Loyal As A Dog: How to Read “Jewish Art”

Courtesy of The Israel Museum, published with permission
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Marc Michael Epstein

 “There’s nothing that you see that can’t be shown.” – Beatles, All you need is love

We fight all manner of battles in the course of our careers.[1] While things have changed in the field of Jewish visual culture since I began writing and publishing, there was a time when my struggle was simply to claim some uniquely Jewish meaning in the iconography of manuscripts made for Jews—an idea that sounds patently obvious today, but which, in all modesty, might have not been so entirely self-evident without my struggle.

There I was, at age seventeen, in the inner sanctum, the book and artifact-lined Mount Scopus office of Professor Bezalel Narkiss, the doyen of the study of art—and in particular, illuminated manuscripts, made for (and sometimes by) Jews—my academic idol, the man I hoped would be my mentor. He was speaking English, but the words just weren’t registering. “Mr. Epstein, I have been studying Hebrew illuminated manuscripts for over fifty years, and I can assure you that no image of any animal in these works has any significance beyond the decorative.” “Then, Professor Narkiss,” I piped up, my barely post-adolescent voice cracking, “does this mean you won’t support my research?” “On the contrary,” intoned the great man, “I will oppose it!”

A longtime art lover, I’d been particularly fascinated with medieval art that depicted animals ever since I could toddle. And I had come to the Hebrew University as a visiting student during my junior year of college intending to study what medieval Jews had done with animal symbolism. In my beloved Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters, for instance, I knew that scholars had asserted that for medieval Christians the unicorn represented Jesus, and the hunt represented his Passion. And I suspected that medieval Jews found animals equally significant and meaningful, but in a different way.

In fact, immediately before my fateful visit with Professor Bezalel Narkiss, I had visited the Israel Museum. There I saw a magnificent 15th-century Ashkenazi siddur open to the folio containing the powerful first phrase of Tractate Avot (“The Chapters of the Fathers”): “Moses received the Torah [from God] at Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua [transmitted it] to the Elders and the Elders to the Men of the Great Assembly.” The word “Moshe (Moses)” was elaborately illuminated, and above it stood a black dog, relatively large given to the size of the page (Fig. 1).

The initial word of the Chapters of the Fathers seemed to me to be a manifestly inappropriate venue for a canine romping ground, either in the fifteenth century when this book was illuminated, or in the nineteenth, when it was given as a gift to a Hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn. My second question to Narkiss would have concerned the meaning of such a prominent and yet incongruous image. What would its medieval authors and its Hasidic audience have thought of it? But now, it seemed, I would be banned from exploring the role of animal symbolism in medieval Jewish illuminated manuscripts. Which was frustrating, because I suspected that animals in Jewish visual tradition had profound and interesting meanings that went “beyond the decorative.” They simply had to.

How did I know? Well, besides my intellectual hunch that medieval Jews must have shared with their Christian neighbors a love of animals and their depictions, but expressed it in a different “key” as it were, I had concrete confirmation—through actions, rather than theory —about the connection of (at least some) Jews with (at least some) animals from my other great hero. My Zayde (grandfather), Harry Epstein, was a junk dealer who lived in New Haven, Connecticut, quite the opposite—in all ways—of my mentor, Professor Narkiss, the urbane academic. From my Zayde, I learned the relevance of animals—even animals like dogs, which I had been told were despised by Jews for being the agents of their persecutors. Jews—I’d heard growing up—regarded dogs as weapons to be set against them, not as pets. But Zayde had a dog, and it was his encounter with a member of the local religious establishment that clarified for me that traditionally observant Jews might, in fact, think differently about animals.

Once, when he was quite old, I sat with him as he prayed the morning prayer on the couch, arrayed in tallit and tefillin. Zayde’s faithful canine companion Mutik (“Sweetie”)—a compact mutt of ambiguous origins—literally rested his head on Zayde’s feet. Into this scene of blissful domestic piety walked the community rabbi who had come to visit. Seeing my Zayde with the dog at his feet, he did a double-take. I could read his thoughts in his eyes: “Wearing tefillin, which require a guf naki (a clean body) and touching a dog?” “Passt nisht! (Unacceptable!)” he hissed aloud, gesturing at Mutik as if he were some unclean cur and not Zayde’s best friend.

