I am my beloved, and my beloved is mine. Ani l’dodi v’dodi li. Elul, the acronym for that most famous of lines from the Song of Songs. During Elul we court our divine companion as we prepare ourselves for the High Holidays. But every Friday evening we sense this courtship as we receive the Shekhinah, the Shabbat Bride, into our homes and hearts and minds. Shabbat Queen, Shabbat Bride…to be honest with you, until recently I never found those ideas very intellectually interesting, despite their obvious emotional deliciousness.
It was only while researching my new illuminated book of the Friday evening traditions, Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, that I came to understand the metaphor underlying these terms, the flow of Divine Wisdom into the world on Friday evening as the low sky shimmers with gold. Let me share a taste of the book—which in fact—comes out at the beginning of Elul and show you how we can glimpse the divine in the physical world through these paintings that have so captured my imagination.
The beloved song, Lekha Dodi, the climax of the synagogue Kabbalat Shabbat service, is Shlomo Alkabetz’s word puzzle full of clues about how the Shekhinah, the Shabbat Bride, ushers Divine wisdom into the world. The painting that you see here, which introduces the song, plays with the idea of a bridal scene, full of hints about the nature of this particular bride, and her groom. What is this notion of divine wisdom all about?
The Jewish mystical tradition—the Kabbalah—that winds from the present day back through Hasidism, through Isaac Luria’s community in sixteenth-century Tsfat, through Italy, Spain and Provence, and back into Temple period Israel, holds that all energy—all matter—in the universe was created when a primordial vessel formed within the Godhead exploded, sending its sparks throughout the Creation generated by the explosion. A hierarchy of ten emanations, or qualities of God, the Sefirot appeared within the chaos. Above all reigns the unknowable essence of the divine, the ein sof, “the Infinite,” from which flows the shefa, the energetic everflow that nourishes and suffuses all existence. The striking similarity of this kabbalistic idea of Creation to the modern astrophysical theory of the Big Bang reverberates throughout this book.
Jewish mysticism describes a constant interplay among the sefirot, each of which has specific qualities, including masculine or feminine gender attribution. The texts express their often erotic longing for union with one another, for supernal bliss. The lowest sefira that channels divine energy most directly into the material world—is the Shekhinah (the Dwelling, or Kingdom). In the guise of a bride or a queen, she visits every Jew as Sabbath arrives, to bestow a special Sabbath soul, the neshama yetera.
In this painting, which introduces the beloved hymn, Lekha Dodi, “Come My Beloved,” we see the Sabbath Bride floating into her chuppah, replete with its own mystical symbolism, but where is her groom? In kabbalistic lore, the Shekhinah’s groom is the emanation tiferet (Beauty), and tiferet’s special color is green, so He surrounds the Bride in the form of the green fields.
The Kabbalists derived aspects of their idea that it was the feminine Shekhinah who guides divine energy into the world from Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom, personified as a woman, declares
“The Lord created me at the beginning of His course
As the first of His works of old.
In the distant past I was fashioned,
At the beginning, at the origin of the earth…..
I was with Him as a confidant,
A source of delight every day,
Rejoicing before Him at all times,
Rejoicing in His inhabited world,
Finding delight with mankind.”
It is the woman Wisdom who was God’s constant companion from even before the creation of the material world, and who now serves as a bridge between the divine and human spheres.
Candlelighting was originally instituted by the rabbis of the Mishnah simply to provide light to enable the family to enjoy their Sabbath feast together. However, it acquired a whole new significance in mystical custom. Because it is the feminine Shekhinah who mediates between heaven and earth, bringing divine wisdom into human realm, the honor of lighting the Sabbath candles goes to the woman, the human double of the Shekhinah. At the center of the Hebrew painting you see the candlesticks passed from my grandmother to my mother, against the backdrop of the deep sky. This view of the heavens is adapted from a Hubble Space Telescope photograph showing the night sky back to the Early Universe. Surrounding the two paintings are several tehinot—women’s meditations— about candlelighting from around the world and other poetry relating to bringing divine light to earth.
Shortly after gathering at the Shabbat table we sanctify the Sabbath—as we do almost all Jewish sacred times—with blessings over wine. The wine that the young woman in the Song of Songs compares to her lover’s kisses symbolizes Divine wisdom, in the kabbalistic sources. As we observed above, 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 both wine and water. My illuminations of the Friday night Kiddush express the mystical metaphor of the wine’s translation of Divine Wisdom into the material world. The micrographic text bordering the two paintings presents the passage from Proverbs about Wisdom, the Almighty’s divine companion.
At right the Hebrew illumination plays with the image of the wine fountains with which many of us share Kiddush at our tables. The cups symbolize the ten sefirot, and 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.
The arrangement of the cups through which the wine flows alludes to the human understanding of order in the universe. Now, why do I care about the order of the universe here? 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 our understanding of the unity of all matter in modern physics and cosmology. The pyramid arrangement of the cups derives from Pythagorean philosophy, the foundation of our mathematics. Pythagoras described a sacred pyramid formed by the “generators of geometric dimensions” as a symbol of the unity of the universe. The four levels of this Pythagorean pyramid trace the development of geometric form as follows: at the top level a single element establishes a single point, at the second level are the two points necessary to define a line, the third level has the three points determining a plane, and finally, the fourth level includes four points necessary to determine the simplest three-dimensional form or space.
In the English painting (not shown here….more about that another time), an image of intertwined apple trees adorns a traditional wine-cup. Isaac Luria described the Shekhinah on Shabbat as a “field of holy apples.” I hope you will carry some of the fragrance of that orchard into your Shabbat celebrations.
Follow me in this blog for further adventures exploring the Jewish spirit through visual midrash! Full discussions of the poetry and paintings above may be found in Kabbalat Shabbat: the Grand Unification, which will be published on September 6, 2016, the 3rd of Elul 5776. The book may be purchased at your favorite book source, or by clicking here. You will see two versions of the book—the comprehensive hardback, and a small “bencher” style version of only the home materials, without commentary. You can find out more about my Hebrew illuminated manuscripts and book-talks at www.dbandart.com.
All materials herein copyright © Debra Band 2016