A Jew walking into a synagogue tonight or tomorrow, anywhere in the world, will pick up or be handed a maḥzor, or High Holy Day prayer book. In medieval times, however, most congregations had only a single maḥzor reflecting their particular liturgical customs, and from this the cantor would lead the prayers. Some of these, like the Leipzig Maḥzor—composed in Worms in the 13th century and used in that city for nearly four centuries—were massive, richly illuminated volumes. David Stern describes the book’s illustration for Kol Nidrei, the solemn prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur:
The image . . . takes up far more space than the prayer itself [and] matches the liturgical atmosphere. A Romanesque gate, outlined in gold leaf, with an elaborate flower-like crown and soaring sculptured towers, fills almost the entire page. . . . Within the tympanum (decorative lintel) of the gate, the word “kol” (all) is written in giant gold-leaf letters against a delicate blue background, and beneath it, hovering in the air in giant black letters, “nidrei” (vows). Below that, within the gate’s space, the rest of the Aramaic prayer is written in a smaller script.
The two heavy columns supporting the gate rest on the backs of two fearsome dragons, their tongues meeting in the middle somewhat playfully in a graceful upside-down fleur-de-lis, thereby completing the frame surrounding the entire prayer. These dragons are partly decorative, but they also probably represent forces of evil—powers of darkness, perhaps, or even our distracting thoughts. The Hebrew “drakon” was also the word for “snake.” Dragons (snakes) frequently appear in Christian art of the period as well, typically symbolizing Satanic forces. In the words of Jewish art historian Marc Michael Epstein, they are “the apparently capricious and destructive forces of fate” that “seem to gnaw at the underpinnings of faith.”
But how do the dragons, representing something sinister, function on this page? Are the columns and the text of Kol Nidrei itself somehow suppressing them or holding them at bay? Or have these threatening “forces of fate” already been disarmed by the power of prayer and repentance and incorporated into God’s world, where they now serve as the very foundations of the cosmos, whose columns they support on their backs? . . .
The illustration’s most striking detail, which is hardly noticeable at first, is the spirited stag leaping within the filigreed blue panel inside the tympanum, almost touching the leg of the lamed, the final letter of the opening word “kol.” What is this deer with its great antlers doing in the picture, leaping upward? Whom might it symbolize? The people of Israel? The community gathered together that evening in the synagogue to pray? Perhaps even the soul of the worshipper? “Like a hind crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God,” the psalmist tells us. Follow me, the illustration beckons. What more fitting image could usher in 25 hours of intense reflection and prayer?