Posts Tagged ‘Mishnah’

Thunder And Lightning! Oh, My…!

May 21, 2014

Thunder+LightningBlessingRGB5

We can’t mistake or ignore them. Like the rain, sun, winds, and snow, thunder and lightning remind us of our place in the moment, celestial bookmarks, if you will.

They assault our senses and extort our reluctant humility regardless of how clever and powerful we believe we are. Ancient cultures, their divinities and religious rites were by-products of the awe and terror their dramatic appearance commanded.

When the growing sophistication of monotheism began to dominate much of human society, its scholars and poets attributed a more subtle intent to them.

In the Talmud (Brachot 59a), we are taught to recite blessings on several varieties of natural phenomena such as comets and earthquakes. On thunder and lightning, the custom developed to recite two separate but related blessings because they may be two sides of the same coin. We also learn that “Thunder was created only in order to straighten the crookedness of the heart.” Moreover, the Mishnah** Berurah 227:5, considers it, rather than lightning, the more potent signal of divine power.

In his legal opinion on the Shulchan Aruch*, the 16th century Polish Rabbi David Ha-Levi Segal, also known as ‘Taz’, speculated that perhaps thunder’s roar makes it the dominant natural force, although he did not know how the custom of two blessings for these phenomena originated. He suggested that the blessing for lightning (Blessed Are You, Source of Life, Who Makes the works of Creation) can be recited in the presence of either thunder or lightning, particularly when they are witnessed together.

Now there’s a powerful image! Thunder and lightning as a vast cosmic defibrillator!

Sure, science has it own technical explanation for these ‘natural’ phenomena and in a sense, these ideas are comforting because they give us an illusion of control via ‘understanding’. But the Talmudic observation is also a lyrical way of reminding us to ask who or what created thunder and lightning and why? From the standpoint of religious faith, the answer is indisputable.

Though we appreciate a certain majestic beauty in the raw violence of nature’s elemental symphonies that play against bruised and sullen skies, how else, but by contrast, would we appreciate their alternate persona; that breath-taking sapphire clarity under a sun dodging wispy or pompous clouds? At the very least, it is convincing evidence for the myriad dualities of creation.

Illustrating this elemental blessing seemed simple at first; one need only show a dark sky with bursts of lightning, leaving the noise of thunder to the imagination. But further reading convinced me of its deeper significance. Tracing the history of our developing comprehension of thunder and lightning, I suddenly wondered, were there any recurring shapes or patterns in a storm’s bursts of lightning? Could they form some sort of heavenly message? Ok, ok, I know this whimsy is magical thinking. But then, I’m not a meteorologist with hard knowledge of the electrical and mathematical characteristics that might explain its technical structure.

So I let my imagination travel back to Mt. Sinai and the revelation of the Law. Could the thunder have been meant to call our attention to lightning’s shapes and patterns inspiring ancient minds to create the letter-forms of an early paleo-Hebrew language? I soon envisioned a rare single cell thunderstorm hovering over the mountain, wondering whether its winds, shaking the burning bush on the mountain, also whispered meaning into Moses’ ear? As the illustration progressed, I couldn’t resist allowing a tiny lightning bug onto it, illuminating the wonder and complexity of our existence.

Presenting the blessing in this light might be an improbable leap of faith, dismissible by many as nonsense, yet I’d like to think that transliterating this divine ‘skywriting’, has brought us a long way in understanding one of the countless chapters we’ve marked in the Book of Life.

* Codification of Oral Law of Torah by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi,180-220 CE

**The Code of Jewish Law, written in Safed, Israel and published in Venice by Yosef Karo in 1563-57.

Please Note: Even if you are not a backer on this Kickstarter-funded project, you may still pre-order your copy (ies) of An Illumination Of Blessings and/or prints from its illustrations here: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm  

Also, if you visit my Kickstarter page at: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings 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.

