About The Collection

John Wesley Jarvis (American, b. England, 1780-1840)
Portrait of Solomon Isaacs, c. 1813

The Jewish Museum collection chronicles 4,000 years of Jewish culture through nearly 30,000 objects from around the world. The Museum actively acquires art, Judaica, and media that are related to Jewish experiences, whether by virtue of the subject depicted, because of the implied intent of the artist, or because a work by a Jewish artist represents a significant contribution to art and cultural history. 

The collection was started in 1904 when Judge Mayer Sulzberger donated a collection of ceremonial objects, prints, and photographs to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to establish a Jewish museum. The Judaica collection is now one of the three largest of its kind in the world. The Benguiat Collection, which includes important examples of Ottoman and Italian decorative arts and ceremonial objects, was purchased in 1925. The Mintz Collection comprises important ceremonial objects from Eastern Europe, along with major history paintings and portraits. The Danzig Collection was sent to the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1939 by the Jewish community in Danzig to save this remarkable collection of Judaica from imminent destruction. The Museum acquired over 200 ceremonial objects in 1952 through the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, an organization that recovered cultural property looted by the Nazis. Between 1941 and 1965, Dr. Harry G. Friedman, a philanthropic community leader, donated more than 6,000 works of ceremonial and fine art. The Museum also actively collects and commissions contemporary Judaica to showcase the continuity of Jewish ceremonial art from ancient times to the present.

The Museum's fine art acquisitions began increasing in the late 1940s. Paintings, sculpture, prints, drawings, photographs, books, and decorative arts ranging from the 16th century to the present include depictions of Jewish personalities, customs and environments; comment on the meaning of Jewish life and history; portray biblical scenes; and explore issues of Jewish identity and history from the perspectives of both Jewish and non-Jewish artists.

Since the 1980s, the Museum has actively collected contemporary art, focusing on specific works related to Jewish identity as it was expressed within the matrix of pluralism and multiculturalism, as well as work dealing with Holocaust-related subjects. Greater focus was also placed on significant Jewish portraiture as well as mid-century abstraction.

The Friedenberg collection of coins and medals was donated to the museum in 1948 and continued to grow through the years, becoming one of the finest collections of Jewish numismatics in the world. Two major collections of archaeological artifacts were acquired in 1973 and 1981.

In 1981 the Museum established the National Jewish Archive of Broadcasting (NJAB), the largest and most comprehensive body of broadcast materials on 20th-century Jewish culture in the United States. It was established to collect, preserve, and exhibit television and radio programs related to the Jewish experience. The 4,000 holdings of the archive comprise both radio and television, dating from the 1930s to the early 2000s.

Judaica Glossary


The piece of matzah (unleavened bread) which is the middle one of three matzot on the table during the Passover Seder. It is broken, hidden, and then recovered at the end of the meal when pieces of it are distributed as “dessert”


Small objects believed to provide protection against harm as well as to bring good fortune. Some have inscriptions (as Psalm 16:8, “I have set the Lord always before me”), might be in the shape of a hand (Hamsa), or have coral beads.

Aron Kodesh

see Torah Ark


A term used to denote descendants of German Jews as well as Jews from other central and western European countries as France, Poland, Lithuania, in distinction from Sephardim (see Sephardim)


An embellished band at the neck area of a tallit (prayer shawl), which frequently has on it the prayer recited when putting on the tallit.


see Spice Container, and Havdalah 

Brit (Circumcision)

A Jewish boy is circumcised on the eighth day after birth. The implements used may include a shield, knife, bowl and a plate. The child is given a name at this time.

Burial Society (Hevra Kaddisha)

Responsible for cleansing and burying the dead in accordance with Jewish law.




see Hallah


see Etrog

Cup of Elijah

see Elijah Cup

Elijah Cup

Four cups of wine are consumed at the Passover Seder (see Passover), representing the four promises of redemption that God fulfilled with the Exodus. Early rabbis debated whether there was a fifth promise of redemption in the Bible. This dispute led to the tradition of placing a fifth cup of wine on the Seder table, called the Cup of Elijah, in anticipation of a visit by the prophet.

Eternal Light (ner tamid)

A continuously burning lamp that hangs before the Torah Ark

Etrog (Citron)

A fragrant fruit that resembles a large lemon. During the autumn harvest holiday of Sukkot blessings are recited over four species of plants from the Land of Israel: palm, willow, myrtle, and etrog (citron). The etrog is held in the right hand and, in the left, the three other species bound together to form a lulav (named for the largest plant, the palm). 


