This illustration is taken from a medieval prayer book and appears above one of a series of piyutim (liturgical poems) that were said in various Ashkenazi communities on Shavuot. The piyut is named “Amar Yitzchak” (Isaac Said) and is written in Aramaic in alphabetical order. The theme of the piyut is the binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzchak), and this is also represented in the illustration at the top of the page. The piyut begins with Isaac’s appeal to his father. The poetic language shows how Isaac understood that he was the lamb for the burnt offering and urged his father to overcome his doubts and fulfil the commandments of God. This piyut is said on Shavuot when the Ten Commandments are read in the synagogue, depicting specifically the commandment “Honour your father and your mother” and the extension of the limits of honouring one’s parents: the son encourages his father to perform a commandment that will end in his own death. The identity of the author of the piyut is unknown, but it is considered an ancient piyut of Eretz Yisrael, and it appeared in the Vitri prayer book as early as 1208.
The illustration shows the moment of Isaac’s rescue by the angel. On the left is the ram that clings to the thicket and to the right is the angel that stops Abraham from sacrificing his son. The angel stands above Isaac and physically prevents Abraham from sacrificing his son. Abraham is grabbing Isaac’s hair with the intention of sacrificing him, while Isaac’s eyes are fixed on his father. Their clothing is reminiscent of the clothing of Jews in the Middle Ages with Abraham wearing the so-called Jew’s hat that was compulsory at this time. Abraham and the angel are painted red, a strong colour in medieval art used to bring attention to those figures when we first look at the picture. The painting is accompanied by a calligraphy of two biblical verses: “And behold, a ram clung to the thicket by his horns” (Genesis 22: 13) and “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him” (Genesis 22: 12).
The story of the binding of Isaac is the Torah reading for second day of Rosh Hashanah. The story reminds us of the shofar that is made from the horn of the ram that was ultimately sacrificed instead of Isaac. It also symbolises a message of hope for the New Year when we ask to be “written in the Book of Life,” as was Isaac who was spared from sacrifice.
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Rosh Hashanah – Rosh Hashanah is the celebration of the Jewish New Year which takes place on the first two days of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. It is celebrated by blowing the shofar, lighting candles, eating festive meals, and attending services at the synagogue. Rosh Hashanah is the first of the High Holy days which end 10 days later with Yom Kippur. The ten-day period is called the Ten Days of Repentance, because it is believed that during this period a person’s deeds are judged and the future year is decided. It is a both a festive holiday and a solemn time of introspection which includes prayer, asking forgiveness from others, and giving tzedakah (charity). The prayers on Rosh Hashanah include asking God for a peaceful, prosperous, and healthy year. Rosh Hashanah also celebrates the creation of the world. People greet each other on Rosh Hashanah by saying: “Shana Tova (Happy New Year).” Food customs for Rosh Hashanah vary among the different communities but often include round challahs (instead of the customary long loaf), apples and honey, and pomegranates. Many people send Shana Tova cards to their friends and family.
The Binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitzchak) – The Binding of Isaac is a central motif in Judaica illustrations that appear in books, on Torah ark covers, and on ketubot. The story from Genesis 22:1-19 relates to a test God gives to Abraham, commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Abraham begins to follow God’s command, but soon after binding Isaac to the altar, an angel calls to Abraham and tells him not to harm his son. He is told to sacrifice a ram instead. The account of the Binding of Isaac is considered a foundational story of faith.