray in the synagogue. Since I heard what David said, “God I love the stores of your house” – I study and pray in the synagogue.


  1. If our Bate Knesset are supposed to be small versions of the Beit HaMikdash (which is a big version—according to the Ramban—of the Mishkan), what should our model be? The model fo the Bate Knesset of Shaf and Yativ in Nehardea whose main feature was stones and earth from Israel, or the Mishkan with gold and silver and precious stones? Is there some way to synthesize between the two models?

Or Zarua, vol. 4, Rulings on Idolatry, ch. 203

זכורני כשאני המחבר נער קטן. והיו מציירין במיישין בבית הכנסת עופות ואילנות ודנתי שאסור לעשות כן. ממה ששנינו מפסיק משנתו ואומר מה נאה אילן זה. אלמא שמחמת שנותן לבו לאילן יפה אינו מכוין למשנתו ומפסיק. כ”ש תפלה שצריכה כוונה טפי שאינו יכול לכוין כראוי כשמסתכל באילנות המצויירות בכותל:
I remember when I, the author, was a young lad. And they would draw in Mayshin, in the synagogue, birds and trees and I concluded that it was forbidden to do this from what we learn that one who stops studying to say “How beautiful is this tree,” (it is as though they deserve death). Therefore, since they are distracted by a beautiful tree, they are not focused on their studies and they interrupt. How much more so in prayer, which requires great intention, that they are not able to properly focus when they look at beautiful trees that are painted on the walls.

Beit Yosef, Orah Hayim, Ch. 90

וכתב עוד ה”ר דוד אבודרהם (שם) שנשאל הרמב”ם (תשו’ מהד’ פריימן סי’ כ) מהו הדבר הנקרא חוצץ בינו ובין הקיר ולמה מנעוהו ואם בכלל החציצה הזאת כלי מילת שתולין אותן על כתלי הבית לנוי ובהם צורות שאינן בולטות אם זה בכלל האיסור או לא והשיב שהטעם שהצריכו להתקרב אל הקיר בעת התפילה הוא כדי שלא יהא לפניו דבר שיבטל כוונתו והבגדים התלויים אינם אסורים…אף על פי שאינן בולטות אין נכון להתפלל כנגדן מהטעם שאמרנו כדי שלא יהא מביט בציורם ולא יכוין בתפילתו ואנחנו רגילים להעלים עינינו בעת התפילה בזמן שיקרה לנו להתפלל כנגד בגד או כותל מצוייר עכ”לד:
And Rabbi David Abudarham wrote as well that the Rambam was asked, “what is considered to separate between a person and the wall? And why did they prevent them from praying in front of it? And are woolen tapestries which are hung on the wall for decoration and have on them forms that do not protrude, are these also forbidden (to pray in front of)? And he responded that the reason that they required one to approach the wall at the time of prayer is so that there will be nothing in front of them to nullify their intention and the hanging tapestries are not forbidden…even though they are not protruding, still it is not right to pray inn front of them for the reason that we said, so that they will not look at the pictures and be distracted from their prayers. And we commonly look away at the time of prayer when it happens that we are praying in front of a tapestry or a painted wall.

Shulchan Aruch, Orah Hayim , 90:23

הבגדים המצויירים, אף על פי שאינם בולטות (ע) אין נכון להתפלל כנגדם, ואם יקרה לו להתפלל כנגד בגד או כותל מצויר, יעלים עיניו…Painted tapestries, even though they are not protruding, it is not appropriate to pray in front of them. And if it happens that one must pray in front of a tapestry or a painted wall, they should look away.

Magen Avraham, 90:37

הבגדים המצויירי’ – ונ”ל דגם בכותל בה”כ אסור לצור ציורים נגד פניו של אדם אלא למעלה מקומת איש ועבי”ד סי’ קל”א:Painted Tapestries – It appears to me that it is forbidden to paint the walls of the synagogue at the level of a person’s face. Rather they should be above the height of a person.

Rabbi Samuel Archevolti, Ruling, Jewish Quarterly Review vol. IX, pp. 266-269

הרי מניעת הציור מביהכ”נ הוא מן הדברים שאלו לא נכתבו הם ראויים להכתב. כי למה לא נחוש לכבוד אלקינו? ומדוע יהיו , בתי כנסיותינו כמלונות האורחים השותים במזרקי היין בחדרים המצויירים, ואיך יהיו כותלי ביהכ”נ ככותלי טאטראות של קומידיאנטי…זכינו אם כן להוכיח אסור הציורים בבתי כנסיות וראוי למנעם ולגזור על עושיהם שיחזרו בהם.
Refraining from painting synagogues is one of the things that if it were not written, it would have been appropriate to write. For why should we not have concern for the honor of our God? And why should our synagogues be like the inns where they drink goblets of wine in painted rooms? And how can the walls of the synagogue be like the walls of the theaters of the comedians? …We have merited therefore to prove that paintings in synagogues are forbidden, and it is appropriate to prevent them and to decree that those who make them should retract.


