An Illumination Of Blessings Is For Real!

September 22, 2014

Dear Backers of An Illumination Of Blessings:

As of this past Monday, September 15th, I am pleased to announce that with your generous support and encouragement, this Kickstarter project is done and delivered! It’s been a wonderfully challenging year and a half of research, writing, design and illustration for these 36 illuminated blessings including the  interactions with all of you throughout the process. Recently, I’ve been asked whether another edition of blessings will follow to bring us closer to the originally intended count of 100. Perhaps, if there are a significant number of requests for it. But for the moment a bit of recovery is in order as I contemplate a short list of options (which include both Judaic and secular themes) for my next project. Your questions and suggestions are welcome!  Again, thank you all from the bottomless-ness of my creative well: I look forward to continuing our creative conversations and collaborations!

Ilene Winn-Lederer, September 18, 2014

Eating With Ethos

July 17, 2014

ShehakolBlessing10FROM THE MOMENT IN CREATION when G-d ‘breathed’ the soul of life into Adam’s nostrils, we were made to understand how noses and souls are gateways to experiencing our existence. Shortly thereafter, Adam and Eve were instructed concerning the source of their nourishment: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat. But of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat of it, for on the day that you eat thereof, you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17). Overcome by their curiosity, they disobeyed, giving birth to the history of religion and its consequences. Oddly enough, scholars and rabbis reasoned, the first couple were not punished merely for eating forbidden fruit, but for the way in which they ate it; without the intention of holiness, without gratitude for its Source.

How does one define gratitude? In its simplest form, a ‘thank you’ suffices for most occasions, but doesn’t really do justice to the more deeply felt emotions when you are on the receiving end of altruistic largesse whether it be a kind word, service or unexpected material gift. That is where blessings allow us to be more creative in expressing those emotions, not just to our fellow humans, but to the One whom we credit as the Source of such gifts.

When it comes to food, which is undeniably physical, a blessing does more than address what we are about to consume. Yes, we eat to strengthen our bodies to healthfully house our souls, but each time we eat, we also recognize our senses of sight, taste and smell which connect our physical and spiritual essences.

Judaism offers many opportunities to spiritually acknowledge all the wondrous elements of life on this planet, yet sometimes when the object of our gratitude does not fit clearly into a category specified by one of the many existing blessings, say for particular foods that we enjoy, there is the Shehakol or ‘everything’ blessing for those singular forms of nourishment. It is recited before eating or drinking any foods other than ‘fruits’ of the earth or trees, wine, or breads.

The types of foods included under the Shehakol rubric are: meat, chicken, fish, cheese, mushrooms, wild herbs, some edible flowers, eggs and soy-based products. Drinks include: water, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, tea, cocoa and coffee.

This blessing also covers some ‘manufactured’ foods or those prepared with a combined ingredients such as soups, candy, ice cream, peanut butter or baked desserts like apple pie; however, the ingredients used for these combined foods should not be recognizable within the product in their original form to qualify for the Shehakol. If they are still recognizable after cooking or processing, they would require individual blessings such as the ones recited for fruit of the trees or the earth.

Much specific information on this blessing and the rules for its application may be found online*, in contemporary publications and in classic texts such as the Mishnah Brurah and the Shulchan Aruch*, but for this book, I’ve illuminated the Shehakol (#36 out of 36!) for An Illumination Of Blessings! as just an appetizer so to speak, to provoke your curiosity and learning.

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit: 
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until August 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.
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* http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/
  http://www.ravaviner.com/2011/01/which-blessings-to-say.html
  http://www.englishtorahtapes.comguide_to_proper_blessings_fo.htm
  http://www.vharevnu.org/About%20Mitzvahs/Bruchos/dairy.htm
  http://www.kof-k.org

** The Mishnah Berurah or Clarified Teaching (by Polish Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (1838-1933) is   a commentary on the first section of the Shulchan Aruch  or The Set Table (Yosef Caro-Venice,1563)-which addresses the laws of prayer, synagogue, Shabbat and holidays .

