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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

A Collection Kadosh

In Judaism, the concept of hiddur mitzvah is about beautifying the commandments, making religious acts or rituals as beautiful as possible. Jewish customs dictate that certain objects—special Hanukkah menorahs, ceremonial Torah adornments, and the like, are kadosh, or holy, created and set aside for specific purposes.

“The idea behind all of this art is that you use it,” says Rabbi Debbie Pine, executive director of Hopkins Hillel.

Johns Hopkins is once again home to a stunning collection of such ceremonial pieces, many of them 19th-century silver and brass works of art, now on permanent display in the Smokler Center for Jewish Life in the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building.

The objects, approximately 95 in all, were originally given to the university by Baltimore clothing magnate Henry Sonneborn, to be used for research and teaching. Over the years, though, the collection was inexplicably put into storage and eventually scattered among various locations, including the Sonneborns’ synagogue, Temple Oheb Shalom.

Today, with a burgeoning program in Jewish studies, another in Museums and Society, and a home for Hopkins Hillel, the time had come to bring the Sonneborn Collection back to its intended home at Johns Hopkins. Jackie O’Regan, curator of cultural properties, Museums and Society associate director Elizabeth Rodini, and Jewish Studies director Steven David worked to reacquire the objects, including the beautiful pieces pictured here.

(From left to right) This silver breastplate from the late 19th century with a Torah crown in its center is a decoration for hanging around the “neck” of a Torah, reminiscent of the breastplate worn by priests in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem One of two silver Torah crowns, English or American, from the late 19th or early 20th century, which would have decorated the two wooden scroll handles of a Torah. Another Torah breastplate, also silver and of the late 19th century, this one depicts tablets containing the 10 Commandments and other biblical symbols. A traditional oil-and-wick Hanukkah menorah—unusual in its boat motif, made of silverplate and dating to the late 19th century. This silver Seder plate was likely a decorative Passover plate, given that it lacks the compartments of a typical Seder plate. Austro-Hungarian in origin, it depicts the scene of the first Passover and is adorned with opening flower buds to symbolize the arrival of spring.


More than 100 years since a beautiful collection of Jewish ceremonial pieces was given to the university, it is now on permanent display in the Smokler Center for Jewish Life. Among the items is this silver 19th-century Etrog box, made to resemble the yellow citron that is used during the week-long fall harvest holiday of Sukkot.


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