Posts Tagged ‘Talmud’

An Illumination Of Blessings Is For Real!

September 22, 2014

Dear Backers of An Illumination Of Blessings:

As of this past Monday, September 15th, I am pleased to announce that with your generous support and encouragement, this Kickstarter project is done and delivered! It’s been a wonderfully challenging year and a half of research, writing, design and illustration for these 36 illuminated blessings including the  interactions with all of you throughout the process. Recently, I’ve been asked whether another edition of blessings will follow to bring us closer to the originally intended count of 100. Perhaps, if there are a significant number of requests for it. But for the moment a bit of recovery is in order as I contemplate a short list of options (which include both Judaic and secular themes) for my next project. Your questions and suggestions are welcome!  Again, thank you all from the bottomless-ness of my creative well: I look forward to continuing our creative conversations and collaborations!

Ilene Winn-Lederer, September 18, 2014

Beholding Beauty : A Blessing Of Appreciation

June 25, 2014

BlessingForBeautifulBirds+TreesRGBBeauty is in the eye of the beholder,” goes the old cliché, but it is a quick sound bite at best because it doesn’t attempt to define beauty nor does it offer insight into alternative, more subtle perspectives.

At first glance, this blessing recited upon seeing something beautiful in our world seems ‘sound-bit-ish’ and similar to the one recited on encountering a fragrant tree. Both are found in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 58b) and both express appreciation to our Creator for the gifts of Creation and of our five senses. The latter focuses exclusively on the sight and smell of certain trees while the former also recognizes trees, but includes the singular esthetic beauty of humans, birds and animals that we acknowledge with our senses of sound, touch and taste. Together, they serve to enhance perception of our environment and help us to connect with our divine origins.

The words of the blessing seem simple enough, however the concept of beauty in life is anything but. So how does an artist begin to choose which elements will represent the depths of meaning inherent in this blessing? I knew that I needed to portray some sort of tree along with a person, animal or bird, though I didn’t know which of these I would choose or why.

Of all my references, the Torah and its associated collections of commentary from across the  centuries have never failed me, even on quests that are secular in nature.

As I thought about what sort of tree to illustrate for this blessing on natural phenomena, I remembered a midrash on the Book of Genesis concerning the mysterious Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) and the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The former bore fruit which kept Adam and Eve healthy and immortal while the fruit of the latter was forbidden to the first couple for reasons not explained. Perhaps this was the model for the inscrutable mitzvot known as ‘chukkim’? These are a category of commandments which are to be followed without question as a test of our obedience and respect for our Creator.

Inevitably, mysteries invite speculation. This midrash suggests why no one knows what types of trees they were. Despite the arguments of medieval churchmen, scholars and artists that the Tree of Knowledge was an apple tree (which did not exist in the Middle East at that time), many other species have joined the fray with inventive justifications; wheat, pomegranate, quince, St. John’s Bread (carob) and date palms, even grapevines and fig trees. These justifications are too numerous to list here but can be found in B’reishit Rabbah, a book of commentary on Genesis*.

The commentary concluded that since Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge against the prohibition and precipitated their disastrous expulsion from the Garden of Eden, its species would always remain unknown to honor its innocence in bringing death to the world and to prevent its extinction from Earth’s biosphere.

Although the nature of the Tree of Life also remains unknown (except as a metaphor of Torah wisdom), Rabbi Abba of Acre** offers the etrog (citrus medica) as a likely candidate. He suggests that Eve found the wood of the etrog tree edible (Genesis 3:6). Later authorities such as Rabbi Abahu*** translate the word etrog as ‘ha-dar’ or that which dwells, because its fruit, in both young and old phases remains on the tree through all seasons.**** The ‘pri etz hadar’ or fruit of the beautiful tree is described in the book of Leviticus (23:40) and though it originated in India, it has been cultivated in ancient Judea for more than 2000 years.

In common use, the word ‘ha-dar’ comes from the Aramaic language and means ‘beautiful’. Because an etrog is the only fruit that tastes like its tree, both are considered beautiful. The fruit is said to symbolize the human heart as it represents a person who is able to internalize scholarship and also perform good deeds (mitzvot). There was much more commentary on the etrog, but at this point, the etrog tree became my obvious choice for this illustration. In this interpretation, I’ve given my virtual Etz Chayim 22 etrogim, symbolizing the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet which, according to Kabbalah, are the building blocks of Creation.

