Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

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:
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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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Parsing Passover…

March 15, 2013

ImageSince beginning this blog in conjunction with the publication of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) I have presented many of its illustrations along with new insights that have grown from the traditional readings and from your questions and comments.

Sometimes, the illustrations themselves have been tweaked to reflect these changes, making my book a continual work in progress.Though I can not pretend to their scholarly stature, I like to imagine this process akin to the conversations and Torah insights of the great 2nd century rabbis and scholars (Amoraim) that were gathered to comprise the Talmud. Accordingly, the illustrations are structured so that each element’s story and symbolism for a parashah enhance each other on its page.

So, in this week preceding Pesach/Passover, as we begin the Book of Leviticus with Parasha Vayikra, I was thinking about the concept of sacrifice as more than the ritual slaughter of animals and other material offerings. Sacrifice can also be considered as a tenet of mindfulness.

While the Temple stood in Jerusalem, animal sacrifice was at the core of Judaism’s complex practices; fulfilling G-d’s commandments and providing nourishment for the priests. Yet, the parashah also reminds us of its more subtle purpose; to learn the difference between our animal and divinely-based natures and to gain mastery over them so that we may evolve culturally and spiritually.

A slight digression: metaphorically, the body of esoteric knowledge of kabbalah understands Creation as a process of ‘tzimtsum’, where G-d contracts/withdraws His/Her Essence to allow all that we know to exist.

That said, each time we perform a mitzvah (a commandment or good deed for the benefit of another), we can think of this process as our own microcosmic ‘tzimtsum’.  In this way, we are setting aside our ‘animal’ nature (which is characterized by instinctive actions for self-preservation) in favor of our divinely based nature (marked by our mindfulness as a human being  and a responsible member of the larger community).

Often, there is great pain associated with a transition from one nature to the other, as in the time of the Exodus when the Hebrew slaves coming out of Egypt made the agonizing 40-year transition to becoming Israelites. Though we are many generations removed, we are reminded of that learning process each year when we remove the masks of our animal natures to allow our divinely-based essences to commemorate and celebrate Passover.

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Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com or by email from: ilene@winnlederer.com. Allow up to one week for delivery in the US; if required sooner for a gift or special event, express services are available. For organizations, the author is available for on-site presentations of the book’s creative process and book signings.

Of Plagues And Promises…

January 27, 2012

In Parashat Bo, read tomorrow, we are in the two months preceding the Passover observance. Against the background of the legendary plagues afflicting the Egyptian people, Pharaoh is still behaving mulishly towards ‘his’ Israelites , refusing them freedom to pursue their spiritual journey with Moses, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam. Amidst the onslaught of bloody waters, intense darkness, animal diseases, locust infestation and other nasty pestilences, the consequences of Pharaoh’s actions seem eschatological in the extreme. But as in every good thriller film, we are being primed; for the worst is yet to come.

In our media-driven era,  we regularly witness earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods of near-biblical proportions around the globe, each claiming myriad victims and destroying their history. For many, a first inclination is bemoan their victimization and to lay the blame on God for these processes too complicated to explain (cleverly condensed to P2C2E in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun & The Sea of Stories) but I often wonder how complicit we are in setting the stage for these events? Are amorality in life and politics catalysts in this process? It’s tempting to imagine they are, but at this stage in our evolution, despite our sophisticated technology, we are still groping in an Egyptian darkness that is still intense, just bigger.

And of all the plagues brought on Egypt by God, the 10th and last, Death of the Firstborn, is the most horrific.

Of Plagues & Promises, shown above, is a detail from Parashat Bo in my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). In this interpretation, here is the infamous Angel of Death, which the Talmud places in the category of destructive angels called Malach Ha-Movet. Why the Angel of Death, when in Exodus, God makes it clear that He, and not an Angel will implement the 10th plague? Are we to understand that all angels are aspects of our Creator? And were all the events in Exodus designed to help us understand the evil inclination as an inextricable element of our natures? In the Babylonian Talmudit states that, “If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its antidote.” Despite our inflated opinion of our technological advances, perhaps that is all the answer we need…?


A Map To The Heart

December 30, 2011


As promised in my post of December 16,  here are the illustrations from Parashah Va-Yiggash which is read tomorrow on the Sabbath. In this concluding chapter of Joseph’s story, the young prodigy and dream master is now a grown man with his own family. As Grand Vizier to Pharaoh, he is the second most powerful player in Egypt now tasked with managing food distribution for the country during a prolonged famine (which he fortunately foresaw). Yet, like all of us at one time or another, he is also faced with an ill and aging parent. Through circumstances of destiny, he has not seen his father Jacob for many years. Nevertheless, his love and childhood memories remain true enough to spur him to dramatic action.

Having learned that his father is dying, Joseph orders his chariot prepared and leaves immediately for what will be a final visit. Below him is a map of Goshen, the land that Joseph has promised for Israelite resettlement in the wake of the famine. The map is in the shape of a hand symbolizing Joseph reaching out to his people. It is also a nod to the illustrated allegorical maps of the Holy Land found in Heinrick Bunting’s Itinerarium Sacra Scripturae, or Travels According to the Scriptures, first published in 1581. Below, Joseph and Jacob are seen in an emotional embrace, the former having cast aside his formal court wig and scepter as evidence of his true identity as a son of Israel. You might notice that Jacob’s foot is twisted as a reminder of his angelic confrontation and dramatic transition from a man named Jacob to that of Israel, the progenitor of the twelves tribes of Israel. The young girl in the foreground is Serakh Bat Asher, the legendary daughter of Jacob’s son Asher. She earned immortality for her kindness to old Jacob who had given up hope of ever seeing his son Joseph after his tragic disappearance long ago. So as not to shock him in his fragile state, she is said to have played her harp embedding the news that Joseph was alive in a song. When we need a complex story like this one to yield an understanding of a basic human value, in this case, of chesed (the fourth of the ten sefirot) or kindness, it may be that we must earn that understanding intellectually before we can manifest it unconditionally and unmotivated in ourselves and towards those we love and cherish.

These images are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) which can be purchased directly from the publisher at this link: http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html or from Amazon:  amzn.to/gZSp5j where you will also find several reviews.