Mel Alexenberg
Author of "Through a Bible Lens"

How to See Spirituality in Your Smartphone Photos

“I made for myself gardens and orchards and planted in them every kind of fruit tree.” (Ecclesiastes 2:5)


(Based upon my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life)

A traditional method of Bible study called PaRDes offers a postdigital method for looking beyond the surface of smartphone photographs.  This method of discerning deeper levels of significance in biblical texts can be valuable in mining meaning beneath the surface of smartphone images.  The Hebrew word PaRDeS literally means orchard.  Creatively discerning levels of meaning in biblical texts is compared to tasting sweet fruits picked and eaten while wandering through an orchard.  PaRDeS is related to the word “PaRaDiSe.”



PaRDeS is an acronym for four levels for looking beyond the biblical text.  P’shat is the simple, literal meaning of the biblical words. Remez is a hint of innate significance. Drash is a homiletic interpretation.  And Sod is spiritual and inspirational.

There is a considerable body of theoretical literature on reading photographs that establishes categories for analyzing images that parallel PaRDeS.  A comprehensive review this literature is presented in Shlomo Lee Abrahmov’s chapter “Media Literacy: Reading and Writing Images in a Digital Age” in my book Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the intersection of Art, Science, Technology and Culture. He proposes three categories for analyzing photographic images: Factual Level (observing factual details), Interpretive Level (assigning significance to factual details), and Conceptual Level (deciphering the intrinsic/deep meaning).

P’shat corresponds to the Factual Level, Remez to the Interpretive Level, and Drash to the Conceptual Level.  Sod is an additional category derived from kabbalah that adds a profound dimension that is not found in literature outside of the Jewish tradition.  All four levels of PaRDeS are significant in reading smartphone photographs posted in a spiritual blog.

Kabbalah, Judaism’s down-to-earth spiritual tradition, links the four levels of PaRDeS to four realms: Action, Emotion, Mind, and Emanation.  The everyday World of Action in space and time corresponds to P’shat — the plain, simple, direct reading. The World of Emotion corresponds to Remez — the affective, allegoric, symbolic meaning. The World of Mind corresponds to Drash — the cognitive, conceptual, comparative meaning.  And the World of Emanation, closest to the Divine source, corresponds to Sod – the spiritual, esoteric, mystical, hidden and inspirational meaning.

I will first demonstrate this four-step method by using it to explore the biblical text that describes Jacob’s dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder.  Then, I will apply it to the photograph above that I created to illustrate human hands continuing the process of Creation after God finished His part.


“He had a vision in a dream. A ladder was standing on the ground, its top reaching up towards heaven as Divine angels were going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28:12)

That a ladder is a ladder is P’shat.

That the ladder was spiral, like a spiral staircase, is the Remez. We arrive at the spiral shape of the ladder by noticing that the numerical value of the Hebrew words for “ladder” and for “spiral” are both 130. Creative play using numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters, a system called gematriah, can lead to fresh insights.

A more contemporary Remez links Jacob’s ladder to the DNA spiral ladder with rungs on which codes for all forms of life are written with four words: A-T, T-A, C-G, G-C.   The SPR root of SPiRal is found in many ancient and modern languages.  The hand-written scroll of the Five Books of Moses is called SePheR Torah.  SPR appears in SPiRitual and inSPiRation, two words most relevant for analyzing photographs spiritually.

The ladder as a metaphor for Mount Sinai reaching up towards heaven from the ground below is Drash.  Jacob’s dream was a prophetic vision of angels ascending the mountain to bring the Torah down to earth. The numerical value of “Sinai” is also 130.

The deepest significance of the ladder as symbolized in Sod is offered in the Zohar, the major work of kabbalistic thought.  The Zohar teaches that Jacob’s ladder is Jacob’s body with his head in the clouds dreaming of what can be while his feet rest on the ground where dreams are realized.  Every human being has the potential to connect heaven and earth by making spiritual energy flow through him into the everyday world.


I will apply the PaRDeS method of looking beyond the surface of a photograph in the “Torah Tweets” blogart project. It is a post for the opening chapter of the Bible, Bereshit /In the beginning (Genesis 1:1-6:8). The post is titled “Creation of the World at Our Doorstep.”

The photo is the last in a sequence of six images representing life forms in the biblical creation story.   I photographed them all in and around my home:  a cactus plant on our porch, red-leafed plants in front of our house, a cat hiding in the bushes between our door and a pet shop selling goldfish, and our dog Snowball. The sixth photo shows my wife’s fingers pressing cloves into a yellow citrus fruit.

P’shat (literal meaning) is an image of a woman’s fingers pressing cloves into a lemon.

Remez (innate significance) is that the fruit is not a lemon, but a citrus fruit called a citron, in scientific nomenclature Citrus medica and in Hebrew etrog.  Jews hold an etrog together with a palm frond and branches of myrtle and willow leaves, on the holiday of Sukkot in accordance with the biblical mitzvah:

“And you shall take on the first day the fruit of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days!” (Leviticus 23:40).

Drash (homiletic interpretation) is that the four species symbolize four types of people that taken together form a community.  The etrog has both a pleasant smell and taste, the date from a palm tree has no smell but a sweet taste, myrtle has a nice smell but no taste, and willow leaves have neither smell nor taste.  Smell represents Torah study and taste good deeds.  The etrog symbolizes a person who both engages in scholarly pursuits and performs good deeds.

Sod (inspirational meaning) is that my wife Miriam is recycling a mitzvah.  After the holiday of Sukkot is over, the ritual role of the four species has ended.  Instead of discarding the etrog, Miriam presses cloves into the entire etrog to preserve it for use in the havdalah ceremony marking ending of the Sabbath day.  So that the extra soul we gain on the Sabbath to make it a sweet day does not make us faint as it suddenly departs, a pleasant fragrance is used to prolong it.  We enjoy the wonderful smell of the etrog preserved by the cloves for the entire year through the mitzvah of havdalahHavdalah is a multisensory ceremony in which the olfactory sense in joined with a visual experience of flames of a multi-wick candle, and the taste of sweet wine.

A deeper meaning is Miriam becoming God’s partner in continuing God’s work.  God created the etrog and cloves.  She married these two divine creations to create a new human creation that honors the Sabbath.  Two of God’s botanical creations in the realm of space are joined by human creativity to honor God’s creation in the realm of time.

About the Author
Mel Alexenberg is an artist, educator, writer, and blogger working at the interface between art, technology, Jewish thought, and living the Zionist miracle in Israel. He is the author of "Through a Bible Lens: Biblical Insights for Smartphone Photography and Social Media," "The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness," and "Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art" in Hebrew. He was professor at Columbia, Bar-Ilan and Ariel universities and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies. His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife artist Miriam Benjamin.
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