This essay is the first of a series of three posts this week, exploring the Jewish spiritual aspects of Mothers Day, celebrated in America. The paintings and ideas included here are drawn from my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification.
Mother’s Day is coming up shortly in America. While I’ve never been keen on the corporate origin of this secular holiday, I’ve nonetheless nursed an affection for it—I first became a mother just a couple of days before Mother’s Day fell that year. And now, that son is a new father, his own wife a new mother, and they have a delicious baby daughter of their own. While Mother’s Day rolls around only once a year, we gaze into a Jewish spiritual mirror of this greeting-card holiday every week….and what a glowing view of motherhood shines back at us!
Essential ideas within our Shabbat traditions express many of the thoughts and feelings that underlie our honoring of the mother, and all the things motherhood at its core means—all the profound stuff upon which the way women meet our daily responsibilities rests.
Over the course of three short posts, we will explore the meaning of wisdom in Tanakh and the Jewish mystical tradition. This is going to be a pretty wild tour—not in our stereotypical mini-van, but on more of a magic carpet, into our deepest past and the depths of our souls. We’ll examine the Shekhinah, see how this feminine attribute of God is the embodiment of wisdom on Earth, indeed the mother of all the souls of the Jews to whom we, as earthly mothers in partnership with her, give birth. We’ll explore these ideas, in part, through the illuminations I painted in my Kabbalat Shabbat book. Here you see my paintings of the Shabbat candlelighting ritual—a moment of great drama for the Jewish soul. We’ll discuss the symbolism of these paintings in a little while, but, since we are talking about Mother’s Day, I have to tell you that these candlesticks were given to my grandmother on her wedding day, my mother lights them now every Friday night and chag, and in 120 years, that will be my privilege….and my first grand-daughter, now just nine months old, will, I hope, one day light them in turn. But I digress….
In Jewish tradition, Wisdom is Woman, and we will see how that the metaphor came about, how it grew into the Jewish mystical tradition, and moved from there into Jewish prayer and culture. As souvenirs from this journey, you will take home not only a new kind of value for Mothers’ Day, not only a new joy in our Friday night traditions, but also a sense of the dignity of the broad wisdom that we all bring to every aspect of our mothering, whatever the ages of our kids and grandchildren.
We will be probing elements of Kabbalah, so let us define the term. Kabbalah is far from being a single book; it includes many books—not itself a system of magic or superstitions—although there are some well known magical traditions spinning off of it, such as the famous Golem of Prague. The word Kabbalah itself means “that which is received,” and in a nutshell, Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, is the tradition of the study of the metaphors and relationships within, among, discrete qualities of the divine, how their interplay affects human life, and equally—how human lives, our observance of Jewish tradition and law in our sacred times and spaces—affect the divine. Kabbalah is a grand system of metaphors, passed on continuously since at least the era of the First Temple, for trying to make some human sense out of the vast unknowable totality of the Almighty. And the traditions and songs spinning from it bind our families as they are handed from one generation to the next.
After gathering around the Shabbat dinner table, many of us sing Aishet Hayil, a Powerful Woman, with the understanding that we’re singing about the baalat ha’bayit, the woman of the house. But, let me offer you a little tale of long ago events at my own Shabbat table. My much beloved late first husband, David, was an astrophysicist who was deeply learned in the Jewish sources, and had been raised and educated within the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) rationalist tradition. On Friday evenings, with family and friends gathered round, and me seated beside him, every now and then David would come to the point of singing “Aishet Hayil,” A Powerful Woman, don a sweetly innocent expression and puzzle, “Aishet hayil? Mi yimtsah?” or, “a woman of valor? Who can find one?” Now, David loved me deeply, adored my work, appreciated my reasonably orderly household, especially my cooking, and so generally followed his mischievous quip by reassuring those present that he wasn’t insulting his wife, but that Aishet Hayil had little to do with praising the actual woman of the house; instead its recitation related to the kabbalistic comparison of wisdom to a woman….and as a good Litvak he had no truck with Kabbalah.
David was partially right, at least about the origin of the metaphor. The tradition includes Aishet Hayil among our Kabbalat Shabbat customs not so much to honor the specific homemaker (how many of us spend our days buying vineyards?), but rather to celebrate the role of divine Wisdom, personified as Woman, and seen in the woman of the house, in the tikkun olam, the healing of the world—to which we aspire as Shabbat arrives.
Now, the biblical view of Wisdom in Creation isn’t quite what we, in our own era, expect. Let’s fly back in time a little bit, and look at some of the characterizations of divine wisdom in Creation. We’ll return to Aishet Hayil soon, but for the moment we turn to Psalm 104, which both presents a view of Divine wisdom in Creation and connects closely with our own modern-day understanding of the word.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
O LORD, my God, You are very great;
You are clothed in glory and majesty,
wrapped in a robe of light;….
so that it shall never totter.
mountains rising, valleys sinking—
to the place You established for them.
You set bounds they must not pass
so that they never again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in torrents;
they make their way between the hills,
giving drink to all the wild beasts;
the wild asses slake their thirst.
The birds of the sky dwell beside them
and sing among the foliage.
You water the mountains from Your lofts;
the earth is sated from the fruit of Your work.
(trans., JPS TANAKH)
Psalm 104 thus describes the divine wisdom visible, tangible, in the exquisite order of Creation. In the next post, available tomorrow, Celebrating the Mother of All Souls II: Wisdom and the Shekhinah, we’ll explore how, in Jewish mysticism the divine wisdom underlying creation is funneled into the material world through the Shekhinah, and infuses us worldly mothers (and grandmothers).
Through June 15, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification is available at a 20% discount. Please visit my distributor’s store, and enter promo code SPRING2017 during checkout.
I am deeply grateful to Sharon and Steven Lieberman for funding the publication of this book. Full credits for translations and other notes are omitted in this post, but are included in the full hardback edition of Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification. Other than quotations from other works, all materials herein Copyright © Debra Band 2017. All rights reserved.