The injunction for every Jew to feel as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt is fulfilled through the Seder, or ritual meal which traditionally takes place in the home on the first night of Passover. In the Diaspora, some families also host a Seder on the second night. The Haggadah is both the liturgical order for the Seder service and the term for the book containing this service. It includes the recitation of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which is accompanied by singing, discussion, and the eating and drinking of ritual foods. By participating in this ceremony, Jews reexperience the Exodus from Egypt and reflect on its significance for their own lives and present circumstances.


Two loaves of bread served at Sabbath meals commemorate the double portion of manna gathered by the Israelites on Fridays during their sojourn in the desert. The Sabbath loaves are usually braided and often sprinkled with poppy or sesame seeds to represent the manna.


This eight-day winter holiday commemorates the Maccabees’ struggle for freedom from Greco-Syrian rule and their liberation of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE. Hanukkah lamps are lighted on the eight nights. 

Hanukkah Lamp (Hanukkiah, Hanukkah Menorah)

The eight light lamp (with a ninth light, the shamash, or servitor, often added), is used during the holiday of Hanukkah. Following ancient custom, a single light is kindled on the first night. Every night thereafter, the number of lights is increased by one, until on the last night, all eight lights are aglow. 

Havdalah (Separation) Ceremony

The departure of the Sabbath is marked by havdalah, a special ceremony separating the holy day from the profane days of the week. The ceremony begins with the kiddush (blessing over wine). Next, aromatic spices are inhaled. Finally, a multiple-wick or braided candle is lit, to mark the end of the Sabbath, when no fire may be kindled or blessed.

Hevra Kaddisha

see Burial Society


see Marriage Canopy


see Torah Ark Curtain/Valance


see Marriage Contract


A benediction said over wine consecrates many aspects of Jewish life. The Friday evening blessing praises God for creating the Sabbath and for sanctifying the Jewish people with the commandments.

Kiddush Cup

A cup for wine used during the recitation of the sanctification prayer for Shabbat and festivals

Kippah, Yarmulke

see Skullcap

Kohen (kohanim, plural)

A Jew descended from the line of Aaron, priests who had ritual responsibilities in the Tent of Meeting


A descendant from the tribe of Levi, who attended the priests in the Tent of Meeting and performed services on behalf of the community


The etrog is held separately, while the three other species are bound together to form a lulav (named for the largest plant, the palm). 

Marriage Canopy (Huppah)

The canopy under which the bride and groom stand during their wedding ceremony, symbolizing the home to be established by them

Marriage Contract (Ketubbah)

During the Jewish wedding ceremony the groom gives the bride a marriage contract, with a handwritten or printed text, which has been signed by witnesses and is frequently decorated.

Megillah, Megillat Esther, Esther Scroll

see Scroll of Esther


The seven branched candelabrum used in the biblical sanctuary and Jerusalem Temple; a similar candelabrum is now found in many synagogues. By the 3rd century CE, the seven-branched menorah became a quintessential symbol of Judaism, expressing the wish for the restoration of Zion.


A parchment scroll inscribed with biblical passages from Deuteronomy 6-9; 11-21, that is affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes, usually in a protective cover.


The Mishnah is the earliest written compilation of rabbinic laws that constitute the Oral Law. Amassed and edited by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi around 200 CE, the Mishnah forms the basis for all subsequent Jewish legal commentaries and codes. 


Jews face toward Jerusalem during prayer. Those who settled in countries west of Israel affixed a plaque called a mizrah (literally, East) on their eastern wall to indicate the proper direction.


The interval between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot is marked by the ceremonial “counting of the omer.” This forty-nine day period runs from the second day of Passover—when an omer, or measure of barley, was offered at the Temple in Jerusalem—and the beginning of the wheat harvest. (Also see Shavuot.)


see Torah Curtain


This weeklong spring holiday commemorates the Israelites’ redemption from slavery in Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. During the Seder, or ritual meal, Jews read from the Haggadah—a compilation of stories, prayers and hymns. Jews are commanded to eat and discuss symbolic foods, the three most important of which are the shank bone (pesah), the unleavened bread (matzah) and the bitter herbs (maror). 

Pesah, Pesach

see Passover


see Tefillin


An early spring holiday, Purim commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jewry from the annihilation planned by the king’s vizier, Haman, in the 5th century BCE. His plot was foiled by the Persian queen, Esther, who was Jewish, and by her uncle, Mordecai. The story, told in the biblical Book of Esther, is recorded in scroll form and read on Purim in the synagogue. Purim is further celebrated by feasting, by exchanging gifts of food (Shaloch Manot), with friends, and by giving alms to the poor. Over the centuries, Jewish families and communities have celebrated the anniversary of personal deliverance with similar Purim rituals.


see Torah Finials


A place set aside for worship within a synagogue

Scroll of Esther

The scroll read during the holiday of Purim, of the Book of Esther, telling the story of the deliverance of the Persian Jews in the 5th century BCE, (see Purim). 


