THE TORAH BELLS OF MYER MYERS:
ANCIENT TRADITIONS IN A NEW LAND
Lecture by Rabbi Marc D. Angel
Delivered at Yale University Art Museum, December 5, 2001
The Yale University Art Gallery exhibition of works of Myer Myers, magnificently curated by David Barquist, features remarkable examples of the craftsmanship of one of Americas outstanding early silver and gold smiths. Among the extraordinary pieces on display are a number of Torah Bells (Rimonim) that Myers had made for Congregation Shearith Israel in New York, Yeshuat Israel in Newport, and Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. These bells must be counted among Myers most distinguished and most beautiful creations.
These Torah bells, fashioned by Myer Myers in Colonial New York, are silent witnesses that reflect a multi-faceted story involving religious, aesthetic, cultural, sociological and historical aspects. They tell us something about Jewish tradition, about Myer Myers, about the early Jewish community of New York City, and about America.
The Jewish Tradition of Torah Bells
Since antiquity, the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) has been the central religious text of the Jewish people. Torah scrolls are written by scribes well-trained in the intricacies of Jewish law. Synagogue services on Sabbaths, holy days, and on Monday and Thursday mornings include reading from the Torah scroll.
The scrolls, written on parchment, are generally attached at each end with a wooden handle. The Talmud (Megillah 25b-26b) makes reference to cases in which the Torah scrolls were kept, and also mentions cloth wrappings for the scrolls. While, according to Jewish law, the text of the Torah may not be embellished with any artistic illustrations, Jews have always felt the desire to show reverence for the Torah by providing external ornamentation. The great medieval codifier of Jewish law, Moses Maimonides, notes that silver and gold bells adorning Torah scrolls are considered to be objects of holiness, and may not be discarded in a disrespectful manner (Laws of Torah Scrolls 10:4).
Jewish tradition teaches that one should rise respectfully when in the immediate presence of a Torah scroll. It has been suggested that bells were originally affixed to the Torah scrolls to alert seated individuals of the approach of the Torah. They would then be able to arise as a token of honor for the Torah.
Vivian Mann, editor of a volume Crowning Glory: Silver Torah Ornaments of the Jewish Museum, New York (published by the Jewish Museum, 1996), details the history of Torah ornaments in her introductory chapter. She traces various forms of ornamental items (e.g. cases, textiles) to antiquity. Free-standing silver and gold bells and crowns, as distinct from those actually attached to a Torah case, seem to date back to the early middle ages.
Torah bells, thus, represent a deeply rooted tradition among Jews to ornament Torah scrolls, thereby demonstrating reverence for the Torah and its teachings. Through their proximity to the Torah scrolls, the bells themselves gain the status of being objects of sanctity.
When Myer Myers decided to fashion Torah bells for the synagogues in New York, Newport and Philadelphia, he was participating in an age-old Jewish tradition. He must have felt singularly privileged to be blessed with the talent to create such beautiful artifacts in honor of the Torah. For Jewish silver and gold smiths throughout the generations, creating Rimonim to adorn Torah scrolls was among their most cherished desires.
Myer Myers: Some Biographical Information
Myer Myers (1723-1795) was born in New York, the son of Jewish immigrants of Dutch background. Presumably, he received his education at the school operated by Congregation Shearith Israel, the only synagogue in New York City at the timeand the only one until 1825! The school taught religious and general subjects, and we may assume that Myers was a proficient student.
Myers grew up to become one of the active leaders of the Congregation, serving as president in 1759 as well as 1770. His name appears frequently in the synagogue record books as a member of the Board of Trustees, and as chairman of various committees. In 1761, he was one of five prominent members of Shearith Israel to be appointed to reformulate the rules and regulations governing the Congregation.
An ardent patriot, healong with many other patriotic New Yorkersfled the city when it appeared that the British would occupy it. Most of the Jews in New York were supporters of the patriot cause, and manyincluding Myer Myersserved in American militias. In 1776, he and his family moved to Norwalk, Connecticut; in 1782, we find the Myers family living in Philadelphia. He and other New York Jews in exile were among those who strengthened and reorganized the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Philadelphia, Mikveh Israel.
After the British were driven from New York and General George Washington entered the city late in 1783, exiled New Yorkersincluding the Jewish exilesbegan to return home. Myer Myers joined two other leaders of Shearith Israel on December 9, 1783, as the delegation to convey the loyal greetings of the Jewish community of New York to Governor Clinton.
Myers played an important role in reorganizing the congregation in New York City. In 1784, he was active in a project related to expanding the grounds of the Jewish cemetery. The synagogue minute book records: On the 18th of July 1784, a meeting of the Trustees was held; present all the members; Mr. Myer Myers, being reelected to the Chair, informed them that, Mr. Hayman Levy and Mr. Solomon Simson had bargained with Mr. Isaac Roosevelt for the ground adjacent to the Burying place for eighty pounds, one half to be paid on delivery of the deed, and the other half in twelve months or sooner . The board voted to purchase the land.
In May 1784, Myer Myers was elected one of six Trustees of the Congregation. He was one of three members appointed to frame by-laws for the proper functioning of the congregation. In 1787, he was called upon to engrave a Hebrew inscription on candlesticks that had been donated to Shearith Israel by Isaac Moses.
Myer Myers first wife, Elkalah Myers Cohen, died on August 8, 1765 at the age of thirty, leaving him three sons and two daughters. On March 18, 1767, he married Joyce Mears, a cousin of his first wife. She bore him another eight children. Several of the children died very young.
To support his family, he had a shop where he worked as a goldsmith and silversmith. He served several times as president of New Yorks Gold and Silversmiths Society. As is demonstrated by the exhibition at the Yale University Art Gallery, Myer Myers created works of superior quality and attracted an impressive list of customers.
The Mill Street Synagogue of Congregation Shearith Israel, where Myers was to devote so much of his time and energy, was the first Jewish synagogue building in North America. It was consecrated on the seventh day of Passover, April 8, 1730, when Myer Myers was just a young boy. Prior to the construction of their own synagogue building, the Jews had prayed in rented quarters.
The Mill Street Synagogue was only thirty-five feet square. Although it included a balcony for the seating of women, it was only twenty-one feet in height. Thus, it is clear that the Jewish community of New York at the time was not too numerous. They could all fit into this fairly small building.
The current synagogue building of Shearith Israel on 70th Street and Central Park West, consecrated in 1897, includes the Little Synagoguea small chapel reminiscent of the Mill Street Synagogue. Many of the furnishings of the Little Synagogue date back to our earlier synagogue buildings, including the first Mill Street Synagogue. Myer Myers sat on these benches, he stood at this readers desk, he viewed these candlesticks surrounding the readers desk. We have two Torah scrolls dating back to before the American Revolution, and it is likely that Myer Myers read from them and heard the weekly Torah reading from them. We also have some plain Torah bells, very simple and spare, which were used as ornaments on the Torah scrolls. Seeing these bells so often at synagogue services, perhaps Myer Myers gained the inspiration to create bells of a far more elegant quality!