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

(page 3 of 3)

In particular, the composition of a lobed medallion in the center with corner pieces “is such a popular motif in 15th-century bookbinding,” Landau said. “They’re loving this motif. It’s very common. It’s part of the visual language.”

The 15th-century dating is consistent with a fire that damaged the Ben Ezra synagogue, in which the bimah, the raised reading desk, was affected but not completely destroyed. Perhaps, Landau said, a piece of damaged wood from the bimah was repurposed as an ark door, updated with a “hot composition that everyone sort of had on their books.” But just as the 11th-century dating has its challenges, so does the 15th-century reading, since the door has traces of paint on it that, according to The Walters’s conservators, must be post-1800. The synagogue also underwent renovations in the 1880s and the early 1900s, Landau notes.

“And to complicate things even more,” Landau said, “which I didn’t put in the exhibition, because I think our audience would just tear their hair out — and this is just the way history is — there was also a Mamluk revival in Egypt around the time of [Gamal Abdel] Nasser.… The Mamluk period becomes really important for their cultural memory, and they start imitating Mamluk designs.”

A clue to the dating of the evasive panel may lie in the epigraphy (the inscriptions). Instead of writing out the Tetragrammaton — the divine, four-lettered name — so as not to take God’s name in vain, for example, the carver wrote the Hebrew letters, yud vav yud.

That’s an unusual configuration (one often sees just yud yud), which may derive from the numerical, or Gematria, value of the word: 26, which is the same as the divine name yud hay vav hay. (According to some kabbalistic sources, there is significance to the fact that the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is formed from a combination of the letters yud, vav and yud.) Landau hopes to consult with Hebraicists and other scholars who can shed more light on the inscriptions, but so far, she says, she hasn’t found anything conclusive.

“It’s a door that just raises so many questions in terms of its biography, and what we were trying to do is engage the visitor,” she said. “These objects have lives before they came to the museum, and once they’re in the museum, we’re constantly trying to retrace their life steps, but also, in a way, we are narrating their relevance.”

Menachem Wecker is a Chicago-based writer on art and religion. Find out more about him at menachemwecker.com or on Twitter @mwecker.


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!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • 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.