Descendants of Jews who lived in Spain or Portugal before the expulsion in 1492


A major harvest holiday in ancient Israel, Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks, falls seven weeks after Passover. The Omer is counted (see Omer) during the seven weeks. As Shavuot came to be associated with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the holiday is celebrated with the study of Torah and the recitation of prayers. 


12 loaves of bread, symbolic of the 12 tribes, arranged in two rows of six which were laid out on a golden table in the Jerusalem Temple 


A plaque hung in the synagogue inscribed with the verse shiviti hashem lenegdi tamid, “I have set the Lord always before me”


A Ram’s horn, which is sounded on the Jewish New Year as a call to repentance. 


A small cap worn by Jewish men as a reminder of God’s presence

Spice Container

At the end of the Sabbath, the smelling of aromatic spices in special containers is part of the havdalah ceremony. The spice container can take a variety of shapes, for example, a tower, a box, or a fruit.


Temporary booth constructed to be similar to those used by the Israelites in the desert. During the week-long holiday of Sukkot, it is customary to eat meals in the sukkah. 


Four days after Yom Kippur, the autumn harvest holiday of Sukkot begins. Meals are eaten in the Sukkah (see Sukkah, above), blessings are recited over the four species of plants (see Etrog) from the Land of Israel. At the end of Sukkot the annual reading of the Torah is completed on the joyous holiday of Simhat Torah, or Rejoicing of the Law.

Tabernacle (mishkan)

The portable sanctuary constructed in the wilderness 


The Talmud contains rabbinic discussions of the Mishnah (see Mishnah , above) compiled between the 3rd and 5th centuries CE. Two Talmuds were produced, The Jerusalem Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud.


Parchment scrolls inscribed with biblical passages kept in small leather boxes, which observant Jews bind with leather straps to their left arm and forehead during morning prayers


see Torah Case


All aspects of traditional Jewish life are based on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. Handwritten on parchment, the Torah scroll is read in the synagogue in front of the congregation on Sabbath, Mondays and Thursdays, and on holidays.

Torah Ark

A cabinet set in or against one wall of a synagogue to hold the Torah scrolls

Torah Ark Curtain (Parohet)

A curtain hung in front of the Torah Ark in the synagogue. A valance (Kapporet) is often hung above it 

Torah Binder

In Ashkenazi and Italian communities the Torah scroll is usually bound with a strip of cloth when not in use. This binder prevents the parchment from unwinding and tearing. Often made from the swaddling cloth used at a child’s circumcision, Ashkenazi binders (wimple) are embroidered or painted with his name, birth date, and wishes for his future. The child usually donated it on his first visit to the synagogue, symbolically establishing a lifelong connection with the Torah. Italian binders, however, are often inscribed with the names of the women who made and donated them in honor of major events in their own lives.

Torah Case

Middle Eastern and certain Sephardic congregations house the Torah scroll in a rigid wooden or metal case, which provides both adornment and protection for the scroll. The Torah remains inside when read. 

Torah Finials

Ornamental covers for the two wooden staves on which the Torah scrolls are rolled. They are usually made of precious metal and are sometimes fruit-shaped, reminiscent of their Hebrew name, rimmonim (pomegranates)

Torah Mantle

A decorated fabric covering for the Torah scroll used by Ashkenazi and some Sephardi communities. When the Torah is read, the mantle is removed. While Sephardi mantles generally have flared, fringed skirts, Ashkenazi mantles are usually cylindrical in shape

Torah Ornaments

Various ornaments were developed to safeguard the sanctity and protect the Torah from damage (mantle, case, and binder), to facilitate its public reading (shield and pointer), and to emphasize its majesty (crown and finials). 

Torah Pointer

A small scepter-like pointer (made of wood or precious metal), used by the reader to follow the Torah text, in keeping with the Talmudic injunction against touching the sacred Torah scroll with one’s hands. 

Torah Shield

A silver plaque hung from a dressed Torah (Torah covered with a mantle). Some Torah shields are fitted with movable plates to indicate a specific reading in the scroll and on others there may be dedicatory inscriptions to celebrate lifecycle events, such as the birth of a child. 


see Torah Binder


see Torah Pointer

Yoachim and Boaz

The two columns at the entrance of the Jerusalem Temple