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!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • 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.