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Bringing Back the Wimpel

Bringing Back the Wimpel

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Wimpel made by the author for his son, Aaron
Wimpel made by the author for his son, Aaron

A 400 year old German Ashkenazi custom which had almost disappeared is making a comeback. This is the custom of making a wimpel, mappah in Hebrew, or in Yiddish a vimpel. Some refer to it in Yiddish as a gartel which is a belt. Most know it as the binder which is wrapped around the Torah scroll and holds the scroll together when it is not being used.

(Torahs in Sephardic and other Eastern communities usually do not have wimpels, since their practice is to have the scroll stored in an upright case which keeps it from unrolling when not being used.)

Most know it as the binder which is wrapped around the Torah scrollThe word "wimpel" in German means "banner," and that is where the custom comes in. After a baby boy's brit milah (circumcision), the tradition was to save the baby's swaddling clothes. These were cleaned and cut into strips several inches or centimeters wide and about two feet or 60 centimeters long. The cloth was then decorated with the infant's name, his date of birth, genealogical information, scenes from Jewish life, biblical scenes and often Biblical quotations. The child's name may have suggested the decoration, such as a lion for Aryeh which means lion, or a harp for a child named David.

A child who is a Levi may have a wimpel decorated with the sign of a pitcher. This symbol is also occasionally seen on the graves of Levites and derives from the Levite's role in washing the hands of the kohanim (priests) in the Temple. The symbol of the Tribe of Levi which includes the kohanim is also often shown as the ephod, which was the apron worn by the kohanim.

Many wimpels were decorated with a drawing of a chupah (wedding canopy) in the hope that the child would grow up to be brought under the chupah to be married. Wimpels from the early 20th century in the United States often had secular decorations, such as the American flag. Signs of the Zodiak were occasionally added along with prayers and good wishes. The wimpel was also frequently decorated with a binding around the edge. This very elaborate piece of folk art was usually designed and made by either the father or the mother of the child. Or sometimes by a family member or friend.

Wimpels however, are not always made from swaddling clothes from the brit milah. In fact, some communities have wimpels for girls as well as boys. While wimpels are usually made out of original cloth, some are made from a favorite article of clothing or pieces of cloth from family members such a deceased grandparent. Some are made from the hem of the dress the mother wore at her son's brit milah.

Even though the wimpel is used to bind the Torah, there was nothing religious about the custom or creating and decorating the wimpel. After the wimpel was made, it was put away for safekeeping. One custom was that on the first Shabbat after the child's third birthday, the child would be carried to the synagogue. This was referred to as shulentragen. With the father's help, the child would wrap the Torah in his wimpel. The parents of a newly adopted child would also carry him to the synagogue to put the wimpel on the Torah. Taking the child symbolizes the giving of the child to the service of Torah, just as Hannah gave her son Samuel to the Temple. (I Samuel 1:28)

In some places in the 17th and 18th centuries, the wimpel was used as soon as the mother was well enough to come to synagogue. In other communities it was used at any time during the first year after birth.

The wimpel of a boy may be saved and not used again until his Bar Mitzvah or his aufrufThe wimpel, after being placed on the Torah, would remain there until the next reading when it would be removed and remain in the synagogue's collection. Some synagogues still maintain a wimpel collection. In other congregations an entire Hebrew school class will make their own wimpels and bring them into the synagogue as a sign of the commencement of their Jewish education.

The wimpel of a boy may be saved and not used again until his Bar Mitzvah or his aufruf prior to his marriage. In some cases the wimpel is saved in order to be sewn into the chupah when the child gets married.

There are two symbols arising from the custom of the wimpel. The first is that it is a physical symbol of tradition being handed down from parent to child. The second is that it is the symbol of the child being bound to Torah just as the wimpel binds the Torah. The symbol is used whenever a major event occurs in the child's life.

With so many Jews of Central and Eastern Europe having been wiped out in the Holocaust, and the subsequent assimilation of Jews in the Americas and elsewhere in the world, many traditions are disappearing. The custom-made personalized wimpel is one of them. While the customs surrounding the custom-made wimpel may still be used in relatively few communities, the practice seems to be resurfacing in many others.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, health management consultant, and an inquisitive Jew.

This article is based on the author’s article which originally appeared in The Jewish News, Richmond, Virginia.
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Discussion (3)
August 2, 2012
wimple
I have never heard of this custom before.
It is so full of symbols.
Anonymous
Prescott, AR/US
May 15, 2012
wimpel
how is the text that we put in the wimpel
Daniel Lehmann
Beit Shemesh, Israel
January 22, 2011
Wimpel
I remember carying my wimpel to synagogue at the age of five in 1936. We lived in a small agricultural village in the Rhineland where my grandfather was the Chazzan /Rabbi.
Walter Hess
New York, NY
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