Signs and Symbols

Do Jews use statues or other similar imagery in worship?

Along with Islam, Judaism has traditionally avoided three-dimensional figural art altogether in its ritual life. The prohibition against setting up any “graven images” that is mentioned in part of the Decalogue may have arisen as a way of establishing a clear distinction between Israel and its pagan neighbors, whose polytheistic beliefs were so vividly portrayed in the images they seemed to worship. The need to prevent believers from backsliding into pagan cultic practices was so strong that the prohibition of representational images in three dimensions was virtually absolute. There are minor exceptions. Some smaller ritual objects, such as Torah shields, depict human beings and animals in high relief. Surprisingly, some of these images even include sacred figures like Moses and Abraham, but these are extremely rare. A number of prominent sculptors have been Jewish, but they have typically not produced their work for explicitly ritual settings, even when the subject matter is expressly religious. Ancient mural and mosaic arts, as well as more recent (especially medieval) manuscript art, are another story. Illuminated texts, even some of the Bible, contain figural images of human beings and animals, but these are generally not done in very realistic fashion.

One of the ten panels created by fifteenth-century artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence, Italy, depicts the Ark of the Covenant.


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