-Wikipedia

A Toast To Bread…

July 9, 2014

BlessingForBreads+CakesBread, whether we enjoy it as a sandwich or with a meal does more for us than merely satisfying our hunger. If we pay attention, it lets us taste the histories of civilization in every bite as it nourishes our bodies and spirits. In evolving as we do; from fertility to growth, maturity and decay, bread is an apt metaphor of life itself.

In the Books of Exodus (16:1-36) and Numbers (11:1-9), bread, in the form of a mysterious substance called manna, was ‘given’ to the early Israelites during their desert tenure. The manna was ground and baked into cakes which purportedly tasted like honey or any other food one wished to imagine. Though no one knows what manna actually was, its etymology and physical form invited speculation that ran the gamut from coriander seed to ‘kosher’ locusts’, hallucinogenic mushrooms and bdellium, a sort of resin, perhaps from the tamarisk tree. This form of ‘bread’ appeared only until they reached and settled in Israel where they learned to cultivate grains. Eventually, grain-based bread was incorporated into religious ritual and made its way to our tables to symbolize the Temple altar. The bread we call ‘challah‘ was named for the piece of dough that was separated from the unbaked loaf and given to the Temple priests to burn as ‘minhah’, a sacrificial offering. According to rabbinical commentary on the Book of Numbers (15:19), it was to be made only from one of the five species of grain (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye) though some commentators differed on which grains were indicated. Absent the Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E., this custom is now largely followed by religiously observant women who bake bread at home. Technically there are two words in Hebrew for bread; challah, an egg-based bread and lechem, bread baked for daily use. In biblical times, the Sabbath bread was probably a form of the pita we enjoy at Middle Eastern restaurants and bakeries.

While the long, complex history of bread and bread-making is worthy fodder for the myriad culinary tomes out there, I will be brief here, as the goal of An Illumination Of Blessings is to visually extract the essence of how bread came to us and the ways by which we honor it and our Creator. Accordingly, the two blessings on this page address all forms of bread and grain-based baked goods. Among the five species of grain that form the borders of my illustration is a stalk of rice. I’ve included it here both for its esthetic beauty and to represent its use in the Spanish or Sephardic Jewish tradition which basically adheres to Orthodox customs with differences in interpretation.

The process of bread-making from harvesting to oven to table is embodied in two figures. There is a woman carrying a sheaf of wheat standing beside an upper hand-stone and lower grindstone or quern. These were used to grind (mill) the grain until more efficient devices were developed. Grinding was a difficult, time consuming task commonly assigned to women. In ancient times, each household stored its own grain and it is known that at least three hours of daily effort were required to produce enough flour to make bread for a family of five.

In the lower right corner, a baker is standing behind a sack of flour and pantry scoop. Under one arm are two baguettes and a challah. The round challah is of a type used on the Rosh Hashanah holiday to signify the wish for a long life. The baguettes are there simply because they remind me of the delicious breakfast served in the pension where my husband and I stayed on our first visit to Paris. The oven paddle or ‘peel’ in his right hand is a tool that has been in use since ancient times to move loaves of bread and baked goods in and out of hot ovens. It symbolizes one of oldest hand crafts in the world. On a visit to the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum some years ago, I saw some actual 5,000 year old loaves of bread and stalks of wheat that, if they could speak, would tell of ancient summers in the Land of the Pharaohs.

The ‘ha-motzi’ blessing at the top of the page is for any bread made from the aforementioned five grains, while the blessing below it is the ‘mezonos’ recited over baked goods such as cakes, pastries, cereals and cooked grain goods like pasta or couscous. Online are many lists that specify which products require this blessing. One of these is: http://oukosher.org/guide-to-blessings/

Since baker’s products are as many and varied as their cultures, customs and their imaginations permit, I’ve chosen just a few representative samples of both bread and dessert items. In addition to the challah and baguettes mentioned above, there are bagels, pita and a croissant for breads. Two types of rugelach, apple strudel, sufganiyot (jelly donuts popular in Israel and the US), macaroons, hamentaschen (for the Purim holiday) and mandel brate (almond bread) with fruit and nuts stand for desserts.

