We decided to examine the manuscript that boldly violated the explicit commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness”
The second of the Ten Commandments states “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:2-3). The conventional understanding of the second part of this commandment concerns first and foremost the image of God. Was this not what set the chosen people apart from other peoples? Was this not what set monotheism apart from polytheistic religions? According to tradition, the God of Israel has no face and no form, except in a metaphorical sense.
Of course, some would disagree with this blanket claim and say that already in ancient times the Children of Israel sculpted their gods, but that their tools were words. The Bible opens with the personification of God when it speaks of Man created in God’s image, and is replete with other images of God personified, such as Moses seeing the back of God, descriptions of God’s wrath using metaphors referring to his nose (חרון אפו – charon apo), and much more. True, one can argue, as did the great Jewish sages and thinkers including Maimonides, that this is a classic case of “the Torah speaking in human language.” But of course there are other examples of the physical image of God in Jewish tradition and literature that would be hard to argue with: for example, the Hekhalot and Merkavah literature, esoteric writings that likely stemmed from the Talmudic period, and which describe God as standing behind the curtain in the center of the seventh heavenly palace. The purpose of the Ma’aseh Merkava, (“Account of the Chariot”) is to observe the king in his palaces, that is, to see God sitting on the throne of honor.
However, the boldest text by far is the Shiur Koma (lit. dimensions of the body), a work dedicated to the description of God’s enormous physical stature. According to this book, the pupil of God’s right eye measures thousands of parsot (an ancient measurement of distance), and “each and every parsa is three miles, and each and every mile is ten thousand amah (cubits) and each amah is three zeratot (spans, though the singular zeret also means ‘little finger’) […] and his zeret is the breadth of the entire world.” In other words, the measure and form of God’s body cannot be grasped in human terms.
But if this is how God is represented in words, how did illustrated Hebrew manuscripts deal with the biblical prohibition relating to making images of God? And were there some that nevertheless disregarded the strict prohibition? Let’s begin by looking at some of the ways the prohibition was circumvented.
In the context of Hebrew manuscripts, there are a number of conventional methods of representing God, and the first of these is depicting an image of God’s hand. The hand of God commonly appears in medieval Hebrew manuscripts in scenes of Abraham’s rescue from the fiery furnace. There are also earlier examples which appear in synagogue art, for example in the third-century CE synagogue of Dura Europos (south-eastern Syria) and the 6th-century CE synagogue of Beit Alpha, near Bet She’an in northern Israel.
While Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, is indeed a biblical figure, the story of his rescue from the fiery furnace into which he was thrown by order of King Nimrod appears in the Midrash Bereishit Rabbah and the Babylonian Talmud, but not in the Bible. Nevertheless, the story captured the imaginations of illustrators, and we can find several versions of it in Hebrew manuscripts.
Sometimes, however, even this image was too bold a choice, and angels were brought in to replace the divine hand, as in this example from the Barcelona Haggadah. In this case, the illustrator chose to emphasize another aspect of the midrash about Abraham and the furnace, which recounts that when Abraham was thrown into the fire, he not only remained unscathed, but was even quite able to sit and converse with the angels.
Another way to depict God is to closely follow the biblical text and represent “the voice of God walking in the garden toward the cool of the day,” as in the Sarajevo Haggadah, which was written and illuminated in the same century as the two manuscripts we have already mentioned. Despite its name, this spectacular Haggadah was probably written in Barcelona, Spain in approximately 1350. The Haggadah is displayed in the city of Sarajevo at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Sarajevo Haggadah depicts Adam and Eve in a series of illustrations somewhat reminiscent of a comic strip. First, in the upper-right corner, Eve is created from Adam’s rib, a scene immediately followed by Adam eating from the forbidden tree as Eve and the serpent watch. At bottom right Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after realizing they are naked. And in the final illustration below on the left, they are expelled from the Garden of Eden: Eve is fully clothed, and Adam tills the soil by the sweat of his brow.
In the lower right image, where Adam and Eve cover themselves after realizing they are naked, the sharp-eyed viewer will notice rays of light emanating from above the tree at left. The artist has found an interesting compromise for depicting God through a close reading of the biblical verse: “And they heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” “Where art thou?” God asks Adam, who immediately explains: “I heard your voice in the garden and I was afraid because I was naked and I hid myself.” The unknown illustrator of the Sarajevo Haggadah visualizes the voice of God as heavenly light.
Some 30 years before the appearance of the Sarajevo Haggadah, around the year 1320, another Passover Haggadah was written and illustrated, also in Catalonia. This Haggadah is known as the “Golden Haggadah” for the gold backgrounds that adorn the 128 illustrated pages out of its 322 pages in total. This manuscript also opens with illustrations of biblical scenes.
