Posts Tagged ‘Deuteronomy’

Mezuzah: A Blessing Between Worlds

December 25, 2013

When we enter or leave a space through a doorway, most of us rarely wonder about the evanescent consequences of doing so. Yet, without considering that doorway as a bridge between worlds, we remain unaware of subtle changes in ourselves with relation to those worlds through the nature of our experiences on either side of it. In that sense, mezuzot (plural of mezuzah), those ubiquitous little boxes (attached to doorposts of traditional Jewish homes to guard them from harm) serve as memory tools for our awareness of these transitions and of the eternal unity of G-d. This tradition has defined the Jewish people since the early Israelites marked their doorways for protection from the tenth plague* during the first Passover in Egypt over three thousand years ago.

Mezuzot are made in various sizes of materials from clay to wood, metal or glass  and are often beautifully crafted works of art. Marked with either the single Hebrew letter shin or with the three Hebrew letters shin, dalet, yud that represent one G-d’s holy names, the box encloses a tiny rolled parchment (klaf) inscribed by a kosher scribe (sofer*) with two verses from the Torah; Deuteronomy (Devarim) 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses are written in 22 equally spaced lines, as are the verses in Torah and tefillin**. This parchment must be placed upright under the Hebrew letters in the box so that the prayer will appear correctly.

When we occupy a new home, a mezuzah is installed on its doorpost. It is held in place at the upper right-hand side tilted toward the inside of the home. But before it is secured to the post, a special blessing is recited, as shown in the illustration above. This procedure is repeated when a mezuzah is installed at each doorway in the home except for the bathroom. Entering and leaving those spaces is then acknowledged with a touch to the mezuzah followed by a brief kiss to the hand that touched it, invoking G-d’s blessing and protection on our comings and goings. It is important to know that over time, the parchment (klaf) may become damaged and so should be periodically examined by a sofer who can repair any broken letters and preserve its effectiveness.

But the protective energies of the mezuzah have not always gone unchallenged in Jewish history. In Talmudic times, mezuzot were attributed with powers to ward off evil spirits, but by the Middle Ages, under the influence of the Kabbalah’s esoteric knowledge, names of various angels and magickal phrases (sometimes accompanied by mystical diagrams) were added to the Torah verses. This latter practice slowly lost momentum when the RamBam (an acronym for the 12th century French Rabbi and Talmudist Rabbeinu Mosheh Ben Maimon) asserted that no harm could come of writing Hebrew letters on the outside of the mezuzah case and the prescribed verses within, but those who wrote angelic names or other formulae on the inside would lose their share in The World To Come (Olam Ha-Ba).

So, for this 17th entry in my book An Illumination Of Blessings, the mezuzah in my illustration displays the Hebrew letter shin on the outside and only the Torah verses on the klaf within. For clarity and artistic intent the 22 klaf verses also appear in the background.  The tiny gold pomegranate suspended from the mezuzah signifies abundance and its seeds, said to number 613, represent the categories of mitzvot or the  commandments we are required to fulfill. For decorative purposes only, an equally tiny hand with an apotropaic eye crowns the mezuzah.  This is called a chamsa, inspired by those ancient devices employed to ward off evil throughout the Middle East.

On a personal note, though I’ve always had mezuzot in my home, it was only some years ago during and after a health crisis that I thought to have them checked for damage. Indeed, the sofer informed me, several critical letters had become damaged and the klaf needed to be repaired, a pronouncement that caused chills to run down my spine..

* Death of the Firstborn

*A sofer is a Jewish individual who is educated to transcribe Torah scrolls, **tefillin (two small leather boxes essential for prayer rituals per commandments in Deuteronomy (Devarim)  6:8 and mezuzot. More detailed information may be found at: and at:

Between Introspection and Action

September 21, 2012

AS the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come to a close, we stand again at metaphorical thresholds of life and death; a time of reckoning, so to speak. Do we carry on with our thoughts and behaviors as though they are beyond reproach or do we confront and excise those that are detrimental to our moral and spiritual development?

There is no easy answer nor am I qualified to moralize to anyone even if there were. Yet, I think that if we accept the opportunity to make these choices, we must acknowledge that we are far less than perfect and remind ourselves that regardless of our beliefs in destiny, fate or free choice, we are creatures of habit. And habits, by their very nature, are powerfully addictive.

