Envisioning Motherhood at the Sabbath Table
This essay is the third and last in a series of posts this week exploring a Jewish spiritual view of Mothers Day, celebrated in America. These posts incorporate artwork and ideas in my new Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification.
In the earlier posts in this short series, we examined the roots of the Jewish mystical conception of the Shekhinah as the mother of all souls. Let us now examine how other elements of the Friday evening traditions reflect this concept, beginning with Shabbat candle-lighting.
Although the practice of lighting candles as the Sabbath descends began simply to illuminate the Shabbat table so that the family could enjoy their festive meal together, the light from the candles has come to represent far more than simple pragmatism. In the illuminations you see here, I express the exchange of prayer and light between the heavens above and human world below as inaugurate Shabbat with candle light, and begin to draw Divine Wisdom down to our material realm.
The author of the seventeenth century kabbalistic manual, Hemdat Yamim, suggests that the light from the Shabbat candles adds to the additional soul, known as the neshama yeterah, that flowers within the soul of every Jew during Shabbat—it is this neshama yeterah that brings our Shabbat rest and pleasure. Since the neshama yeterah flows into each one of us from the feminine Shekhinah, that funnel for all divine energy into our world, it is expressly the woman of the house who gets the privilege of lighting the candles, thus reenacting the unification of the human and divine spheres. This same writer compares the candlelight that reaching toward Heaven to Jacob’s Ladder (Gen 28:12), that bridge between heaven and earth, suggesting that the candlelight gladdens and blesses the hearts of those it illuminates. This Hebrew illumination presents my grandmother’s and mother’s silver candlesticks within a design presenting depictions of sources of light and human understandings of the cosmos. The blue and gold motif represents the shefa, the kabbalistic conception of divine energy flowing throughout the universe—here this energy becomes the candle flames. We view the candles against the dusk sky lit by the setting sun while the ever-evolving deep sky wheels far above our heads and homes. The geometric pattern surrounding the words of the blessing is a classical Moorish pattern that was part of the visual surroundings of the Sephardic community. The pattern expresses the flow of all geometric form from a single central point, symbolizing the origin of the universe in the Creator whose work, and rest, we celebrate on Shabbat.
The illumination is edged by two borders of decorative calligraphy. These borders are drawn from the tradition of women’s meditations, called tkhines. These lovely poems often deal directly with motherhood. Here, the outer band in blue offers a Yemenite tkhine, [a women’s devotional poem], for women to say while enjoying the light of the candles, collected by the twentieth-century Yemenite rabbi, Yosef Kapah:
“O, my Master; save us and deliver us and have mercy upon us, and have mercy upon my children and their father. Imbue them with wisdom, elevate their path, and smooth their life’s trails. Grant them favor and acceptance, endow them with complete health, and fulfill their wishes. Keep troubled times from them, and allow no tormentor or enemy to prevail over them. Guide them in Your way, to observe the Torah.” (trans., Aliza Lavie, in A Jewish Woman’s Prayerbook, 2008)
The inner band, in green, presents a famous medieval view of how the human soul reflects divine radiance. In his philosophical work in verse, The Royal Crown, the eleventh century Spanish poet and philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol attempts to reconcile Torah with the neo-Platonic thought of his day, exploring ideas of the flow of divine energy through the cosmos, how divine energy flows from God, through the stars and planets, inward toward the earth.
“You are the light of the upper regions,
and the eye of every soul that’s pure
will take you in—
and the clouds of sin
in the sinner’s soul will obscure you.
Your invisible light in the world
will be see in the world to come
on the mountain of God.”
(Trans., Peter Cole, in Selected Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol,2001.)
The English illumination surrounds the translation of the blessing with similar geometric and astronomical imagery. The green band of decorative text presents the English translation of the Ibn Gabirol’s description of divine light, while the blue band presents a passage from another meditation to be recited after candlelighting composed by the 19th century German rabbi’s daughter and poet, Fanny Neuda:
“Shabbat is the crown and the glorious ornament of the week.
