The unicorn and the wolf of the reconstructed synagogue in Gwozdziec, Poland
The unicorn and the wolf of the reconstructed synagogue in Gwozdziec, Poland

The unicorn in the synagogue

The Year: 1729

The Place: Gwoździec, Poland, at the southeastern edge of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (now western Ukraine)

The Occasion: The completion of the multi-year restoration of the Gwoździec Synagogue.

Who: Painters Isaac son of Judah and Israel son of Mordechai; Bella Cohen, art and architecture critic from the Krakow and Tarnow Times


Bella: I love the renovation! What was your inspiration for the towering tent-like wooden cupola?

Isaac: For this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, we made a Tent of the Tabernacle, with a curving, undulating surface in a Baroque style.

Israel: First of its kind to be built in the region.

Bella: I am amazed by the interior of the ceiling. It is completely covered by elaborate and brightly colored paintings. It looks like you threw a Persian rug up in the air. What are the Hebrew inscriptions?

Isaac: When you enter and look up you are wowed by the intense color. Then you read texts that tell you that you are exactly where you should be:

“Rabbi Levi says one who has a synagogue in his city and does not go there to pray will be esteemed as a bad neighbor.” (Berakhot 8a)

“Whenever God comes to a synagogue and God does not find a minyan, God immediately becomes upset.” (Berachot 6b)

“Who is among you that is in awe of Adonai, that obeys the voice of Adonai’s servant?” (Isaiah 50:10)

“One who says ‘Amen’ in this world will merit to respond, ‘Amen’ in the world to come.” (Deuteronomy Rabba 7:1)

Israel: If you are standing here, in a minyan, and responding ‘amen,’ you are in good standing.

Bella: This is amazing! All the animal figures… but what’s that at the top?

Israel: A unicorn.

Isaac: Also from this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel: “Bring a donation of the Lord, gold and silver and bronze, and indigo and purple and crimson linen, and goat hair, and reddened ram skins and tachshim and acacia wood…”

Bella: I thought tachshim was dolphin skin?

Israel: Nope. It has been translated many ways, but we’re going with unicorn.

Bella: Not ocher-dyed skins or the skins of dolphins or seals or badgers or porpoises?

Israel: No, no, no, no and no. We went with Rabbi Meir in Talmud Shabbat 28b:

“Rabbi Meir used to say: ‘The tachash that existed in the days of Moses was a creature unto itself.’ The Sages did not determine whether it was a type of undomesticated animal or a type of domesticated animal. And it had a single horn on its forehead, and this tachash happened to come to Moses for the moment while the Tabernacle was being built, and he made the covering for the Tabernacle from it.”

Isaac: The single horn stands for intention. One needs kavanah, intention, in prayer, and concentration is as fleeting as a sighting of a unicorn.

Israel: Right intention, symbolized by the unicorn, is defeating and pacifying the untamed emotions and wild desires of the wolf, as in Isaiah 11:2-6, in the future there will be…

A spirit of wisdom and insight
A spirit of counsel and valor

One will not judge by what one’s eyes behold
Nor decide by what the ears perceive.
One will judge the poor with equity
Decide with justice for the lowly of the land

The wolf will dwell with the lamb
The leopard lie down with the young goat


In the 19th Century: The painter Karol Zyndram Maszkowski visited Gwoździec in 1891 to research the multi-colored art of the synagogue and made a set of color drawings for the Polish Academy of Learning in Krakow.

20th Century: The Gwoździec synagogue was destroyed by the Germans, wolves at the door.

21st Century: On the initiative of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, in co-operation with the Handshouse Studio from Massachusetts, the vault and Bimah of the lost synagogue was reconstructed (2010-2014) based upon Maszkowski for the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw (with major support from Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube).

This Shabbat: The unicorn is still fighting wolves (inside and outside) and we yearn to steady our spiritual selves and work for the day when we will treat the poor with equity and act with justice for the lowly of the land.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan is chief program officer at HaMaqom|The Place, formerly Lehrhaus Judaica. He can be reached at peretz@hmqm.org.