Posts Tagged ‘mezuzah’

From House To Home: A Blessing Of Transition

January 15, 2014

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Last week, after completing the blessing for installing a mezuzah, I decided to follow it with the traditional blessing for the home, the Birkat HaBayit. This brief blessing is usually found on decorative plaques or hand-shaped hamsas (amulets) near the entrance to Jewish houses worldwide. It is meant to drive evil spirits (negative emotional projections) from the house and to protect the individuals residing in it. Such items are often given as gifts to one who has just moved into a new house.

Since the text of this blessing is commonly presented on a ceramic tile or other surface enhanced only by pleasant floral or geometric decorations, I wanted my interpretation to be something more; to reflect additional levels of meaning in the text.

In the initial research phase of my illustrations, I often leaf through my collections of aphorisms and quotations for my first clues in understanding the subject of my work and the direction I will take to develop it. These comments are never interpreted literally; they only serve as metaphorical touchstones, suggesting levels of meaning in that subject which invite visual interpretation.

So I turned to the Book of Proverbs which told me: “A house is built by wisdom and is established by understanding; by knowledge are its rooms filled with all precious and beautiful things.” -24:3

Ok, I thought, that’s a powerful idea; but do these qualities also define a ‘home’? Generally speaking, yes. But having visited the homes of many friends and acquaintances around the world, each with its unique flavor and ambiance, I’ve learned that the difference between a house and a home is subtle, yet tangible.

Beyond its physical structure and plain or beautiful interior surroundings, a house that can be called a home glows with an aura of peace, laughter and love. These qualities color its walls, furnishings and inhabitants in a way no skilled decorator can truly emulate.

The desire for a home of one’s own is universal to all species on this planet from the ant to the elephant. It’s first cultural documentation among humanity quite likely originated in the tale of Adam and Eve whose first ‘home’ was the Garden of Eden, the womb of our world, so to speak. Even as the story relates their shock and fear upon exile from this holy place, the budding comprehension of their newly bestowed mortality soon becomes the powerful desire for shelter and stability in the chaotic world beyond Paradise.

Though the Torah offers many other examples of our developing survival instinct from Noah’s post-diluvian resettlement to the long quest for a Jewish homeland, one of the most picturesque appears in in the Book of Exodus (Shemot Parashat T’rumah 25:8-9). Here, G-d requests that Moses establish a sanctuary of a very specific design for the Divine Presence in the earthly realm so that “I may dwell among them (you).” It would seem that even the Source of all Life has need for a place to call ‘home’!

After much consideration, I decided to model the house in this illustration as an idealized amalgam of residential architecture drawn from several areas around Jerusalem because it is the spiritual home for so many of us.

The pomegranate and etrog (citron) trees flanking the doorway are metaphors of beauty, good health, fertility and mitzvot or good deeds that one would wish for the residents of the house. A midrash or commentary suggests that the pomegranate contains 613 seeds, a number equivalent to the categories of mitzvot incumbent upon us to perform in our lifetimes. The etrog, one of the four species honored on the holiday of Sukkot, symbolizes our connection to G-d through our hearts.

The cypress trees and the doves are symbols of sacrifice, but rather than the sacrifice attributed to religious ritual, mourning or death, I included them because sacrifices must be made on many levels by all within a household to insure peace and stability.

The fish-shaped mezuzot on the doorpost and near the text symbolize blessing and abundance as drawn from the verse in Genesis (Bereshit 48:16), “And they shall multiply like fish in the midst of the earth.”

The Hebrew letter bet is included in this illustration for several reasons. First, its original form in the proto-Semitic languages of the Middle Bronze Age resembled a tent-like shelter or ‘house’. Second, it begins the Torah with the word B‘reshit (In the Beginning) and represents the dualities that define Creation (dark, light, good, evil, male, female, etc). Third, bet begins the word ‘baruch’ for blessing. I formed this letter from the leaves and fruit of the fruit trees for the same reasons the trees themselves were included, but also because in a sense, trees were the prototypes of shelter from weather and predators.

Finally, the antique bronze key is shown here because with it we enter the idea that when a house becomes a home, it also becomes a metaphor of memory; a repository of touchstones that connect us to ourselves, to each other and to the larger world beyond our doors.

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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

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 Mystery of Faith And Fortitude

August 18, 2011

This week’s Torah reading, Parashah Eikev addresses the dramatic destruction of Canaanite pagan culture while symbolizing the spiritual fortitude required to do so. It stresses the importance of strengthening and maintaining our faith so that we may partake of the abundant gifts of the Promised Land. Today’s illustration,  A Partnership of Faith‘, is a detail from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary.  Here, a mezuzah amulet, similar to the one in Parashah Va’Etchannan reappears, now as a symbol of protection for settlement in Israel while presenting examples of the seven species of produce that will be found there.  Blessing this process is a vision of the Shekhinah, the feminine aspect of God. The bird perched on her elaborate crown of pomegranates is a hoopoe. In addition to it being selected as the national bird of Israel on the country’s 60th birthday in 2008, the hoopoe was chosen to compliment her presence because of its legendary filial devotion and gratitude, caring for its parents as they age. This relationship is the metaphor of our partnership with each other and with God. The Hebrew quotation below her from Parashah Eikev, Ch. 8, v.7 translates as: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill…” This image is my response to the essential dual dynamic of hearing and being heard, that in turn validate each other.  Once, long ago, I received a large conch shell as a gift. Holding it to my ear, I heard the expected rush of an ocean tide, but my imagination overlaid that sound with the notion of a mysterious communication originating from somewhere deep beyond the interior spirals of the shell. To this day, that communication remains a mystery, but the experience inspired the images in this image of a grandfather and granddaughter sharing a moment of mystery and faith that is older than memory. The timeless  message in Parashah Eikev seems especially relevant now, drawing our attention to the dangers in our media driven culture and political climate that are characterized by those who only wish to speak while forgetting to listen.

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