Biblical Zionism in Bezalel Art


by Dalia Manor

SURPRISING AS IT MAY SOUND, the visual art that has developed in Jewish Palestine and in Israel has drawn its inspiration from the Bible only on a limited scale. In recent years, some biblical themes have been taken by artists as metaphor in response to events in contemporary life. 1 But, as a whole, the bible has been far less significant for Israeli art then one would expect, especially when comparing the field to literature. The art of Bezalel, whose school and workshops were established in Jerusalem in 1906, is a special case however. This article will discuss the role and meaning of the use of biblical themes in the art of this institution, the founding of which is commonly regarded as marking the beginning of Israeli art.

The works produced in the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts in Jerusalem during its first phase (1906-1929) are usually classified according to the material and technique employed in their making. In analyzing the objects, greater emphasis is given to questions of style, whereas the iconography is discussed in broad generalizations or linked with stylistic aspects. 2 Setting aside questions of style or function, however, the works produced at Bezalel reveal that biblical themes played a considerable part; but this is by no means obvious. With regards to activity in the field of Jewish art in Europe at the time of Bezalel's foundation, and the later developments in Jewish art in Eretz Yisrael since the 1920s, it seems fairly clear that the recurrence of biblical subjects in Bezalel art is in fact exceptional. Since the iconography of Bezalel has been very little explored, this phenomenon has been overlooked. 3 This is partly due to the nature of Bezalel products, which are classified as decorative art and handicrafts, and are thus traditionally discussed in terms of form and quality of execution, rather than in terms of subject matter. Since Bezalel was not merely an art school accompanied by workshops, but rather an organized enterprise that aimed at national and cultural goals, the study of the subject matter of its artistic products may offer a further insight into the purpose and meaning of these works and of the Bezalel project in general.

The analysis of the subject matter in Bezalel art is based on the most comprehensive survey so far of Bezalel works--the exhibition held at the Israel Museum in 1983 and its accompanying catalogue, 4 which shows that biblical themes are prominent in figurative works. With the exclusion of portraits, of all the figure representations, biblical figures comprise about half, and biblical themes exceed by far other historic and Jewish themes. Although the themes are varied and some occur only rarely, certain tendencies emerge in the choice of biblical subjects:


1. There is an emphasis on figures that represent leadership, heroism, and salvation; e.g., Moses, David, Samson, Judith and Esther.


2. There are numerous scenes of exile and redemption: by the waters of Babylon, the exodus from Egypt, the prophet Elijah who proclaims the redemption and prophecies of the last days, particularly those describing ideal peace. Especially prominent in this category is the image of the two spies carrying the cluster of grapes, thus expressing their view of the land of milk and honey. One may also add to this group images of Adam and Eve in Paradise.


3. There is a particular attraction to the use of romantic pastorals in "oriental" scenery--most often the meeting of Rebecca and Eliezer at the well, Jacob and Rachel, and the figure of Ruth. The ideal romantic love is of course depicted via the Song of Songs.

Generally speaking, no conflict, war, disaster or negative aspect of biblical life are depicted, with the exception of the selling of Joseph and the Expulsion from Eden, both of which are rare. Even the depiction of the Akedah (The Binding of Isaac) is rare. Also rare are themes that involve contact between humankind and the divine, such as meeting with angels..

The Bezalel Style

 Bezalel , panoramic view c. 1913
from Bezalel catalogue

From the very beginnings of the Bezalel enterprise, there was a conscious effort to create a new and unique "Hebrew" style of art. Bezalel students and artisans sought inspiration in the native flora and fauna, notably the palm tree and the camel. They referenced archeological treasures, replicating Judean coins in filigree pieces and utilizing ancient mosaic floor designs in the carpet workshop. Traditional Jewish symbols such as the six-pointed Star of David and the seven-branched menorah were especially popular, as were architectural icons of the Holy Land. Biblical heroes, "exotic" Jewish ethnic types, modern halutzim (pioneers), and Zionist luminaries were also common subjects. Perhaps the most innovative "Hebrew" artistic creation of the Bezalel School was the decorative use of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Influenced both by Art Nouveau European typography and Islamic calligraphy, Hebrew letters served as a distinct decorative motif found on nearly every object created at Bezalel.

Bible with Bezalel Binding

This elaborate silver binding is the work of the two most renowned artists of the Bezalel School, Ze'ev Raban and Meir Gur-Arie. In addition to teaching at Bezalel, the two founded the Industrial Art Studio in 1923, which continued to operate after the closing of the school in 1929.

Three ivory medallions are set into the binding. On the front cover is an ivory plaque of the Tablets of the Law, guarded by the cherubim, here depicted as winged lions. On the back cover, four winged creatures, representing Ezekiel's vision of the Chariot of God, encircle an ivory roundel that portrays Jews praying at the Western Wall, the last standing remnant of the Temple. On the spine, a vertical plaque bears the Hebrew word TaNaKH, the acronym for TorahNevi'im, and Ketuvim (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings), the three sections of the Hebrew Bible.