There is one last detail for this blessing. If you look closely, the challah at the center of the page bears a tiny number 78. Students of Hebrew mysticism may know that the gematria (numerical equivalence of letters and words in Torah) of bread or lechem is 78; the letter lamed =30, the letter chet = 8 and the final letter mem = 40. One of the lessons learned by the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt was that their bread/manna, was a ‘heaven-sent’ daily miracle. And in many ways, it still is. While we no longer subsist on manna, we understand the thought process around this miracle as the basis for agricultural laws which we continue to develop, perhaps with divine guidance. Consequently, we are expected to recite Grace after each meal thanking G-d for sustaining us in this way. In gematria, the numerical equivalent for G-d’s Name is 26 and it appears each time in the Birkat Hamazon or Grace After Meals. Three times 26 = 78 to bring us full circle as we acknowledge our Creator and the miracles of life.

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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Eden’s Edible Blessings

July 1, 2014

BlessingForFruit+Vegetables8Although we are told in Genesis/Bereshit (1:29) that “God said {to Adam}, “Behold, I have given you every seedbearing plant on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit. It shall be to you for food,” no specific varieties of fruits or vegetables are named. Not even those on the Trees of Life and Knowledge whose fruit was off-limits for human consumption. Legend suggests that the Tree of Life bore every type of fruit necessary to maintain health and immortality but did not indicate whether these properties were the benefits of one type of fruit or many. Similarly, the mysterious fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was said to provide the sort of self-awareness that led to human mortality.

Legend* relates that Adam was named ‘Adamah’ (Hebrew for Earth) because he was made of the dust gathered from the four corners of the world. His naming seems ironic because if this proto-human was constructed to be welcomed at any place on Earth where his death would occur, did G-d know His creation better that we suspect and that expulsion from Eden was inevitable? These concepts are painted with an unimaginably broad brush opening the way to endless interpretation and speculation.

Nevertheless, Adam was considered the ‘crown’ of Creation and was appointed caretaker of the world, with a caveat; that he must be utterly dependent on it for his basic needs. So, as fruit trees and edible plants serve those needs, they become a metaphor of our relationship with our environment.

It is probably safe to venture that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are not wildly different from the those in the Garden of Eden with the the exception of our cleverly cultivated hybrids; the results of our scientific manipulation of those original species. We may have paid a terrible price for our knowledge, yet we have prevailed and, over the centuries, created taxonomies for naming them while making astonishing discoveries of both their nutritive and medicinal value for our bodies.

So what does this have to do blessings? Nothing if you are a strict evidence-based rationalist, believing that all life on earth evolved of its own unscripted volition and that we are so intelligent that we’ve figured out how to use it to our advantage. But if, by acknowledging the divine source of our intelligence behind the beautifully intricate design and purpose of each fruit of the tree or ground that we consume, then reciting a blessing for these creations is surely in order.** Particularly if we consider that such foods exercise our senses of sight, smell and taste, helping to provide our souls with healthy habitats.

As a child, I existed pretty much as a creature of instinct and need, unaware of the many ways by which we can acknowledge and understand our lives. Most of us, I suspect, still do so. Especially in a country such as ours, where religion has become a power tool, abundance is easily taken for granted, time represents money and we are deluded enough to imagine we will live forever.

But as I slowly realized all the ways we can choose to enhance and maintain ourselves even as we understand our physical limits, I now prefer to stop and think before taking that first bite of apple or tomato and murmur a little thanks to our Source for our partnership that makes it all possible.

These concepts and sentiments formed my decision to include the blessing for fruits of the tree and ground as #34 of 36 in An Illumination Of Blessings.

For this illustration, the choice from among the myriad fruits and vegetables available to us was quite difficult, especially knowing that I needed to include representatives of both tree and ground. As an artist, I limited my choices to those whose shapes and colors were visually harmonious or, as Eve/Chava put it, ‘pleasing to the eye’. These were designed and placed to form an intricate border around the blessings. Tiny versions of several of them serve to enhance the initial letters of each blessing. Finally, I’ve placed everything against a black background of ‘earth’ from which all originates and is renewed.

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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* The Creation Of Adam from Legends of the Bible: Louis Ginzburg, p. 28

**For a tree-borne fruit to receive the ‘Ha-Etz’ blessing, it must come from a perennial tree that doesn’t renew its stem or grow too close to the ground, such as apples, figs, dates and plums. Fruits of the ground that receive the ‘Ha-Adamah’ blessing include all vegetables, legumes, pleanuts and any fruit that is not covered by the Ha-Etz blessing such as melons, bananas, pineapples and strawberries.

Beholding Beauty : A Blessing Of Appreciation

June 25, 2014

BlessingForBeautifulBirds+TreesRGBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old cliché, but it is a quick sound bite at best because it doesn’t attempt to define beauty nor does it offer insight into alternative, more subtle perspectives.

At first glance, this blessing recited upon seeing something beautiful in our world seems ‘sound-bit-ish’ and similar to the one recited on encountering a fragrant tree. Both are found in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 58b) and both express appreciation to our Creator for the gifts of Creation and of our five senses. The latter focuses exclusively on the sight and smell of certain trees while the former also recognizes trees, but includes the singular esthetic beauty of humans, birds and animals that we acknowledge with our senses of sound, touch and taste. Together, they serve to enhance perception of our environment and help us to connect with our divine origins.

The words of the blessing seem simple enough, however the concept of beauty in life is anything but. So how does an artist begin to choose which elements will represent the depths of meaning inherent in this blessing? I knew that I needed to portray some sort of tree along with a person, animal or bird, though I didn’t know which of these I would choose or why.

Of all my references, the Torah and its associated collections of commentary from across the  centuries have never failed me, even on quests that are secular in nature.

As I thought about what sort of tree to illustrate for this blessing on natural phenomena, I remembered a midrash on the Book of Genesis concerning the mysterious Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The former bore fruit which kept Adam and Eve healthy and immortal while the fruit of the latter was forbidden to the first couple for reasons not explained. Perhaps this was the model for the inscrutable mitzvot known as ‘chukkim’? These are a category of commandments which are to be followed without question as a test of our obedience and respect for our Creator.

Inevitably, mysteries invite speculation. This midrash suggests why no one knows what types of trees they were. Despite the arguments of medieval churchmen, scholars and artists that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree (which did not exist in the Middle East at that time), many other species have joined the fray with inventive justifications; wheat, pomegranate, quince, St. John’s Bread (carob) and date palms, even grapevines and fig trees. These justifications are too numerous to list here but can be found in B’reishit Rabbah, a book of commentary on Genesis*.

The commentary concluded that since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge against the prohibition and precipitated their disastrous expulsion from the Garden of Eden, its species would always remain unknown to honor its innocence in bringing death to the world and to prevent its extinction from Earth’s biosphere.

Although the nature of the Tree of Life also remains unknown (except as a metaphor of Torah wisdom), Rabbi Abba of Acre** offers the etrog (citrus medica) as a likely candidate. He suggests that Eve found the wood of the etrog tree edible (Genesis 3:6). Later authorities such as Rabbi Abahu*** translate the word etrog as ‘ha-dar’ or that which dwells, because its fruit, in both young and old phases remains on the tree through all seasons.**** The ‘pri etz hadar’ or fruit of the beautiful tree is described in the book of Leviticus (23:40) and though it originated in India, it has been cultivated in ancient Judea for more than 2000 years.

In common use, the word ‘ha-dar’ comes from the Aramaic language and means ‘beautiful’. Because an etrog is the only fruit that tastes like its tree, both are considered beautiful. The fruit is said to symbolize the human heart as it represents a person who is able to internalize scholarship and also perform good deeds (mitzvot). There was much more commentary on the etrog, but at this point, the etrog tree became my obvious choice for this illustration. In this interpretation, I’ve given my virtual Etz Chayim 22 etrogim, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which, according to Kabbalah, are the building blocks of Creation.

For my representative choice of beautiful birds, the commentaries on this blessing offered the fine examples of peacocks and parrots because these species are unique  for their graceful forms and beautiful colors. I arbitrarily added the cockatoo, a distant cousin of the parrot once known as the crested parrot, for compositional balance and simply because I love to draw them! To complete my illustration, I’ve prefaced the blessings English and Hebrew calligraphy with initial caps constructed from macaw parrot and peacock feathers respectively.

If this blessing and my visual interpretation of it put you on the path of marveling daily at the world around us and expressing your appreciation of it’s myriad gifts, then perhaps I’ve begun to meet my own purpose in this effort. Thanks for staying with me; the book is becoming more of a reality with each post!

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
When you visit my Kickstarter page you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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*B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2


** Abba bar Acre was a 3rd century Palestinian ‘amora’ (commentator on the Oral Torah).

*** Rabbi Abahu was a 2nd generation ‘amora’ living in Caesarea, a major influence on ethics, philosophy and religion. http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2443094/jewish/The-Singular-Tree.htm/mobile/false https://sites.google.com/site/rabbiabahu/stories-and-biographical-info

**** http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/746603/jewish/Why-cant-I-use-a-lemon.htm/mobile/false

Beastly Blessings

June 18, 2014

Beastly BlessingsI’ve long been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts and their history, but the tiny details in their margins and the
inventive illustrations that accompany the painstaking textual calligraphy are elaborate weavings of words and images that
continue to influence my illustrations for this current Kickstarter-funded project.

This week, for An Illumination Of Blessings, I present one that originates in Judaism but is universal in content. It acknowledges
the Creator by virtue of the unusual creatures that inhabit our world and can be recited upon seeing a rare or unusual animal.

As I considered how best to interpret this blessing yet reconcile it with my love of drawing all sorts of creatures both real and fanciful,
my imagination teemed with images, all begging to inhabit the page. It seemed to be a difficult choice until I came across references in
the Talmud (Berakhot 58b) and Shulchan Aruch (225:8) which offered some parameters for interpretation.

As one of two similar blessings for observing living phenomena, it recognizes and praises the Creator for the various
strange and extraordinary forms of animal and human life that are not conventionally beautiful. The other blessing is recited upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people or animals and praises the Creator for placing such beauty in the world. A commentary in the Gemara* specifies that the first blessing refers to the sighting of a monkey or an elephant. One rather strange explanation is offered; that humans were transmogrified into elephants and monkeys as punishment for their participation in the Tower of Babel débacle! Is this anti-evolutionary tale not a great plot for a horror flick? An idea with greater appeal to me was that monkeys and elephants are considered to resemble humans; the monkey for its body shape and manual dexterity and the elephant for its smooth, hairless skin and a trunk which it uses as though it were a hand.

While monkeys and elephants are common sights today at any zoo, in medieval times they were considered exotic and rare, inspiring the creation of special blessings. Since travel to foreign lands beyond Europe was undertaken primarily by nobility and merchants, these creatures were often represented in manuscripts by illustrations that interpreted word-of-mouth descriptions by such travelers.

Complicating the medieval artist’s task was the Second Commandment prohibition against creating ‘graven images’. However, because creativity is in itself a force of nature, these artists were not discouraged and gave free rein to their imaginations as they incorporated fantastical beasts and homunculi into their manuscripts.

One other reference finally clarified the concept of my illustration for this blessing; a discussion of the elephant as a metaphor of the Torah presented by Dr. Marc Michael Epstein in his classic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Penn State University, 1997)**

After reading this enlightening chapter, I began to wonder why elephants were often shown saddled with ‘howdahs’ that sometimes resembled castle towers. Further reading revealed that the word ‘howdah’ is from the Hindi and Arabic languages referring to portable shelters used for travel but also for hunting and military battles. Carvings of elephants wearing howdahs are often seen as pieces in chess, the symbolic game of war.*** Taking this idea a step further, I imagined that a howdah could also represent a sort of portable synagogue; an ideological ‘castle’ as its own metaphor of Jewish history.

