Posts Tagged ‘breastplate’

A Blessing For Peace & Protection

February 16, 2014

This week, I present to you The Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing for my Kickstarter book, An Illumination Of Blessings.

ImageFans of the Star Trek television series and its inscrutable Vulcan Mr. Spock like to reference their admiration by raising their hand in the strange configuration shown in my illustration. Since the actor, Leonard Nimoy is Jewish, it’s no small wonder that he affected this gesture from his own ethnic background, basing it on an ancient Hebrew blessing, the Birkat Kohanim, or Priestly Blessing.
Inspired by the biblical verse: “They shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I Myself shall bless them,” the verses of the Birkat Kohanim come from BaMidbar (Numbers) 6:23-27 in which the Levite Aaron, the first High Priest and his sons bless the nascent Israelites. Since then, this oldest of known biblical texts was adapted by individuals for personal use and has been found inscribed on amulets that date to the First Temple period beginning in 957 BCE, some of which are currently in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

According to David Abudirham, a 13th century Spanish Torah scholar focusing on synagogue liturgy, although the unconventional Birkat Kohanim doesn’t begin with “Blessed Are You…”, it is, nevertheless a prayer for peace and protection. It was and is traditionally recited in a synagogue during the major festivals to express the joy and good will of these celebrations. This blessing differs from others because it is not to be recited by an individual but by one or more Kohanim, or descendants of Aaron from the priestly Tribe of Levi. Later interpretations extended its use to rabbis for blessing children at their bar or bat mitzvot and to parents who wish to bless their children before the Sabbath meal. On these occasions, it is usually introduced with a phrase requesting G-d to endow these children with the admirable qualities of Ephraim and Manasseh, the sons of Joseph or the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.

The Birkat Kohanim is also replete with arcane symbols, two of which compelled me to include it in An Illumination Of Blessings.

First is the unusual configuration of the hands; held spread out beneath a prayer shawl over the congregation with fingers and thumbs positioned to create five apertures. The apertures refer to the verses in the Song of Songs (2:8-9) which posit that although G-d remains hidden, He peers through the cracks in the wall, watching over and protecting Israel. Second is the idea that the Birkat contains fifteen words corresponding to the fourteen joints of the fingers and to the palms of the hands to represent the word ‘shalom’ or peace. Accordingly, I’ve taken artistic license to mark the joints of the hands with letters of the Hebrew alephbet signifying the numbers 1 to 15.
Since the Birkat Kohanim speaks to us from the tribal era of Jewish history, the decorative element at the base of the blessing is my fanciful interpretation of the choshen, or breastplate worn by the high priest during Temple services. Within the elaborate golden frame are twelve precious stones, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The significance of the twelve stones is explained in more detail in the AfterImages chapter of my previous book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) on pages 144, 152 and 166. The choshen itself was said to contain a hidden pocket which held the Urim and Tmimim, two ‘oracular’ stones used only by the priests to determine answers to various questions brought by the people. The actual functionality of these stones is the stuff of legend.

Thinking back on my own fondness for Star Trek, I realized that Spock’s ubiquitous salute introduced me to a facet of Judaism that would infuse my artwork with mystical speculation for the rest of my creative life. And that turns out to be an inadvertent blessing, indeed.

Note: Additional details about the ceremonial procedure and its history may be found at these links:  http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/894569/jewish/The-Priestly-Blessing.htm and  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priestly_Blessing

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Famous Last Words: V’Zot Ha-B’Rakhah

September 28, 2010

“V’Zot Ha-B’Rakhah” or ‘this is the blessing’ are the words that begin Moses’ final address to the tribes of Israel preceding his death. It is a poetic rendering of blessings in the tradition of the patriarch Jacob. Both insightful and prophetic, the blessings describe the psychological nature of each tribe while prophesying their future actions in accordance with those characteristics. The tribes have exhibited and witnessed every duality in human nature during their 40 year journey, yet they have also been prepared to understand that they must become a model for humanity when they enter the Promised Land. To be worthy of God’s vision and blessings, they must develop the Land and refine their behavior according to the blueprint (Torah) that is God’s gift to them through Moses.

On Simchat Torah, the closing festival of the Jewish year, the reading of V’Zot HaBrakhah completes the annual Torah cycle. Accordingly, here are my illustrations for this parashah from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) . To the right of the quotation, a large Hebrew letter ‘bet’ encloses the words, ‘Hazak, Hazak, V’Nithazek’. In a tradition that originated in the late 12th-13th century by Jews in France, Germany and Spain, this phrase is pronounced at the completion of the Torah cycle. In some Ashkenazic communities, it is pronounced after reading each individual book of the Torah. ‘Hazak…’ is an interpretation of the verse in the Book of Joshua (1:6-8), “Be strong, Joshua, be of good courage…this book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth.” The phrase appears within the ‘bet’ as in ‘Beresheit’ and as a reminder that each contains the other in the duality of beginnings and endings just as a question often contains its own answer yet leads to another question.

The Shekhinah figure to the right of Moses supports a shining breastplate that frames twelve gems representing each tribe above a prominent pavilion, ‘the House of Israel’. She wears an ornate crown of golden pomegranate branches that culminate in a large perfect fruit. The Hebrew letter ‘kaph’ which in kabbalah is the highest sefirot of ‘keter’ surmounts her crown while the letter ‘mem’ is the key element at the base, signifying the unification of heaven and earth. Moses, ethereal in pale earth tones heralding his imminent death stands on a windswept Mt. Nebo, his eyes raised in a last conversation with God and His Shekhinah. His state of spiritual completeness in their relationship is evident by the configuration of the Hebrew letters ‘dalet’ and ‘taph’ for the sephirot ‘da’at’ and ‘tiferet’. These merge the qualities of human and divine, revealing the path of return to his origins; for he now understands the fundamental import of his mission and the majestic legacy he has imparted to his people.

At the final appearance of the celestial mask of God in this book, note that it now appears above the Shekhinah where in Genesis (Parashah Beresheit), it was the foremost image in the illustration. I have done this to emphasize that while God and His Shekhinah are two aspects of One, She is His spiritual ambassador whom we greet each Sabbath and through whom we honor the unity that is God.  I must also include some additional comments on the design of these two images. First of all, no disrespect is intended to anyone who abhors any ‘image’ of God. Throughout the Torah, God is described as though He possessed ‘physical’ human features. Perhaps the common translations of Genesis stating that we are made in ‘His Image ‘gave rise to its simplistic inverse suggestion that ‘He’ ‘looks’ like us, but inconceivably larger.  Nevertheless, since the central concept of monotheism is that God cannot be ‘seen’, common sense asserts that terms such as ‘the eyes of God’ or the ‘breath of God’ are merely metaphors because the Torah was written for human comprehension. So it is with this mask, intended as a reminder that to seek God’s wisdom and blessings, we must look beyond any ‘masks’ into our own hearts.

With best wishes for a healthy, thoughtful and productive year…

 Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary may be ordered from:

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