Hanukkah begins at sundown today. It’s an opportune time to explore one Jewish ritual object that I’m particularly fond of…the yad.
Hebrew for “hand,” a yad is a pointer used to read the Torah, a sacred text printed on parchment. Most commonly made from silver, a yad is rod shaped with a small hand at one end and an index finger pointing from it.
Pictured at right is a nineteenth-century yad from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.
Attracted to this form, its history, and its ritual use, Anika Smulovitz creates contemporary Torah pointers and infuses their design with new layers of meaning.
“I consider Anika Smulovitz one of the leading American artists exploring the possibilities in using the forms of Judaica to ask important questions about Judaism and Jewish culture.”
“Far from either degrading the sacred utility of ritual objects or getting caught in some endless spin cycle of debate between sacred and secular, her objects make us think about ritual in new and important ways. They in fact invigorate the often moribund conversation around ritual, which generally gets a bad rap in our culture as rote, mindless, or repetitive.”
“Anika’s Judaica makes ritual exciting and new, relevant and fresh. They enlighten us about ancient debates and practices that can shed light on contemporary issues, and vice versa. To make great Judaica is no easy task, because it involves both a deep knowledge of tradition as well as an artist’s intuitive ability to invest that tradition with creativity.”
Below, the artist discusses her Torah pointers in her own words.
“Jewish ritual objects hold the essence of Jewish life and culture. Creating contemporary Judaica allows me to examine contemporary issues through the Jewish tradition. It is not a religious interest that draws me towards making Judaica, but a cultural interest and an interest as a silversmith in creating work that has a ritual function. Through making Judaica, I bring together my interest in academic research of religion and my interest in creating functional ritual objects. I am drawn to functional objects because of their interactive qualities. The people who use these objects, understand them both visually and tactilely, and relate to them on a personal level. I enjoy searching for the psychological why of religious practices. Some of the ritual objects I create are based in this research, while other pieces draw from the wealth of visual cultural history present in the tradition of Judaica.”
Above, Left: “Octogenarian has a magnifying glass attached to the pointing end, made to help the old rebbes read the Torah. Perhaps it can also help those searching for something hidden within the text.”
Above, Right: “This Torah pointer has a compass on one end. It can be used as a tool to help you find east (towards Jerusalem), so you know exactly which direction to face when praying. It can also be a metaphor, referencing the Torah as a map, meant to help you find your way.”
Left: “This Torah pointer is meant to be used when reading the Torah during the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The bee, honeycomb, and gold honeycomb motif on the Torah pointer reference the tradition of eating honey on Rosh Hashanah to welcome a sweet New Year.”
Right: “This torah pointer has a working wheel for the pointer and encased sand on the opposite end. The wheel pointer can be interpreted as a metaphor for the Jewish people’s early forced nomadic life or any of the other exiles endured throughout Jewish history. It can also symbolize a surveyor’s wheel, referencing the use of the Torah in the current Israeli territory disputes.”
Right: “These Torah pointers are a pair. They reference the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and hence were ‘thrown’ out of the Garden of Eden. I have always found it fascinating how the direct translation from the text is the trees of life and knowledge, not good and evil. The story speaks to our becoming sentient, conscious beings, not how woman doomed man by performing the first act of sin. These Torah pointers are keys, meant to help use unlock these mysteries of the Torah and find the truths hidden in the stories.”