Accordingly, the first blessing for strange animals is illustrated here with a monkey riding an elephant whose ‘howdah’ or ‘turret’ recalls a medieval synagogue. It was inspired by an illustration in a 15th century volume of the Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. A decorative border of fanciful flowers and dragons surrounds them in tribute to the master medieval illuminators
whose timeless work continues to inspire my own.
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Dear Backers: The Blessing For Rare and Extraordinary Animals is the 32nd of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there!
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Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm   Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that your contribution of $500 to the top reward level of this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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* rabbinic teachings compiled after the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple
** The Elephant and the Law, pp. 39-69
***I remembered seeing this image as a sculpture in London near the Elephant & Castle Underground station.
   This image is part of my blog at Imaginarius: http://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/the-tragic-beauty-of-ideas/

Sailing The Soul Of Creation: A Blessing For The Seas And Oceans

June 11, 2014

BlessingForSeas+OceansRGB15Although orbiting satellites send us spectacular images of the clouded Earth amidst its swirling seas, these views pale in comparison to our physical comprehension of their vastness and power from our perspective of dry land or from the decks of our ships that carry us over them. As we marvel at the unknown depths from where some pre-conscious form of us emerged, the magnitude of the sea speaks to the essence of what we are. The sea, if you will, is the soul of Creation.

Observing that the Earth’s waters dance on its tectonic armature in time to the moon’s allure and the mercurial winds has provoked the fear and wonder inspiring the religions and myths of many cultures whose livelihoods depend on the seas. Prayers for the safety of their fishermen, travelers and for the lands on which they live are central to these systems. Where these prayers were once directed at individual deities deemed to control our planet’s natural forces, in Judaism, such prayers are enhanced by the Birkat Ha-Yam, a special two-part blessing for the seas and oceans.

Since I have lived mostly in Mid-Atlantic cities and experienced the oceans rarely except through my travels, it is very special to me. One part acknowledges Creation as it addresses the large-scale wonders of nature while the other is directed at a specific large body of water that must have existed since the six days of Creation and must not be land-locked. It seems that no one has ever agreed upon which ocean fits this description, but according to certain rabbis* the Birkat Ha-Yam blessing was intended for the Mediterranean Sea, most likely the largest one in their own experience.

Unlike those prayers that are entreaties for divine mercy and protection from the elements, the verses of the Birkat Ha-Yam are statements that acknowledge our humility in the face of our Creator and our wonder at the constancy of Creation.

When I began to work on this blessing, I thought that a prosaic rendering of a seascape would suffice. But I soon learned that I wouldn’t get away that easily. Given our ancient and complex relationship with our aquatic ecosystem, the Birkat Ha-Yam begged for a more nuanced visual narrative.

The image that immediately came to mind was a detail from one that I’d created for Parashat Eikev (Book of Numbers/Devarim) in my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). It showed a grandfather and granddaughter listening to the still, small voices in their hearts through the  metaphor of a conch seashell.

I chose this metaphor to express the subtlety of such an experience because I have a similar shell in my collection of oddities and have always imagined the sound of the seas echoing from its inner spirals. So a large conch shell became the centerpiece of my illustration, open to reveal the ‘heart of the sea’.   Within the conch is a tiny 15th century Spanish caravel sailing perhaps on a trade mission for its merchant owner. With a nod to the Biblical Leviathan, the piscine creature swims lazily in wait for the time of Messiah.
Below, the conch’s compatriots nestle among a watery scape of seaweeds. In the morning sky above, a faint moon observes the four winds competing to guide the ship to its destination as the seagulls survey their boundless territory.

At last, even when I thought the illustration was nearly done, I still couldn’t resist playing with one last image; do you see the fanciful little beast** hiding among the sea wrack?

Dear Backers: The Birkat Ha-Yam is the 31st of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there! 
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Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm   Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com. *******************************************************  
* In the Shulchan Aruch 228:1(The Code Of Jewish Law) compiled in 15th century Safed by Rabbi Yosef Karo.
** Hippokampus (from the Greek for horse (hippo) and sea monster (kampus), named for its resemblance to a seahorse.

A Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

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Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

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*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

Thunder And Lightning! Oh, My…!

May 21, 2014

Thunder+LightningBlessingRGB5

We can’t mistake or ignore them. Like the rain, sun, winds, and snow, thunder and lightning remind us of our place in the moment, celestial bookmarks, if you will.

They assault our senses and extort our reluctant humility regardless of how clever and powerful we believe we are. Ancient cultures, their divinities and religious rites were by-products of the awe and terror their dramatic appearance commanded.

When the growing sophistication of monotheism began to dominate much of human society, its scholars and poets attributed a more subtle intent to them.

