The first known Torah shield or breastplate was dedicated in Amsterdam in 1612 and was Ashkenazic in origin. In the Ashkenazi, or eastern European, tradition—as well as in Italy and Turkey—breastplates or metal shields traditionally hung over the front of the Torah mantle. In Italy, the breastplate or keter, was shaped like a crown; while in Turkey the breastplate or tas was constructed in different shapes like an oval, circle, or a Star of David. Breastplates from the seventeenth century, in particular from Germany and Holland, were rectangular or square in form. Later breastplates were round and very decorative; some had bells and small dedication plaques that hung from the lower edge of the breastplate.
The breastplate is unique to its community; however, it is usually constructed of silver-plate, metal, or silver. The breastplate’s function is not simply an adornment for the Torah, rather it earmarks which Torah scroll should be used for which Torah reading on any particular Sabbath or holiday. Many breastplates have small removable plaques for each major holiday and festival. The appropriate plaque is put onto the breastplate as an indicator of the location to which each scroll is rolled.
This particular breastplate reflects the neo-classical style and was designed by master silversmith Franz Anton Gutwein in Augsburg, which was a center for metalwork in Germany. Two columns surmounted by lions support a crown. Gilding highlights three distinct areas: the Ten Commandments, the Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) plaque on the bottom of the breastplate which indicates that the Torah bearing this breastplate is rolled to the portion for the autumn harvest festival; and a wreath enclosing the names of the donors.
This breastplate will be featured in our upcoming exhibition Drawing from the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Collection, a selection of 18 acrylic and colored pencil drawings inspired by Judaica from the Klutznick collection by world-renowned Jewish artist Mark Podwal. The exhibition runs December 4, 2017 through January 7, 2018.