Spiritual Audacity / Symbols

Jewish design needs more quinces. Here’s why.

Embroidered Torah Ark Cover, The Jewish Museum London
This topic requires a bit of a personal story. One of my favorite pieces of Judaica in the world is an 18th century Turkish Torah ark curtain –parochet—in the collection of the Jewish Museum London. The curtain is a red flannel wool richly embroidered in gold with Biblical and classical imagery: a city –Instanbul, perhaps, or maybe an idealized Jerusalem with a twist of Turkish architecture—a Tree of Life, twisting columns, and hanging lamps (click the image above for a larger version).

What always attracted my attention most, however, was the design’s border. Around the entire edge of the parochet is a wide border of stylized fruit including pomegranates, figs, grapes, and dates as well as sheaves of grain.

Now, if you’re somewhat familiar with popular Jewish design motifs you might conclude, as I did, that these fruits and grain were references to the seven species, the seven fruits and grains that symbolize the fertility of the land of Israel.

These are the seven species of Israel:

Growing dates.

Dates.

  1. Dates
  2. Figs
  3. Grapes
  4. Olives
  5. Pomegranates
  6. Barley
  7. Wheat

A couple of details seemed odd, though. Although there are two sheaves of grain on the curtain, at the top and bottom, they look identical, as if they are the same type of grain pictured twice. In the real world, barley and wheat look pretty similar, though, and I could see a designer using one type of generic grain to represent the two types.

In addition, there was only one shape of embroidered fruit cluster that might qualify as either olives or dates. In an abstract way, olives and dates look similar, kind of oval-like, and I could see a designer using the same shape to embody both types of fruit.

With these assumptions, all the seven species were accounted for.

Quinces

(C)Guy Ackermans 2005

However, there was one detail I couldn’t explain: quinces. Among the clusters of pomegranates, figs, and other fruit were clusters of quinces. Quinces, if you’re not familiar with the fruit, are related to pears and apples. A quince resembles a cross between the two of them, like a pale yellow apple with a little extra length to its neck and some an extra bulges at the very bottom. Their fragrance is like that of apples and pears. Quinces grow in Israel, but they are not one of the seven species.

Maybe the curtain’s designer added the quinces to communicate the idea of abundance, I thought. Or maybe the design wasn’t rooted in an explicit Torah motif at all; maybe the fruit and grain were used as merely traditional fruit meant to evoke a sense of abundance.

As I said, this curtain is one of my favorite pieces of Judaica in the world, and the details that didn’t make sense gnawed at me for a long time. They gnawed at me for ten years.

Then, earlier this summer during one long Shabbat afternoon, I was looking for something to read and happened to pull off my shelf a translation of The Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is essentially a psalm, but a particularly important one in Jewish prayer. It gets its own book in the Torah. It’s the psalm of psalms. The song of songs. Shir HaShirim, in Hebrew.

On a narrative level, the Song of Songs is a love poem between a woman and a man. Traditional Jewish teaching sees the psalm as an allegory of the relationship between God and God’s people. The version I pulled off my shelf is a 1993 translation by Marcia Falk, a poet and translator of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry. The full title of the book is The Song of Songs: A New Translation (Love Lyrics from the Bible).

Marcia Falks’s translation breaks the psalm down into 31 poems. As I read, there in the eighth poem, lo and behold, were quinces:

Feed me raisin cakes and quinces!
For I am sick with love.

There were more quince references in poems 23 and 27: breath like sweet quinces and people waking under quince trees.

I got pretty excited. I skimmed through all the pages again. Not only were there quinces here, there was no barley and there were no olives, which solved the other two issues that didn’t seem right about my seven species interpretation of the curtain.

And, like the curtain, the Song of Songs includes dates, figs, grapes, and pomegranates.

These are the fruits and grain species in the Song of Songs:

  1. Dates
  2. Figs
  3. Grapes
  4. Pomegranates
  5. Quinces
  6. Wheat

These are also all the six fruits and grain species on the curtain. The parochet design, which I had assumed depicted the seven species, seems to not be about the seven species at all. This parochet, it seems, draws on the imagery of the Song of Songs.

Now, in order to be entirely agriculturally inclusive, I have to point out that the Song of Songs also includes walnuts and almonds. Walnuts and almonds, as it happens, are also fruit. Most of us don’t think of them as fruit, though. I didn’t even know they were fruit until I wrote this blog post and felt compelled, against all reasonable expectation, to make sure. Walnuts and almonds are also not as pretty as pomegranates and quinces. I don’t think their absence from the curtain undermines the theory that this curtain references the Song of Songs, and I don’t blame the curtain designer for leaving them out.

You don’t often see the Song of Songs referenced in the design of Judaica. At least part of the reason, I assume, relates to the psalm’s romantic theme and imagery. But this extraordinary parochet shows it can be done. And references to the relationship between God and God’s people surely deserve a place in Jewish design. Quinces seem like a good place to start.

For a modern, poetic translation of the Song of Songs, look for Marcia Falk’s translation in your local book store or Judaica shop or find it on Amazon.com.

Maria BywaterMaria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She teaches hands-on Judaica sewing workshops.

[Images: Dates photo: Dates on a phoenix dactylifera by Nepenthes via Wikimedia Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license | Quince illustration: Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen by Franz Eugen Köhler via Wikimedia Commons U.S public domain {{PD-1923}} | Quince tree photo: Apfelquitten by Dietrich Krieger, 2008 via Wikimedia Commons GNU Free Documentation License.]

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