It is the act of excising strong cultural addictions with the intention of a nation’s spiritual cleansing that drives this week’s Torah narrative in Parashah Va-Yelekh. In the process, we meet the prophetess Huldah, a unique intelligence far ahead of her times and Josiah, an idealistic king whose actions remind us that while destruction is often dramatic and ugly, it must become the foundation for a nation whose spiritual roots will run deep beneath the various practices of monotheism.

From the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), here is my interpretation for the visuals that serve Parashah Va-Yelekh:

The Last Testament

In Israel, during the 7th century rule of King Josiah, grandson of Manasseh, Hilkiah, his high priest, discovered a scroll, later identified as Deuteronomy amidst some debris in the Temple.  Following the cultic corruption of the land during the time of Josiah’s father Amon, the priest had been directing an altar and idol destruction campaign to re-establish Judean control over Israel. When he brought the scroll to King Josiah, they discovered that it contained predictions of great catastrophe on all of Israel for ignoring its commandments. This frightening find then prompted Josiah to seek further counsel to guide him in the social and political reformation that restoration of monotheism would require.

In her commentary to Parashah Va-Yelekh, Rabbi Rosette Barron Haim suggests that in handing down the Torah in the generations after Moses and Joshua, it was necessary to choose an individual who could not only transcribe and administer it, but who possessed a deep understanding of its meaning. Although the well-known prophet Jeremiah was alive at that time, the king gave the scroll to the prophetess Huldah. He is shown here with shadowy broken idols falling from hands while he listens intensely to Huldah’s interpretation. In her wisdom, she tactfully tempered her responses to ease the King’s fears, yet encourage him to act swiftly.

Curious to know more about this extraordinary woman, I found that Huldah was said to have administered an academy of learning under the influence of Rabbi Akiva’s academy in Mishneh (the second quarter of Jerusalem). Because both institutions held that a man is obligated to educate his daughter in Torah, it is easy to understand how her authority would have inspired the actions that secured King Josiah’s prominent role in the history of the monarchy of Israel.

I was also intrigued to learn that during the 2nd Temple period, there were two gates in the south wall of the Temple Mount at Jerusalem known as the  ‘Huldah Gates’. These gates, under the Al-Aqsa Mosque, led into underground tunnels on the way to the Temple Mount and alledgedly to Huldah’s academy.The architectural image at the upper left of this spread was drawn from this bit of information.

As for her odd name, Huldah in Hebrew means ‘weasel’. While this doesn’t seem very flattering, it turns out that many cultures associate this small animal with archetypal feminine qualities and great intelligence, going so far as to credit a weasel as midwife in the birth of the Greek hero Hercules. I have portrayed her in her advancing years, her mythical associate on her lap; gazing into a future that only she can see.

Emerging from the clay amphora near the quotation is a branch of fruit resembling persimmons. This odd detail was suggested as I read about the discovery of the first Israelite settlement at Ein Gedi in the 7th century during the reign of the kings of Judah.A strange plant, perhaps the persimmon, grew there in abundance. This plant exuded a fragrant resin that was collected and processed into a legendary perfume. King Josiah is credited with originating the closely guarded formula for ‘persimmon’ oil that was used to anoint new kings.

The final image on this spread illustrates the future implications of the quotation. Two hands, young and old, hold a quill pen and are drawing the Hebrew letter ‘vav’. This is from the formal ceremony known as ‘Siyyum HaTorah’. It is enacted when the writing of a scroll of the Law is completed. Traditionally, the final eight verses are left unwritten or set down only as outlines so that guests who are invited to this event may perform the important mitzvah of participating in the scroll’s completion.

What a fine reminder that our work is never really done, particularly the part where we must reinvent ourselves through succeeding generations…

May you be Inscribed in the Book of Life and may your stories enlighten those who need to learn from them…

The Evolution Of Choice: Tattoo Or Not To?

August 16, 2012

This week, in our reading of Parashah Re’eh in the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) we discover a complex chapter that addresses the Israelites’ approaching settlement of Canaan. It is filled with cultural admonishments and exhortations designed to preserve the relatively fledging concept of monotheism. Because so much of the text recaps stories and strong points of the first four books of the Torah, I chose to focus on the brief section (14:1-14:3) that seemed pointedly relevant to contemporary life; the section that addresses choice in individual holiness.