Zayde, who knew Jewish law as well as anyone, and could not interrupt his prayers to engage the rabbi in a response, was unfazed. He simply turned around his siddur and pointed to the verse he had just been chanting, “Kol Ha-Neshamah sehallel Yah— Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” (Psalms 150:6). The rabbi had to smile. And my Zayde smiled back. “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord”.

The medieval Jews who created or commissioned illuminated manuscripts, like the Christians among whom they lived, regarded nature and her creatures to be a book that the Creator had given humans to read and in which they were invited to discern a myriad of ways of understanding God, divine providence and mercy, and the lessons that God sought to transmit to human beings: “Lazybones, go to the ant; Study its ways and learn,” admonishes the author of Proverbs (6:6). The Talmud, in Tractate Eruvin even tells us that “If the Torah had not been given, we could learn modesty from the cat . . .” (100b).

I knew that that the dog in the siddur I’d seen had to mean something. Manuscripts were expensive. Every brushstroke cost time and money. A tiny dog in the margin might have been “merely decorative,” but what Jewish patron would tolerate the image of a large black dog directly over the name of Moses without at least considering its meaning or its reception?

Dogs abound in medieval Jewish manuscripts. Lapdogs accompany Pharaoh and the Egyptians in the Rylands Haggadah (Iberia, Catalonia, c. 1330–1340, Manchester, John Rylands Library Ms. Heb 6, fol. 17r). In the Kaufmann Haggadah (Iberia, Catalonia, second half of the fourteenth century, Budapest, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Kaufmann collection, MS A 422, Kaufmann Haggadah, I fol. 39r), a tongueless dog barks representing the effects of God’s redeeming power at the Exodus when “not a dog shall whet his tongue at the Children of Israel” (Exodus 11:6–7). A dog chases a hare in another example, right under the rubric, “And the Egyptians pressured us” (Sarajevo Haggadah, Aragon, c. 1320–1335, Sarajevo, National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fol. 47v.) In all these cases, the dog is clearly a symbol for the Egyptians, or the enemies of the Jews more generally.

This is particularly evident in the famous Jage den hasen (hare hunt) illustrations in Ashkenazi manuscripts and printed haggadot, and their Sephardic parallels in depictions of the hunt of Esau, where hares are pursued by dogs (and by hunters). It is corroborated, for instance, by illustrations such as the ones in the 14th-century Barcelona Haggadah where dogs are hunted by, and serve hares, rather than hunting and pursuing them. While it should be clear to anyone with eyes that dogs are significant here, Narkiss insisted that these hunt scenes were decorative or playful and had no symbolic (and certainly no political) meaning. They were merely “adapted” from art made for Christians. Certainly some might have been “merely decorative” or thoughtlessly adapted (thoughtlessness, however, being unlikely in a commodity as expensive as an illuminated manuscript). But others could represent a range of meanings, slightly different in each manuscript, as each manuscript represents a particular constellation of the patrons, the artists, and the rabbinic advisers (who scholars assume to have assisted some manuscript patrons on depictions that would accord with Jewish traditions—narrative and legal). The afterlives of any given manuscript—the opinions and attitudes of subsequent owners, to the extent that they can be known— must also, of course, be taken into consideration.

The typical range of meanings for dogs—hunters, pursuers, enemies—is corroborated in Jewish texts. There, dogs represent, for the most part, the pursuing, rapacious enemies of the Jews. “Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me” (Psalms 22:17). How are we, then, to understand a black dog atop the word “Moses” in the opening of the text of Pirkei Avot in our manuscript? The image of a dog as a symbol for Moses seems disrespectful at best and blasphemous at worse. But on the other hand, if this particular dog is “read” according to the traditions of medieval animal lore and of common wisdom, what better metaphor could we have for the loyal transmission of the divine mandate from generation to generation than the loyal and obedient dog? And what better symbol for Moses himself, called by God “faithful throughout My household” (Numbers 12:7)?

Of course, this thesis was unverifiable, just a hunch. But it was a hunch that began with the image and worked outward to the wider circle of associations—first to the context of Jewish collective consciousness, where dogs might have been passt nisht, then to the broader, more general context, in which certain positive values and valences (loyalty, for instance) were ascribed to dogs. The question that interested—and still interests—me most was whether such values and valences— because they were such a pervasive part of general culture—somehow rubbed off on the Jewish context and caused a softening of the negativity towards dogs that was traditionally found in “internal” Jewish collective consciousness. The image of the dog in this medieval Jewish manuscript, right above the name of Moses, God’s faithful servant, would seem to indicate that this is the case.

These were the sorts of arguments for general meaningfulness and particular meaning I advanced over the years above the objections of multiple Narkissians in various settings. Eventually, I was able to recalibrate the assumptions art historians made when looking at art made by or for Jews in the Middle Ages: Symbols had previously been thought of as “universal”—as meaning roughly the same thing in all cultures. When a symbol appeared in art made for Jews that did not seem to “fit” a Jewish agenda, the consensus was to treat it as “unthinkingly adopted” or as “merely decorative.” The idea was that Jews so desired to be like everyone else so they unthoughtfully and uncritically adopted symbols. My work insisted that when Jews adopted symbols they also adapted them— or more accurately, they adapted the symbols to their Jewish mindset. Sometimes the symbols gained meanings that directly contravened those they bore in art made for Christians. The messianic content of the symbol of the unicorn, for instance, pointed unequivocally to Jesus in Christian art. It could not do so in art made for Jews. Yet the unicorn was a messianic symbol in Jewish texts—the re’em, the symbol of the tribe of Ephraim, generally translated as “wild ox,” was understood by some to be a unicorn. And so in art, the unicorn became a symbol of the Messiah the Son of Joseph, the warrior Messiah, who would wage war on the enemies of Israel in order to prepare the world for the peaceful and eternal reign of the Messiah Son of David. Adopted from Christianity, the unicorn was adapted to become a messianic symbol, but not a Christian one. And—in symbolizing the Jewish messiah, the descendent of Joseph the son of Jacob, opposed to the adopted son of Joseph the husband of Mary—the unicorn, while still messianic, was a very Jewish symbol indeed. It was, moreover, a polemic response to the figure of Jesus in that it asserted that the Messiah was not Jesus, indeed, he had not come and waged war with the enemies of Israel.

In the case of our dog—the Jews who commissioned this particular manuscript were seeking an appropriate symbol for Moses. The most conventional iconography of the dog was, as I’ve said, as hunter and enemy. But in this context, the quality of loyalty, another aspect of canine symbolism from the wider culture, was called into play, because the association of the dog with loyal transmission felt more urgent and more present and necessary.

So sometimes a given symbol—like the dog—might seem to have a particular connotation in Jewish context, but if that connotation doesn’t seem to fit the art or the context, it is then incumbent upon the researcher to search for a potential way in which meaning was applied in a new and creative way. Expensive, symbolically dense works of art should in general be assumed to require forethought and consideration, not to unthinkingly adopt symbols, pile on motifs that were “merely decorative,” or to mean nothing.

Still, I did not get the chance to prove my thesis about the particular image I’ve been discussing here until many decades later; the truth is, I would still not claim to have proved it. But I did have an experience that made me think I just might stand a chance of being correct.

About thirty years after I’d met with Narkiss and begun to formulate my thesis, I was waiting for my flight to New York to depart from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and, working on an essay, I happened to have my laptop open to the image of the very dog in the siddur formerly belonging to the Rebbe of Ruzhyn I had wanted to discuss with Narkiss, but never got to. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a group of five Hasidim coming from the direction of the incoming Antwerp flight, all carrying the sturdy black hard-sided briefcases that marked them as diamond dealers. Perhaps I was inspired by the Hasidic provenance of the manuscript, but somehow, something just clicked, and I knew in that moment what I must do.

Quickly removing my yarmulkeh from my head before they could see I was an observant Jew, I waited a decent interval and approached the group. “Excuse, me, gentlemen:” In my broadest and most neutral mid-Atlantic tones, I addressed the fellow who seemed to be the eldest and most respected—who knows, perhaps he himself was a rebbe. “I’m an art historian—” and in response to their puzzled looks, “I study pictures.” This was quickly translated by an acolyte and transmitted to the man I was addressing. He raised an eyebrow and nodded, cocking his amply-bearded chin in my direction to encourage me to continue. “Well, the thing is, I’ve come across this picture. I think it’s Jewish, and I wonder what you gentlemen, (here, I indicated with a sweep of my hand the sartorial evidence for their Jewishness,) might think of it.” I turned the screen towards them. “Yah, Jewish,” replied my interlocutor. “What you want to know about it?” “Well, this dog, here, sir, I was wondering what it means?” Flatly and without irony: “It’s a dog.” “I know that, but I mean, I can’t read the words here, and I thought they might have something to do with the picture.”

