Celebrating the Mother of All Souls (II)

Wisdom and the Shekhinah

This essay is the second of a series of three posts this week exploring the Jewish spiritual aspects of Mothers Day. The paintings and ideas included here are drawn from my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification.

Jacket FrontKS-300w
Debra Band

The Book of Proverbs, Mishlei, whose last verses we chant as Aishet Chayil, was probably redacted sometime around the second century BCE, and is a major Jewish text within the broad tradition of wisdom literature that spanned the whole Hellenistic world (We note that the Far East has its own comparable, albeit separate traditions.) What is Wisdom? How does Wisdom reveal herself in the world? In my new book, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, I probe these questions.

In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, Wisdom recounts her ancient and loving companionship with God:

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of His course
As the first of His works of old.
23 In the distant past I was fashioned,
At the beginning, at the origin of the earth.
24 There was still no deep when I was brought forth,
no springs rich in water;
25 Before [the foundation of] the mountains were sunk,
Before the hills I was born.
26 He had not yet made earth and fields.
Or the world’s first clumps of clay.
27 I was there when He set the heavens into place;
When He fixed the horizon upon the deep;
28 When He made the heavens above firm,
And the fountains of the deep gush forth;
29 When He assigned the sea its limits,
So that its waters never transgress His command;
When He fixed the foundations of the earth,
30 I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
31 Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind.
(Trans., JPS TANAKH)

Wisdom is a woman—her name is the feminine form, Hokhma—not the masculine, hakham. She is God’s earliest and most enduring companion, who not only attends the Divine, but She resides in Heaven and on Earth, at the most remote and at most accessible aspects of creation—she “finds delight” in her relationship with humankind.

Modern western societies tend to interpret the concept of wisdom as pertaining to matters of a deep intellectual, philosophical, theological or psychological nature— all abstract concepts. For instance, for us, a woman may be a wise mother in terms of how she handles her kids’ moral development, but she is a skilled or talented cook – the hands-on practicalities are skills or talents, but not “wisdom.” The biblical concept of wisdom is broader than our modern sense, however, and includes both matters of mind, and also skilled material craftsmanship and household or business management. We see all of these ideas reflected in examples of wisdom across the Tanakh, and in the Jewish mystical tradition that so closely draws inspiration and authority from its biblical sources. Let us look at some of the appearances that Wisdom makes in Tanakh.

The first use of the term “wisdom” (hokhma) in Tanakh occurs in the later part of Braishit, Genesis, when Pharoah searches for a man of “discernment and wisdom” (nabon v’hakham) to interpret his disturbing dreams (Gen 41:33), and is then told about Joseph, then languishing in prison. The wisdom with which Joseph analyzes the dreams involves psychology and prophecy—which he then puts to use with solid agricultural and business management skills. Move to the next book, Exodus, and we see Moses appoint the human designer for the Mishkan:

And Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill [hakham-lev], ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft—and to give directions….”

Tellingly, the translators of this passage from the New Jewish Publication Society TANAKH interpret hakham-lev, literally, “a wise heart”, as “spirit of skill,” for this kind of wisdom resides in the talents to design, make, build and manage material objects—sacred, but material nonetheless—in the terrestrial world. God soon provides directions for the structure and decorations for the Mishkan, but it is Bezalel who fills in the details and implements those instructions, designs and directs the manufacture of the textiles and cherub-decorated Ark and the golden almond blossoms on the Menorah with his own God-given intelligence and skills. Although God-given, as we often regard our special genius (for instance, Wolfgang Amadeus, “beloved of God” Mozart), Bezalel’s skills reside firmly in the material world.  His work of course, would become a conduit for the divine presence into the human sphere.

Sefirotic Tree, diagram from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification by Debra Band
Sefirotic Tree, diagram from Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification by Debra Band


Above you see the classic Lurianic diagram of the ten Sefirot, the emanations, or qualities of God, which funnels divine energy down from the uppermost aspect of God, the Royal Crown, Keter, to the most accessible divine emanation, or quality at the bottom, the Shekhinah. In particular, note Hokhma (Wisdom) at top right, Tiferet (Beauty) in the middle, and Shekhinah (Kingdom, Dwelling), at the bottom.

Following the lead of biblical texts such as the verses from Proverbs that we’ve looked at, the Jewish mystical tradition developed, and especially infused into the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy and customs, the idea that the Shekhinah, again, the divine aspect most accessible to the human world, the most direct conduit of Divine wisdom into the world, is feminine —and yes, perhaps this does ultimately draw on attitudes left from the far earlier folk religion. But it is this metaphor of divine wisdom as a woman that creates the beloved conception of the Shabbat Queen, the Shabbat Bride, that inspires the erotic undercurrent of this evening when the relationship between man and woman in their Sabbath-observing home heals the torn divine world.

Introductory image for Lekha Dodi, "Come My Beloved"
Introductory image for Lekha Dodi, “Come My Beloved”

The  festival of Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving—and reception—of the Torah represents an annual mystical re-enactment of the marriage among the Sefirot, which is facilitated by Jews’ observance of the law. The Zohar’s description of the courtly nuptials on erev Shavuot uniting the heavenly bride, Shekhinah, and the groom, Tiferet, the divine emanation of beauty, emphasizes the importance of the human role in restoring the unity of the aspects of divinity. Notice how this passage explains the importance of  human action, in the form of mitzvot, for the well-being of the Divine:

“Rabbi Simeon was sitting and was engaged in Torah study on the night when the divine Bride [Shekhinah] is joined in sexual union with Her Husband [Tiferet-Beauty]. For we have been taught that all the members of the palace of the Bride, during the night preceding the day that the Bride will be invited under the wedding canopy [chuppah] with Her Husband, need to keep Her company all night [Tikkun Leil Shavuot], and to rejoice with Her in the preparations [tikkun] that She is making. [They do this by] engaging in the study of the Torah, proceeding from the Pentateuch to the Prophets, from the Prophets to the Hagiographa, then to Midrashic interpretations of Scripture and to the mysteries of Wisdom [Kabbalah]. For these represent Her preparations and Her adornments. She comes in with Her maidens, and remains at their head. She adorns herself through them and rejoices with them all that night. On the next day She enters the wedding canopy only in their company, for they are called the attendants of the canopy. When she enters the wedding canopy, the Holy One, blessed be He, asks about them, blesses them and crowns them with a bridal crown. Happy is their lot! ” (Zohar, 1:8a, in Alan Unterman, ed. and trans. The Kabbalistic Tradition: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism, 2008).

The Zohar’s account of the divine marriage relates closely to the idea of the Kabbalat Shabbat rituals. And, it applies a very gracious human metaphor to God—think of the famous medieval courtly love ethic that governed courtesy and arts all across Western Europe at exactly the same time. The attributes of God are mythologized as a woman and man on the verge of marriage, the observant, scholarly Jew as the necessary attendant to the bride. Humanity takes an active part in the divine marriage; indeed, without her human attendants’ proper observance, the Shekhinah would be bereft, perhaps even unable to go to her marriage in full dignity.

So, here we have in a nutshell the evolution of the Jewish mystical envisioning of Wisdom as a woman. And this divine Wisdom, funneled into the material world by the Shekhinah, whom we otherwise know as the Shabbat Bride is the feminized God we welcome with Lekha Dodi. Above you see my paintings of the beginning of this beloved song. The introductory bridal scene reflects the kabbalistic puzzle about the love between the attributes of God that this poem poses underneath its words.

This image of a female Wisdom as God’s oldest companion, the Shekhinah channeling all divine energy toward the material world, and reveling in contact with humankind is the one we celebrate as we draw toward us the lights of Shabbat candles, make Kiddush over wine, that we sing of in many of the other classic Shabbat table songs.

In the next post we’ll envisage motherhood at the Shabbat table, beginning with Shabbat candlelighting.
Through June 15, 2017 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’m 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.

About the Author
Debra Band’s works include illuminated books, ketubot and other artwork. She exhibits and lectures across the English-speaking world. Her celebrated books, fusing scholarship with fine art, illuminate the Song of Songs, Psalms, biblical women’s stories;the Friday night liturgy and customs, and her adaptation of the medieval classic, Perek Shira, All the World Praises You: an illuminated Aleph-Bet book (July 15, 2018).
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