For my representative choice of beautiful birds, the commentaries on this blessing offered the fine examples of peacocks and parrots because these species are unique  for their graceful forms and beautiful colors. I arbitrarily added the cockatoo, a distant cousin of the parrot once known as the crested parrot, for compositional balance and simply because I love to draw them! To complete my illustration, I’ve prefaced the blessings English and Hebrew calligraphy with initial caps constructed from macaw parrot and peacock feathers respectively.

If this blessing and my visual interpretation of it put you on the path of marveling daily at the world around us and expressing your appreciation of it’s myriad gifts, then perhaps I’ve begun to meet my own purpose in this effort. Thanks for staying with me; the book is becoming more of a reality with each post!

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To learn more about this successfully funded Kickstarter project and pre-order your own book and prints, please visit:
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1330347473/an-illumination-of-blessings
and: http://winnlederer.com/blessings/index.htm
PLEASE NOTE:
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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*B’reishit Rabbah 15:7, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, ed., Hayim Nahman Bialik, Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (New York: Schocken Books, 1992) pp. 21–2


** Abba bar Acre was a 3rd century Palestinian ‘amora’ (commentator on the Oral Torah).

*** Rabbi Abahu was a 2nd generation ‘amora’ living in Caesarea, a major influence on ethics, philosophy and religion. http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/2443094/jewish/The-Singular-Tree.htm/mobile/false https://sites.google.com/site/rabbiabahu/stories-and-biographical-info

**** http://www.chabad.org/holidays/JewishNewYear/template_cdo/aid/746603/jewish/Why-cant-I-use-a-lemon.htm/mobile/false

Beastly Blessings

June 18, 2014

Beastly BlessingsI’ve long been fascinated by medieval illuminated manuscripts and their history, but the tiny details in their margins and the
inventive illustrations that accompany the painstaking textual calligraphy are elaborate weavings of words and images that
continue to influence my illustrations for this current Kickstarter-funded project.

This week, for An Illumination Of Blessings, I present one that originates in Judaism but is universal in content. It acknowledges
the Creator by virtue of the unusual creatures that inhabit our world and can be recited upon seeing a rare or unusual animal.

As I considered how best to interpret this blessing yet reconcile it with my love of drawing all sorts of creatures both real and fanciful,
my imagination teemed with images, all begging to inhabit the page. It seemed to be a difficult choice until I came across references in
the Talmud (Berakhot 58b) and Shulchan Aruch (225:8) which offered some parameters for interpretation.

As one of two similar blessings for observing living phenomena, it recognizes and praises the Creator for the various
strange and extraordinary forms of animal and human life that are not conventionally beautiful. The other blessing is recited upon seeing exceptionally beautiful people or animals and praises the Creator for placing such beauty in the world. A commentary in the Gemara* specifies that the first blessing refers to the sighting of a monkey or an elephant. One rather strange explanation is offered; that humans were transmogrified into elephants and monkeys as punishment for their participation in the Tower of Babel débacle! Is this anti-evolutionary tale not a great plot for a horror flick? An idea with greater appeal to me was that monkeys and elephants are considered to resemble humans; the monkey for its body shape and manual dexterity and the elephant for its smooth, hairless skin and a trunk which it uses as though it were a hand.

While monkeys and elephants are common sights today at any zoo, in medieval times they were considered exotic and rare, inspiring the creation of special blessings. Since travel to foreign lands beyond Europe was undertaken primarily by nobility and merchants, these creatures were often represented in manuscripts by illustrations that interpreted word-of-mouth descriptions by such travelers.

Complicating the medieval artist’s task was the Second Commandment prohibition against creating ‘graven images’. However, because creativity is in itself a force of nature, these artists were not discouraged and gave free rein to their imaginations as they incorporated fantastical beasts and homunculi into their manuscripts.

One other reference finally clarified the concept of my illustration for this blessing; a discussion of the elephant as a metaphor of the Torah presented by Dr. Marc Michael Epstein in his classic book, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Penn State University, 1997)**

After reading this enlightening chapter, I began to wonder why elephants were often shown saddled with ‘howdahs’ that sometimes resembled castle towers. Further reading revealed that the word ‘howdah’ is from the Hindi and Arabic languages referring to portable shelters used for travel but also for hunting and military battles. Carvings of elephants wearing howdahs are often seen as pieces in chess, the symbolic game of war.*** Taking this idea a step further, I imagined that a howdah could also represent a sort of portable synagogue; an ideological ‘castle’ as its own metaphor of Jewish history.

