What Lay Behind Maimonides' Door in Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue

A Mysterious Portal That Opens Onto More Mysteries

L’Dor Va Door: The ark door from the Ben Ezra synagogue is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides and Cairo Geniza.
Courtesy of Walters Art Museum
L’Dor Va Door: The ark door from the Ben Ezra synagogue is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides and Cairo Geniza.

By Menachem Wecker

Published March 27, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

As the anonymous protagonist of Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady or the Tiger?” grew increasingly aware, what lies beyond a portal can make a huge difference. A long tradition of adorning doors with a variety of iconographies reflects artists’ understanding of what is at stake in an opaque entrance that obscures and protects what lies either within or without.

Examples of profoundly crafted gateways include the portals on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” at the Florence Baptistery, title pages of Soncino Press volumes, and Auguste Rodin’s “Gates of Hell” (famous for its Thinker).

On the most basic level, synagogue ark doors symbolize Temple curtains, which separate the domains of the profane, the sacred and the Holy of Holies. Modern-day ark doors also secure costly Torah scroll troves, act as barriers that allow congregants to sit without disrespecting the Torahs and offer a directional prompt for worshippers to orient their prayers toward Jerusalem.

So powerful is the symbol of the opening and closing ark doors that High Holy Days services often invoke the “Gates of Heaven” as a metaphor for a diminishing window of opportunity to petition divine salvation. “Caution,” the heavenly gates seem to say, “the doors are closing.”

The ark door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue, in Egypt, is clearly part of an aesthetic tradition of Jewish portals, but this is about all that is certain regarding the mysterious door, which is said to come from the Cairo synagogue associated with both Maimonides (1135–1204) and the Cairo Geniza.

The door, owned jointly by The Walters Art Museum, in Baltimore, and the Yeshiva University Museum, in New York, is on exhibit at The Walters until May 26 in “Threshold to the Sacred: The Ark Door of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue.” A version of the exhibit will be on display at the Y.U. museum from October 6 until February 10, 2014.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.