Jewish Life

Personal and Family Rituals

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Objects documenting the sphere of personal and family rituals in the global Jewish diaspora constitute a prominent aspect of the museum holdings of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. These objects, which are often small and portable were created in different locations around the world, were carried by migrant individuals for generations. While some were donated to the Judah L. Magnes Museum by individual families, the majority were added to the collection through a selective acquisition process. The Strauss Collection, for example, was purchased by The Magnes in 1967.

Personal and family ritual objects unite several aspects of Jewish life. These aspects include the observance of Jewish customs – kasherut, or dietary laws, and the laws of “family purity” (taharat ha-mishpachah) governing marital relationships – the celebration of the Life Cycle – marked by the ritual circumcision of male children and the celebration of the religious adulthood of youth of both sexes (bar and bat mitzvah), by engagement and marriage ceremonies, and by death and burial – and the celebration of the yearly cycle – Sabbath and holidays which mark the Jewish calendar – by individuals and Jewish households.

The thousands of ritual objects in the collection originate from the entire Global Jewish Diaspora, including Europe, Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas, and present a unique opportunity to study the dynamics of Jewish life from a variety of perspectives. When considering the social and historical contexts that presided over their making, ritual objects provide new understanding of everyday life, social structures, gender and generational roles, beliefs, practices, Jewish relationships to normative religions, aesthetic currents, and the interactions between the makers of these objects and the individuals and families that commissioned them.

Personal and family rituals are represented in the collection by a wide spectrum of item types including objects relating to the sphere of personal prayer, to life cycle events, to magic beliefs, to the Jewish home, and to the celebration of the Sabbath and other holidays,

While typology is generally uniform across the Diaspora, ritual objects also are different depending on the different personal and family lifestyles across the Diaspora. They thus provide detailed insight into the specific characteristics of the many cultures of the Jews. The dynamic set of behaviors governing the performance of ritual by individuals and entire families within the Jewish home introduce scholars to the most intimate realms of the Jewish experience across time and space.

An expanding item list (with approximate item counts) includes:

Personal Prayer

  • Head coverings: 50
  • Prayer shawls: 40
  • Tefillin sets: 10
  • Ornamented bags for prayer shawls and tefillin: 200

Life Cycle Events

  • Circumcision sets: 30
  • Wimpel (Torah Binders made from circumcision cloths): 120
  • Wedding clothing (dresses, shoes, head coverings, jewelry): 50
  • Ketubbot: 200
  • Burial and memorial items: 20

Personal and Jewish Home Objects

  • Amulets: 150
  • Mezuzot (doorposts): 100
  • Mizrach plaques: 50
  • Home furnishings: 350

Yearly Cycle

  • Kiddush cups: 50
  • Lamps for the Sabbath and Holidays: 350
  • Hallah covers,table coverings for the Sabbath and Passover Matzah covers: 70
  • Havdallah sets and spice boxes: 60
  • Passover Haggadot: 600
  • Knives (for cutting the Sabbath bread, or hallah): 10
  • Plates for the Passover Seder and other holidays: 100
  • Sukkah decorations: n/a