Solomon's Temple

Solomon's Temple.jpg

According to the Hebrew BibleSolomon's Temple, also known as the First Temple, was the Holy Temple (Hebrew: בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ‎‎: Beit HaMikdash) in ancient Jerusalem before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar II after the Siege of Jerusalem of 587 BCE and its subsequent replacement with the Second Temple in the 6th century BCE.

The Hebrew Bible states that the temple was constructed under Solomon, king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah and that during the Kingdom of Judah, the temple was dedicated to Yahweh, and is said to have housed the Ark of the Covenant. Jewish historian Josephus says that "the temple was burnt four hundred and seventy years, six months, and ten days after it was built",[1] although rabbinic sources state that the First Temple stood for 410 years and, based on the 2nd-century work Seder Olam Rabbah, place construction in 832 BCE and destruction in 422 BCE, 165 years later than secular estimates.



The Tabernacle (Hebrew: מִשְׁכַּן‎‎, mishkan, "residence" or "dwelling place"), according to the Hebrew Bible, was the portable earthly meeting place of God with the children of Israel from the time of the Exodus from Egypt through the conquering of the land of Canaan. Built of woven layers of curtains along with 48 standing boards clad with polished gold and held in place by 5 bars per side with the middle bar shooting through from end to end and other items made from the gold, silver, brass, furs, jewels, and other valuable materials taken out of Egypt at God's orders, and according to specifications revealed by Yahweh (God) to Moses at Mount Sinai, it was transported [1] by the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness and their conquest of the Promised LandSolomon's Temple in Jerusalem superseded it as the dwelling-place of God some 300 years later.

The main source for the account of the construction of the Tabernacle is the biblical Book of Exodus, specifically Exodus 25–31 and 35–40. It describes an inner shrine, the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, which in turn was under the veil of the covering suspended by four pillars and an outer chamber (the "Holy Place"), containing beaten gold made into what is generally described as a lamp-stand or candlestick featuring a central shaft incorporating four almond-shaped bowls and six branches, each holding three bowls shaped like almonds and blossoms, 22 in all. It was standing diagonally, partially covering a table for showbread and with its seven oil lamps over against it to give light along with the altar of incense.[2]

This description is generally identified as part of the Priestly source ("P"),[2] written in the sixth or fifth century BCE. However whilst the first Priestly source takes the form of instructions, the second is largely a repetition of the first in the past tense, i.e., it describes the execution of the instructions.[3] Many scholars contend that it is of a far later date than the time of Moses, and that the description reflects the structure of Solomon's Temple, while some hold that the description derives from memories of a real pre-monarchic shrine, perhaps the sanctuary at Shiloh.[2] Traditional scholars contend that it describes an actual tabernacle used in the time of Moses and thereafter.[4]According to historical criticism, an earlier, pre-exilic source, the Elohist ("E"), describes the Tabernacle as a simple tent-sanctuary.[2]

Boris Schatz

Boris (Zalman Dov Baruch) Schatz was born to a traditional Jewish family in a small village near Kovno, Lithuania, and as a young man pursued religious studies in Vilna. It was there that Schatz first engaged with the two ideals that would permanently impact his life: art and Zionism. Dividing his days between yeshiva and art school, Schatz also joined a local Zionist group. He continued his art studies in Warsaw and Paris, enjoying a moderate level of artistic success as a sculptor.

In 1895, at the invitation of the King of Bulgaria, Schatz relocated to Sofia, where he taught at the Art Academy and became enmeshed in the project to create a national Bulgarian artistic identity. Schatz left Bulgaria in 1903 after his wife abandoned him for one of his students. That same year, the Kishinev pogrom roiled the entire Jewish world and pushed many into a strong embrace of Zionist ideology. In Schatz, it rekindled a Jewish consciousness that was reflected in his artistic production, now greatly expanded by the use of Jewish themes and characters.

During the years he spent in Bulgaria, Boris Schatz was particularly impressed by the development of home industries for the production of art. He reasoned that if Bulgaria, a small agricultural nation, could maintain a school with numerous departments for the development and commercial distribution of arts and crafts, a similar model could work for Jewish pioneers in Palestine. The dream of creating a new Jewish artistic ethos in the Land of Israel led Schatz to travel to Vienna in 1904 and seek out the blessing of the founder and leader of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl. Following Herzl's death later that year, Schatz re-presented his idea to several leading Zionists in Berlin who assumed responsibility for the project and its funding.

Schatz arrived in Palestine in early 1906, accompanied by only two teachers and two students. He immediately embarked on the daunting tasks of recruiting students, finding an appropriate building, and creating workshops. In the coming years, the school would grow to encompass numerous instructional departments, dozens of craft workshops, and a museum, all under the rubric "Bezalel."

History and Provenance of Szyk Haggadah Original Artwork

All forty-eight original watercolor and gouache paintings that appeared in Arthur Szyk’s Haggadah were completed between 1934 and 1936 in Łódź, Poland. He then took them to London in 1937 to supervise the printing of The Haggadah (1940) by the Sun Engraving Company (Beaconsfield Press, publisher). Szyk brought all the paintings to the United States when he immigrated to New York in late 1940. After the artist died in 1951, the family continued to hold the paintings until their private sale in 1980 to David Brass (E. Joseph Booksellers, London) and Warren Starr (New York). In June 1982, the artwork, all forty-eight paintings in one lot, were purchased at a Sotheby’s Judaica Auction (New York) by the Forest Group, LLC (Richard and Lois Janger, Chicago). The Jangers were marvelous caretakers of The Haggadah originals until their private sale to the Robbins Family (California) in 2006. 