It ennobles our aspirations, consecrates our enjoyment,
Pours soft, heavenly light
Across our pilgrim path on earth,
And carries us back to you
Whenever weekday aspirations remove us from you.
We look up to you, O God,
With pure confidence, in love and humility.
Every thought of you lifts the veil from our eyes,
The light increases within our souls… ” (trans., Dinah Berland, Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women, 2007)
The notion of the flow of wisdom into the world flows also into the kabbalistic understanding of Friday night Kiddush. Now, we sing Kiddush every Shabbat, but we don’t often stop to really reflect upon what it’s saying—or enjoy it as poetry. Let us review the Kiddush poem; notice its evocation of the sense of the beautiful order of creation that we saw expressed in Psalm 104.
“Evening came and morning came—
the sixth day.
The sky, the earth and all their vast contents were completed,
By the seventh day, God had finished all the work that He had done,
and so he rested on the seventh day from all His work that He had done.
He blessed the seventh day and set it apart as holy,
for that was when He rested from making all the things that God created.
With the consent of all present:
Blessed are you, Lord our God, who created the fruit of the vine.
Blessed are you, Lord our God, who set us apart by his commandments,
was pleased with us,
and made His holy Sabbath ours in love and pleasure,
a remembrance of the work of creation.
Indeed, it is the first of all holy festivals
a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.
Indeed, You chose us and set us apart among the nations
and made Your holy Sabbath ours in love and pleasure.
Blessed are You, Lord, who makes the Sabbath holy.”
(trans., Raymond P. Scheindlin, in Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification)
Jewish tradition of course inaugurates almost all sacred times with blessings over wine. The wine to which the young woman in the Song of Songs compares to her lover’s kisses symbolizes Divine wisdom, according to the kabbalistic commentary on The Song of Songs by the twelfth century scholar, Ezra of Gerona. Jewish mystical tradition suggests that Shabbat is the time of the week when the light of that wisdom flows most abundantly into our material realm. Jewish lore compares the Torah — the essential expression of Divine wisdom—to water, the physical substance that apart from its component oxygen, is most essential to sustaining life. My illuminations of the Friday night Kiddush express the mystical metaphor of how the wine symbolizes Divine Wisdom in the material world. The micrographic text bordering the two paintings presents the passage from Proverbs 8 that we read before, describing the woman, Wisdom, as God’s oldest companion.
This Hebrew illumination plays with the image of the wine fountains with which many of us share Kiddush with the family and friends at our tables. These cups, however, are not arrayed on tiered trays that pipe wine from the central cup at top into those at the lower levels, and this wine is more than the fermented juice of the grape. Instead, here the wine overflows from one level to the next, following the Kabbalistic metaphor that describes how Divine Wisdom flows from the highest, most hidden aspects of God, downward until it reaches the material world, here, transforming to water. One scholar likened the stream of Divine Wisdom into the world to flowing water:
“For Wisdom [hokhmah] is the Holy One’s quality of goodness… [describing the other Sefirot]… because their origin is from it, it provides the essence of their sustenance. The remaining Sefirot possess but one request, toward which the entirety of their desire is directed. That is to ascend and enter into the sacred sanctuary, to draw water from the honored fonts of Wisdom.”
Here, the vessels through which the wine flows symbolize the ten sephirot, or emanations of God, and the mystical tradition assigns each one a characteristic color, and I’ve represented them with cups painted in those colors.