As an illustrator and graphic designer, it is necessary to establish a unique brand identity within an extremely competitive market. This logo, or mark that represents our professional achievements and aspirations, though it may take the form of a simple graphic or phrase requires much thought. It becomes the face you present to the world. Though I have experimented with several designs over the years, a sun and moon motif remains my favorite, since it speaks to the timelessness of creative spirit.

A little story: Once, years ago at a neighborhood shop I purchased some stones and beads that I could fashion into a necklace. As I reached into my purse to pay for these items, one of my business cards inadvertently fell onto the counter. A young patron behind me caught a glimpse of it and immediately inquired if she might have one so that she could copy the design for a tattoo. For a moment I was flattered and somewhat amused, but my inner ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi‘ quietly nudged me. “This tattoo (K’tovet Ka’aka) would be so not kosher!” it seemed to say. I offered a crooked smile and told her, “It’s nice that you like my work; thanks. Maybe you are not Jewish, but I’m afraid my religion doesn’t permit tattoos and I would not feel good about letting my work be used for them.” The young woman stared at me. “Oh,” she said with a frown. “Too bad, it’s a great design.” Something about her narrowed eyes told me she would have some version of it made anyway. Oh well.

Though tattoos are as old as the history of many cultures (full body coverage is a fine art in Japan called horimono), they’ve become ubiquitous in our urban landscape with less clothing worn in public being the norm. I began to pay special attention to the numerous young people sporting a variety of tattoos and body piercings when I left the shop. At that time, I hadn’t seen any tattooed Jews, but maybe they weren’t as bold about them as they are today given the caché of magen-david studded tabloid celebrities who profess to be ‘into’ kabbalah.

Anyway, I found some of the wide array of designs interesting, even technically brilliant from an artistic perspective, but deeply disturbing otherwise. Perhaps it was their aura of permanence (though removal is easier these days), but in retrospect I think that my fickle artistic sensibilities would soon grow weary of any design I chose despite my passion for it at the time. Not to mention how age and wrinkles would distort it.

I was prompted to check out the Torah to verify this prohibition. Though the Torah views tattooing, body piercing and shaving portions of the head as evidence of ancient cultic death rituals and a form of idolatry (Avodah Zarah), other subtle issues around it such as cosmetic tattooing are addressed in rabbinic discourse. Rabbi Chaim Jachter, faculty advisor at The Torah Academy of Bergen County, NJ suggests that our bodies do not belong to us, but are loaned to us that we may perform mitzvot; not to do whatever we wish with them. There are some who scoff at the law barring Jews with tattoos from burial in a Jewish cemetery and by extension at that law requiring that only Jews of good conscience belong in such hallowed ground. No one is perfect, they say. Saints and liars may not be kosher fellow dirt-nappers but who’s going to argue after the funeral? I don’t know the technicalities, but that argument sounds pretty disingenuous to me while it attempts to sanction undesirable behavior.

The young Goth woman about to eat a scorpion kebab accompanies the quotation on the opposite page to demonstrate another important prohibition of this parashah; polluting our inner purity with forbidden foods. The grid below her displays a selection of animals that permitted (full color) and forbidden (mauve color). As world travelers  know, these foods (scorpion kebabs are a common street food in Beijing) are readily available and many find them appetizing. But again, eating such things raises the question of choice. Are she and the tattooed man with the skull Jews? Hard to tell, but for my purposes, they are, since they might easily reflect the growing trend among young Jews to adopt this form of body modification. Nevermind that we have always been a people apart; is it really necessary to blatantly remind the world of that fact? What Holocaust survivor still alive wouldn’t shudder at the sight of a young tattooed Jew? Even if said tattooed Jew loudly proclaims that he/she is proud of their Jewishness and wishes the rest of the world to know it?

That is why I’ve placed a Holocaust witness in the background; for perspective. He might be their ancestor observing their assimilation into our surrounding culture. Yet he seems to say that as much as we try to disguise our ‘Nitzotz Ha-Yehudi’ or even to silence it with sheer rebellion, such choices may again become our undoing.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that being ‘cool’ is knowing you don’t need to be.

The illustrations above may be found along with additional footnotes in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting