Posts Tagged ‘Judaica’

Between The Lines: A Conversation Both Holy And Profane

February 11, 2013

Imaginarius-2013-Mishpatim

When we are told a story, whether true or fictional, we hear and feel it in the words and body language of the speaker.  Yet even as the experience provokes a direct reaction, we may be thinking of how we can share it with others. Except for people with eidetic memory skills, a story is rarely remembered verbatim. Rather, it is verbally and physically paraphrased to fit the recipient and the circumstances of its retelling.

Whenever I read last week’s Parashah Yitro and the current Parashah Mispatim, in which Moses receives the Torah on Mt. Sinai, it is difficult not to picture these scenes as portrayed in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic 1954 film of The Ten Commandments. Having seen the film’s premiere as an impressionable child, I barely appreciated the enormous implications of that divine event beyond the ‘silver screen’ until many years later. When the heavenly fireworks that accompany the giving of the Torah terrifies everyone gathered at the base of Mt. Sinai and Moses ascends to the summit to accept it as an intermediary for his people, the idea that Moses was to make this vast trove of information accessible to them in a language and form they could comprehend was stunning.

There has been much speculation as to the form of that divine transmission, from questions concerning the original ‘language’ to the method of delivery to the mental and physical qualities that distinguished Moses for this task. Popular writers and university scholars have collaborated and done well promoting the idea of ‘bible codes’, prophetic information encoded in strings of letters. Yet, scintillating as this notion is, solid proof remains elusive. And perhaps it should be, if faith is to flourish in the face of scientific scrutiny.

Considering Moses’ pivotal role in this dramatic narrative, a few questions arise. Was Moses chosen for this task because of a natural ability for opening his mind and heart to this divine body of knowledge, or were these qualities acquired from his early experience as a prince of Egypt and subsequent discovery of his true identity as an adult? Perhaps it was a combination of both, but until someone invents time travel, these arguments remain philosophical conjecture. From a slightly different perspective, I like to imagine that Moses’ ability to receive G-d’s transmission is a metaphor of ‘tzimtzum’, G-d’s contraction of His Essence, permitting Creation to occur from the dark void. My logic may be fuzzy, but when Moses becomes instrumental in the creation of the nation of Israel out of a nation of slaves, he seems to mirror that ‘tzimtzum’ on a micro-level.

Designing the illustrations to embody these ideas for my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), brought me to a major contextual impasse. Representing G-d in any form is prohibited in the second commandment, but I intended no offense when I drew upon the kabbalistic idea that Hidden One may only be perceived behind an ethereal mask. I imagined Him emerging from between veils of light and darkness with the intention of letting Himself be known to us, but shielding us from a force that we, in our frail forms could not endure ‘face to face’. Consequently, in the illustration above, I have portrayed Moses as a sofer, a Torah scribe in an intimate conversation with G-d through His Mask*. Wielding a reed pen, Moses is writing the word ‘Amalek’ a great enemy of Israel, then crossing it out three times. This part of the transcription process has since become the traditional first step a Torah scribe takes when beginning to write a new scroll. In this way we are meant to understand our history; to do good and not evil.

And now we understand that Moses is also more than just an ‘envelope’, so to speak, for the divine message. As ‘Moshe Rabbeinu’, Moses our teacher, he has becomes a timeless example of how the we and the Torah must become one in both spirit and practice.

*A more detailed explanation of the four-pronged letter ‘shin’ is found in the AfterImages section of my book on pp. 148-149

Signed copies of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary ($36.00+Shipping) may be ordered at: http://www.winnlederer.com

Of Mitzvot, Mezuzot And Morality

September 10, 2012

Many of us, feeling under the current stormy political weather, find ourselves facing uneasy choices regarding the future of society and the freedoms of the country that we have long taken for granted. But don’t worry; I’m not about to launch into a pretentious little rant here. Rather, I’ve prefaced this blog entry with the above statement to demonstrate that while our technically enhanced, media-driven political and social conflicts may often seem new to us, this week’s Torah reading, Parashah Ki Tavo, relates how very old they are; for they only serve as new disguises for those ancient energies of good and evil. Through mnemonic devices that include blessings and curses, we find a clear explanation of how our ancestors were given an understanding of these energies and an opportunity to choose between them in every decision and action.

The illustration above, Of Mitzvot & Mezuzot precedes this choice. Here, a man and woman are each wearing a prayer shawl (tallit), a mnemonic device for remembering the commandments. Through the use of gematria, the Hebrew system for number interpretation, the medieval French rabbi, Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi), suggests that a tallit’s ‘tzitzit’ or fringes descending from its four corners represent the 613 commandments or mitzvot. In this system, the Hebrew letters for the word ‘tzitzit’ (as spelled in the Mishnah) accrue a value of 600, to which 8 and 5 (representing the strings and knots respectively) are added for a total of 613.

In a nod to Kabbalistic philosophy, the colors of the man’s tallit, black for Gevurah or strength and white for Chesed or lovingkindness refer to those sephirotic valences. The shadowy wings within the woman’s tallit are meant to symbolize her spiritual connection to the Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of G-d.

Parashah Ki Tavo aptly translates as ‘when you enter’, because just after crossing Jordan, before the Israelites are to enter the Promised Land, Moses and the Levite priests instruct them to set up a series of large stones, or stelae, coat them with lime or plaster and inscribe on them ‘every word of this Teaching most distinctly‘. The inscription on the stelae is a portion of the parashah quotation written in paleo-Hebrew and based on the Moabite stela of King Mesha dated from 850 BC.

Though this method may have preserved the inscriptions better than carving them directly into the stones, preservation did not appear to be of prime importance. According to 15th century Spanish bible commentator Don Isaac Abravanel, Moses may have been concerned that like pagan conquerors, the Israelites might choose to erect a monument to their conquest without acknowledging G-d’s role in it. So he made it plain that these stelae, or massive mezuzot, if you will, were to commemorate their commitment to God and His Commandments. It is not clear whether the writing was to include all of Torah, or only the final book. Neither, concludes Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon, the eighth century rabbi and philosopher. He posits that only the 613 mitzvot were written on the stones because while all of Torah is important, the mitzvot are commandments related to blessings and curses that are connected to direct action. Within the inscribed stele at the lower right of this page is an image of the altar that the Israelites were required to build on Mt. Ebal using similar stones. Because the altar would serve a holy purpose, iron tools, normally used for weapons were prohibited in its construction.

The small decorative mezuzah, seen behind the woman, suggests a modern parallel to those original monuments. Traditionally, a mezuzah is a sort of amulet attached to the doorway of a Jewish home that contains a tiny specially prepared sheet of parchment called a  ‘klaf”. Portions of the Shema (the core prayer in Judaism) are written on it in Hebrew.

In The Consequences Of Choice, shown below, are representatives of  Israel’s twelve tribes, six from each. After raising the stelae, these leaders were then instructed to position themselves  on two facing mountains separated by a valley.

The color of each figure is based on their associated gem set into the choshen (breastplate) of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). From the valley between Mts. Ebal and Gerizim, with Ark of the Covenant in full view, Moses and the priests called out to the tribes, alternating between blessings and curses to reinforce their understanding of good and evil and to ensure that the boundaries between them would never be breached. This understanding was a major prerequisite for settlement in the Promised Land.

Hovering above this tableau, two keruvim (cherubim), each holding a tree are facing away from each other in contrast to their position atop The Ark Of The Covenant to emphasize the discord that ensues when good and evil actions become indistinct from one another. The left keruv’s luxuriant tree represents blessings or fertility when the Laws are properly implemented while the right keruv’s barren tree signifies the curses that will come to pass when the Laws are disobeyed.

