Keter Torah (Crown of Torah)

At center is a ribbon, a crown and the Decalogue (Ten Commandments), supported by rampant lions – familiar from both heraldic and Jewish tradition. The two Hebrew words on the ribbon can be transliterated as Keter Torah (Crown of the Torah).  Veneration of the “Crown of Torah” stems from a passage in the Pirkei Avot 4:13:

Rabbi Shimon said, “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah; the crown of priesthood; and the crown of royalty. However, the crown of a good name is greater than all of them.” Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai] lived in the middle of the second century of the common era. With only one exception, he is referred to throughout the Mishnah simply as Rabbi Shimon. The great medieval Jewish sage Rashi noted that the crown of Torah, a result of study, is open to all while the crown of priesthood and the crown of royalty require a certain lineage. The crown of a good name follows from the crown of Torah. Thus, the Keter Torah, was a goal of all observant Jews.

Ma Tovu Prayer & Psalm 82

Brightly painted rays of light seem to emanate from within and beyond the curtained enclosure. In case we are unsure of how to locate ourselves, the Ma Tovu prayer (“How goodly are thy tents O Jacob”) and the opening of Psalm 82, read every Tuesday after the morning services (and sometimes translated as “God stands in the Divine Assembly”) are inscribed above and beside the Ark. That psalm goes on to offer timely advice to an immigrant community: “Judge the poor and fatherless; do justice to the afflicted and destitute. Rescue the poor and needy; deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”

Ki Mi Zion Tatze Torah prayer

Immediately over the Ark and under the Commandments, Black included the text of the Ki Mi Zion Tatze Torah prayer: “For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, [And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem].” This recognition of the centrality of Jerusalem and Zion is an appropriate affirmation for a diaspora community. It may also be a self-conscious nod to the painter himself: Ben-Zion (son of Zion) Black. The inscriptions were painted in large Art Nouveau-styled letters, linking Black to the international movement that was heavily influenced by Jews. Black’s flair for sign painting is already evident.

150th (Hallelujah) Psalm

Ben-Zion Black was an avid advocate of Yiddish, more at home in the theater than in the shul, so there is a touch of Yiddish theater decor here, too. Originally, other symbols were painted further down the wall on either side of the Ark, including musical instruments to illustrate the 150th (Hallelujah) Psalm. That Psalm was more famously illustrated by  another Lithuania-born immigrant artist, Ben Shahn.