Interpreting Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts

Marc Michael Epstein, editor of a recent book on Jewish illuminated manuscripts, explains the symbolism used by the artists who designed these works:

The visual culture of Jews is an extension and amplification of their verbal culture. For Jews, art doesn’t merely serve to illustrate texts, . . . it actually becomes exegesis in and of itself. The illustration of the plague of frogs in the Golden Haggadah (Catalonia, ca. 1320) simultaneously illustrates 1) the biblical text, 2) the midrash that speaks of a gigantic frog that emerged from the Nile, . . . from which the other frogs emerged, and, finally, 3) [an invention added by the book’s illustrators] to polemicize against the “pharaohs” of their own time—the distinctly scatological detail of the horde of frogs emerging from the gigantic frog’s rear end.

Or—from the ridiculous to the sublime—[consider] the opening folio of the book of Numbers in the so-called Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, illuminated in the Lake Constance region around 1300, on which four knights hold banners with the symbols of the major tribes camped around each of the four sides of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The Tabernacle is represented as a word—the opening word of the book of Numbers, vayyedabber, “and he [God] spoke.” It is thus the word of God manifest as the sacred center of everything. It literally stands in for the Tabernacle in the center of the Israelite camp, which was, after all, built to enshrine the tablets of the covenant: a physical manifestation of God’s word. It represents, by extension, the centrality of scripture—of God’s words to Moses—in the Israelite experience, in this biblical book, in the entirety of Pentateuch, and in subsequent Jewish tradition. This concept is profound in itself, but it is most fascinating that the creators of this manuscript chose to represent it visually: they chose to represent the primacy of the word in [Jewish] tradition with an image.

Read more at Book of Doctrines and Opinions

More about: Arts & Culture, Bible, Haggadah, Jewish art, Numbers


Why Egypt Fears an Israeli Victory in Gaza

While the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has never been friendly to Hamas, his government has objected strenuously to the Israeli campaign in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip. Haisam Hassanein explains why:

Cairo has long been playing a double game, holding Hamas terrorists near while simultaneously trying to appear helpful to the United States and Israel. Israel taking control of Rafah threatens Egypt’s ability to exploit the chaos in Gaza, both to generate profits for regime insiders and so Cairo can pose as an indispensable mediator and preserve access to U.S. money and arms.

Egyptian security officials have looked the other way while Hamas and other Palestinian militants dug tunnels on the Egyptian-Gaza border. That gave Cairo the ability to use the situation in Gaza as a tool for regional influence and to ensure Egypt’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not be eclipsed by regional competitors such as Qatar and Turkey.

Some elements close to the Sisi regime have benefited from Hamas control over Gaza and the Rafah crossing. Media reports indicate an Egyptian company run by one of Sisi’s close allies is making hundreds of millions of dollars by taxing Gazans fleeing the current conflict.

Moreover, writes Judith Miller, the Gaza war has been a godsend to the entire Egyptian economy, which was in dire straits last fall. Since October 7, the International Monetary Fund has given the country a much-needed injection of cash, since the U.S. and other Western countries believe it is a necessary intermediary and stabilizing force. Cairo therefore sees the continuation of the war, rather than an Israeli victory, as most desirable. Hassanein concludes:

Adding to its financial incentive, the Sisi regime views the Rafah crossing as a crucial card in preserving Cairo’s regional standing. Holding it increases Egypt’s relevance to countries that want to send aid to the Palestinians and ensures Washington stays quiet about Egypt’s gross human-rights violations so it can maintain a stable flow of U.S. assistance and weaponry. . . . No serious effort to turn the page on Hamas will yield the desired results without cutting this umbilical cord between the Sisi regime and Hamas.

Read more at Washington Examiner

More about: Egypt, Gaza War 2023, U.S. Foreign policy