Accordingly, the first blessing for strange animals is illustrated here with a monkey riding an elephant whose ‘howdah’ or ‘turret’ recalls a medieval synagogue. It was inspired by an illustration in a 15th century volume of the Mishneh Torah written by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century. A decorative border of fanciful flowers and dragons surrounds them in tribute to the master medieval illuminators
whose timeless work continues to inspire my own.
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Dear Backers: The Blessing For Rare and Extraordinary Animals is the 32nd of 36 blessings to be completed for An Illumination Of Blessings! We’re almost there!
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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 your contribution of $500 to the top reward level of 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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* rabbinic teachings compiled after the 70 C.E. destruction of the Second Temple
** The Elephant and the Law, pp. 39-69
***I remembered seeing this image as a sculpture in London near the Elephant & Castle Underground station.
   This image is part of my blog at Imaginarius: https://imaginarius13.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/the-tragic-beauty-of-ideas/

A Rainbow Of Blessings

June 1, 2014

RainbowBlessingWhen the shadow of a rainstorm has passed and we are able to witness a rainbow illuminating our corner of the world, the most common association of this phenomenon in the Judeo-Christian tradition is with the legend of Noah’s Ark. Schoolchildren are routinely taught that a rainbow symbolizes divine forgiveness for human global corruption and the divine promise to never allow another cataclysmic flood to wipe out nearly all of the life on this planet.

Since that anti-diluvian era, every culture has created their own idea of the rainbow, endowing it with backstories and attributes that range from magical to mundane. Scholars, musicians, artists and poets have made much of those characteristics as have social activists, employing rainbow colors to promote their agendas of social change through racial, gender and sexual equality.

As I considered how to illustrate the idea of a rainbow for this blessing, I recalled a wonderful tertiary (triple) rainbow that I had seen over the east end of Pittsburgh in the late 1990’s. Its three overlapping arches stretched from Squirrel Hill to perhaps somewhere beyond the North Hills, but of course that endpoint remains a mystery. Regretfully, that was before the convenience of iPhone cameras that could easily record it. Nevertheless, I still remember that it appeared in a sky of an unusual grey-green color which made it seem so much brighter.

Suspended in the majesty of that moment, I didn’t care that science views the colors of the rainbow as wavelengths of light traveling at particular frequencies or that their visibility depends on our vantage point relative to the sun’s position and the presence of sufficient raindrops to refract and reflect its light. Even Sir Isaac Newton’s decision in 1672 to divide the spectrum into seven colors seemed frivolous, especially since it was based on the ancient Greek philosophy positing a connection between the colors, the musical notes, the days of the week and the seven planets in our solar system that were known at the time. From my perspective, that rainbow just seemed too magical for such mundane explanations. And so I began to look into the more subtle interpretations that have found their way into our collective understanding; which made thinking about rainbows in terms of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism more appealing.

Sifting through my reference collection, I listened to the voices of sages and scholars through the centuries absorbing their complex commentaries on Bereshit/Genesis. Among these were citations in the Talmud (Hagigah 16a) and in the Zohar (1:71b) which state that one who gazes too intently at the rainbow will compromise his eyesight. Though several opinions are given for this consequence, I found the rainbow’s connection with Ezekiel’s vision of the Divine Chariot (merkabah) most intriguing: ‘Like the appearance of the bow which shines in the clouds on a day of rain, such was the surrounding radiance. That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of the Lord. When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face…”*

I understood these comments as warnings to remain humble in the presence of holiness which further readings alluded to the presence of Shekhinah or the feminine aspect of the Divine. She is the accessible intermediary for Its sefirot** whose many symbolic attributes include their colors which correspond to our perception of the rainbow.

Then there were often fanciful folktales stemming from commentaries on the Book of Genesis whose narratives were both cautionary and poetic. Louis Ginsberg, in his Legends of the Bible, lists the rainbow as one of the ten extraordinary things*** that came into being in the twilight of Creation, although it was not meant to be seen until the time of Noah when the dual concepts of justice and mercy were introduced as the Divine remedy for transgression and repentance.

Such stories suggested to me that the Torah is in itself a rainbow whose colors reflect our spiritual character and mandate, and second, that we, as imaginative creatures, ever curious about who and why we are, can assign whatever significance we wish to any of the natural phenomena that occur on this planet.

On the tail of these thoughts, the image of a tallit flashed in my mind’s eye. I recalled from my studies that the tallit, worn during prayer is often compared to Divine wings which protect us via G-d’s love and commandments. Also, in Jewish tradition a bird is the metaphor of the Shekhinah who comforts and protects Israel during the centuries of exile. Though I do not yet wear one, I liked the idea of being wrapped in a tallit to evoke Shekhinah since it lends credence to the recognition of the sacred feminine.

I then began to wonder about the stripes of a tallit, or prayer shawl and whether they might serve as a rainbow metaphor, even though they are traditionally black in color. As an artist, I knew that theoretically, the color black contains all the colors, so it wasn’t much of a stretch. But then, I came upon a story that Rabbi Zalman Schacter- Shalomi tells in his book, My Life In Jewish Renewal (Rowman & Littlefield, September, 2012) when he explains the significance of his specially made rainbow tallit. His intention was to wear a physical meme as a reminder of Creation and complexity of our world in the light of G -d’s unity.

Eventually, these concepts and my memory of that tertiary rainbow crystallized in my imagination and led to the imagery which accompanies this blessing for the rainbow.

And so, I decided the Shekhinah would be the focus of my illustration. Although I have often interpreted her in my works, the potential iterations for doing so are limited only by imagination. Here she is wearing a crown of feathers (to mirror the bird metaphor) and is embraced by her rainbow tallit. Its colors symbolize the days of Creation. My Shekhinah also balances a crystal revealing the four elements (air, earth, fire and water) to represent the constant physical manifestations of Creation under divine auspices. Her cloven-hoofed ‘feet’ are a fanciful interpretation that is also drawn from Ezekiel’s vision.

If what we imagine gives us comfort, fosters doubt or amuses us, we can also learn how important it is to keep wondering and embellishing these ideas for generations to come.

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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.

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*Ezekiel 1:29

** divine energies that form and influence our fundamental reality and the spiritual state of our souls

***In the twilight, between the sixth day and the Sabbath, ten creations were, brought forth: the rainbow, invisible until Noah’s time; the manna; water springs, whence Israel drew water for his thirst in the desert; the writing upon the two tables of stone given at Sinai; the pen with which the writing was written; the two tables themselves; the mouth of Balaam’s she-ass; the grave of Moses; the cave in which Moses and Elijah dwelt; and the rod of Aaron, with its blossoms and its ripe almonds.” -Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Bible p.44

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.

 

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.

 

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!

Of Memories And Realities

June 8, 2012

As always, I am surprised at how the stories and lessons in the Torah are able to transcend their times and reach into our own. Understanding how requires projecting and transposing their symbolism into our present era. This week’s reading, Parashah Beha’alotekha , addresses a range of instructions and events in the Israelites’ post-Exodus sojourn that include Tabernacle/Mishkan rituals for the Levites (priestly class) and the establishment of a second Passover (Pesach Sheni) for those who were not permitted to participate in the first one due to ritual impurities. These are further detailed in the AfterImages section of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009)

Today, I’ve decided to focus on a third element that is also addressed in this parashah; the events caused by the sometimes tragic disconnect between what we remember and what is.  The images above are selected from the illustrations for this parashah and presented here with a brief explanation of their symbolism.

The figure floating above the sand is an allegory for some of the Israelites who have come perilously close to idolatry in their weariness and boredom with the abundant supply of manna (buried in the sand). I imagined them as a hybrid creature of man and fish; a parody of the pagan fish-god Dagon angrily demanding meat while voicing idealized memories of Egypt’s plentiful cuisine. He is holding a backwards-facing letter nun’ that appears twice in this section of Parashah Beha’alotekha, surrounding the account of the Israelites leaving Mt. Sinai and their subsequent rebellious demands. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim of Luntchitz, also known as the ‘Kli Yakar’ explains this phenomenon. In the Aramaic language, the word for fish is ‘nune‘. A fish instinctively turns towards water, as it understands where it can remain alive. Conversely, the Israelites, in their eagerness for the Promised Land, left Mt. Sinai without remorse, turning away from their source of life; acting metaphorically as a backward ‘nune‘ or fish. God’s retribution for their attitude comes at Kivroth HaTaavah (also called ‘The Graves of Craving’), a day’s march from the Sinai wilderness. A multitude of quails descend on the camps, sating their hunger, but leaving behind a devastating plague. Accordingly, the second backwards nun appears just out of reach near a hand protruding in the agony of death. A discussion in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 75b) offers a mystical foundation for God’s choice of quails as meat. This type of bird is naturally saturated with fat and oil. Oil, in mystical texts is often compared to the sefirot of Chochma, or wisdom. So the oily quail meat may have been an altruistic attempt to impart wisdom to the Israelites, but one that failed since they were too attached to their own bodily needs to attend to their spiritual needs.

