Past and Present

Jewish World Review April 27, 1999 / 12 Iyar, 5759

The Wimple: A Jewish
folk art worth reviving

By Herb Geduld

JUDAISM ENCOMPASSES SUCH A KALEIDOSCOPE of cultures and customs that even an active, observant Jew can go through life and suddenly be confronted by a totally new facet of our diverse culture. It happened to me some years ago in Nice, France, where I had gone on business. I was passing the evening hours in my hotel watching French TV when a program on Jewish customs appeared.

Econophone The wimple is an ornate, embroidered or painted cloth used to bind up a Torah scroll after it has been read. It is made from swaddling cloth used to bind a baby at his circumcision. Thus, almost from the moment of birth, a direct link is established between the child and the Torah.

The custom of preparing a wimple -- the word means "cloth" or "veil" in old German -- began about 400 years ago in Germany and spread from there to Alsace, Switzerland, France and the Low Countries. As German Jews emigrated to other lands, especially America, they brought the custom with them but it has remained confined to a limited section of Ashkenazic Jewry.

After the circumcision, the swaddling cloth is cleaned and the boy's mother embroiders or paints the cloth with the child's name, birth date, blessings and appropriate Biblical phrases.

Many have families had wimples prepared by local artists with themes depicting the family history, occupation and hopes for their new-born son. Some superb examples of artistic wimples are in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum. These usually include colorful Bar Mitzvah and wedding scenes in early anticipation of these happy future events.

The custom of presenting the wimple to the synagogue varied from community to community. In some German congregations the completed wimple was brought to the synagogue as soon as the mother, according to Jewish law, was allowed to enter the synagogue after childbirth. In others, it was brought as late as the third birthday of the child.

The father of the child would be called to the Torah where he presented the wimple to the congregation. It was then used in the gelilah, or binding ceremony, after the Torah reading and remained on the Torah until the following week. The wimple was then placed in the synagogue's collection and brought out again to be used to bind the Torah when the boy became a Bar Mitzvah.

One of the poignant stories associated with the wimple occurred a few years ago at the dedication of the exquisite new synagogue at the Haifa Technion. At the opening ceremonies, the synagogue was presented with a number of Torah scrolls that had been rescued from the Holocaust. One of the Technion professors, a refugee from Nazi Germany, was overcome with emotion when, upon being called up to the Torah, he found the scroll being read was bound with his wimple, given decades previously to his now destroyed childhood synagogue in Frankfort.

The preparation and presentation of a wimple has not died out. There are still a few families who practice this vanishing folk art. It is a beautiful, meaningful minhag (custom) which, in this age of hands-on Judaism, and our emphasis on decorative arts, is worthy of widespread rebirth and revival.

Jewish historian, cultural maven, and JWR contributor Herb Geduld lives in Cleveland.


©1999, Herb Geduld