Tag Archives: Menorah

Parshat Vayakhel (5774)


Exodus 35 – 40

What Grandpa Taught Me About Making Olive Oil

olive-press-capernaumThis week we are going to talk about inherited wisdom, while exploring the significance of the Menorah instruments and the precious oil with which the lamps were filled.

All throughout the detailed description of the creation of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) we have heard that G-d has given abilities to the chachmah – the wise-hearted, people of wisdom and understanding. (see Exodus 31; Parshat Ki-Tissa 2013) But what do we mean by wisdom? This is what we are going to explore, because wisdom is something more than mere “knowledge.” It is something that most often comes from personal experience. Experience which is often transmitted through our traditions.

Let us to jump right into text:

“The Menorah for lighting

and the implements,

and its lamps

and oil for lighting.”

| Ve’et-menorat hama’or

| ve’et-keleiha

| ve’et-neroteiha

| ve’et shemen hama’or.

Exodus 35:14

Here near the start of our parsha, during the listing of all the items that need to be constructed for the sanctuary, we have this description of a complete Menorah provided for us. It is right in between the listing of the components from which the Mishkan was to be built, and the mention of the sacred items such as incense and the anointing oil (which we discussed last week, see Parshat Ki-Tissa 5774).

As we see from the description offered here, this candelabrum – the Menorah – it was made of a huge mass of gold. Most of us can picture what is needed to construct a functioning menorah. We need the candelabrum and the lamps which need to be lit. We understand that they also need to have oil for it to function, which we will further discuss as we continue.

However, there are certain things which some people do not so quickly recognize in this description. Right along with the mention of constructing the Menorah we are told that G-d orders the making of the matching implements, the utensils (keilecha).

What are these utensils, and what were they made of? We are told later on in our parsha, in the sixth aliyah, when their creation is tallied:

“And he made seven lamps, and the wick-tongs and the ash-scoop, of pure gold.

“He made it of a kikar (a talent) of pure gold, including all its implements.

וַיַּעַשׂ אֶתנֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר:

כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּלכֵּלֶיהָ:

Exodus 37:23-24

All of the Menorah and its various parts were made of one huge chunk of gold. From it was beaten the candelabrum itself, as described in the previous verse (v.22); it is one entire piece, hammered into shape.

In Rashi's commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי"ש" – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as sown here. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

In Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 35:14, here he used an interesting word to describe the lamps of the menorah. He used the word “לוציי”ש” – luzes (or maybe even, lozes) for lights. This word could be just another translation into old-French of the 11th Century, but also any other language as well (notice the wording, בלעז). Though it might seem easy to assume that because this word sounds a lot like a Spanish word, it is Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). However, this is not the case. It actually appears to be based on the Latin word for lamp – or a lucerna, as shown above. While Rashi did live in Iberia, he was a French Ashkenazi, of a different cultural and linguistic influence. Also, the Ladino translations of the bible most often use the word “קנדילאש” – candelas, which does not necessarily mean the same thing as our English term “candle,” but often lamp instead; the same as lucerna, in Latin.

Here this verse tells us about the additional seven lamps individually crafted to go on top of the candelabrum, and filled with pure olive oil. In order to position the lamps in the correct direction – with all the wicks facing inward toward the center of the Menorah – it was required to use the wick-tongs. And later when cleaning and redressing the lights after their use, the ash-scoop would be used to clear the burnt remains from the lamps. And then the lights are reset again using these wick-tongs.

One of the reasons why we miss the point of the usefulness of these items, is because we don’t have the presence of these items as part of our Chanukah menorahs. Also, today most often people use wax-candles instead of the original oil lamps. In the lack of practice, or experience with oil lamps, the actual usefulness of these items doesn’t really appear obvious to most people.

As we have previously discussed, Sephardim and Chassidim still hold by the custom to ideally light with oil lamps. Not just on Chanukah, but also on Shabbat and festivals as well! (see “Chanukah: The Ner Mitzvah and the Shamash” and “Shabbat Lights: The Tradition of Great Scholars to Light with Olive Oil”)

However, even though these implements might seem practical for people who regularly utilize olive oil lamps, our lights are only temporary and so do not need to be constantly tended and trimmed like the Temple Menorah. Furthermore, on Shabbat we are not allowed to fix the wicks of our nerot (lamps, lights). If they go out or begin to smolder we must just let them go out, we are not permitted to tend them on the sabbath.