Moving forward, I find a potential parallel between those ancient Israelites and our religious fundamentalists, politicians and the wealthy 1% who support them. In their ideological nostalgia for the 1950’s, an era of burgeoning national prosperity and civic growth fueled by two disastrous world wars, those fatalistic desires have become a foundation of quicksand beneath us, eroding moral behavior, political and social balance within a gravely ailing economy. Despite the often clairvoyant voices of media pundits and commentators, we seem stuck in that quicksand. Like those unfortunate Israelites eager to satisfy their hunger, we too are enslaved by our creature comforts and the tantalizing consumer culture we’ve created that enables them.

Nevertheless, I believe we have the potential to be better than our material needs by looking inwards and trying to understand the essence of our humanity that such materialism is decimating. Do we truly need the latest SUV, grand McMansion or expensive ocean cruise? If so, why?

Passover: Thought For Food?

April 12, 2011

As an illustrator, the ramifications of the Old Testament’s Second Commandment invariably gives me pause for thought; particularly in this week leading up to the Passover holiday. While I enjoy revisiting traditional illustrated Haggadot like the pedestrian Maxwell House edition and its lux cousin, the Syzk Haggadah with it’s lush, detailed imagery, I am also interested in seeing the versions present at various family sedarim that include feminist and gender-free haggadot, the Moss Haggadah, Leonard Baskin’s illustrated Haggadah as well as various  reproductions of antique Haggadot.

Of course, new interpretations crop up each year and while each of these have their merit, I have yet to see one that dares to depart in a satisfying way from the traditional format and text in both the narrative and accompanying visuals. It is a challenge that I would like to tackle provided I am offered the opportunity to do so by a foundation or private collector who is willing to refrain from oppressive art direction. I can only offer one guarantee; that it will be beautiful, thought-provoking and like no other. Meanwhile, here is some imagery to think about…

(above) Between Heaven & Earth (2001) from the exhibition:Encountering The Second Commandment/Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh

In this visual interpretation of the second commandment, two angels appear in the upper and lower waters of creation separated only by a narrow, fiery horizon. the angel of the upper waters reaches towards the commandment written in Hebrew, representing its heavenly origin. The angel within the lower waters of earth containing the English translation of the commandment is a distinct reflection of the one above, in the sense that we were created in god’s image. While reaching for its’ feather, fallen in the transition or translation to the mundane world below, it grasps the upper angel’s hand, attempting to retain the tenets of holiness. I created this image as a metaphor to explain the struggle of artists through the ages who have attempted to balance their need for self-expression with their needs for community and religious observance. (The title of this work would also become part of the title of my book, Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

Cover Illustration: Passover issue for The Baltimore Jewish Times (2001)


The interior illustrations for this issue were b/w line & halftone like these:

Cover illustration & calligraphy for The Haggadah: Translated & Transliterated (Judaica Press, 2002) The interior illustrations were B/W halftone details pulled from the cover illustration.

Of Plagues & Promises: Detail from illustration for Parashat Bo from Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009). Although Parashat Acharey Mot will be read this year on the Sabbath before Passover, the imagery for Parashat Bo will be more readily associated with the story of the exodus in the Haggadah.


Of all the plagues brought on Egypt by God, the 10th and last, Death of the Firstborn, is the most horrific. In this illustration I have presented the 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 Talmud it states that, “If God created the evil inclination, He also created the Torah as its antidote.” Perhaps that is all the answer we need…?
Wishing you a thoughtful Pesach…

Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary

September 10, 2009

From Pomegranate Communications: Between Heaven and Earth is a signature work from a consummate artist whose vision is informed by both tradition and her vigorous imagination. There is nothing else like it in the world.”

192 pages with 108 full-page color illustrations. Size: 8 x 10 in. Hardcover smyth-sewn casebound book, with jacket. ISBN 978-0-7649-5098-8. List Price:; $45.
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