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18 Sept 2020

Shanah Tovah! (Good Year!)

Written by Ben Reiss, Morton Photography Project Curator
A bugle made from a cow’s horn. The horn is various shades of brown and ivory colour, and has a cord fixed to it by two metal rings.
A bugle made from a cow’s horn from Leith Hall
Rosh Hashanah literally translates as ‘Head of the Year’, and lasts for two days. It’s a time to reflect on the year that has passed and to pray for a peaceful, prosperous year to come.

We don’t have many items in our collections that relate directly to the Jewish experience. Jewish people are a tiny minority in Scotland – barely 0.1% of the population identified as Jewish in the 2011 census. Despite these small numbers, Scottish Jews can count such notable Scots as Ivor Cutler, Mark Knopfler and Muriel Spark among their number, and there’s even an official Jewish tartan!

A bugle made from a cow’s horn. The horn is various shades of brown and ivory colour, and has a cord fixed to it by two metal rings.
This cow’s horn bugle from Leith Hall might sound a little like a shofar if it was blown

But we can still use our collections to tell the story of one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar – Rosh Hashanah. The most important element of Rosh Hashanah is listening to the blowing of the shofar – a musical instrument similar to a bugle and made out of a ram’s horn. While we don’t have any shofars in our collections, at Leith Hall there’s a bugle made from a cow’s horn, which gives an idea of what a shofar is like.

A black and white photograph of a large sheep with long, curved horns. It is standing in a field, with a stone wall and hills in the background.
We may not have any shofars in our collections, but the horns of this huge ram (photographed by Margaret Fay Shaw on Mingulay in the early 1930s) would have made a couple of excellent ones!

One of the reasons the shofar is blown is as a reminder of the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac. This is read from the Torah on the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, and tells how God instructed Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Abraham did as instructed, but God stayed his hand at the last moment and supplied a ram to sacrifice instead. Whether God actually expected Abraham to go through with the sacrifice is a matter of some debate among biblical scholars.

A white ceramic diorama, some areas painted orange, pink and blue. It is of a man holding a knife over a boy tied to a tree. A ram lies on the ground below the boy.
The Binding of Isaac was a popular subject in art and ornaments, as this Staffordshire figurine from Mar Lodge shows. The sacrificial ram is visible at the bottom

On the first day of the festival, the story read from the Torah is that of Isaac’s birth to Abraham and his wife Sarah, which took place on Rosh Hashanah. Sarah, who had been unable to have children, had previously encouraged Abraham to take his slave Hagar as a second wife. Hagar had subsequently given birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. However, after the birth of Isaac, Sarah and Abraham banished Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, where an angel sent by God brought them relief.

A faded embroidery in a wooden frame. On the left, a woman watches 2 boys playing. In the middle, a man speaks to a woman and a boy. On the right, a woman prays, watched over by an angel.
This needlework from Kellie Castle shows Sarah seeing Ishmael and Isaac playing on the left, Abraham banishing Hagar and Ishmael in the middle, and the angel appearing to a praying Hagar on the right

As is common with many Jewish festivals and holidays, there are several foods associated with Rosh Hashanah that have a special significance. Apples dipped in honey are eaten to express the wish for a sweet year ahead, while pomegranates are eaten to wish for a year filled with as many merits as a pomegranate has seeds. These foods also have deeper biblical meanings as well.

While none of the items shown here are specifically Jewish, we can see that they can still be used to illustrate the important festival of Rosh Hashanah. And although the Jewish presence in Scotland has traditionally been a small one, one of our properties does indeed have a Jewish link to a significant event in British history.

On 15 September 1884, John Hamilton-Gordon, 7th Earl of Aberdeen, and his wife Ishbel, Lady Aberdeen, hosted a dinner for the Liberal Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, at Haddo House. Gladstone was on a month-long tour of Scotland to gather support for his Representation of the People Act. This bill was a crucial step forward in voting reform, and added nearly six million to the total of people who could vote.

A painting of a dinner party. It shows 18 people in Victorian dinner costume sitting around a table with a white table cloth and silver candlesticks. A bagpiper plays in the background.
Dinner at Haddo House, 1884, Alfred Edward Emslie (oil on canvas, 1884, NPG 3845, © National Portrait Gallery, London)

This painting of the dinner shows Lady Aberdeen and Gladstone in the foreground. To Lady Aberdeen’s left is a man in a dinner jacket, while next to Gladstone a woman in profile can be seen. These are Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, and his Jewish wife, Hannah, Countess of Rosebery. When they married in 1878, Hannah was the richest woman in Britain, having inherited the vast fortune of her father, Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild, of the Rothschild banking family. Thanks to his wife’s money, the Earl of Rosebery was able to pursue a political career.

A coloured print in a wooden frame. It is of a man in a Victorian suit with a wing collar standing at a desk.
A Vanity Fair caricature of the 5th Earl of Rosebery by ‘Spy’ (Sir Leslie Matthew Ward) titled ‘Little Bo-Peep’ from 1901 (House of the Binns)

One of the Earl’s first major forays into politics was to sponsor and largely run the so-called Midlothian Campaign of 1879. This was a concerted effort to get Gladstone elected as MP for the seat of Midlothian. It succeeded, allowing Gladstone to become prime minister for the second time in 1880 (he had held the post previously from 1868–74). It was during this second premiership that he visited Haddo House as part of his successful efforts to gain support for his Representation of the People Act. This vital electoral reform therefore came about in part thanks to the actions of the Earl of Rosebery and Hannah, his Jewish wife.

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