Finally, the word ‘Amen‘ is seen above the priests because when we say ‘Amen‘ after a blessing, we are binding ourselves in the light of that blessing and strengthening the bridge between the Upper and Lower worlds. The word ‘Amen‘, calligraphically depicted in its positive and negative aspects emphasizes the tribes’ clear understanding and acceptance of both blessings and curses.

Though I have only one vote in this approaching election, I can only hope that we, as citizens of this unique land, will vote together to ensure that its outcome benefits the physical and spiritual needs of us all; rich, poor and in the middle; for it will define us as standard bearers of the balance of good and evil for future generations.

The Price Of Posterity

August 31, 2012

Among the many laws regarding moral and ethical behavior within interpersonal relationships, this week’s reading of Parashah KiTetse’ includes an ancient but striking solution to the preservation of a family name in the event of untimely death; levirate marriage . Although this practice was common among many tribal cultures to preserve their autonomy, it is codified in a formal ceremony for the first time in the Torah. In essence, the custom centers on the widow of a man who has died without leaving a male heir. It then becomes incumbent upon her brother-in-law, if he is able and willing, to marry her so that she might produce a son to perpetuate her husband’s name, assets and spiritual legacy. If this levirate union cannot be assured, a ceremony called ‘halitzah’ is arranged to disengage the man and woman from their obligation. Halitzah takes place within a synagogue following the morning service when a number of witnesses would be present. From these witnesses, three judges and two assistants are appointed, the ‘judges’ are seated on one bench, and the assistants are seated on a second bench beside it. The brother-in-law (yabam) and the widow (yebamah) stand between them. Their case that includes certain criteria for eligibility in this rite such as the state of their mental and physical health is presented to the ‘court’. The brother-in-law asserts that he is present of his own free will and the proceedings begin. A special leather shoe (made from the hide of a kosher animal) that is the property of the community is then tied to his right leg. The lead judge makes the following statement which the widow repeats three times: “My brother-in-law refuses to raise unto his brother a name in Israel; he will not marry me.” The brother-in-law is required to repeat: “I do not wish to take her.” He holds his foot to the floor while his sister-in-law loosens the shoe and tosses it to the side of the court. She then faces her brother-in-law, spits on the floor in front of him and repeats three times the following statement after the judge: “So shall it be done unto that man who will not build up his brother’s house, and his name shall be called in Israel, ‘the house of him that hath his shoe loosed.” The widow is now free to marry whomever she wishes after the proper mourning period has ended. However, a question remained; what if the brother-in-law attempted to extort money from the widow in exchange for releasing her from the levirate obligation? Eventually, medieval Polish rabbis created a document called the “shetar halitzah” which all the brothers of the groom in a marriage were made to sign. This ensured that they would submit to ‘halitzah’ if their brother died childless without making any financial claims on his widow.

It should be noted here that in the 1,500 years since Talmudic times, when polygamy was outlawed from marriage practices, the halitzah ritual became the preferred alternative to levirate marriage. This ceremony is shown across two pages because its ramifications extend from generation to generation. In addition to the images on these pages that depict the players in this ritual, I have included the leather halitzah shoe (based on one in the collection of Congregation Mikve Israel in Philadelphia), a ceremonial wedding ring and a parchment held by the brother-in-law representing the assets and nullified obligations of halitzah. I’ve portrayed the widow, having removed the shoe as she is preparing to spit and seal the ceremony.

Is she wearing an expression of regret or relief?

 

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 http://www.pomegranate.com/a166.html.

 

“A Cord Of Blue…”

June 15, 2012

Though Parashah Shelakh-Lekha in the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) is memorable for its dramatic account of Joshua, Caleb and the group of ‘spies’ sent to scope out the land of Canaan, its final verse (16:37) is the take-away message that will inform the identity of the Jewish people for generations to come. The message appears in the quotation within the illustration above, titled A Foundation Of Faith. It and the interpretation that follows have been adapted from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)*

The title refers to the Even ha-Shetiyyah, or the mythical Foundation Stone upon which the world was created. Diverse legends describe this immense stone and its origins. There is an eye at its center to indicate the presence of God within every aspect of Creation. Poised on the stone is man wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin engaged in prayer. The tallit prominently features the knotted fringes at the four corners of the garment, which the man has gathered together. Each fringe contains a cord of blue as a daily reminder of the bondage in Egypt and the instructions to observe all of God’s commandments. The tefillin are two small black lacquered boxes containing passages of Torah with black straps attached to them. One box, worn on the head bears a four-pronged letter shin. The other is placed on the left arm, near the heart. The straps are wrapped around the left arm and hand so as to form the Name of God. Suspended above the man’s hands is the letter aleph, whose description by the magic realist writer Jorge Luis Borges  inspired its inclusion here. “ In the Kabbala, that letter stands for the Eyn Soph, the pure and boundless godhead; it is also said that it takes the shape of a man pointing to both heaven and earth, in order to show that the lower world is the map and mirror of the higher world…”

 Above the figure is a tiny Murex trunculus snail, the origin of the famed blue dye called techeilet. Known as the chilazon in Hebrew this boneless invertebrate was found on the coast of Northern Israel and ancient Phoenicia and its secretions processed at dyeworks in Tyre. Behind the figure is a compass motif inspired by a medallion that illuminates the Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides’ classic work, Guide To The Perplexed. As the Foundation Stone supports the ‘four corners’ of the world, the cardinal points on the compass guide the two figures representing Jews around the world towards the observances of their faith. Though the Sabbath occurs each week, its potential to remind us of what we’ve forgotten while offering us new understanding are timeless.

*For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

On Art And Memory

April 30, 2012

Despite the volumes of analysis, artspeak and criticism that accompany the long history of art, it seems that each generation is compelled to coin new definitions and ‘movements’ for their own artistic expression or at least redefine and clarify existing terms.

From my own experience, the question of what makes art ‘Jewish’ or what is ‘Jewish art’ was raised in the early 80’s during a solo exhibition. In writing his review, the reporter for a local newspaper asked me to define it for his broader audience. He wanted to know whether art was deemed ‘Jewish’ because of its subject matter or because it was made by a Jewish artist. At that moment, I couldn’t say, but I did know that it had to be some combination of both. Only a few days later on December 12, 1982, I’d finished reading Chaim Potok’s 1972 book, My Name Is Asher Lev when an answer came to me that I recorded in one of my journals: ‘Jewish art, regardless of its creator, is what emerges when one is inspired to create art whose imagery is specific to Jewish culture, history, tradition and/or ritual.’ Given my penchant for illustration, my love of stories and growing interest in a faith I was born to but did not deeply observe, that realization would become the touchstone for much of the work I would produce in the ensuing three decades.

As I explored the literature, history and traditions of Judaism, I began to understand how vital art is in the preservation of our collective memories so our descendants may inherit them and pay them forward. When the details of a story have faded with time, an image associated with that story remains the guardian of its essence. By visually encoding its imaginings, traditions and memories, these components are assured a certain immortality that becomes verbally embellished with specific details at each viewing. These thoughts inspired today’s illustration, The Besht’s* Minyan, based on an old, often retold legend of the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him that involved the safety and welfare of the Jewish community, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer. Afterwards, what he had set out to accomplish was done.

A generation later, when the Maggid**of Mezhyrich was faced with a similar task, he would go to the same place in the woods and say: “We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers.” And what he prayed for became reality.

In a succeeding generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov too, was faced with the difficult task of ensuring the well-being of the Jewish community. Returning to the woods where his ancestors had prayed, he said: “We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayers, but we do know this place in the woods to which it belongs; that must be sufficient.” And sufficient it was.

Finally, in the generation that followed, Rabbi Israel of Ryzhin was called upon to perform the time-worn task of preserving his community, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: ‘we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story on how it was done.”
And the story which he told verified in effect the actions of the previous three sages.

