In this beautifully embroidered cloth, a central panel contains the Kiddush blessing over wine recited at meals during the festivals Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, with special Sabbath blessing inserts in contrasting color and letter size. Beneath is a quote from Ethics of the Fathers: “…three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at God’s table…” The inscription ends with the date: “made on Monday, the 8th of Iyar 5505 (May 10, 1745).”
Below this text, a medallion, set inside a double-headed eagle and flanked by images of Adam and Eve, contains the names Michel and Hennele. Such pieces have been identified as part of a bride’s trousseau or as wedding gifts, so the bride may have embroidered the cloth herself, or perhaps it was made for the new couple. Images of Adam and Eve are a recurring theme in Jewish art, often seen on ketubbot (marriage documents) and embroidered towels; the double-headed eagle is found frequently as well. Folk art motifs typical of 18th century southern Germany surround the central text panel, including stars, leaping stags, dogs, birds, and lions, as well as flowering branches scrolling gracefully out of decorative urns, representing the Tree of Life.
Similar embroidered towels and cloths produced in Southern Germany were made of white linen embroidered with cotton or silk thread, and often feature the floral and animal motifs seen on this piece – in some areas groups of women would work together on such pieces. The Adam and Eve scene next to the Tree of Life is typical for non-Jewish wedding towels and covers as well. Mid-19th century ceremonial “Hochzeitfahne” (literally, wedding banners) from the Eastern part of Southern Bohemia have similar figural images and inscriptions, though not necessarily of a sacred character.
Wine and food stains and inward-facing corner motifs suggest that this piece was made as a tablecloth, although it may later have been used as a wall decoration. A small decorated repair patch appears to the left of the Kiddush text in brighter colored embroidery, and other repairs are found throughout, including tiny initial letters in two corners. These stains and repairs visually attest to the cloth’s rich history.
The repair patch itself has a wedding motif and was a wonderful way to make lemonade out of lemons! Its embroidered star-like pattern and initials letters of “Mazal Tov” are found on the Huppasteine (Wedding Stones) of Southern Germany. These decorated stone panels were set into an outside wall of the synagogue and the bridegroom would hurl a glass at the stone after the wedding ceremony – a related custom seen at weddings today is for the groom to step on the glass. Both are considered to be references to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem which tempers the wedding’s joy, although their history is much longer and related customs are found among non-Jewish communities – you can read about them in the references below.
But finally, there’s an absolutely fascinating postscript to the identity of the tablecloth that I found in the catalog for a recent sale of Judaica at Sotheby’s auction house in New York. The sale included a manuscript book of Psalms, illuminated and decorated on vellum. It’s from Hanover, dated 1734, and dedicated on the title page to the couple Michel and Hennele! There’s a mystery, though: the dedication is to the father of the donor, Michel Segal, and to his wife Hennele, so the 1734 date is certainly not consistent with the identification of our tablecloth as a wedding gift with the date 1745. You can see the manuscript here.
The tablecloth was exhibited in REVISIONS: Amy Berk: Recoverings, Judah L. Magnes Museum, February 5th through� August 19, 2007. You can see a small clip of me pointing out the figures of Adam and Eve in the film.
Here are some additional sources of information you may be interested in:
Fabric of Jewish Life: Textiles from the Jewish Museum Collection (New York 1977), Kiddush cloth for Sabbath, Succoth, and Passover, no.130.
Ashkenaz (Yeshiva University Museum 1988) holiday tablecloth p.252 and illustration p. 253. This cloth was made as part of a trousseau by the bride. Note that the same quote from Ethics of the Fathers is included in the band running around the central medallion frame. The date may actually be 1745 and the bride’s name is Hennele here, too.
Joy Ungerlieder–Mayerson, Jewish Folk Art (NY. 1986), p. 192, illustration of Seder pillowcase,
Chaya Benjamin, The Stieglitz Collection (Israel Museum 1987). Regarding the combined themes of double-headed eagle and Adam and Eve in German Jewish art, see p. 198.
Bracha Yaniv and Zohar Hanegbi, Shabbat Shalom (Tel Aviv 1998). The quote from Ethics of the Fathers is a s typical text for Persian Kurdistan tablecloths. See an example embroidered on a Sabbath cloth from 19th century Kurdistan illustrated on p. 33.
Antonin Vaclavik, Volkskunst und Gewebe, Stickereien des tschechischen Volkes (Prague 1956). See page 37 and illustrations: figures 12, 13 and 14 and plates 39-41 of mid-19th century ceremonial “Hochzeitfahne.”
Mappot…Blessed Be He Who Comes: the Band of Jewish Tradition (Osnabruck 1997) has an illustration of a wedding stone with the wedding blessing embroidered on a Torah wimple, figure 65, p.211
Beauty in Holiness: Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art, edited by Joseph Gutman (New York 1970) See the articles by Gutman and Lauterbach in the wedding section on the custom of breaking the glass.