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National Library News
October/November 1996
Vol. 28, no. 10-11

Jerusalem: Historic, Sacred, Celestial: Texts and Images from the Jacob M. Lowy Collection of Rare Hebraica and Judaica

by Cheryl Jaffee, Curator, Jacob M. Lowy Collection

If ever there were a sign of the compelling nature of the city of Jerusalem, it was evident on the evening of April 18, 1996 at the National Library of Canada, when a standing-room-only group gathered for the formal opening of the exhibition “Jerusalem: Historic, Sacred, Celestial”.

National Librarian Marianne Scott greeted the assembled guests, among whom were diplomatic dignitaries from numerous embassies. Dr. Scott expressed her appreciation to the co-sponsors of the event, the Embassy of Israel and the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, represented respectively by Chargé d’Affaires Eli Yerushalmi and Foundation President Dr. Norman Barwin.

The texts and images displayed in this exhibition gave glimpses into the very long and dense history of Jerusalem and of the people who hold it sacred: Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is a city deeply ingrained in the culture of the West, as is the Bible itself.

The enduring connection between Jews and Jerusalem was forged 3 000 years ago when King David moved his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem. The identity of the city as spiritual capital was consolidated when David brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. The Temple, built by David’s son, Solomon, on Mount Moriah, represented more than the resting place of the Ark. It was regarded as the very dwelling place of God.

For much of the following millennium, the Temple of Jerusalem and its priesthood were the heart of the people of Israel and their religion. In the year 70 CE the catastrophic war between Rome and Judea culminated in the destruction of the Second Temple. The connection of the Jews to Jerusalem was further altered with devastating finality in the year 135 with the closing of the city to Jewish settlement. The loss of the Temple and the city began a transformation in the religion of the Jews. The first centuries of the Common Era witnessed the canonization of Scripture and the compiling of the sacred books of rabbinic Judaism, the Mishnah and Talmuds. Individual prayer replaced the sacrificial offerings of the Temple priests, and the study of texts filled the void of the Jews in exile. But Jerusalem was omnipresent, remembered throughout the day in liturgy and learning.

Historical evidence of the city reaches back nearly 5 000 years. But Jerusalem also exists on another plane: as a part of collective memory, a part of intellectual and spiritual life, a part of the imagination. Images of its significance have been transmitted by engravers, printers, illuminators of texts and creators of simple linear drawings. The Temple, especially, remains a preoccupation of scholars and artists: its chambers, courtyards and the very implements and tools used by the Temple priests have been interpreted and visualized over centuries: for example, stylized gold-leaf images of these implements cover adjoining pages of medieval Spanish Bibles. These glorious illuminated Bibles quite literally encapsulate the Temple and the future hopes which it embodies within their texts.

Temple imagery is found in other forms. For example, the word for Temple priest is kohen, and the image of hands held in priestly benediction has served as the printer’s mark of numerous kohen descendants, printers in Amsterdam, Prague and Calcutta. The foremost symbol of the Temple, however, is the seven-branched candelabrum, the menorah. It appears as the printer’s mark of the mid-sixteenth-century Venetian Meir Parenzo. The volume it graces is called Kaftor va-Ferah, a pioneering investigation of the topography, laws and customs of the Holy Land written in the fourteenth century.

Hamishah Humshe Torah [Pentateuch]. Venice: Giustiniani, 1551.
Hamishah Humshe Torah
[Pentateuch]. Venice: Giustiniani,

Hayim Vital. Sh`ar Ruah ha-Kodesh. Jerusalem, 1912.
Hayim Vital. Sh`ar Ruah
ha-Kodesh. Jerusalem, 1912.

Long before Estori ha-Parhi described fourteenth-century Palestine, Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem was flourishing. By 326 CE the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, had begun construction of the rotunda and adjoining basilica of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This shrine to Jesus’ tomb is found in today’s Christian Quarter, which, at the time of Christ, was outside the city’s walls. Built over the ruins of a pagan temple, it was designed to create a new sacred centre in Jerusalem.

The events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem are framed by his descent from the Mount of Olives and entrance into Jerusalem through the Golden Gate, and by his Crucifixion and Resurrection. In John Field’s English Bible, there is an image of Christ astride a colt entering Jerusalem. A Haggadah (the liturgical text recited during Passover) depicts the Jewish messiah, yet to arrive, astride a donkey entering Jerusalem. Here are images, side by side, of two messiahs riding through the same gate of the city.

In Islam, the Prophet Mohammed’s ascent to heaven from the great Rock atop Mount Moriah gave rise to the building of the Islamic shrine, the Dome of the Rock. Erected in the late seventh century, the shrine stands today on the very Temple Mount where the First and Second Temples had stood. The Rock from which Mohammed ascended is, like Mount Moriah upon which it rests, a place layered with meaning. In Jewish tradition, this great stone is called the Foundation Stone, and it is regarded as the legendary base and centre of the world. It is the place where Adam was created, and it is the stone upon which Abraham was to bind and sacrifice his son, Isaac. It was also where the Ark of the Covenant rested inside the Holy of Holies, at the heart of the Temple. Jerusalem has been portrayed as the centre of the world by medieval cartographers, and the reasons are clear.

With the capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders in 1099, the Dome of the Rock was transformed into a church and renamed Templum Domini. In the imagination of the West, the Temple of Solomon became fused with the image of the octagonal Dome of the Rock. Fanciful variations of the fused image of the Jewish Temple/Islamic shrine have served as the marks of printers in Venice, Prague and Constantinople. The Western Wall is the sacred remnant of the Temple complex, but it was not until the nineteenth century that the Wall became the primary symbol of the Temple Mount for Jews.

There is a body of literature which laments the destruction of the two Temples. Its centrepiece is the Book of Lamentations, in Hebrew, Ekhah. It is believed that until the advent of the Messiah, the Temple will reside in celestial Jerusalem. A renowned engraving in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695 is of the radiant celestial Temple waiting to descend into a restored and peaceful Jerusalem. Below this image, the words of the Yiddish song Almekhtiger Got plead for the speedy rebuilding of the Temple.

The Jacob M. Lowy Collection was donated to the National Library in 1977. Like Jerusalem, the Lowy Collection is significant beyond its physical limits; like Jerusalem, it echoes through the history it holds. This history touches us all.

Dr. Norman Barwin, President of the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, graciously presented a bouquet of roses to Mrs. Clara Lowy, who came from Montreal to attend the opening. This exhibition was dedicated to her and to the memory of her husband, Mr. Jacob M. Lowy, as the twentieth anniversary of the Lowy gift to the National Library of Canada approaches.