 

Breath, Bath & Beyond…

February 25, 2014

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 Although I had listened to tales of mikveh experiences from my mother and others, the idea of ritual immersion meant little to me until my first visit to Israel with my husband in 1974. On our tour of the 1st century CE fortress of Masada, we explored the once-luxurious remains of King Herod’s palace which included a mikveh, or ritual bath. Peering into its now dry depths, I imagined being in the footsteps of my ancient ancestors and hearing echoes of their struggles for spiritual cleansing, closeness with G-d and a measure of sanity in those stress-laden times. This grand complex was later taken over as the desert outpost by a community of Jewish zealots in their rebellion against the Roman rule of Jerusalem. Here is how the mikveh appears today:Image

The Masada tour motivated my curiosity to learn more about how the ritual was carried out and why. It also inspired an an aquatint etching called ‘Mikveh’ that was one of four images in my 1975 ‘The Rituals Of Atonement’ series:Image

But the opportunity for in-depth research into this subject did not assert itself until 2013 when I began An Illumination Of Blessings, this Kickstarter project. Even though my personal background to date did not include the religious or social impetus to actually visit a mikveh, I learned that the ritual of immersion (tevillah) is one of three essential (mitzvot) commandments reserved for women* and decided to include it in this collection.

In brief, the mikveh, which literally means a collection of water in Hebrew, is more than a pool of water. According to Tractate Mikva’ot in the Mishnah (the 2nd century CE codification of the Oral Torah), it must be a bath designed with specific dimensions and capacity to hold water that is stationary but which originates from a flowing natural source (a lake, ocean or rainwater) to permit ritual and spiritual purification. At the links below, there are a number of articles detailing the history of the mikveh and the legal (halakhic) requirements for its use.

Today, despite the long and often painful history of Judaism, immersion in a mikveh remains a viable practice among observant Jewish men and women. Many modern mikvaot, while adhering to those classic dimensions, also exhibit an awareness of the necessity for religious and spiritual continuity. These have been designed to resemble stylish, well-appointed spas such as the Mayyim Hayyim mikveh in Newton, MA.

The setting of my illustration, an early 20th century mikveh in Israel whose water can be seen flowing into it from the passageway beneath the stairs, was inspired by a beautifully made 1997 film called “Women” directed by Michal Bat Adam and Moshe Mizrahi. Here I have shown a young woman with two attendants who are required to observe her immersion and ensure that it is done properly. Three stars, seen through the tiny window in the background signal the onset of the Sabbath, a traditional time for this ritual. Usually a sign displaying the immersion blessings is posted near the pool but with a bit of artistic license, I incorporated the words into the water itself suggesting that like water, our history has been mercurial, yet the consequences and benefits of using it mindfully are eternal.

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*in addition to lighting the Sabbath candles and separating the challah. Today “challah” refers to the bread eaten on Shabbat and holidays. Originally “challah” referred to the small piece of dough that was set aside for the kohen (priest) when making bread (Numbers 15:20). Today Jewish women bless, separate and burn a small piece of dough when making bread in remembrance of the portion given to God (through the Temple priests) in ancient times. This ritual reminds us that sustenance ultimately comes from God and transforms baking bread into a spiritual act. 

Links: 

http://judaism.about.com/cs/women/ht/challah_sep.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh

http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/mikveh.html

Kaddish: A Blessing For Solace, Peace & Redemption

November 23, 2013

ImageMy decision to include the Mourner’s Kaddish in An Illumination Of Blessings was a rather difficult one, because, having always associated this blessing with death and mourning, I initially did not like the idea of incorporating a somber element in this book. Yet, as I reviewed the other blessings completed to date and considered those remaining to be illuminated, I felt that my task could not be complete without it.