The need for these items is mentally superfluous for us. But the Torah and the rabbis harp on these points because we are not just talking abstractly about a sanctuary, as part of a mental exercise. We need them, because in a real world they are useful.

One of the reasons that these utensils are also not so necessary for our own sacred light sets is because we take special care regarding the oil itself, in order to make sure we do not need to tend our lamps or trim our wicks.

If we look in the halachic works, like the Shulchan Aruch and Mishneh Torah, some of the most heavy discussions we have is surrounding is the quality of the oils (shemen; oils, or fats such as tallow-wax) and when one needs to use new wicks. We learn how it is that the finest and purest oil, the best grades of oil, burn steady without separating.

Also on special nights such as Shabbat and holidays we are instructed to additionally use new cotton wicks, as they are able to soak up a fine oil better. Use the best oil and wicks so they burn without incident, providing a steady and soothing light until they extinguish.

Lights which burn without flicker, which we think of as symbolic of competing and fighting which we want to also avoid during our sabbath’s rest. We consider the idea that we should burn steady and strong, without neither flaring up nor smoldering out. Aspiring that our names and honor be good, as good and fine as pure olive oil. (see Parshat Mikeitz 2012) For all these reasons, traditional people prefer oil lights.

I would encourage people to take a look at the many halachic works regarding the details of lighting of nerot – of lights. Their instructions offer us some practical life experience many of us miss today. This is also something helpful for my many friends who are also reclaiming the ancient tradition of lighting with oil lights for themselves.

The oil of the Menorah. It is last, but not the least, among the Menorah dressings that we will address.

Not only is it last mentioned here in our key verse above, but interestingly the shemen zayit – the olive oil – is also the very last item mentioned later on when we read of the actual completion of the Mishkan. It is the last item that is presumably made. Without it, the rest of this whole operation will not function. (see Exodus 37:29)

Now interestingly, most of the knowledge and wisdom I have to teach about olive oil doesn’t actually come from books. It comes through experience with making olive oil.

Though in our own books, in the very commentary of the Torah itself by Rashi, it is there that I am reminded that some things are only taught through a lot of hands-on experience. And that making olive oil is a complicated task reserved for the wise and most skilled, as it is just as hard as any other skilled craft. The commentary reads as follows:

And the oil for lighting: That too required wise-hearted [people] because it was different from other oils, as is explained in Menachot (86a): he picks it [the olives] at the top of the olive tree, and it is crushed and pure.

ואת שמן המאור: אף הוא צריך חכמי לב, שהוא משונה משאר שמנים, כמו שמפורש במנחות (דף פו א) מגרגרו בראש הזית, והוא כתית וזך:

Rashi for Exodus 37:14

Rashi asks us to remember the Talmudic discourse regarding this matter of making olive oil. We are taught there in detail, the olives are picked from the tree starting from the top. A tree is harvested from the sun-beat top olives, working your way down until you get to the bottom olives. Three harvests from a tree in total. Working your way down until all that is left is softened olives below, so soft that they must actually be sun-dried before they are pressed for oil. This systematic way of harvesting helps maximize the output of oil and reduces spoilage.

Furthermore, different grades of olive oil that are produced from each harvest. During the first pressing the olives are milled, basket-ed and drained of oil. The second is a pressing with a wooden mortar, a pressing beam made of wood. The third pressing would be once again through mill to get any last bit out. This is how olive oil is extracted today.

Of course the first pressing is the best. This is oil of this purity and wholeness is akin to the claims of the extra-virgin olive oil grade of today. Then the purity and usefulness goes down from there, the more times you press the fruit. How can this be? Our Talmudic text doesn’t really elaborate. It just tells us not to soak the olives in water. But it’s not exactly clear otherwise. Only a skilled craftsmen of oil would understand the meaning of these instructions really.

When I think of the skill and complexity of olive oil making, the first person that comes to mind is actually my grandfather. He was the one who taught me how to make olive oil.

I think back to when my grandparents lived in that old small house, the pink one with all the olive trees in yard back in Mexico. My grandfather would lay down tarps under the trees, hand us baskets, and we would go up into these thick trees to pick the olives. The raw olives would then be taken and pressed almost exactly like the process described in the Talmud.

