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.
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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.


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