  1. According to this series of texts, what is the basis for objecting to artwork in a synagogue? Is there any kind of art or aesthetic consideration that would not be cause for this objection?
  2. Is there any counter-argument that would argue that despite the considerations above, there is good reason to include aesthetics in the shul experience?

Responsa Divre Yatziv, Yoreh Deah, ch. 38

…ולזה מכל הלין צדדים היה המנהג פשוט בגלילות שלנו ששמו צורות אריות, שהיו רק חצי צורה, על הארון קודש מלמעלה כששני לוחות הברית באמצע והכתר על הלוחות… ואדרבא זה כבוד שמים שהכתר והכבוד לחי העולמים נותן התורה, וה’ מתגאה על גאים, ולה’ המלוכה, והמתנשא לכל לראש, ויש בזה כבוד התורה וכמ”ש האבקת רוכל בסי’ ס”ו הנ”ל בדבר הפרוכת שאורגים בו מיני ציורים ובתוכם דמות עופות שאין לחוש להתפלל נגד צורות וכי מאחר שפשט המנהג וכו’ אי משום דעדיף להו כבוד התורה והמתפלל נגדו יעלים עיניו עיין שם, (ומכל שכן בנ”ד למעלה מקומת אדם דליכא חשש לכוונת התפלה וכנ”ל), אשר זה כבוד התורה לכבדה ולרוממה בכל מה דאפשר.
…And for all of these reasons, the simple custom in our exile was that they put the form of a lion, which was just a rough form, above the ark with the two Tablets of the Covenant in the middle and the crown on the Tablets…And on the contrary, this is the honor of Heaven. For the crown and the glory is for the one who lives forever, the giver of the Torah. And God is the highest of the high, and kingship is God’s, and God is the one above every head. And there is in this the glory of the Torah as it says in Avkat Rochel about the curtain that they embroidered on it pictures and among them the forms of birds that you don’t have to worry about praying in front of the images. Because since it is the custom etc. And also, the glory of the Torah is preferable to them. And one who prays before them should look away. (And all the more so in our case where it is above the height of a person and there is no concern for distraction). For this is the glory of the Torah, to honor and raise it up in every way possible.


  1. What argument does the דברי יציב make to allow the image of lions on the cover of the ark? How does this relate to the other arguments we’ve seen?
  2. Is this an argument after the fact? Meaning, are we just coming up with reasons because people are already doing it or is this an argument of why we should do it in the first place? Why did this minhag become so pervasive?

James Spiegel, Aesthetics and Worship, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Winter 1998

It has been said that the art world is the secularist’s religion. It is easy to see why this claim is made, for art, like religion, addresses the issue of ultimate human meaning, deals with eternal truths and values, expresses emotions that arise from the core of our being, offers solace for the suffering, and does all this in the context of a community that transcends cultural boundaries. Some, such as Calvin Seerveld, argue that art is worshipful by its very nature: “Art is a symbolically significant expression of what lies in a man’s heart, with what vision he views the world, how he adores whom. Art telltales in whose service a man stands because art itself is always a consecrated offering, a disconcertingly undogmatic yet terribly moving attempt to bring honor and glory and power to something.” While this might overstate the matter, for the Christian there can be no mistaking the fact that art is one of the most natural forms that worship can take. … When it comes to worship, the definitive question is not which activity one chooses but how and why one does it. As Paul admonishes us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col 3:23). So long as one’s activity is morally permissible and is intended to glorify God, it is a genuine act of worship. This is not to say, however, that all worshipful acts are equally good. Every endeavor is subject to evaluation by the standards of excellence internal to that practice, and acts meant for worship are no exception…
We must strive not only for true worship, but for true worship done well. As pertains to artistic endeavor, we have discussed the aesthetic virtues. Artists must exhibit technical excellence in their work. They must produce works of art that serve as veracious disclosures of the human experience and personal perspective within a Christian worldview. They must strive to make original contributions with works of art that offer intriguing insights using creative styles of expression that challenge conventional forms. And above all of this, artists must be fully intentional, working continually to increase their understanding of the history and philosophy of their crafts…
We have failed in the arts as a Christian community because we have not sensed the urgency of the endeavor, and as a result we have succumbed to the aesthetic vice of laziness. While our motives may have been good (e.g. evangelistic zeal, mutual edification, church growth, etc.), our art has been poor. We must learn again to worship well aesthetically… As Gene Veith notes, “liturgical art exists not for aesthetic contemplation but for the contemplation of God.” This basic point suggests two obvious constraints. First, art in worship must not distract the worshiper but help her to focus upon God. To this end, liturgical art should not be human-centered but truth-centered. Second, art in worship must be theologically informed. At its best, liturgical art is not merely consistent with sound doctrine but serves positively to illuminate biblical teaching, making imaginative expression or application of biblical truth. … The Christian church, once the leader of the arts, is now scarcely taken seriously in artistic communities. Worse yet, the formal worship of Christians is compromised by mediocrity in this area. Our problem, however, is not for lack of inspiration, as the scriptures are brimming with aesthetic instructions, from the Genesis creation account to the hymns of Revelation, not to mention the nature of the Biblical writings themselves. We must recapture a truly Christian vision for the arts, and strive mightily to be aesthetically virtuous. The duties of the church pertain not only to goodness but to beauty as well.