All of which persuades me to conclude that as I continue to interpret the stories that illuminate Jewish history, mysteries and seemingly mundane wisdom, I may be doing my small part to pay forward that vibrant tapestry of ideas into the continuum of who we were, who we are and who we may yet be.

I welcome your questions and interpretations of this image as I look forward to continuing this conversation…
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*’Besht'(בעש”ט) is the acronym for Baal Shem Tov. Though later attributed to several of his descendants and disciples, this honorific was originally attributed to the 17th century rabbi Yisroel(Israel)ben Eliezer who is considered to be the founder of Hasidic Judaism, a movement based on his own spiritual and mystical insights and practices. For further information, Wikipedia offers a lengthier biography and explanation of the Besht’s philosophies at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baal_Shem_Tov.

**an Eastern European Jewish itinerant preacher of Torah and narrator of religious stories.

An Illusory Freedom: Choice & Consequence

April 19, 2012


A favorite trope of philosophers and religious scholars from ancient times to ours has been the concept of free choice. Does it exist as a vague tenet of traditional religious entitlement so we may feel free to question our ‘destiny’? Or is it merely a glib, convenient dodge for questionable behavior? Either way, acting upon it is never without consequences for the present or the future, both of which we like to think we can influence even if that influence may be illusory in itself. One of the stronger arguments for the consequence of interpreting the concept of free choice is found in Parashat Shemini, this week’s Torah reading in the Book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

In the illustration above, called Choice & Consequence, a scale is suspended from a mystical winged yad (Torah pointer). One pan holds the sephirah of Chesed (lovingkindness) that has been damaged and unbalanced by the sephirah Gevurah, (strength and power) in the other pan. The status of these qualities lies beneath the many vivid examples of victory and tragedy in the Torah narrative. One of most heartbreaking events was the dramatic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, High Priest of Israel. The young men were also godsons of Moses, Aaron’s brother. The Talmud and Kabbalah offer multiple interpretations of this incident. The most familiar is the brother’s unauthorized offering of incense or ‘strange fire though not requested to do so. According to Louis Ginzburg’s Legends of the Bible 1, they were killed upon their offering by two filaments of fire that flashed from the Ark in the Tabernacle. These split into four flames, pierced the nostrils of the young men and incinerated their souls. The bodies are shown intact for the legend also claims that after the event, no external injuries were visible. My imagination rode this story back to an earlier example of an unacceptable sacrifice; that of Adam’s son Cain, his rejected harvest offering and subsequent murder of his brother Abel. God’s rejection of Cain’s offering makes this tale equally tragic despite God’s vague attempt to justify his action to an angry and vengeful Cain. Though the later sacrificial system was designed to short-circuit the expression of these emotions, the loss of these young lives remains a scar on our history. One of the stranger postscripts to Cain’s murder of his brother is that God chose not to destroy Cain for his misdeed. Instead, he was condemned to live with his crime for an extraordinarily long lifetime while bearing an enigmatic stigma. Rashi, the medieval French Torah commentator asserts that this ‘mark of Cain’ was a horn that protruded from his forehead eventually causing his death by a hunter who mistook him for an animal. Another interpretation in the Zohar(Book of Splendor) associates this mark with the Hebrew letter ‘vav‘ because the name Cain or ‘qayin‘ in Hebrew, means ‘hook’.2 Was this ‘vav‘ or ‘hook’ meant to connect Cain to God during his journey towards spiritual redemption? Since both of these assertions intrigued me, I decided to combine them in one image showing Cain’s horn emerging from the ancient Hebrew letter ‘vav‘. The design of his horn was suggested by the ‘horns’ of the mizbeach or sacrificial altar.

I often marvel at how everything is connected in strange and subtle ways. Though created as a stand-alone post, last week’s drawing, ‘Innovasion'(detail shown above) whimsically explored the theme of unusual eating utensils. Coincidentally, the other important theme in Parashat Shemini, happens to be the laws of kashrut (kosher eating practices)regarding animals; laws that clarify which animals may and may not be eaten with any utensils. In my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009), the illustration for this section of Parashat Shemini, called Sanction & Censure was my final choice for the book. Yet, I thought it might be interesting to show an alternative option I considered at the time.

By way of explanation, the diverse array of creatures categorized in Parashah Shemini as kosher and unkosher provided an intense artistic challenge. As I began to draw these creatures, I was as delighted as a child to be depicting representatives of the vast array of life forms inhabiting our planet. Digging further into the laws of kashrut, however, these restrictions seemed way too complex to be arbitrary. I wondered about their true meaning for us beyond straightforward obedience. Though I personally understand and observe the basic tenets of kashrus, my imagination is simultaneously attracted to the esoteric. So, upon closer examination, if the animals I have drawn seem to have unique personalities, they do. Their ‘personalities’ were suggested by the Hasidic idea that each creature deemed ‘kosher’ contains ‘sparks of holiness’ and that when properly blessed and eaten, those ‘sparks’ are released, inviting the Divine Presence into our material world. Accordingly the creatures appearing fully colored underscore this idea. Those appearing in neutral grey tones within the black chessboard grid are considered inappropriate to be eaten and for the performance of commandments (mitzvot). Surrounding the ‘chessboard’ are emblems representing four of the spiritual worlds (atzilus,beriyah,yetzirah,asiyah) and elements associated with them (air, water, earth, fire). I thought these should remind us that free choice may not exist merely to reassure our need for independent thinking, but rather we should understand it as a way to reaffirm our connection to creation and to each other.

A Passover Perspective: Of Sanctuary And Sacrifice

March 30, 2012


As we enter the week preceding the Passover holiday, mindful of the history it commemorates, it is always with some trepidation. Some of that anxiety centers around the shopping and intense household tasks involved in preparation for the seder meals, but for me, as I do so, there is always the nagging question of ‘how much is enough’? Of course, if one observes stringent, time-honored personal tradition, such a question is never asked; preparations are undertaken with a few eye-rolls but mostly with zealous pride.

However, in the years since my children were young, my own preparation has become less formal, more intuitive in terms of the symbolism underlying each ritual. Ironically, as my domestic rituals shifted, my wish to continue identifying as a Jew began to take shape as an interest in the holiday’s cultural rationale and its history. Indeed, these became germaine in producing the illustrations and commentary in my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) It was as though all those years had been a sort of practice for what was to come.

The illustrations accompanying this week’s post are from The Book of Leviticus/Vayikra and address Parashat Tzav. While the book presents a slightly different arrangement of the images, on reflection I have added an element from Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy/Devarim) to cast them in a larger perspective. Though the figure from Parashat Re’eh speaks for itself, a full explanation of the other images may be read on pp. 155-156 in the AfterImages
portion of the book.

A wag for whom I’ve much affection once suggested that since the Israelites had so little time to prepare for their exodus and we are compelled to observe the holiday as though we too were about to leave Egypt, perhaps an appropriate symbolic ritual would be to forget all the Passover dishes and chametz-chasing. Instead, we should consider packing a few suitcases for basic survival and leaving them near the door as a reminder that on a moment’s notice, we may be compelled to leave our homes for a great unknown.

