The Life of the Synagogue

From the William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection
Marlene & Nathan Addlestone Library,College of Charleston

Rosh Hashanah ceremony

Early German print shows Rosh Hashanah liturgy

Rosh Hashanah ceremony
WoodcutLibellus de Judaica confessione by Johannes Pfefferkorn, Cologne: Johannes Landen, 1508

Most early illustrated books about Judaism were written by Jewish converts to Christianity who sought both to persuade other Jews to convert and to reveal the “secrets” of Judaism to the Christian world. This woodcut by an unknown artist, which was first published by the convert Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469–1523) in his anti-Jewish tract Ich heyss eyn buchlijn der iuden beicht, provides one of the earliest detailed images of a German medieval synagogue, including parts of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.

Despite Pfefferkorn’s diatribe against Jews in the text, the image appears to fairly represent the physical form of many contemporary synagogues, and even some of the ceremonies, with the notable exception that all the Jews’ eyes are veiled—a symbolic representation of their presumed blindness to the truth of the “New Law” of Christianity. Pfefferkorn’s illustrations were among the first in the age of printing to conscientiously describe in visual imagery Jewish customs and to disseminate these through printed broadsides, pamphlets, and books. Though the text was anti-Jewish, Richard I. Cohen argues that “Pfefferkorn had an intimate role in which woodcuts would be inserted…and opted for a more authentic depiction of Jewish life…At this stage of his campaign against Judaism,” Cohen asserts, “Pfefferkorn was strongly opposed to the dissemination of spurious claims against Jews—be they the notions of blood libel, desecration of the communion bread, or devil worship—and was determined to focus his attention on actual Jewish ceremonies.” As a result, this woodcut of Rosh Hashanah is unique as it provides an early and relatively accurate representation of a Jewish ceremony. We see the shofar, a central aspect of a Rosh Hashanah service, men positioned with prayer books, and women separated behind a partition. Despite Pfefferkorn’s overriding purpose, the print provided a more positive image of Jews in contrast with other widely circulated images, which often featured Jews committing acts against Christianity, such as those featured in the Nuremberg Chronicle published in 1493.