Monday, March 15, 2010

Gravestone Symbols: The Hand of God

According to Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, belief in the corporeality of God is a heresy. Why then do gravestones from the Jewish Atlantic World often feature the hand of God cutting down the tree of life? In even more extreme cases, God was presented on gravestones as a fully anthropomorphized figure, such as on the gravestone of Samuel Senior Teixeria (Amsterdam 1717), and the gravestones of Yosiyahu Raphael Castillo (Barbados, 1698) and Esther Hana de Meza (Cassipora Cemetery, Suriname 1745).

The Hand of God has a long history in Jewish art. One of the earliest examples has been found in the wall paintings of the Synagogue at Dura Europos. Created around 244 CE, the synagogue at Dura Europos (Syria) was uncovered by archaeologists in 1932. The rich wall paintings were remarkably well preserved, because the synagogue had been filled in with dirt in an effort to protect the town from a Persian attack in 256 CE. Although at first the artwork made archaeologists skeptical skeptical that the structure was Jewish, today the wall decorations are considered one of the most famous examples of early synagogue art. Many of the frescoes are widely reprinted, particularly a Purim Procession featuring Mordechai. Less commonly reprinted, and perhaps more troubling, is the Akeidah (binding of Isaac) scene from above the Torah niche which features the hand of God staying the sacrifice (figure above at right).

Whereas the hand in the Dura Europos fresco prevents a death, the hands featured on the tombstones from the Jewish Atlantic World usually represent a life being ended. The motif can also be found in Kabbalistically-influenced Jewish cemeteries in Eastern Europe from the same era, though more commonly a flower is being picked, rather than a tree cut down. This is probably an illustration of the verse from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs) 6:2, “My beloved has gone down into his garden…to gather lilies.” Ruth Ellen Gruber provides an example from the Sadagora Cemetery in the Ukraine of the flower motif. The cut flower motif can also be found on gravestones in the Jewish Atlantic World, usually for those who died young, and occasionally the hand of God is replaced either by a putto (as in the example at the left from the gravestone of Marius Penso (1889, Beit Haim Berg Altena, Curacao; photograph Laura Leibman) or the angel of death (see example below)

Although cut flowers also represent a life cut short, the cutting of the tree has a slightly different resonance. As scholar Aviva Ben-Ur notes, the tree of life has particular importance in Jewish mysticism. As "an ancient, widespread symbol representing the `promise of immortality and everlasting youth,'" the tree of life "variably signifies in Jewish tradition Judgment, the return to Edenic paradise, the future Temple, and Messianic Jerusalem" (Still Life: Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and West African Art and Form in Suriname’s Jewish Cemeteries, 56).

Detail of Gravestone of David Raphael Hoheb (1756)
Old Sephardi Cemetery, Paramaribo, Suriname.
Photo by Laura Leibman.

Scholars have offered several explanations for the hand of God motif including Kabbalism, conversos' Catholic upbringing, the antinomian ("against the law") influence of the messianism practiced by Sabbatai Tzvi, and the lack of religious rigor in the colonies. I am curious what explanation seems most likely to readers of this blog.


belinfante said...

Dear Dr Laura

i am researching the Samuel Hoheb of Amsterdam who lived in St Eustatious in Virgin Islands,, i found your reference to his son David Raphael... is 1756 the death date?
do you have any info on his family ie his father Samuel Hoheb, place of birth
dates , death dates etc... heres my research i have a Samuel Hoheb born
in 1637 and another Samuel Hoheb born 1697 both in Amsterdam, no death places or dates, i'm speculating 1 of them moved to the Caribean but i cant figure out which one ... the Samuel Hoheb who is the father of David was from Amsterdam,,,
very nice blog... thank you...Phil Belinfante

Laura Leibman said...

Hi Phil,
1756 is indeed the death date. I will tell you what I know, some of which is probably not news for you. There is a "Seml" [Samuel?] Hoheb buried in the St. Eustatius Jewish Cemetery in 1788, as well as Jael (d. 1777) and Abraham (d. 1787). There should be information about their ages, etc., from which you could figure out approximate year of birth in Johan Hartog's "The Jews and St. Eustatius," (St. Maarten, Netherlands Antilles, 1976). There are several other Hohebs in Paramaribo, Suriname including David Hoheb (d. 1740) son of Isaac Hoheb and several members of the Hoeb Brandon family. There is information about each of these people in Aviva Ben-Ur and Rachel Frankel's Remnant Stones: The Jewish Cemeteries Of Suriname: Epitaphs. There are a few other Hohebs in the Amsterdam cemetery database. There are also several Hohebs in Curaçao during this time (e.g. Sara Hana [1783], wife of Iosseph Hisquiau Hoheb) and a Samuel Hoheb who donated items to the synagogue: you can find extensive info on them in Rabbi Isaac Emmanuel's "Precious Stones of the Jews of Curaçao" (New York: Bloch, 1957). Emmanuel gives nice family histories. I have copies of all of the books mentioned above in my office if you want more info. Let me know if this helps...

belinfante said...

Hi Dr Laura
thank you for the info ,i will research them. i missed 1 important fact, in Amsterdam the name Hoheb is spelled is a site for researching these families Michael Studemund Halevy s book "Biographisches Lexikon der Hamburger Sefarden" the name is spelled Oeb...This Hoheb family name starts here in Hamburg/Altona cemetery..this is really going to help me..Thx! Phil

Laura Leibman said...

Hi Phil,
excellent point! Since the "h" is silent in Spanish, it often gets dropped in variant spellings of names. I have some photos from the Hamburg cemetery, and I will look and see if I find any "Oebs" for you. :) best, Laura

אמיר טויסטר said...

I'm in Statia now, documenting the graveyard.
There is no age on Samuel's tombstone
I couldn;t find Abraham's grave

If you have more questions:
amir (dot) toister (at) gmail (dot) com

Anonymous said...

I was always told Hoheb came from Horemheb (ancient Egypt) orignally. "r-e-m" was removed somewhere along the line, making it Hoheb. At least that's what my father said his great grandmother told him. She believed we were somehow related to or affiliated to King Tut. Unfortunately I have no way of researching this, but we are from the Virgin Islands.

Laura Leibman said...

In general Hoheb is a Dutch-Sephardic last name (that is belonging to Jews originally from the Iberian Peninsula who then came to the Netherlands). In some locations (e.g. Hamburg, Germany) it was spelled "Oeb" or "Oheb," as Phil notes above. According to poet William Carlos Williams (who was also a descendant of the Hoheb family through this mother's line), the name comes from a mispronounciation of the the Hebrew word for Job אִיּוֹב, usually pronounced "EE-yob" (Ashkenazi) or "ee-YOB" (Sephardic). This origin story is slightly more persuasive when one says the name "Job" in Spanish, but not completely to my mind. There were definitely Sephardic Hohebs in St. Thomas (Virgin Islands), so it seems more likely your family has Sephardic roots or connections?

Phil, do you know any other possible origins for the family name?

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