With Divine Spirit: The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth

March 23, 2012


Since 2012, corresponding to the Hebrew year 5773 is a leap year, several of the fifty-four Torah portions are read together so that the differences in these calendar systems may be reconciled. This week, we pair reading of the final two chapters of the Book of Exodus, VaYakhel and P’kudey. Commentary for the images in this post are from my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

With Divine Spirit
, above, again shows us the master artisan Bezalel working to complete his design and construction of the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan). Here,he is holding one of the results of his ability to permute the letters of the alefbet. The object is the Choshen, the breastplate to be worn by Aaron, the High Priest for the services in the Tabernacle. It is described in one of the sections of a work called ‘Choshen Ha-Mishpat‘ (Breastplate of Judgment) and with some reservations is attributed to the 13th century rabbi and scholar Bahya Ben Asher. The Choshen‘s threads are of crimson red, purple and blue, the three signature colors of all fabrics used in construction of the Tabernacle and priestly garments. Woven into it are twelve stones set into gold frames, each engraved with one of the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. They are arranged in the birth order of Jacob’s twelve sons and in four rows of three stones. Each row is in honor of the Four Mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.
The Choshen and two carbuncle ‘shoham’ stones, also engraved with the tribal names, are attached to the shoulders of the Ephod portion of the High Priest’s garment. These appear in the illustration of Aaron for the Parashah T’Tzavveh. The twelve stones, listed on page 144 in the AfterImages section of the book, are:

Tribe of Reuven: Odem/Ruby
Tribe of Simeon: Pit’dah/Prase, or Chalcedony
Tribe of Levi: Bareket/Carbuncle
Tribe of Judah: Nofekh/Emerald
Tribe of Issachar: Sapir/Sapphire
Tribe of Zebulun: Yahalom/Beryl
Tribe of Dan: Leshem/Topaz
Tribe of Naphtali: Sh’vo/Turquoise
Tribe of Gad: Ahlamah/Crystal
Tribe of Asher: Tarshish/Chrysolite
Tribe of Joseph*: Shoham/Onyx
Tribe of Benjamin: Yashfeh/Jasper

*Tribe of Joseph incorporates the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh

According to Louis Ginsberg’s Legends of the Bible, Bezalel had the assistance of a special creature to construct these items. It was the tiny Shamir, (shown above Bezalel’s right arm) a worm-like creature that appeared in the evening of the sixth day of Creation. The Shamir was endowed with the unique ability to cut through impermeable materials like gemstones. Beneath the Shamir worm are two objects called the “Urim v’ Tmimim.” The appearance and function of these objects have generated much conjecture. Generally known as ‘oracle stones’ they were placed in the fold of the High Priest’s breastplate. Their alleged prophetic powers allowed him to focus on a specific problem or situation. He would then either obtain a vision or perceive combinations of letters with which he could determine the solution.

Behind Bezalel stands Oholiab, son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan, the co-worker assigned to him by God. The scales on his worktable symbolize his tribe and his honest artisanal skills. Oholiab is preparing the gold plate (reading “Holy To The Lord”) that will be attached by a blue cord to the High Priest’s helmet (on the table to his left). Finally, the ‘Parokhet’ or inner curtain for the front of the Ark of the Covenant is shown in the background. According to Parashah T’rumah, “You shall make a curtain of blue, crimson and purple yarns, and fine twisted linen; it shall have a design of K’ruvim worked into it.” Though I have included the specified colors in the image, I have also taken artistic license with the background of the curtain by adding the apotropaic eye in the center.

In The Wedding Of Heaven And Earth, above, under the canopy of Heaven, the Shekhinah, God’s feminine aspect, lifts her hands to bless the people in this symbolic ‘marriage’ between God and Israel. The ‘Bridegroom’ in this union is the Ark of the Covenant. Shekhinah wears the Crown of Paradise with golden pomegranate trees. Her sephirah of Malkhut or earthly monarchy is prominent at the base of the crown. A tiny chuppah adorns the large ceremonial wedding ring held aloft by the K’ruvim on the Ark. Her ‘feet’ resemble the cloven hooves of a calf from the bizarre four-faced ‘Chariot’ creatures in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision. The full description of this vision appears in the haftorah reading for the Festival of Shavuot.

Below, The Guardian Of The House of Israelimage concludes the Book of Exodus.

