Discovery is a never-ending adventure, and today’s trip to the Jewish ghetto in Venice, Italy, was no exception. After nearly 9 years of living in Treviso, a lovely little city nicknamed ‘little Venice’ for its many water canals and close proximity, my wife and I finally made it to Venice on, (cough) a date! No guests to show around, no baby strollers to carry up and down the innumerable stairs and canal bridges. Just the two of us. Very cold and windy, but what a blessing it was!
We had planned to go to a modern art museum, but why, I don’t know. We are neither knowledgeable of, nor all that interested in, art. But, we figured we would do something different. Once we exited the train however, we remembered there is a Jewish ghetto close to the station. Of the dozens of times we have been to that watery city, this was the first that our feet touched pavement in the historical Hebrew sector. And let me tell you, we are glad they did! It was the closest we have come to Israel and it really made us long to be there.
After stumbling upon a synagogue and Jewish museum, I was intrigued to see them both. And thankfully, they were offering tours as a package deal. Once we ate our ‘typical Hebrew styled’ menu at a nearby Israelite hotel, we returned to learn the history behind 3 of the only 5 synagogues there (I’ll talk about the amazing but disturbing history of the Venetian Jews in the 15th century on a future post).
On our guided tour were other Jews, two of which were ascetic. So when the tour guide (who was not a Jew) didn’t have sufficient answers, these friends became talking encyclopedias that added amazing detail. What a joy to be able to ask them any question that came to mind about traditions, history, symbolism etc. And some of what I saw and learned from them and from our tour, is what I want to share with you.
Did you know that….
1. In every synagogue there is a visible reminder, either architectually built into the structure or inscribed on the walls of the entrance, in Hebrew, something to make all entrants aware that ‘this is not the temple, this is not made by God’ and, to ‘remember the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem’.
2. The Torah (Law of Moses or the Pentateuch) is kept in a holy cabinet called a ‘Holy Ark, which in Hebrew is “Aaron-haKodesh”, beautifully handwritten on scrolls of parchment.
3. The “Aaron-haKodesh” containing the Torah stands on the side of the synagogue that faces Jerusalem. This is mandatory.
4. Women and men have separate seating areas. In the synagogues we saw, the women were on the upper floor while the men would sit on the ground floor. In some cases, women would sit behind the walls and observe through a sort of latticed window.
5. Traditionally, no instruments are to be used during service. They are forbidden during the ‘singing’ of prayers. The Sabbath morning service begins with prayers, typically Psalms orated to a melody. Next, the Rabbi teaches from the Torah, followed by various readings from the Prophets.
6. This next one blew me away, and has set me onto a journey to dig deeper and find the answer to a question it has raised for me. If you know it, post it here and share it with us. Here it is. Uncommon to most synagogues are pictures of any kind. However, this structure had a series of small, carved images along the full length of the walls on both sides, depicting scenes from the exodus and from Mount Sinai. What is so amazing is that in the image at Mount Sinai when Moses received the 10 commandments, there is what looks like small flames or balls of fire coming down from heaven onto the mountain. This depicts God speaking to Moses and were the ‘flaming words of God’. Does this remind of you anything? It did me. Pentecost. Here are the verses from our New Testament:
And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance (Acts 2:2-4).
So I asked our Jewish friends if in their history they have always depicted the event at Mount Sinai as it was painted on this wall. Definitely, she said. Several small flames of fire that depict the flaming words of God. So I wonder, did the Jews present at Pentecost make this connection? Was this to give a visual symbol to all that God once again was speaking by His Spirit, giving utterance in ‘words of fire’? I don’t know, but I promise to research and find the answer!
7. Above the Torah was a large, beautiful crown, like that of a king. I inquired about its significance. The crown always accompanies the Torah, because it represents the regality of God. How interesting! Of course, he is a king. But what came to my mind was the offense committed by his people the day they chose to have a man, a human king, rule over them, just like the other nations (1 Sam 8:1-10). But this also shed light on the words of James, the Jewish half-brother of Jesus, when he refers to the commandments as “the royal law” (James 2:8).
There is more, but I’ll end it here. Stay tuned, and I hope these nuggets have blessed you as they have me!