Although polite, none of the five had evinced any real interest in the image. But here was a text—something they could get into. They all crowded in around my screen and I could hear them debating—but only very briefly—in Yiddish. “S’iz Pirkei Avos” (“It’s Tractate Avot, the Chapters of the Fathers,”) one said. My informant read aloud: “Moyshe kibbel Toyrah, umassroi…” (“Moses received the Torah [from God] at Sinai, and transmitted it…”) “Der hundt s’iz Moyshe,” The dog, it’s Moses,” he concluded authoritatively. “Moyshe?” “Moses?” asked his companion. “Moyshe!: “Eyved neyman—pushut!” “Moses!: ‘The faithful servant’—simple!” was the kurt reply. “Ah!” (“Oh!”) was the response all around.

The translator turned to me, first tendering a respectful nod in the direction of the elder who made the determination, as if to say, “this is his observation”: “This dog, it is Moyshe—Moses, Moses who was called loyal, like a dog is loyal. An eyved neyman—a loyal servant—of God.” “Thank you!” I answered.

And I was thankful. In fact, I was grateful in particular for one small word that had passed between these men and which had not been translated. As I say, it was a brief debate. And the word that had been used to describe the solution was almost dismissive: “pushut“—”simple,” “clear,” or “elementary.”

To be clear: this conversation did not “solve” the image. How could it? Despite what the general public may think, the distance that separates twenty-first century Hasidim from the medieval creators of the image is vast. But here’s the thing: these are people who are living in a society that is, counter-intuitively, quite postmodern—it is very connected with the world around it, at least from the perspective of business, and politics, and many aspects of technology—yet it is also, or course, highly traditional, relentlessly hierarchical, and deeply steeped in a pervasive and inescapable Jewish collective consciousness. Although Hasidim are thoroughly postmodern, this dynamic of simultaneous immersion in, and separation from, the larger society, undergirded with a strongly traditional world-view is a configuration that would have been familiar to medieval Jews and has not changed significantly since the Middle Ages—and even less since the time of the Ruzhyner Rebbe. If for these men—with little debate and no dissension—it was “pushut“—”simple,” that “Der hundt s’iz Moyshe…eyved neyman,”—the dog represents Moses, God’s faithful servant, would it not be unreasonable to hope that it was perhaps equally self-evident for the authorship of this image in the fifteenth century, and for its nineteenth century Hasidic audience?

So did this encounter get us closer to understanding the image? Short of exhuming witnesses “no longer available to interrogate,” I believe it got us as close as we can get. We must, of course, always maintain a healthy skepticism with regard to “universal meanings” of symbols. Some seem to have a universal meaning but may, in fact, have particular microcontextual meanings that have been lost to history and which must, thus, continue to elude us.

When I examine animal motifs in seventeenth-century Polish synagogue ceilings, for instance, I am always acutely conscious that even as I interpret a hare hunt as an allegory for the persecution of Israel by the nations, in a particular synagogue, a specific hare may have been depicted as being attacked by an eagle because the artist or patron was named Haas (Yiddish: hare), and was involved in a personal conflict with a landlord (Yiddish: poyrets; Hebrew: eagle/vulture=peyrets)! Such a meaning, deeply enmeshed in a particular microcontext—the social universe in which the art was created—is lost, and thus unrecoverable. Still, I hope I have demonstrated that the method of working outward from the image can serve us reasonably well in the example of the dog in the siddur of the Ruzhyner Rebbe.

May our travels on the road from servitude to Egypt’s Pharaoh to service to Sinai’s God always be accompanied by an openness and nuance that allow us to see beyond our present moment, with its prejudices and preconceptions, towards a world in which we judge all persons and all creatures—even dogs—‘al kaf zkhus: in the most positive and edifying of ways.

[1] This article is Adapted from People of the Image: Jews & Art, forthcoming from Penn State University Press.

Marc Michael Epstein
Marc Michael Epstein, Professor on the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) & Norman Davis Chair in Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College was Vassar’s first Director of Jewish Studies. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, received his PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His 2011 book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale University Press) was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of the year. His 2015 Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts (Princeton University Press) —a magisterial large-format survey of the genre with over 300 illustrations in brilliant digital color—was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His newest book, People of the Image: Jews & Art, will be published in 2020 by Penn State University Press. During the 80s, Epstein was Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby's Judaica department, and continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world.