In the Talmud (Brachot 59a), we are taught to recite blessings on several varieties of natural phenomena such as comets and earthquakes. On thunder and lightning, the custom developed to recite two separate but related blessings because they may be two sides of the same coin. We also learn that “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” Moreover, the Mishnah** Berurah 227:5, considers it, rather than lightning, the more potent signal of divine power.

In his legal opinion on the Shulchan Aruch*, the 16th century Polish Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal, also known as ‘Taz’, speculated that perhaps thunder’s roar makes it the dominant natural force, although he did not know how the custom of two blessings for these phenomena originated. He suggested that the blessing for lightning (Blessed Are You, Source of Life, Who Makes the works of Creation) can be recited in the presence of either thunder or lightning, particularly when they are witnessed together.

Now there’s a powerful image! Thunder and lightning as a vast cosmic defibrillator!

Sure, science has it own technical explanation for these ‘natural’ phenomena and in a sense, these ideas are comforting because they give us an illusion of control via ‘understanding’. But the Talmudic observation is also a lyrical way of reminding us to ask who or what created thunder and lightning and why? From the standpoint of religious faith, the answer is indisputable.

Though we appreciate a certain majestic beauty in the raw violence of nature’s elemental symphonies that play against bruised and sullen skies, how else, but by contrast, would we appreciate their alternate persona; that breath-taking sapphire clarity under a sun dodging wispy or pompous clouds? At the very least, it is convincing evidence for the myriad dualities of creation.

Illustrating this elemental blessing seemed simple at first; one need only show a dark sky with bursts of lightning, leaving the noise of thunder to the imagination. But further reading convinced me of its deeper significance. Tracing the history of our developing comprehension of thunder and lightning, I suddenly wondered, were there any recurring shapes or patterns in a storm’s bursts of lightning? Could they form some sort of heavenly message? Ok, ok, I know this whimsy is magical thinking. But then, I’m not a meteorologist with hard knowledge of the electrical and mathematical characteristics that might explain its technical structure.

So I let my imagination travel back to Mt. Sinai and the revelation of the Law. Could the thunder have been meant to call our attention to lightning’s shapes and patterns inspiring ancient minds to create the letter-forms of an early paleo-Hebrew language? I soon envisioned a rare single cell thunderstorm hovering over the mountain, wondering whether its winds, shaking the burning bush on the mountain, also whispered meaning into Moses’ ear? As the illustration progressed, I couldn’t resist allowing a tiny lightning bug onto it, illuminating the wonder and complexity of our existence.

Presenting the blessing in this light might be an improbable leap of faith, dismissible by many as nonsense, yet I’d like to think that transliterating this divine ‘skywriting’, has brought us a long way in understanding one of the countless chapters we’ve marked in the Book of Life.

* Codification of Oral Law of Torah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,180-220 CE

**The Code of Jewish Law, written in Safed, Israel and published in Venice by Yosef Karo in 1563-57.

Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings you will see that the top reward level of your $500 contribution towards this project entitles you to have your name included on my Dedication page! This offer will stand until July 15, 2014 when I hope to have the book ready to go to press! You may contact me with your offer at: ilene@winnlederer.com.

 

An Illumination Of Blessings Update: On Moonlight And Memory

May 16, 2014

RoshHodesh-MoonBlessing50%Science and religion have always been strange bedfellows, each occupying neighboring compartments in our minds, yet ever distrustful of each other.

A quotation attributed to Albert Einstein offers some insight: “A legitimate conflict between science and religion cannot exist. Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Nevertheless, they remain eternal antagonists, each perhaps seeking an impossible validation from the other.

This observation is far from new, but it came to me as I considered how to approach this blessing for the moon, an ancient source of wonder until July of 1969, when American astronauts walked on the moon. They became at once part of its history and its future in human perception.

Although they seemed to prove that the moon was physically no more than a rather large, cratered and lifeless asteroid, unworthy of the age-old mysteries attributed to it, still, they changed little for most of us earth-bound creatures in terms of our romantic, spiritual or prophetic predilections. We still love to invest the moon with human qualities in our arts and culture or laugh at the idea that it is made of green cheese.

Yet, whether we are romantic or pragmatic, we can safely admit there is a certain subtle beauty in the presence of the moon; it’s there to light our paths at night and in a numinous way, to remind us that we are not alone or without purpose in the dark.

