Posts Tagged ‘Hebrew letters’

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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sofer and at: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10774-mezuzah

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Birkat Ha-Gomel: A Blessing For Well-Being

October 7, 2013

For the twelfth installment of An Illumination Of Blessings, I’ve chosen to interpret the Birkat Ha-Gomel, a blessing that I did not have the presence of mind to recite when I really needed to do so. A few months ago, I was involved in an automobile accident that nearly totaled my car. Fortunately, I was not seriously injured , escaping with minor bruises and aftershocks of a mental earthquake. But at that time I should have intoned this blessing of well-being in appreciation for having experienced and recovered from a life-threatening situation.

 The Birkat Ha-Gomel originated in the Talmud (Berakhot 54b) and was drawn from Psalm 107 which describes four situations that merit recitation of this blessing: when one has safely completed a sea voyage, crossed a desert wilderness, recovered from illness or childbirth and been released from captivity. When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, anyone who experienced these situations would be required to bring a live sacrifice (korban) of thanksgiving, but the Birkat Ha-Gomel is now an acceptible alternative. According to Rabbi J.H. Hertz, former chief rabbi of the British Empire, it may be recited after any extraordinary escape from danger. In the Orthodox tradition, this blessing is also meant to be recited publicly among a minyan (quorum) of ten men; although Conservative and Reform traditions include women in this number so that an entire congregation may acknowledge an individual’s survival and recovery from one of the above situations.

Whether I visually interpret a Torah parashah, a passage from Talmud, a folktale or as in this case, a blessing, I like to explore such texts on multiple levels so that you are not seeing merely a literal illustration, but rather one that invites you to draw your own interpretations or ask more questions.

And so here is the Birkat Ha-Gomel blessing with it’s attendant symbolism reflecting the situations named here along with their spiritual counterparts. While I hope you will never find yourself in any precarious situation that requires its recitation, it might not be a bad idea to keep a copy at hand…

For those of you that missed the funding deadline, but would still like to have a copy of the book or gicleé prints from the illustrations, don’t fret. You can visit this link to place pre-orders for the book and to specify which blessings you would like to have made into prints: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm It’s back to work for me now onto the next blessing! As always, your questions and comments are welcome!