“ACCESSORIES OF HOLINESS”: DEFINING JEWISH SACRED OBJECTS
Recent congressional legislation on the repatriation of Native American material defines sacred objects as “specific ceremonial objects which are needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present day adherents ” (U.S. Congress 1990). This definition might be understood to imply that all objects needed for a ceremony are also sacred, thus requiring special consideration when treated by a conservator. This is not always the case even for Native American groups (Ladd 1991), and the definition certainly cannot be applied wholesale to other religions and cultures. The statement also implies the presence or participation of a religious leader when the objects are used, an implication that further restricts the applicability of the definition.
Traditional Judaism recognizes two categories of ritual objects: those that carry a quality of holiness and those that are essenital to the performance of a particular ritual or commandment but have no intrinsic quality that can be defined as “sacred” or “holy.”1 This classification was specifically designed to answer two questions: Which objects used in a ritual context may also be used for secular purposes? What should be done with ritual objects when they are no longer fit for use? The first question is largely of academic interest, at least at the present time. The second, however is a practical problem of considerable importance. The classification also provides a foundation for decisions about the conservation of these objects.