The Torah, which contains the Five Books of Moses, is the central concept of the Jewish religion. In its physical form, it is a parchment scroll which, when not in use, is kept in an ornamental cabinet at the front of the synagogue. Out of reverence, the Torah scroll is covered with a decorative mantle of cloth, over which are placed a set of adornments – finials or a crown (over the upper ends of the rollers), a shield, and a hand-shaped pointer (hung in front of the scroll when stored in the ark). Although the pointer is one of the Torah ornaments, its main function is practical; it is used to follow the text as it is being read so as to avoid any mistakes. In addition, the pointer ensures that the scroll is not touched with one’s hands – which is prohibited – when reading from it.
The physical form of the Torah pointer is reflective of its purpose and its use, which is far more intensive than that of other types of Torah ornaments. It is fairly compact, usually with few decorative elements, and of a size that allows for comfortable and safe use. The typical pointer made in Central Europe has a shaft which terminates in a small hand with an extended index finger, drawing attention to its use. The pointer’s segments (handle and reading end) are articulated by knops roughly halfway along the length of the shaft. A chain is attached to the rear end of the shaft to suspend the pointer from the Torah staves. In the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague, however, there is also a small group of Torah pointers that differ in one small detail from all the others – the reading end is shaped as a left hand.
About one-tenth of the human population are left-handed. Like any difference, left-handedness was once regarded as suspicious and inappropriate, and the bearers of this trait were restricted in many ways. Indeed, until historically very recent times, various efforts were often made to ‘re-educate’ left-handed people. In Judaism, left-handedness was originally defined as a physical defect. This definition was of grave significance to left-handed people; it provided a basis to prevent them from being called upon to read from the Torah, which in effect led to a substantial decline in their social status and to their marginalization from the Jewish community. From about the end of the 18th century onwards, however, this attitude was gradually relaxed, and left-handed people over time became full members of the Jewish community. Left-handed Torah pointers are a visible expression of the emancipation of these people, reminding us that left-handedness is no longer a reason to discriminate.
This exhibition was put together by Jaroslav Kuntoš.
Translantion: Stephen Hattersley