The pyramid-shaped organization of the wine cups alludes to the human understanding of order in the universe. Why do I care about the order of the universe in this context? An important aspect of this project to me—in fact, an important way for us moderns to understand Kabbalat Shabbat—is the similarity of fundamental questions of the unity of all matter in Kabbalah, to the unity of all matter in modern physics and cosmology. Just as the Kabbalistic system ascribes the number ten cosmic significance, for instance, the ten Sephirot, ancient Greek Pythagorean philosophy, the foundation of modern mathematics, also regarded the number ten as holy, and considered the pyramid formed by the “generators of geometric dimensions” in which I have arranged the cups, as emblematic of unity in the universe. The four levels of this Pythagorean pyramid trace the development of geometric form as follows: at the top level the single cup establishes a single point, in the second level the two cups represent the two points determining a line, The three cups at the third level represent the three points needed to define a plane, and at bottom, the four cups symbolize the four points necessary to define the simplest three-dimensional form or space.
The water flows down into the material world, tumbling over boulders, perhaps into a mountain stream. Ezra compared rough boulders to Wisdom; the stony cracks and fissures in the rocks that I included in this painting symbolize the task of looking for Wisdom in hidden, hard places.
The English illumination offers a painting of a single brimming family Kiddush cup, bearing not only the wine, but also imagery suggesting another aspect of the Shabbat whose holiness we recognize with that wine. You can see eighteen apples growing on the two trees, alluding to the numerical equivalent of the word, chai, “life.” But there’s a deeper meaning. The Zohar compares the Shekhinah, the feminine emanation closest to the material realm to “a field of holy apples,” and on Friday night “the King is joined with the Sabbath-Bride; the holy field is fertilized, and from their sacred union the souls of the righteous are produced.” The kabbalistic tradition extends this heavenly union to earthly couples. A couple of generations before Isaac Luria, a famous Turkish Sephardic kabbalist, Rabbi Meir ibn Gabbai, wrote that on Friday night, couples “are crowned in the mystery of the additional soul which wafts down from its supernal source onto the [Shekhinah], … from there, ‘the soul descends and bathes in the spices of the Garden of Eden’ [continuing its descent until] it rests upon those…who keep my Sabbaths…[These couples] choose [to have sexual relations] when it is the desire of their Creator—during the time of celestial coupling, the union of the Bride with Her Beloved.’” (trans., Seth Brody in Sod Ha-Shabbat, 1999) In Jewish mystical thought, the earthly mother— consciously or not—embodies the heavenly mother.
Let’s return now, as I promised in the first post in this series, to A Powerful Woman, Aishet Hayil. The text itself, Proverbs 31, verses 10-31, presents an image of a woman who excels in both spheres, household and business management, and moral character—both matters of mind and material. It is this woman that the founders of the Kabbalat Shabbat traditions, Rabbi Isaac Luria and his colleagues in Tsfat, likened to the female Wisdom described earlier in Proverbs, as we read, and used to praise Wisdom’s contribution to the Shabbat home, to the family’s essential Jewish life.
Here, I’ve presented the Aishet Hayil, The Powerful Woman, as a strong oak tree. My grandmother, Bessie Pakman Swift, z”l, embodied everything about the Aishet Hayil for me and all our family—her dining room table, made for her in London during the early 1930s, is now my own Shabbat table, and my own new little grand-daughter is the sixth generation of my family to gather around this table. I spent the night my grandmother passed away doing an Aishet Chayil picture dedicated to her for my mother, designed around the oak tree image. One of my favorite passages in the little Talmudic ethical tract, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, compares the truly wise person to a tree that has not only a big showy leaf canopy, but also strong, if invisible, roots that anchor and nourish it, supporting it through any adversity. That is the tree I’ve painted here, including symbolism readers might recognize from my previous books—its trunk supporting roses and grapes, its roots sheltering the perfumed myrrh used in the Temple incense, the fragrant pink lilies that symbolize the value of the Ten Commandments in the imperfect human world, while the gazelle grazing at the side reminds us of the undying love of Israel and the Divine, of the masculine and feminine aspects of divinity, and of human couples, as we welcome Divine wisdom to our Shabbat tables. And now, as we approach Mother’s Day we appreciate the profound wisdom and divine energy that we human mothers channel into our daily world.
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 owe Sharon and Steven Lieberman a deep debt of gratitude for funding the publication of this work. 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.