It depicts the completed Tabernacle (Mishkan) in the desert surrounded by the tents of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The color of each tent reflects its corresponding gemstone in the High Priest’s Choshen (Breastplate). Although the text of this Parashah initially seemed to require two illustrations, I imagined an enormous angel bearing both symbols of God’s Holy protection. He wears a head covering that resembles a medieval liripipe. Suspended from its ‘tail’ is an alchemical glyph representing two elements of Creation: air and fire. Finally, I have shown the Pillar of Fire in the form of a Ner Tamid or ‘Eternal Light. The burning bush within recalls the Covenant at Sinai while its chains incorporate the heads of korbanot (Temple offerings). The Ner Tamid has occupied a place of honor over the Ark in synagogues worldwide illuminating our memories of the original Tabernacle that guarded and inspired our ancestors three thousand years ago.

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://bit.ly/g2D9Lm

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An Artist In The Shadow Of God

March 9, 2012

Of all the fifty-four parashiyot in the Torah, Ki Thissa was the one that spoke most eloquently to me as an artist and illustrator, particularly as it relates how Moses transmitted instructions for building the desert Tabernacle (Mishkan) to the artist and craftsman Bezalel ben Uri. I was drawn to this story many years ago as I sought to understand the levels of meaning within the Second Commandment prohibiting the creation of graven images. In essence, it opened my eyes to the concept of hiddur mitzvah or the creation of beautiful objects to enhance the worship experience, rather than be worshipped as objects in themselves.

I have created several interpretive portraits of Bezalel, the first recorded Jewish artist, most recently the iteration shown here for my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). From the AfterImages section of the book on p. 151, here is an excerpt  from my commentary on the illustration shown above:

In The Shadow Of God is drawn from the Hebrew translation of the name Bezalel, given to him at birth by his father Uri, son of Hur from the tribe of Judah. (Note the image of the Lion below the text next to Bezalel; it symbolizes the tribe of Judah) His full name reads, ‘Bet-Zal-El Hayaita which means ‘you were in God’s Shadow’ explaining his extraordinary artistic skills and closeness to the Creator so that he could envision the Heavenly Temple and accurately follow the directions for the construction of its earthly counterpart. He was tasked with this mission by Moses who transmitted God’s request upon his return from Mt. Sinai. In the Mishnah,Bezalel is credited as the man who was able to comprehend and configure the letters from which Heaven and Earth were created for this holy task. According to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, “All things were created through the combinations of the 22 Hebrew letters.” The open scroll that Bezalel is holding reveals a kabbalistic diagram, found in the Sefer Yetzirah, composed in 6th century Babylon, which connects letters in the Hebrew alefbet with the seven planets and twelve signs of the Zodiac. In the center of the diagram is a triangular form that contains the Tetragrammaton, an acronym for one of God’s Names. To avoid a disrespectful rendering of this name, a portion of one of the letters has been removed. At the corners of the triangle connecting it to the outer rings are the three Mother letters, alef, mem and shin that represent the elements air, fire and water. Although many graphic variations of these concepts can be found in the books of mysticism, I chose this particular diagram for Bezalel, as it seemed to invite creative interaction. Standing behind the craftsman with a model of the Mishkan on its back is a strange beast called the Tachash. The word ‘tachashim’ in parashah T’rumah, though translated as ‘dolphin skins’ finds a different interpretation in the Mishnah, which alludes to the creation and existence of this animal for the express purpose of providing materials for the construction of the Tabernacle. When its purpose was completed, it seems to have vanished. 

Since no one knows if it actually existed, could the tachash have been a word to describe a collection of materials taken from several existing species or could it have been an unusual mutation truly created only for its holy purpose? In any case, it will always remain an intriguing idea and so the tachash shown here is purely from my imagination. By the way, these questions occurred to me long after my book was published, which only verifies my philosophy that art is always a work in progress and matures from continuing interpretation. So, if any of my readers would like to posit their own version or questions, send me your links in the comment box; I look forward to continuing this conversation…

For previews and purchase information of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009) visit: http://www.magiceyegallery.com