Shabbat is full of song — songs recounting God’s rest following the creation of our universe, songs celebrating its centrality in Jewish life, songs about the mystical erotic love among the divine emanations, rollicking songs about the pleasures of Shabbat meals and naps… there’s no end to our musical and poetic creativity about Shabbat across all our centuries, cultures and continents. The most fundamental of these Shabbat songs, perhaps the oldest in our liturgy, is Psalm 92, which goes back to the culture of the Temple. Surprisingly though, it has no actual mention of Shabbat!
Raymond Scheindlin, who prepared the translations and literary commentaries in my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, suggests that this psalm, whose full translation is presented at the end of this essay, “may have been selected because of its beginning and its end. It opens by depicting the worshiper’s satisfaction on contemplating God’s creative activity, a mood that one might imagine as corresponding to the mood of God Himself contemplating His own completed work on the first Sabbath day. It closes by describing the rewards of the righteous, which were understood by rabbinic thinkers as being in the World-to-Come, of which the Sabbath is a prefiguring. From an exegetical point of view, the psalm thus looks backward to Creation and forward to the World-to-Come,” the former celebrated in the series of Psalms 95-99, at the heart of the Kabbalat Shabbat service, and while the latter represents the paradise pre-figured by the Sabbath Day. I’d like to share with you my two treatments of Psalm 92, from my books, I Will Wake the Dawn: Illuminated Psalms (JPS, 2007), and my just-published Kabbalat Shabbat book mentioned above; each develops an entirely different visual midrash of the psalm.
At left and right you see the Hebrew and English illuminations of the Psalm for Shabbat from I Will Wake the Dawn. In these illuminations — in which I set out to interpret the simple meaning of the poem, rather than focus on its association with Shabbat — I was fascinated by its message. The psalmist assures us that those who care to dwell within the sacred space of God’s house, that is, the Temple and now the synagogue, flourish and life to a happy and fruitful age, while their persecutors, who may initially proliferate like grass (a frequent symbol of ephemerality in the Psalms), are ultimately cut down. God maintains fidelity to His people. The illuminations present the serene grandeur of
the sacred synagogue space, here inspired by the ancient El Ghriba synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba, which, according to local legend was first constructed by the priests fleeing the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE. The two paintings present images of the tall, straight, sweetly-fruiting date palm and the cedar of Lebanon, whose wood is so strong and fragrant that Solomon chose it for the construction of the First Temple. The psalmist describes these trees — and the righteous people they represent — growing not in nature, but deliberately transplanted into the sacred Temple itself.
Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification presented an entirely new context for interpreting this psalm, whose singing we enjoy throughout Shabbat services. These illuminations present a mystical allegory of the Shekhinah and the soul planted in the sacred space and time. The mystical tradition compares the glory of the Shekhinah, the Shabbat Bride, to the fragrance and beauty of “field of holy apples,” within which the verses rest. On the eve of Shabbat, the tradition holds, God unites with the Sabbath Bride in the holy field, and the souls of the righteous spring from their union.” As Dr. Scheindlin observed, the association of the Shekhinah with a fragrant field of holy apples may derive from a phrase in B. Ta’anit 29a associating orchards with fragrance, and pervades the mystical literature, such as the early thirteenth century Kabbalist, Ezra of Gerona’s commentary on the Song of Songs and the writings of Isaac Luria’s disciple, Haim Vital. Indeed the very courtyard outside Luria’s synagogue in Tsfat, the ARI Ashkenazi, was known as the “Field of Holy Apples.”
The branches of these apple trees grow in a fractal pattern, such as are found throughout the natural world; the fractal here has tree branches branching repetitively in the shape of the Hebrew letter, Shin, as in the divine name, Shaddai found on every mezuzah scroll. As we saw with my 2007 paintings, the potted cedar and palm derive directly from the psalm’s comparison of these two trees to the righteous person; growing not in nature but transplanted to the sacred precincts of the Temple, they flourish, their height, strength and fruit sweetly praising the Creator.
Please join me for more adventures in visual midrash in future posts, and on my website. You may add Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification to your own Shabbat celebrations, in both its exquisite full hardback, or its accompanying bencher version, by clicking here.
Psalm 92. Translation by Raymond P. Scheindlin, in Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification
A psalm. A song for the Sabbath day.
It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
To sing to Your name, O Most High!
To speak of Your favors at morning
And Your steadfastness at night
On a ten-string lyre,
Upon the lute,
humming with a harp.
For You have gladdened me with Your deeds,
I sing of what Your hands have wrought.
How great are Your deeds, O Lord,
How profound Your thoughts.
A brutish man cannot know,
A fool cannot grasp this:
When the wicked flourish life grass,
When wrongdoers blossom,
It is only for their eternal ruin.
But You are forever on high, O Lord.
For lo, Your enemies, O Lord,
For lo, Your enemies will perish,
All evildoers will be undone.
But You have raised my horn like a wild bull,
I am anointed with refreshing oil.
My eyes observed my enemies;
When the wicked rose against me,
My ears were informed;
The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
Grow lofty as a cedar in Lebanon,
Planted in the house of the Lord,
Blooming in the courts of our God.
Giving fruit into old age,
Luxuriant and verdant will they be,
Telling that God is good —
My Rock, with no wickedness in Him.