These ideas might be part of the foundation underlying religious rituals created around the moon. In Rabbinic tradition, the newly minted Israelites were commanded to sanctify the new moon upon their delivery from Egypt. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

This practice directly conflicted with Egypt’s officially sanctioned sun worship. It also ensured that the moon would not become an object of worship; instead, its cycles became the basis of the Jewish calendar, a valuable tool for timekeeping and agricultural foresight.

In this system, each month defines one lunar cycle as the moon completes one orbit of earth. One hallmark of the lunar calendar, the Rosh Hodesh* holiday is observed with prayers and blessings at the point in the moon’s orbit when it is suspended directly between earth and the sun so that a thin crescent of it is visible to all, marking the beginning of a new month and/or season.

Metaphorically, the appearance of the moon as it progresses through its phases, illustrates our ‘deliverance’ from spiritual darkness to light. It would seem that such ‘enlightenment’ included recognizing the importance of women in early Israelite culture, yet I wonder, does it also tell us that the story of human existence would always be written in alternating chapters of darkness and light?

It is interesting to note that the monthly cycles of both women and the moon figured in the establishment of Rosh Hodesh as a holiday. Perhaps this reflects the idea that both women and the moon are capable of rebirth or renewal and must be honored as such. But two references in the Babylonian Talmud perceive it as a special one for women in particular while an 8th century midrash provides the backstory.

The first reference, in Tractate Megillah (22b) states that women must be exempt from work** on this day. The midrash, Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer*** suggests that after the incident of the Golden Calf, women were given a work-free holy day as a reward for their refusal to contribute their jewelry to the construction of the idol. Later, the French medieval Torah commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) specified that the exempt work included spinning, weaving and sewing since these were the skills that women freely contributed to the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan) following the Exodus from Egypt.

The second reference points to a related monthly prayer called Kiddush Levanah****, or The Sanctification of the Moon in which we express our appreciation for G-d’s celestial gifts. It is traditionally performed outdoors in the moonlight (preferably under a cloudless sky) at the end of the Sabbath from 3-7 days after the new moon is visible. So, in Sanhedrin (42a) Rabbi Yochanan teaches that one who blesses the new moon in its proper time is regarded as one who greets the Shechinah (female aspect of the Divine Presence).

Although Rosh Hodesh celebrations have an ancient history, it wasn’t until the early 1970’s that such celebrations became popular. They were one of the ways in which Jewish women could explore and express their own spirituality while enhancing their communal roles. These events gave birth to support groups for various lifecycle issues and forums for women’s studies.

In my illustration for The Blessing of the Moon, I have visually addressed both the Rosh Hodesh and Kiddush Levanah rituals. The sun has just set beyond the distant mountains and on a hillside above the sea. A woman wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl is dancing to the rhythm of her tambourine as she raises a cup of water in tribute to Moses’ sister Miriam and to all women among the Israelites who crossed the Red (Reed) Sea after the Exodus from Egypt. It was the first performance of a song-prayer, Shirat HaYam (Song Of The Sea) that is now part of the morning prayer services worldwide. The letterforms on the cup spell ‘Miriam’ in paleo-Hebrew, an early form of modern Hebrew.

I’ve shown four phases of the moon as it turns from new to full, from darkness to light, tracing its path along the ethereal form of a nocturnal quadrant, used in medieval times for astronomical navigation, perhaps on a ship like the caravel that is arriving with the tide. The ship and quadrant represent the human curiosity and ingenuity at the core of both science and religion while the woman on the hill knows deep within that love, peace and gratitude will mitigate their conflict if only we pay attention to the gifts we have been given.

* head of the new (month)
** except for work which cannot be left over for the following day, (ex.child care)
*** Chapter 45 in this collection of Torah exegesis and folklore
     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirke_De-Rabbi_Eliezer
**** More information on Kiddush Levanah may be found at these links:

http://www.chabad.org/library/  article_cdo/aid/1904288/jewish/The-Sanctification-of-the-Moon.htm

and http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/607391/jewish/Thank-G-d-for-the-Moon.htm


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