(Temple Ohav Shalom Synagogue, Cincinnati, Ohio)
Gur Aryeh Yehudah
"The Lions of Judah holding up the ark containing the Torah Scrolls"
In Solomon's Temple, there were carvings of lions, oxen, and cherubim, while a lion with eagle's wings symbolized in the Book of Daniel, the kingdom of Babylonia.
The rampant Lion of Judah is a favorite embellishment of the synagogue ark, the mantle covering the scroll of the Torah and other synagogue art.
One finds, from Early Middle Ages and on, a great deal of artwork showing the Lions of Judah holding up the Ten Commandments. Thus, our symbolism, as the windows frame the ark which contains our Torah scrolls. The lions, visually, hold up our ark.
These two architectural stained glass designs in Congregation Ohave Shalom are examples of fine glass art works in their relationship within an architectural setting.
Symbolism of the Lion of Judah
The very first lion - Judah - comes from the book of Genesis. Each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel has a symbol associated with it. For example, Benjamin is a wolf and Daniel is a snake.The verse in Genesis that gives the symbol of lion to Judah is: "Gur Aryeh Yehudah", which translates to "Young lion, Judah". Over time all Jews came to be known by the name Judah or Yehudah. It may at once be hard to understand why Judah would be so revered, considering his involvement in selling his brother Joseph into slavery. But as the story of Joseph comes to a conclusion, it becomes apparent why the Lion of Judah can be a symbol of the values and commitment of the Jewish people.
Judah and the Old Testament
The story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is full of lessons. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers but still somehow manages to rise to a powerful position in Egypt. After a devastating drought in the land of Canaan, Joseph's brothers come to beg him for food. They do not recognize him and do not suspect anything when he demands that they return back to him with their youngest brother Benjamin. Since the loss of Joseph, Benjamin has grown to become their father's favorite son and their father would rather not give him up. Judah promises his father that he will watch over Benjamin and will return safely home with him. Joseph ultimately is trying to teach his brothers a lesson and plants a silver cup in Benjamin's bag. The stolen cup is found and Joseph decrees that, as his punishment, Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave.
During this test of his brothers' character, Joseph is trying to see if his brothers will, once again, allow their brother to suffer so that they can improve their own lots in life. Judah comes forward, begging Joseph to allow his brother Benjamin to go free. He offers himself in his place.
Am I My Brother's Keeper?
Throughout Genesis, the question of a personal responsibility and responsibility for our neighbors is a central theme. From the story of Cain and Abel to the story of Joseph and his brothers' betrayal, this theme is underlying. Cain murders his brother Abel and casts off God's questions with a sarcastic response: "Am I My Brother's Keeper?" Cain shows no remorse or responsibility for what he has done. The rest of the book of Genesis represents the answer to that question and the answer is a resounding yes! (see Nezikin on this site, and especially the 22nd saying in Pirke Aboth as it not only protects the weak, but it stresses the importance of helping others who are in need). Judah steps forward and takes responsibility. This results in the reuniting of his family. Yes, he is his brother's keeper and yes, he will take his place in slavery. With this passionate act, Judah becomes a role model for the responsibility that Jews have to each other and to the world as a whole.
The Lion of Judah and Tzedakah
The mitzvot of Tzedakah is closely intertwined with the Lion of Judah. Tzedakah represents the responsibility that each Jew has to be "their brother's keeper" and make a difference in the lives of others. Tzedakah literally translates to 'justice' and it involves making acts of devotion toward the needs of others a central focus in one's life. Whether it be a monetary gift or a gift of one's time, the power of the act of tzedakah can not be overstated. The lion of Judah is a powerful symbol of this spirit of generosity and selflessness.
To learn more about the mitzvot of Tzedakah read our informative article "What is Tzedakah?". To add a beautiful handcrafted Tzedakah box to your home or to give someone you know a Tzedakah box, see our entire collection.
One Final Note
Beautiful fine art of light transforms the interior of a synagogue into a mystical source of joy, peace, and tranquility.....