So before I dismissed the idea out of hand, I delved into the blessing’s origins and found that the word kaddish translates as ‘sanctification’ and the prayer itself (which is in the Aramaic language rather than Hebrew) is for the sanctification of G-d’s Name. Why Aramaic? Because this was the common language spoken by Jews during the period of the destruction of the First Temple through the completion of the Talmud, nearly 1400 years ago. It was thought that the prayer was important enough to be understood for it needed to be recited by all, particularly those without formal Hebrew education.

The oldest known version of the Mourner’s Kaddish comes from the ninth century prayerbook Siddur Rav Amram Gaon. Rav Amram was the first rabbinic scholar to arrange a complete prayer liturgy for home and synagogue use. However, regarding the prayer itself, Shira Schoenberg at the Jewish Virtual Library site notes: “The first mention of mourners saying Kaddish at the end of the service is in the Or Zarua (literally “Light is Sown”) a 13th century halakhic (legal) writing by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna. The Kaddish at the end of the service then became designated as Kaddish Yatom or Mourner’s Kaddish (literally, Orphan’s Kaddish).” Most enlightening however, was my discovery at the Chabad site that the Kaddish prayer was meant to praise G-d and express the profound desire for the perfection of all Creation (a detail of which is illustrated within the image of the Torah); it was never intended to be about the finality of death at all!

Although the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is recited during every traditional prayer service and at funerals, it is only one version among five; each of which has been modified over the centuries for use at different occasions. The others include: the Half-Kaddish (Chatzi Kaddish) read between sections of a prayer unit, the Whole Kaddish (Kaddish Shalem) which concludes the main section of a prayer unit, the Rabbi’s Kaddish, recited after a public lecture on the Torah to honor communal scholars, and the Kaddish HaGadol, recited on completion of reading a tractate of the Talmud or an order of the Mishnah (Torah commentary). It is also part of a siyyum, the ceremony held by a community when a new Torah is completely written for them. Again, none of these ever mentions death or dying; they are prayers for life, peace and redemption as they affirm the greatness of G-d. Indeed, each version of the prayer ends with “He who makes peace in His High Places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel and let us say, Amen.”

My illustration for the Mourner’s Kaddish in the book includes two sources of light and remembrance shown in the lower left corner; an ancient clay oil lamp and a sturdy candle impaled on a medieval pewter candlestick. These reflect an allusion found in the Book of Proverbs (20:27) which considers the soul of man to be G-d’s candle. In Judaism, candles are the universal symbol for the divine spark (nitzotz) which enlivens our bodies. And in spiritual meditation, we are encouraged to to allow a space in ourselves for G-d’s Light to illuminate us for our own benefit and for our interactions with others. 

Perhaps this idea can be understood as a reflection of the process of ‘tzimtzum’ or contraction, explained in Kabbalah, in which G-d, during the process of Creation, made a space within Himself for us and our world to exist.

Floating above the clay oil lamp is the Hebrew letter zayin which corresponds to the number seven in gematria or the system of Hebrew numerology. The zayin illustrates that the seven words beginning with the first ‘Amen’ in the Mourner’s Kaddish are comprised of twenty-eight letters. When the ‘Amen‘(which means ‘so be it’) is included, the verse contains eight words. This may seem like an obscure nit of information, but in esoteric Jewish philosophy, the number six represents our material world while the number seven represents the spirituality contained within that world. With traditional belief maintaining that our material world was created in six days, then the Sabbath or the seventh day became the spiritual catalyst that would complete it, while the number eight represents the idea of that spiritual catalyst’s ability to move beyond that world as we comprehend it. Finally, the number twenty-eight is the numerical attribution of the Hebrew word ‘koach’ or strength, which tells us that when we say the prayer with all of our strength, we can connect to the spiritual dimensions that allow us to virtually transcend our material world.

I decided to include this version of the Kaddish for the book because I wanted to emphasize that while the Mourner’s Kaddish resembles the other versions, I feel it best serves two universal purposes; to enable spiritual continuity (as symbolized by the ancient oil lamp and later medieval candlestick) while it bonds the generations together through ritual and memory.