Festival stamps 5747 (1986)Festival stamps 5747 (1986)Festival stamps 5747 (1986)

  • Issue: September 1986
  • Graphics: D. Ben-Hador (Worms Mahzor)
  • Stamp size: 30.8 x 40 mm
  • Plate no.: 18 - 20
  • Sheet of 15 stamps Tabs: 5
  • Printers: E. Lewin-Epstein Ltd.
  • Method of printing: Photolithography

For many hundreds of years the Worms Mahzor was one of the most treasured possessions of the ancient twelfth-century synagogue in the German city of Worms, on the Rhine. On the last page of the manuscript, and in many other places in the book, there are inscriptions by different hazanim (cantors) expressing their excitement and praise for the honour of using this precious Mahzor while praying in the synagogue.

The Worms Mahzor is undoubtedly a singular manuscript in its' own right, although at the same time it is one of many examples of illuminated Hebrew mahzorim from the Middle Ages. The tradition of illuminating mahzorim started early in the thirteenth century, mainly in southern Germany, whence it spread to other Ashkenazi (German-Jewish) areas.

Mahzor (cycle) is the name given to a lengthy prayer book for use in the synagogue which, besides being an extensive cycle of prayers for the whole year, comprises a number of piyyutim (liturgicaL poems) which have been added to the prayer book through the centuries. Most mediaeval mahzorim are divided for convenience' sake into two parts: the autumn High Holy Days section, and the rest of the year. They start, like the annual agricultural cycle, with the first sabbath after the Feast of Sukot (Tabernacles), when the cycle of Torah readings, starting with Genesis, also begins.

The first part of the Mahzor therefore consists of prayers and piyyutim for Hanukah and Purim, the Four Special Sabbaths between Purim and Pessah (Passover), the entire seven days of Passover, the Feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) and the Fast of the Ninth of Av, the day of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. The second part starts with the New Year, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and the eight days of Sukot.

Most of the illuminations relate to the beginning of a feast or a section of prayers. Some illustrate the text, while others are mere decoration. An example, on one of the stamps, shows a man weighing the shekel for the Temple with a large pair of scales. This illustrates the prayer for the first of the Special Sabbaths, "Sheqalim". The piyyut at this point praises God, who is not represented, but should be imagined beyond the gates of heaven, only his "servants", the sun and moon, being depicted. The piyyut describes the power of God's judgement, and how the gift of the shekel to the Temple helps to atone for sins. The two lions flanking the arch act as devils trying to weigh down the scales and send the sinners to hell. Within the letter alef of the piyyut is the name of Baruch bar Isaac, the bazan for whom the Mahzor was written by his nephew, Simhah bar Yehudah the Scribe of Nuremberg. In fact, from the colophon (scribe's signature) of the manuscript we learn that it was completed in 1272, and from a note by Simhah the Scribe it is evident that he wrote it in Wurzburg and that it reached Worms only later, in the fifteenth century.

From another inscription it appears plausible that the artist was Shema'aia the Frenchman, who painted most of the illustrations for the opening prayers. However, he did not illuminate the first page of pericope Sheqalim: this was done by the scribe, Simhah.

During the Middle Ages there was no prohibition on depicting human or other figures in mahzorim, Bibles or Haggadot, since there was no fear of idolatry amongst the Jews. Rabbi Meir ben Barukh of Rothenburg, in Franconia (the area where Wurzburg is also situated), the most eminent scholar of the thirteenth century, was questioned about the freedom to illustrate the mahzorim. His answer was that, although no such prohibition derived from the Second Commandment, it was not advisable to do so, since this might distract the reader from his prayers.

It is, however, curious that the man weighing the shekel has a bird's beak instead of a nose and mouth. This was a peculiar stylistic practice in one school of Hebrew illumination in the south of Germany during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There is no direct explanation for the phenomenon, but it may be that the Jews distorted figures to avoid their being regarded as complete humans, rather than abstain completely from depicting human beings.

The other two pages featured on the stamps come from the second volume of the Mahzor, which does not belong organically to the first volume, but was written and illuminated about ten years later and then attached to the first. Both illustrations relate to the prayers for Yom Kippur. One shows the gates of heaven, with the heavenly Jerusalem above, opening in response to the power of prayer. The second consists of two roses which illustrate a piyyut starting "The rose flower", to which the Jews are compared.

During the Second World War the Worms Mahzor was hidden by Dr. Illert, the City Archivist, in the Cathedral of Worms, and thus escaped destruction at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, in which the Jewish community of Worms was wiped out, the Mahzor was given to the Jewish National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem, where it is now housed.

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Festival stamps 5747 (1986)