  1. In what areas does Spiegel’s analysis conform with the texts we’ve seen above? Is his argument in favor of art identical to that of the Divre Yatziv? What might he respond to the concerns of the Or Zarua and the Beit Yosef?
  2. Is Spiegel’s argument compelling? Are we losing out if we choose not to consider art as a necessary component of our worship space?

Joseph B. Soloveichik, Private Correspondence, Community, Covenant, and Commitment. Selected Letters and Communications, Toras HaRav Foundation, p. 4-10.

… The Christian Orthodox church sees in the act of worship a sacramental mysterious performance, which is fraught with otherworldliness and beatitude, and is rooted in the miracle of transubstantiation. The whole organization of the service and the arrangement of its surroundings, like the passive role of the audience, the soft music of the organ, the stained glass window and the Gothic style of the architecture, serve one purpose, namely the intensification of a feeling of super-naturalness, strangeness and meta-rationality. In contrast to this, the Jewish service is distinguished by its simplicity. It asserts itself in a dialogue between God and man on the level of this-worldliness and concreteness. It is conducted in an atmosphere of rationality, familiarity, and naturalness. Hence, I am unable to comprehend how it is possible to dedicate a chapel to two mutually exclusive ways of worship and how one could reconcile the Jewish service with the alien architectural surroundings which symbolize the mysterium magnum of the Eucharist rite. 


  1. Is the Rav in disagreement with the Spiegel article above? Would he consider aesthetic considerations to be important for a Jewish space of worship so long as the aesthetic under consideration were Jewish rather than Christian or does his demand for “an atmosphere of rationality, familiarity, and naturalness” preclude any aesthetic consideration?

“How better aesthetics in hospitals can make for happier—and healthier—patients”, Virginia Postrel, April 2008 Issue

… Mounting clinical evidence suggests that better design can improve patients’ health—not to mention their morale. But the one-sixth of the American economy devoted to health care hasn’t kept up with the rest of the economy’s aesthetic imperative, leaving patients to wonder, as a diabetes blogger puts it, “why hospital clinic interiors have to feel so much like a Motel 6 from the ’70s.”
A Hyatt from the early ’80s might be more accurate. The United States is in the midst of a hospital-building boom, with some $200 billion expected to be spent on new facilities between 2004 and 2014. Although more spacious and sunlit than the 50-year-old boxes they often replace, even new medical centers tend to concentrate their amenities in public areas, the way hotels used to feature lavish atriums but furnish guest rooms with dirt-hiding floral bedspreads and fake-wood desks. Hospital lobbies may now have gardens, waterfalls, and piano music, but that doesn’t mean their patient rooms, emergency departments, or imaging suites are also well designed. “Except for the computers you see, it’s like a 1980s hospital,” says Jain Malkin, a San Diego–based interior designer and the author of several reference books on health-care design. “The place where patients spend their time 24/7 is treated as if it’s back-of-the-house.”
Consider diagnostic imaging departments. MRIs and CT scans can frighten many patients, and research shows that simple elements such as nature photos can ease their stress. Yet the typical scanner room still looks “as if it’s a workshop for cars,” says Malkin, with bare walls and big machines. …
Cost is of course an issue. Malkin estimates that enhanced design amenities can add about 3 percent to the cost of a large project. The big shortage, though, is not money but attention. When hospital boards and executives talk with architects and designers, it’s rarely about the imaging department…
When I started thinking about health-care design, I assumed that insurance price controls and third-party payments were the source of the problem. But hotels upgrade their rooms to please business travelers whose expense accounts impose budget limits… In academic surveys, patients in better-decorated, hotel-like rooms rate not just the environment but their medical care more highly than do patients in rooms with standard hospital beds and no artwork. That customer-satisfaction result would tell any smart hotelier to redecorate. But hospitals feel less competitive pressure and are more resistant to change.
Patients like me are part of the problem. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t shop around for the most attractive chemotherapy clinic. I went to the best oncologist I could find and got the room that came with him. “Most people would take the most-competent clinicians even if they were in the worst possible environment,” says Malkin.
… Medical centers may not care what makes patients happy—such a subjective, unscientific concept!—but they can no longer ignore the research demonstrating that single rooms lead to better outcomes: lower infection rates, shorter stays, less noise and hence better sleep, fewer expensive patient transfers and subsequent medical errors, and much less stress for patients.
Such “evidence-based design,” which draws its principles from controlled studies, is the great hope of professionals who want to upgrade the look and feel of medical centers. Much of this research follows a seminal 1984 Science article by Roger S. Ulrich, now at the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M. He looked at patients recovering from gallbladder surgery in a hospital that had some rooms overlooking a grove of trees and identical rooms facing a brick wall. The patients were matched to control for characteristics, such as age or obesity, that might influence their recovery. The results were striking. Patients with a view of the trees had shorter hospital stays (7.96 days versus 8.70 days) and required significantly less high-powered, expensive pain medication.
Along similar lines, a 2005 study compared patients recovering from elective spinal surgery whose rooms were on the sunny side of a ward with those on the dimmer side. Those in the sunnier rooms rated their stress and pain lower and took 22 percent less pain medication each hour, incurring only 80 percent of the pain-medication costs of the patients in gloomier rooms. Other studies, with subjects ranging from the severely burned to cancer patients to those receiving painful bronchoscopies, have found that looking at nature images significantly reduces anxiety and increases pain tolerance. Not all distractions are good, however. Ulrich and others have found that inescapable TV broadcasts and “chaotic abstract art” can increase patients’ stress…
Meet Joanna Cain, an oncologist and the director of the Center for Women’s Health at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. When the center hired interior designers for its new facility, Cain told them she wanted the place to feel like a day spa filled with artwork…
Cain acknowledges that “it does cost more to build this, but not that much more”—perhaps 10 percent to 15 percent. Asked how she measures the design’s success, Cain points to her patients undergoing chemotherapy: “It’s a place that makes them happy.” She acknowledges that a beautiful environment should never trump excellent care. “But take it from the other side,” she says. “If you have a choice and you can be in a place full of light, where there’s beautiful art that your eyes can rove over and feel comfort from—which would be a better experience, assuming they both are the same [medically]? And why don’t we think people deserve that?”


