A “Torah binder” is a Jewish ceremonial textile used to keep a Torah scroll closed tightly when it is not being used for synagogue reading. In some Jewish communities in Germany and Eastern Europe, Torah binders were made from the linen or cotton cloth used to cover new-born males during the Circumcision ceremony (brit milah). The Magnes collection includes over a hundred examples of this kind of Torah binder, also known as wimpel, most of them from Germany.
The wimpel, a ritual object that physically represents the ties between family rituals on the one hand (the Life Cycle, beginning with the Circumcision), and synagogue and communal life on the other (Torah reading), is today a source of often unique biographical (and genealogical) information about the development of Jewish communities that have long disappeared. Additionally, its diverse decorative motifs and the varying quality of the textiles used in the embroideries offer precious insights in reconstructing the social history of the communities of origin, the dynamics of gender roles and relations, the financial status of the families that made them or had them made, as well as the overarching aesthetics that governed their production.
Former curator Ruth Eis devoted a catalog to these holdings, Torah Binders of the Judah L. Magnes Museum, published in 1979, and carefully described how they were created:
“The one hundred and twenty objects described in this […] catalogue […] are ceremonial textiles. Individually, the correct name is wimpel (f.), an old German word for cloth or veil, related to the Middle High German bewimpfen, to cover, to conceal. Typically, they are made from the cloth which covers the new-born male during the circumcision ceremony. [After the ceremony, the] cloth is cut into four parts [and the pieces are reassembled] to form a long, narrow band. The function of this band is to secure the scroll of the Law and keep it from unwinding. The full length of the cloth is wrapped tightly about the parchment. In some communities a ribbon was attached to the (pointed) end and tied; the binders in the Magnes collection are intended for the German practice of inserting the end between the scrolls. Their dates range over a period of 237 years, from 168 to 1922. All pieces are made of linen or fine cotton; each carries a Hebrew inscription as follows:
… בן/בר … (יצ”ו) המכונה … נולד במ”ט בוים … לפ”ק (מזל…) יגדל בתורה לחופה ולמ”ט ײ (מעשים טובים) / ה’ יזכהו לגדלו … א”ס (אמן סלה)
(Name of child, called) … son of … (name of father, may God guard and protect him) born under a good constellation on … (day of week, date, month, year), may he (or: may the Lord let him) [reach the age to read from the] Torah [and to] marry [and to perform] good deeds. Amen, selah.
Sometimes, the secular name is added; sometimes the family name is spelled or written in German. The sign of the Zodiac, additional titles or wishes for a good life also appear. Still, the textual formula remains constant, as do the symbols for Torah and marriage, although depicted in a multiplicity of forms. The complete inscription is either embroidered or painted; the modes of execution range from pain and dull to colorful and exquisite ornamentation. The techniques within the embroidery are those employed in household linen, of the type which a young girl would [have been] taught to embellish pillow cases or towels for her trousseau. In contrast, the painted binders seem to have been done professionally.
One peculiarity should be pointed out; at a time when so-called Berlin wool-work was high fashion among Jewish women who used polychrome wool in creating covers for bread, mizrach plaques, framed biblical scenes, etc., the needlework in all the binders is done exclusively with silk thread. This is in deference to the fact that linen and wool may not be worn together, the prohibition of sha‘atnez.”
Ruth Eis’s own research on the Lilienthal Torah Binder (which is reproduced above) are also available via the Magnes’ Scribd account:
Note: This post is the initial draft of the Wimpel (Torah Binder) Collection page in the new Magnes website, which is currently in its final phase of development. More information on the wimpel will be added there, particularly in relation to the custom (which varied in each community) of having a young child (or a one-year-old child) officially present his wimple to the community, using it to bind a Torah scroll on the occasion of his bar mitzvah, etc.