Olive Oil PressingThe olives would be carefully and throughly crushed, expressing everything held in the fruit. The pulp and solid matter being carefully retained, and only the oozing goodness of the olives would drip from the press to the vats. (see a demonstration of this process in a beautiful blog piece by the Emmett Family of their visit to an oil press in Israel)

Notice there is no previous soaking or processing that is involved or allowed in making of olive oil. As mentioned, we are not allowed to soak the olives. Soaking and brining them makes them edible, but it makes them impossible to press for oil. The reason is because as we juice the olives we are not just removing oil. Along with it we are also removing all forms of vegetable fluid from the fruit; water.

The more times you press the fruit in order to get the most out of them, the more of the pulps water is released and flows into the mix with the oil. Thus the last pressing of oil is the least useful, often separating between oil and fluid in use, making it inferior as a fuel for oil lamps. The fluid would eventually snuff out the oil lights. However it is edible, just not as tasty as the golden first pressing.

When we look at the Talmud in this light, it thus makes very obvious sense why we are told the first pressing is fit for the Menorah, while the second pressing is fit for the grain offerings. Not only was the oil used for lighting, it was an essential ingredient that was needed for the sacrificial offerings. Being mixed in with the grains offerings on the altar as well.

One of the reasons that we read of the mention of the olive oil first, when the items are ordered by G-d in the first account, is because the oil is a necessary prerequisite to making the incense and anointing oil that are next mentioned.

However, the olive oil is mentioned last during the account of the actual construction of the Mishkan, because it was the last and essential craft needed in order for this tent of light and offerings to function. Without it you didn’t just lack light, you also lacked the ability to sacrifice as well.

Many people get “bored” as they read through all the details of this. The points of all this, to mere religionists, is pretty dull and seemingly useless because they have no life application for it. It’s merely a mental game. All of this seems cold. And to the speculative its even demanding and cruel in their minds, that for some unknown reason G-d only wants the best oil for His Menorah. It’s easy to come to strange conclusions until someone has personally shown you the how and why of this craft.

The point of such descriptiveness is to demonstrate that there is a real practical nature of these Torah instructions. It’s about real deeds, not myth. We aren’t talking about abstract spiritual ideas, we are talking about a real lifestyle and its cultural ingenuity.

In light of all this, it makes sense to us when the Torah likewise says:

“And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶתבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִיתלַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד.

Exodus 27:20

And this is the point that I would like us to consider this week. Our sages further tell us that when the Torah commands the children of Israel regarding the making of olive oil to bring to Moses, it wasn’t because there was just a one time pressing. Indeed oil would be continually needed, it was regularly being made and brought forward to meet the needs of the congregation. (Sifrei, Parshat Chukat)

When we talk about these things, we aren’t talking about lessons that were useful at some point in the past. These lessons are here for “v’yik’chu elecha / for when you bring.” We focus on the “when,” as a future and continuous act that stretches to us today.

Our Discussion Point: I have learned so much from my family growing up. Most often from the elders of my family, they loved to show me everything because I was always curious and easily engrossed in their activities. So I have so many good memories, and a lot of life skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise. In fact, I’m more knowledgeable about our culture and traditions than even my parents, who didn’t have the same space and time to explore their roots as I did. My grandparents were mindful to pass the language, the arts, the recipes, the crafts and the stories to me. Show me how it was done, so I could show the others.

We all should ask ourselves, are we passing on our culture and traditions? Are we passing on our cultural and religious know-how to others, so that it doesn’t just end with us?

One of the reasons we need to pass on our traditions is because often times once a craft is lost, it is not easily regained. My many ethnic friends often warm me against loosing touch with one’s own roots, as through ignorance and apathy many groups are left unable to reproduce their own beloved culture. I’m warned not to let the Jewish community also become accustomed to thinking of their native crafts and delicacies as, “Ahh… just like grandma used to buy.”

Can we reclaim culture over consumerism? What essential tasks or crafts do you want passed down through the generations, which your family and community would not be the same without? Though we are in an age were we are out of touch with hands-on cultural expression as in days gone by, can we reclaim some of that organic cultural diversity for ourselves? What have you learned which you want to pass on?

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei (2013)


Exodus 35 – 40

Illustrating Our Symbols of Faith and Freedom

Rashi Manuscript

Rashi Manuscript: Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, France, early 13th century

In these final readings for the book of Exodus we have displayed for us the most awesome symbol of the Jewish faith, the symbol of the Menorah. It can be argued that historically the only true symbol of the Jewish faith and Israelite sovereignty is the Menorah, the candelabrum of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and Temple sanctuary.

