Intentional Beauty

Jewish Ritual Art from the Collection

Jewish communities around the world have long believed that beauty has the power to enhance ritual practice. According to the principle of Hiddur Mitzvah (Hebrew for “beautification of the commandment”), aesthetics are essential to all aspects of religious life. Especially in ceremonial objects, the quality of materials, harmony of forms, and richness of textures can appeal to the senses and deepen one’s immersion in spiritual customs.

Bringing together nearly 30 works from the MFA’s collection of Jewish ritual art, or Judaica—most of which are new acquisitions on view for the first time—this gallery explores the splendor of items made for Jewish religious experience, at home and in the synagogue. Treasures of all kinds are on view: metalwork, textiles, paintings, furniture, and works on paper. Created across the centuries, they originate from places as far reaching as Asia, North Africa, Europe, and the United States. Though their meaning and use have always been intrinsically Jewish, their styles and techniques vary greatly, reflecting the artistic language of their surrounding cultures.

With lavish reliefs, engravings, and enamel and niello adornments, a Torah shield by Elimelekh Tzoref of Stanislav (Galicia, modern-day Ukraine) (1781–82) is one of the finest in existence. Its remarkable ornamentation and craftsmanship reflect the importance of the Torah scroll—the handwritten text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—in Judaism. Constructed to house the scroll at the now-defunct Shaare Zion Synagogue in Chelsea, Massachusetts, a Torah ark by woodcarver Samuel Katz (about 1920) is rooted in local history: it tells a story about immigration to Boston and the many changes and challenges Jews from the area faced in the early 20th century.

Contemporary works from the United States and Israel, such as kiddush cups, candlesticks, and spice boxes used in the observation of Shabbat, offer innovative takes on Judaica for the home. Older items—including a wood and silver Torah case from Baghdad (modern-day Iraq) (1879) and used in Calcutta, India—act as tangible testimonies to their communities’ histories. Taken together, these objects draw connections that offer a deeper understanding of Jewish values, traditions, and identity across time and geography.

  • Bernard and Barbara Stern Shapiro Gallery (Gallery 231)

MFA Mobile

A woman's arm adorns a silver bracelet with Hebrew letters

Download MFA Mobile on Bloomberg Connects to hear from curators, artists, and others about Jewish stories through a selection of art across the Museum. The audio tour includes text transcripts and detailed audio descriptions of the featured artworks for visitors who are blind or have low vision. Access the tour from home or bring your ear buds or headphones for the full in-gallery experience.

Download MFA Mobile

Explore Jewish Music

With everything from traditional interpretations of long-known melodies to modern arrangements blending genres, this playlist expresses the diversity of Jewish cultures featured in “Intentional Beauty.”

Looking for More Judaica?

Because Judaica simultaneously reflects a core Jewish identity and represents wider artistic styles, it lives beyond this dedicated space in galleries throughout the MFA. Visitors can deepen their engagement with the collection area by seeing highlights across the Museum in conversation with art from different cultures—among them Dutch, Chinese, Islamic, and Italian.

See Judaica on View


Sponsored by the David Berg Foundation.

Additional support provided by Lorraine Bressler, the Rita J. and Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation Inc., Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay, and the Priebatsch Family Fund, in loving memory of Norman Priebatsch. 

With special gratitude to Marcia and Louis Kamentsky and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies.