Prickly Problems and Design Dilemmas
As The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom takes shape, I've been accumulating pictures for the book. Most of the pictures are photos; the quality of wildlife photography available today, if you look hard enough for it, is truly amazing. But of course I also want to include illustrations of animals which appear in Jewish settings, such as Torah literature and synagogue architecture. In some cases this expresses the symbolism of the animal as discussed in the encyclopedia, such as the illustration of an elephant that appears on the front page of a 14th-century Sefer Devarim.
The elephant is somewhat of a rare find; much more common are classically symbolic animals such as lions and deer. But there is one animal in my encyclopedia that I was extremely surprised to find depicted in an ancient Jewish manuscript: the crested porcupine, called kuppod in the Mishnah (contrast this with the Modern Hebrew name for the hedgehog, kippod). It appears in the famous 15th-century Rothschild Miscellany, alongside a yotzer that is recited on a Shabbos on which a bris milah is performed.
But what is the connection between a porcupine and a bris milah? Is it that both involve painful incisions? That seems somewhat of a stretch! I consulted with historians of Jewish art and of Italian Jewish culture with regard to this prickly problem, and nobody was able to come up with anything. But since the same section of the Rothschild Miscellany also includes pictures of deer, leopards, and cheetahs (which, amazingly, is drawn very distinctly from the leopard), perhaps the porcupine has no particular significance, and is just a random animal. Still, the porcupine is a very different sort of creature from such heraldic creatures as deer and leopards, and it seems like somewhat of an odd choice.
(Incidentally, if you have any pictures of wild animals in synagogue architecture or Jewish manuscripts, please be in touch! If you're going to Caesaria, and can take high-quality photos of the mosaics there, that would also be helpful!)
Meanwhile, over the last two weeks I've been struggling, together with my book designer Raphael Freeman, to overcome yet another design challenge with the encyclopedia. We were grappling with the problem that sometimes it was difficult to easily and rapidly distinguish between the text written by me and the quotations from the Gemara (because sometimes there are several short quotations interspersed with brief fragments of main text).
After much thought and experiment, we came up with what seems to me to be a great solution: having a pale-colored vertical bar next to those quotations, to complement the parchment-style vertical bar next to the Scriptural quotations. This will also help the reader who is searching for a particular Gemara, as well as enhancing the aesthetics of the book (at least in our view). Please take a look at the newly revised PDF for the leopard chapter and let me know what you think!
(Don't forget, sponsorship opportunities for the encyclopedia are still available...)