Parsha Mitzvot: Terumah: The Embroidered Ark Curtain
I have been asked concerning a silken cloth into which were woven various figures, among them images of birds. Is it permitted to use this embroidered cloth as a hanging before the sacred Ark?
The question is asked because there are those who object to the matter on the ground that when the congregation stands up to pray, they bow down towards the Ark and it would then appear as if, God forbid, they are bowing down to these images.
It seems to me that this curtain is completely permissible. There is no ground for concern. Even if this were a picture of a man, not of birds, it is possible that this, too, would be permitted. As it appears in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 24b), where the question is asked and answered: Are we concerned whether some might suspect that the people are bowing down to the art object? In this synagogue, called Shaf veYatib, in Nahardea., they set up a statue. Yet the father of Samuel and Levi went there to pray and no one concerned himself with suspecting that people bowed to that image. This synagogue was deemed to be especially sacred. The name of the synagogue means, “It slipped away and settled down,” implying that the sacredness of Jerusalem slipped away into the exile and settled down in this synagogue in Nahardea.
But this unconcern with possible suspicion of idolatry is explained as follows: we were unconcerned because there was a multitude present in the synagogue. Therefore, whenever there is a group of people, we need not be concerned with the suspicion of bowing down at all.
Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, the Rosh, cites this and, while Rabbi Alfasi, the Rif, does not cite it, that does not affect our case because that synagogue in Nahardea was the image of a man, and here it is of birds.
So it was with the images of phases of the moon which Rabban Gamliel had in his chamber. Now, moon images are forbidden by the law. But other images, even without the presence of a multitude, are certainly permitted. There is nothing to suspect with regard to them.
Now it may be that the opinion of those who object to using that embroidery for the ark curtain is based upon what is cited in the notes to the Rosh (Avodah Zara, 3,5), namely, that Rabbi Eliakim (11th Century in the Rhineland) gave orders to remove the pictures of lions and serpents which had been painted in the synagogue in Cologne. These objectors ought to keep in mind that one must never rely upon any decision that one finds written down until one has searched out whether it is an individual opinion or whether there are other scholars who agree with it. Also, one must understand the full contents of the words of that decision.
For note, that in the very passage that they cite, Rabbeinu Ephraim sends an answer to Rabbi Joel with regard to images of birds and horses that were painted in the synagogue. He said that it is permitted to pray in that synagogue for the Gentiles do not worship these images, even when they are in separate form; and is certainly not when they are painted upon cloth. Even the image of a man is permitted by the rabbis if one finds it already made.
Rabbeinu Nissim wrote in the same chapter of the Rif (End of Mishna 3) as follows: It seems to me that they did not concern themselves with possible suspicion of worshiping unless it was the custom of the Gentiles to worship them. It is permitted to make such images as long as it is unknown at and unheard of that that they are worshiped at all. Therefore it is the custom to keep even three-dimensional images of those objects which the Torah does not expressly prohibit, and we have never heard anyone objecting to it.
Thus it seems to me that we may put up this curtain. It is like any other curtain, since we have demonstrated that there is no prohibition because of the pictures on it. Therefore it is all right to place it up before the ark.
I have written my humble opinion. But in this city where this question has come up, there is an ordained rabbi; if he agrees with my words, then I will do clear that it is permitted on the above grounds. But if my opinions do not seem right to the Rabbi, then his words must be obeyed.
So says the youth,
Joseph son of Ephraim Caro (Avkat Rochel #66)
However, in an earlier Responsum (#63), Rav Caro objects to a sculptured stone lion being put upon the Ark. The lion is one of the four animals whose image is specifically forbidden (Avodah Zarah 43b) as idolatrous. The other three are the eagle, man, and the ox; besides, that stone lion was three-dimensional.