Making a mappah

For various reasons, I’ve taken a hiatus from Tiny Judica. The company won’t be up and running before Hanukkah, so I’ve spent some time working on other projects.

One project that I put some attention to in these past weeks is designing a wimpel.

Traditionally in a German Jewish congregation, the mother of a newborn son would make a wimpel, a belt for the Torah, from the swaddling cloth that the baby boy wore at his brit milah. The wimpel, which generally measures about twelve feet by nine inches, is embroidered or painted with a message that includes the baby’s name, birthdate, and a nice message about his growing into Torah, chuppah and good deeds.

In old German synagogues (and perhaps in a few here and there today, possibly in Germany but more likely in Washington Heights NY or Israel), a toddler boy would bring his completed wimpel to shul with much fanfare. His father would help him to dress the Torah in the new wimpel, which involves wrapping the cloth around and around the scroll. (Wimpels follow the halacha that one shouldn’t make a permanent knot on Shabbat; they are basically wrapped many time and then tucked into themselves.)

wimpels in Cleveland
Two wimpels on display in the museum of Temple Tifereth-Israel of Beachwood, OH. I was there for a wedding this summer and took about a dozen shots of each of their wimpels.

A synagogue with a store of wimpels will switch them out every week, often using wimpels that are in some way specific to the weekly Torah portion. Shuls with a strong wimpel tradition typically owned hundreds, so each one would only make an appearance every few years. On the day of a bar mitzvah or an aufruf though, you could exect the wimpel of the boy being honored to be wrapped around the Torah.

That’s the background on wimpels. I was very excited to make one for my son, which he could then bring to the synagogue around his third birthday. The ceremony where the toddler presents the wimpel is called a shulentragen. I chose a nice white cotton fabric before he was born, used it for his brit milah (as a blanket, as the whole swaddling cloth thing actually dropped out of style centuries before the wimpel custom tapered off), and kept it for a wimpel. I recently had an inspiration for how to design the wimpel, and I was ready to move forward.

Then I realized that I didn’t want to make a wimpel.

I think I realized this a couple of days before Yom Kippur. I was working with the ark curtain I had made two years earlier for our local indie minyan. The mechanism I had originally created to open and close the curtain was unique, subtle, and totally confusing to every person who used it. On year one it was super confusing. On year two a pictoral explanation accompanied every honor card, and it was still super confusing. This year, I got rid of the old system and replaced it with something far more conventional. Everyone understood the new design, and it worked fine.

After I fixed the curtain, I realized something: A wimpel is going to tick off the gabbais. And the last thing I want to do is to have the gabbis annoyed at me. (Seriously, bad idea.) So, maybe a wimpel is a bad idea. If I lived in Hamburg in the early 1800’s, then a wimpel would be an obvious choice. Living as I do in a non-German community in the 21st century, I don’t think I want to do the wimpel thing.

Instead, I thought about other textiles one might use in shul that have the same spirit as the wimpel. I settled on the idea of a mappah.

Okay, so “mappah” is a useless word. It means “cloth.” In fact, sometimes a wimpel is called a “mappah.”

What I’ve decided to make is the cloth that generally hangs out on the Torah table, to be thrown over the Torah during Mi Sheberakhs, the Hatzi Kaddish, and any other time someone wants to cover up the scroll. The mappah is easy to use, easy to substitute for a personalized one on special occasions, and just a whole lot easier to understand.

The mappah I’m making will still be created from the brit milah cloth, will still show up at a shulentragen and various important family occasions thereafter. I’m keeping the traditional wimpel text, and I hope the cloth will become a positive family heirloom.