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Can you make a Torah mantle using scrap fabric?


This post is a bit of a niche one, so if you’re not into halacha (Jewish law), you might want to skip it.


Scraps ready to be made into a mantle and binder

As I explained in my first post, the Torah scroll is the holiest object in Judaism. It’s considered to contain the living word of God, and it’s treated with the utmost respect. It’s never left uncovered, and we never touch it with bare hands. You rise to your feet in its presence and come forward to kiss it as it processes past during services (via an intermediary prayer book or shawl – it’s too holy to actually touch). If a Torah scroll is - God forbid! - dropped, the entire congregation has to fast. Because of its status, we generally use the finest materials we can afford for its ‘clothing’. Today that’s often silk or velvet; historically it was often silk brocade or damask with precious metal embroidery. If that’s the case, can a Torah mantle be made using ‘second hand’ fabric leftover from scrubmaking?


The short answer: Yes!


The long answer: Still yes, for a number of reasons.


Firstly, there is ample historical precedent. Repurposing fabric from clothing was extremely common for most of history. Clothing was worn, made over, mended and passed on until it was in tatters. The most expensive fabrics – especially silks and heavily embroidered fabrics – were out of reach of all but the wealthiest when new, but their value depreciated at an alarming rate. During the late middle ages and early modern period, the European aristocracy would buy new a new wardrobe every year, following the court fashions. The cost of this was astronomical, and so to defray it, last year’s wardrobe would be sold on at a fraction of the price, either to be worn by someone of a lowlier estate, or to be transformed for other uses. Thus expensive fabrics found their way down the social ladder, getting slowly shabbier and more fragmentary, until they were worn to rags – unless they were intercepted for use in ecclesiastical textiles. Many of the merchants who dealt in second hand textiles were Jewish – it was one of the few professions that Jews in Ashkenaz were allowed to practice – and so some of these rich fabrics found their way into Jewish ritual objects. Large pieces of damask or embroidered fabric would be used to make entire mantles or parokhot; smaller pieces would be set as centrepieces in less expensive fabrics, like precious stones set into a piece of jewellery. Italian Jews in particular reused second-hand fabrics in creative ways, sometimes piecing together new fabrics from beautiful remnants. For example, the Jewish Museum in Rome has a 1704 mantle pieced together from dresses that belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden.


In addition to making use of the finest fabrics they had access to, we know from both responsa literature and extant examples that many women – and it was almost exclusively women – wanted a more personal connection with the ritual textiles they donated. A common act of female piety was to donate an item of clothing – often their best dress or apron, or wedding dress – to be made into a parokhet (curtain for the ark), mantle, binder or bimah (reading desk) cover. Inscriptions often make clear that the donated item was made from treasured possessions; for instance a parokhet donated by Hendle Glazer in 1861 notes that she “donated this parokhet for safekeeping out of her beautiful garments”. Donated fabrics were not always expensive, however; sometimes they simply had sentimental value. There are many Greek examples of Torah mantles made from women’s kerchiefs, often quite ordinary looking, but attesting to women’s desire to be symbolically ‘close’ to the Torah.



Photo © The Israel Museum, Jlem, by Mauro Magliani

(an example of a parokhet made from a woman's dress, 1929, Turkey: for more information, see https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/516412)


The frequency with which these donations appear in responsa literature however demonstrates that there were some rabbinic qualms about the custom. One argument was that seeing fragments of a woman’s dress in synagogue might distract men from their prayers and lead them to think sinful thoughts. There was also a more general discomfort at the idea of ‘profane’ items being used for such holy purposes – a sense that it might somehow be disrespectful. Such was the force of popular opinion though that few rabbis banned the practice outright, in keeping with the rabbinic principle that one shouldn’t make a ruling that is too difficult for the people to keep. For instance, while noting that the Shulchan Aruch (an important Jewish law code) states that “It is forbidden to buy cloaks which a layman was worn [in order to make them into] a religious object”, many rabbis also noted that this prohibition did not extend to donated cloaks.


But while some rabbonim expressed uncertainty about the practice, others positively encouraged it. They pointed to the Torah’s description of the construction of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them in the wilderness): “[Moses] made the laver of copper and its stand of copper from the mirrors[i] of the women who crowded at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” (Exodus 38:8)


The traditional midrashim (explanatory commentary) on this verse expound that Moses initially rudely rejected the women’s gift because he associated mirrors with vanity and lasciviousness, and felt they had no place in the building of the holy Mishkan. But God spoke out in their favour, recognising the women’s need to give something personal to the project:


The women asked themselves: ‘What contribution can we make to the Sanctuary? They arose, took their mirrors, and brought them to Moses. When Moses saw them he became angry with them. He said to the Israelites: ‘Take your canes and beat them…’ The Holy One, blessed be He, called out to Moses: ‘Moses, do you mistreat them because of these? These very mirrors produced the hosts in Egypt. Take them and make a laver of brass, and its base for the priests, that you may sanctify the priests from it’. (Midrash Tanhuma)

This incident is also the basis for what became the guiding principle for the reuse of clothing for synagogue textiles – that it is permissible provided there is “irreversible transformation”[ii]. Just as the mirrors were melted down and made into something completely new, a woman’s garment could be deconstructed and reused for the holiest of purposes because by being cut, it had been irrevocably transformed.


All this goes to the fact that there is both historical precedent, and halachic authority, to use scraps of ‘second hand’ fabric to make a Torah mantle. I would also argue, however, that there is an added dimension unique to the scrap fabric used in this project. In order to make this mantle, I asked Jewish women involved in making scrubs, masks, caps, or scrub bags to send me fabric offcuts left over from their work. All the donated pieces are from textiles set aside to make protective equipment.


There is a halachic principle that tashmishei mitzvah -objects used in the commission of a religious commandment - absorb some of the commandment’s sanctity. Even items with no inherent holiness, like an etrog, lulav, tallit, or kiddush cup should not be thrown away in the rubbish when no longer needed, but treated with respect - preferably being used in another mitzvah (commandment).[iii] I would argue that the donated fabrics have the status of tashmishei mitzvah. They were from fabric set aside to fulfil the mitzvah of gemilat chasadim, doing acts of loving kindness. Sewing masks and scrubs also fulfils the mitzvah of guarding one’s health (Deut. 4:9) and the most important of all the mitzvot, preserving life (Lev 18:5, Baba Yoma 84b). They may be woven of utilitarian materials, but their worth is higher than rubies. What better fabric to clothe the Torah in than the fabric of mitzvot?

[i] In biblical times mirrors were not made of glass but rather of highly polished copper, so could be easily melted down [ii] This was based on a responsum of the Chavos Yair (Rabbi Yair Chaim Bacharach, 1639-1702), the great-grandson of the Maharal. See Chavos Yair No.161. [iii] For instance, the lulav can be burnt alongside the Passover chametz, the myrtle and etrog used as besamim for Havdalah, etc. If items cannot be repurposed, they can be thrown out, but must be wrapped first so they don’t come into contact with ordinary rubbish.

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 © 2019 by Tzipporah Johnston.

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