The second illustration in the Golden Haggadah depicts two scenes that we encountered previously in the Sarajevo Haggadah: the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the eating of the fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Above the illustration is written “Adam and his wife naked.” Here, however, is a truly astonishing innovation in the depiction of the figure emerging from a cloud to admonish the three sinners—Adam, Eve and the serpent. We can assume that this is not the figure of God himself, but an angel, an acceptable and even reasonable choice. It reminds us of yet another biblical story—that of Jacob wrestling with an angel of God, who is presented as God himself.
Yet the clearest and most baffling example of the personification of God comes from a Hebrew illuminated manuscript written in Corfu in the 18th century. The manuscript, titled Piyutim Le’Hatan (“Liturgical Hymns for the Bridegroom”), is preserved in the Braginsky Collection in Zurich, and includes, besides the many piyutim and poems, 60 illustrations in gouache of various scenes from the book of Genesis, by the hand of a talented artist who likely was trained in Venice.
At first glance, the figure with the crown could be mistaken for King David standing in front of the wonders of creation, as in Psalm 8:4: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the star, which you have made.” If not David, it could also be interpreted as a depiction of the long-awaited Messiah, traditionally a descendant of King David.
However, by the third illustration in the manuscript, there is no longer any mistaking this figure for David. While the Jewish sages and biblical commentators had much to say about the early chapters of Genesis, they certainly never suggested that it was King David or the Messiah who created Eve from Adam’s rib.
The fifth illustration leaves no doubt about the identity of this figure as God, who is portrayed admonishing Adam and Eve before their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
How could practicing Jews rationalize such a blatant violation of the second commandment? Contrary to the example we will examine next, the owner of this manuscript made no attempt to delete or cover up the problematic illustrations—three in all—alongside the other 57 illustrations of scenes from Genesis, most of them incidentally depicting the life of Joseph. On the contrary, below each illustration, a corresponding biblical verse was inserted.
Another interesting detail related to the manuscript is that the order of the illustrations runs counter to the text. In other words, the first illustration—God creating the heavens and the earth (and the sun and the moon)—appears at the end of the manuscript rather than at the beginning. This may very well be the clue we were looking for: The images are intended to be displayed in the book from left to right, suggesting that the illustrator was a Christian who obviously did not work closely with the Jewish author of the text. It is also possible that the Christian artist illustrated the manuscript independently, before it was subsequently bought by a Jew who had the texts added later. This would explain the captions in Hebrew under the illustrations and the fact that the texts do not relate to the illustrations, all of which are from the Bible, while the texts are liturgical hymns meant for a bridegroom.
We now turn to the opposite example, in which the violation of the biblical prohibition was not overlooked. In 1984, while studying the biblical illustrations in a manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in the David Kaufmann Collection at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, researcher Evelyn Cohen noticed a puzzling detail. In the scene showing Moses giving the Tablets of the Covenant to the people of Israel, she spotted the remains of a figure that had been erased and covered up by a later correction.
The first illustrated manuscript of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, written 90 years after the death of its author who was one of the Jewish people’s greatest thinkers, indeed shows the image of God giving Moses the Tablets of the Law. It is difficult to distinguish the image as it was erased and all that remains of it is a single hand at the right holding the Tablets along with Moses at left. This hand apparently originally belonged to an image of God in all his glory, which was covered up and turned into a mountain. Here too, as was the case with the manuscript from Corfu, the artist was likely a Christian who was not aware of the prohibition against making any graven image or likeness. Or, what is more likely, since the prohibition also exists in Christianity, the artist may have simply interpreted its meaning differently
One can always make excuses: It is possible to claim Christian influence, or as the Jewish philosopher Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, that at stake is God’s glory and not his body, as God does not and cannot have tangible form. Be that as it may, we have now seen several examples in which an image of God was certainly created.
In fact, so long as the illustrations were related to Kabbalistic theory, various loopholes have enabled artistic representation of the figure of God for centuries. Visualization of the Sefirot has always been permitted in Jewish tradition, even when it includes the figure of Adam Kadmon (lit. primordial man), who according to the Kabbalah is the first of the Four Worlds (spiritual realms in the descending chain of existence) created by God, who extracted them from Ein-Sof (infinity). Essentially, this means that the figure of Adam Kadmon is not a separate entity from God but rather part of the Godhead itself. At the risk of oversimplification, this is therefore an image of the one true God. No?
Thank you to Daniel Frank and Sara Offenberg for their help in preparing this article