PAROCHET, a Hebrew word, derived from a root meaning “shut off”, found in Exodus 26:31 and elsewhere as the designation of the curtain that divided the Holy of Holies from the other part of the Tabernacle, the sanctuary the Israelites built in the Desert. Today it serves the same purpose – separating the most sacred part of a synagogue – the Ark-room in synagogues of the Orient – from the rest of the sanctuary. Modern synagogues in the East, parochets are hung in front of the wooden doors of the Ark-room and to cover aesthetically the bare walls outside the Ark-room. They are usually of costly material, velvet, brocade, and silk of various colors. Each is provided with a plaque of contrasting material marking the name of the donor and the date of his/her demise, this information used by synagogue authorities to ascertain when the parochet was to decorate the entrance to the Ark-room. One can imagine the outstanding beauty of over one hundred parochets hanging all over the synagogue from below the Ladies’ Level to honor Simhath Torah, the happiest day in the Jewish calendar! An adorable sight!
The parochet, however, had also a sorrowful function. It served as cover for the bier of the donor, taking the place of a plain white sheet for non-donors, after which it joined the other parochets in rotation for the honor of being prime once or twice a year.
A Parochet was gifted to the synagogue in the memory of a departed loved one/family member. The velvets, brocades and pashminas of the Parochets in Calcutta were richly embossed or embroidered - some with zari and some had their emblems made of silver. There are only a few parochets left in the synagogues in Kolkata, some in poor condition. Others have been gifted to Bagdadi synagogues across the world.
As some of the Parochets have deteriorated, the central emblems are being reused and placed on new velvet and rich fabrics as part of the community's effort to restore and maintain the synagogues.
Photographs courtesy Ashok Sinha