The first edition (1) was printed on vellum by the Sun Engraving Company, London, 1940 and published by the Beaconsfield Press in a limited edition of 250 copies. All were numbered and signed by Arthur Szyk and Cecil Roth, translator and commentator. The first appearance of a popular edition on paper (2) took place in Israel in 1956, published in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv by Massadah and Magen. Ten thousand copies were printed, and another 10,000 were printed in 1957– all with blue velvet covers, and in a blue clamshell cloth box. Subsequent editions appeared in 1960, 1962, throughout the 1960’s and 1980’s up until 2003. These editions were printed in two sizes, some with velvet covers, embroidered covers, and metal covers (3) (even some with stone insets). Some were in cloth boxes, others in paper slipcases, some in paper boxes. All editions up until this point were printed from the same reproduction plates used in the 1940 edition.

In 2008, Historicana (Burlingame, California) published an entirely new edition from the original artwork, in Deluxe and Premier Editions (4), limited to 215 and 85 sets respectively. These editions featured an entirely new translation and commentary by Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin, Chicago, and a new design. A companion volume Freedom Illuminated: Understanding The Szyk Haggadah (edited by Byron Sherwin and Irvin Ungar) accompanied the limited edition sets, as well as a documentary movie entitled “In Every Generation, Remaking The Haggadah.” ( http://szyk. com/szyk-haggadah/documentary-film. htm?mnHd=1&mnSubHd=9 ) The movie was directed by Jim Ruxin, Los Angeles.

In 2011, Abrams Books (New York) published a new popular, usable edition of The Szyk Haggadah (5), created by Irvin Ungar and featuring Rabbi Sherwin’s commentary based upon the 2008 Historicana editions. The Abrams edition added more instructions for using Szyk’s Haggadah, added contemporary rituals in the Commentary Section that have evolved in Passover ceremonies since the 1940 publication, and included transliteration of key readings and songs. It was published in both softcover and hardcover gift editions. 


Israeli Art

Part of what makes the art scene in Israel so unique is that the country blends so many varying influences from all over the Jewish world.


Mark Shagal.jpg

Though the modern State of Israel has officially been independent only since 1948, its unique blend of dynamic arts and different cultural traditions has been around for some time longer. Part of what makes the art scene in Israel so unique is that the country blends so many varying influences from all over the Jewish world. In the case of folk arts, for example, a wide range of crafts can be found flourishing–from Yemenite-style jewelry making to the embroidery and other needle crafts of the Eastern European Jews. Over the last half-century, as artisans have mixed and mingled and learned from one another, a certain “Israeli” style of folk art has emerged, reflecting all of the cultures who make up the modern state.

In the fine arts, there has also been a desire to create an “Israeli” art. From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when significant numbers of Jews began fleeing Europe and settling in the Land of Israel with Zionistic dreams, the fine arts have occupied a prominent place in Israeli life. Artist Boris Schatz came to Jerusalem in order to establish the Bezalel School–named for the Biblical figure chosen by God to create the first tabernacle. A university-level academy known today as the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, the flourishing of the school typifies the country’s support of its artists.

Unlike the United States, where the virtue of public art continues to be debated, the Israeli government makes clear its support of visual artists and their contributions to society. In Israel, the role of public art helps to express and define the concerns of a common, yet diverse, culture. In a country that struggles daily to protect its inhabitants, art is considered to be a necessity, rather than a luxury. Perhaps it is the distinct Israeli-style “live for today” philosophy that makes the appreciation of art more vivid than in other, “safer” countries.

Not that Israel’s artists have always had an easy time defining themselves in relation to the rest of the art world. Early Israeli painters like Nahum Gutman tried to create a unique “Hebrew” style of art–capturing the excitement of establishing a Zionist state–while maintaining his influences from Modern European art. Other great Israeli artists such as Reuven Rubin had to leave Israel for periods of their life in order to receive the recognition that they desired; Rubin’s first major exhibit was held in the United States, thanks to his friend, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz.

Not all successful Israeli artists have portrayed Jewish or Zionist themes in their work. One of Israel’s best-known artists, for example, Yaacov Agam, is known for his unique expression of optical art. Indeed, as life in Israel became more established, the diversity of Israeli artists increased. As Israeli artists became accepted into the international art scene, their work took on the various styles and aesthetic approaches reflected in the wider art world.

Just as the politics of two Israelis can be as far apart on the spectrum as imaginable, so are the political ideologies of its artists, whose works might include everything from anti-war statements to paintings of national pride. Israeli art has matured to express the range of opinions and emotions circling in Israeli life; therefore, there is no one style, ideology or medium that defines an Israeli artist today.

But what each Israeli artist has in common is that they are fortunate to come from a culture that values the work of artists and continues to support creation of the arts as an integral part of its unique social fabric.

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