  1. Postrel claims that we can show statistically that patients respond better to beauty than to a lack of beauty. Does this apparent fact about human nature suggest anything about the way we should construct our places of worship?
  2. Is there reason to believe that taking aesthetics actually affect our spiritual lives as well? Have you ever experienced this? When? Is there a way to bring aesthetic considerations into our shuls and davening spaces that is in consonance with the critiques and arguments we saw above? How important is this?

Recent Archaeological Discoveries


Dura Europos Synagogue. Source

In sub-section 7 (pp. 66-78), Father Bigham devotes several pages (pp. 66-70) to the archaeologists’ discovery of the Jewish synagogue in Dura Europos in 1932. Its complete burial allowed it to be preserved virtually intact. Due to the widespread assumption at the time that early Judaism was aniconic, the building was initially mistaken for a Greek temple.


Image of Baby Moses – Dura Europos Synagogue. Source

The Dura Europos synagogue has profoundly challenged many misconceptions of early Jewish worship.  The Dura Europos synagogue was not an isolated exception; other ancient synagogues had figurative arts (p. 67).


Moses and Burning Bush – Dura Europos. Source


The Binding of Isaac – Beth Alpha. Source


Mosaic at Beth Alpha

This leads Bigham to write:

… it seems increasingly clear that Judaism led the way in developing figurative art and that Christianity followed, at least at the beginning.  We have already seen that this hypothesis is upheld by many scholars.  Even in areas other than art, we see the same phenomenon: early Christianity often modeled itself on its Jewish parent.  “For the ancestry of most elements of early church worship, we must look to the synagogue rather than the home … (C. Filson)” (Bigham p. 68)

These archaeological evidences present serious problems for those who hold to the hostility theory, especially on the assumption that early Judaism was uniformly aniconic and iconophobic (Bigham p. 89).  However, if first century Judaism accepted religious art, then it makes sense that the early Christianity reflected its Jewish roots.  It can then be argued that it is the iconoclastic hostility theory that represents an alien intrusion into Christian history.  The hostility theory was easy to uphold when the evidence was buried in the ground but when archaeological discoveries over the past century unearth these evidences that theory lost its foundation.

Religious Art in Early Jewish Synagogues

In addition to the startling discoveries at Dura Europos, there are other evidence of religious art in Jewish synagogues.


Zodiac – Synagogue Mosaic on Mt. Carmel.Source

The zodiac mosaic at Beth Alpha was not an isolated example.  Other similar zodiacs have been found in Israel, e.g., Hammath Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Naaran near Jericho, Sepphoris slightly north of Nazareth, En Gedi by the Dead Sea, and Huseifa near Mt. Carmel.

Religious Art in Medieval Judaism


Torah Shrine – Butzian Synagogue in Cracow, Poland