Living by The Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Everyday Power of Text

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday August 14 2015

Living by The Book (2015) Exhibition Catalog

The Bible stands at the very center of Jewish life, both as text and as a physical object. The Jewish Bible can be seen as a dynamic network of intersecting texts developed over a long period of time, beginning with the Bible itself, and continuing  with translations, midrash, and rabbinic commentaries that extend into the present. But the physicality of the Bible is equally central. Its words are written in manuscript scrolls and printed books, housed in synagogues and homes, embellished  with decorative objects, encased in treasured chests, and dressed with precious textiles. The text is also visually repre-sented in a multiplicity of formats, through images, symbols, reproductions, and objects that both evoke and interpret it for use in all aspects of life.
This core physical presence of the Bible has offered Jewish life definition and structure, operating in the background to color the experience of time, space, and the self. Biblical texts help navigate the physical world: Jews keep biblical time, cultivate biblical bodies (from circumcision to clothing and food), and build and imagine biblical spaces, in their synagogues, homes, and community centers, and in their attachment to the Holy Land. Even outside of ritual, Jews may lead biblical lives, and experience the everyday power of text in a variety of contexts.
Paradoxically, one can describe the impact of the Bible on Jewish life almost without books themselves, and most certainly without having to “open” a book. This exhibition brings together objects, clothing, furniture, and tourist memorabilia from across The Magnes Collection that interpret the Bible with remarkable diversity and creativity. From the most precious ornaments to the very mundane, these objects showcase the ways text can serve as an archive of possibilities and a powerful platform for shaping everyday life.
Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, Curator, and Daniel Fisher, PhD Candidate, Near Eastern Studies, and Magnes Graduate Fellow

Living by the Book (2015) Exhibition Catalog by magnesmuseum

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