When most people think of Jewish symbolism they first consider the use of a star. The Jewish adoption of the hexagram, popularly known as “the Star of David,” only dates to around the 17th century. The star was likely chosen from among the general mystical symbol utilized in amulets and ornamental designs in manuscripts, but it was not uniquely Jewish in origin and has great significance in Hinduism and Islam as well. Though not all examples of mystical stars were hexagrams (six-pointed stars), use of the pentagrams (five-pointed stars) was also common in the middle-ages. The use of geometric shapes hails back to a time when geometry was considered a display of divine harmony and natural balance. Though geometry appears in everyday life most often its practical applications are ignored, to the illiterate ancients it was a knowledge mostly held by the philosophers and mystics who celebrated it the architecture of the people’s palaces and temples to their gods. Thats how they would have recognized this type of iconography, these shapes transcended sectarianism.

However in the symbol of the Menorah we find a purely Torah based sign that is uniquely Jewish, its origins are found in Exodus. It also seems to be a display of natural harmony. Seven arms that correspond to the planetary spheres of geocentric astronomy, and seven lamp bowls corresponding to each day of the week. Seven is a number that represents creation, there are seven words in the first verse of Genesis that begins the expression of the creation of heaven and earth. There are twenty-two reservoir cups, one for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet; mystically we are taught the whole universe is created by combined letters of the alphabet.

The Menorah does have symbolism implied in its composition. But as a whole it is a symbol that is more recognizable to us as a religious sign of the presence of G-d and also as a nationalistic symbol in the secular culture. It is historically the primary symbol of Jewish identity, and therefore is also the seal of the modern State of Israel.

The Salvia Palaestina: did you know that the Menorah is thought by many scholars to be modeled after an form of a native holy land flouring bush?

The Salvia Palaestina: Did you know that the Menorah is thought by many scholars to be modeled after a native holy land flouring bush? Even in its form it testifies that it is a native Israelite symbol.

Though a description of the Menorah’s construction is found here in this section of Torah, we are not exactly sure what it looked like. The Torah does describe the item in almost anatomical detail, but unlike the other items of the Mishkan we do not receive the exact dimensions. Even in the finer details we find that the Torah just gives us approximations and figurative speech. The only thing we are exactly sure of is its weight, it weighed one mass of gold that was beaten into shape. Hollow in form, it was one mass piece of gold weighing one talent (approximately 100lbs), hammered into shape. It descriptions is ambiguous at best, despite all the words it uses to deliver these instructions.

Probably for this reason we find that this isn’t the only occasion that the Menorah is described, as we will also find it spoken of in detail in a few short verses of Parshat Beha’alotecha. There the commentary of Rashi will shed greater light on the form and shape of the Menorah. There it will detail more about the actual lamps, because in that section it will deal with the actual lighting of this candelabrum. The lamps were ordinary oil lamps, a bowl with a tip for the wick (along the lines of Aladin’s lamp, for those of a childlike imagination). The wicks were made to face the center, the three left and three right all turned to face the center light. The lights would shine off the body of the Menorah, further reflected by the Table of Showbread that stood opposite it. All the golden instruments, including the winged cherubim were designed to reflect and defuse this light to fill the entire chamber and shine outward from the sanctuary. It would stand in the midst of the people like a lighthouse flooding the camp. (see Parshat Terumah (2013)

However the bulk of the description of the Menorah was previously found in Exodus chapter 25. In that chapter we find that G-d describes it in full detail, and Rashi likewise describes out each part meticulously in his facing commentary. For all the detail we have regarding the Menorah, and the wealth of commentary to further clarify for us, we still find that it is terribly hard to imagine the true form of the Menorah. For that reason we find G-d telling Moses in summation:

“Now see and make

according to their pattern,

which you are shown on the mountain.”

וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה |

בְּתַבְנִיתָם |

אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה מָרְאֶה בָּהָר: |

Exodus 25:40

Rashi makes the following commentary regarding this:

Now see and make: See here on the mountain the pattern that I am showing you. [This] informs us that Moses had difficulties with the construction of the Menorah, until the Holy One, blessed is He, showed him a [model] Menorah of fire.” [from Talmud, Men. 29a]

וראה ועשה: ראה כאן בהר תבנית שאני מראה אותך, מגיד שנתקשה משה במעשה המנורה, עד שהראה לו הקבה מנורה של אש:

Rashi for Exodus 25:40

The fact that it was hard to understand and took more than one take in order to comprehend is excusable, in fact our rabbis say that Moses also had a hard time understanding how it was to be formed until physically shown in a vision of fire on Har Sinai. After this Moses was able to teach Bezalel, Bezalel then instructed his craftsmen as we read in this weeks parsha, “ul’horot natan b’libo,” which loosely means “He gave him the heart of a teacher” or simple “G-d gave him the ability to teach.” (Exodus 35:34)

The Arch of Titus, Rome

The Arch of Titus in Rome (constructed 83 CE)

Comprehending the Menorah by description alone is so difficult that in Rashi’s final note of commentary regarding it he is going to raise the Midrash Aggadah that claims the Menorah was formed at the command of G-d, the gold was thrown into the fire and it formed itself in the appropriate manner. (see Midrash Tanchuma, Beha’alothecha 3) It’s as though the rabbis cutely assume because with all the instruction Moses gave, if they couldn’t figure it out it’s because he couldn’t figure it out either, so he got help. This part of the task therefore becomes like the school science project where most of the work is done by the parent, and the kid is seemingly clueless as to how to describe it when it comes time for presentation.

The fact is there has always been some level of ambiguity about the Menorah’s form from the beginning. Oddly when the Temple of Solomon was constructed it doesn’t appear to have Menorah at all. Instead we are told he had 10 individual lamps made that stood in the sanctuary (2 Chronicles 4:7). During the Second Temple period it appears that the symbol of the Menorah returned and stood in the Holy of Hollies until it was taken as booty by the Roman conquerors. Most of what we assume about the form of the Menorah actually comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome that memorialized that defeat as a Roman victory.

The Rambam's Menorah

The Rambam’s Menorah: Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (1135-1204 CE), taken from the original manuscript of his commentary for Mishneh Torah, Menachot 3:7.

However, this image of the Menorah is contested by the rabbis. You see is also painstakingly detailed by the Rambam in his Mishneh Torah. He explains the finer details of the Talmud regarding it. Unlike the Roman depiction which displays the arms as round, the Rambam presents each of the protruding arms as straight and then adorned with the flowers, buds and cups. The Rambam is very clear about this. And when I say he presents it in this fashion, I mean he actually offers more than just mere words. He has also provided an infamous diagram for us in his manuscript.

Though many editions of the Talmud and other authoritative rabbinic works are known to occasionally have diagrams, they are quite rare in the classical age. We are not sure exactly how far back the Talmudic drawings of things such as gates, arches and eruvin go back. However, most of us naturally assume that they are compiled along the way as additions, thus explaining why even in manuscripts they are scribbled in the margins. However, we do know that the Rambam’s drawing both here, and possibly another that depicts the layout of the sanctuary surrounded by the tribes, as authentic in his own hand.

Interestingly, the Rambam is not the only rabbinic commentator that seems to have accompanied his teaching with drawings. In the margins we find that Rashi also included pictures. He seems to have included depictions of the Temple instruments and the Land of Israel. Though the drawings do tend to vary in shape and size from one copied manuscript to another. We do not have what we would consider an “artists original” to draw from for Rashi’s diagrams. Nor are we sure if they are original in the works, there are many scholars who attest to drawings being present in the manuscripts of their day. However, strangely they are almost never mentioned in the most famous commentaries upon Rashi that are generally known of today. One may figure that his most attentive followers would have mentioned them if they were authentic. We just aren’t sure one way or the other.

Rashi Menorah

Rashi Menorah: Parma de-Rossi Manuscript, 1380 CE

As critical observers of rabbinic literature we can get a great deal of leading by examining the diagrams that have been handed down to us. Whereas the Menorah drawings do seem to have a niche in the margins carved out for them making them appear intentional as an accompaniment of the text, the maps are less embedded and seem more like embellished diagrams by later students of the commentaries. This is especially more so for the Rambam’s maps that appear to drop into many manuscripts in the mid-13th century.

Even if the drawings and diagrams of the classical commentaries are not ancient, only dating back to the middle-ages, they do tell us a lot about the mentality of the commentary they accompany and the values that were in the mind of the scholars that helped compile these texts.

When I was a new student in college one of the first classes I took was Art. I wasn’t artistically gifted myself, mostly taking the class for general education credit. I arbitrarily started with gothic and middle-ages, the age spanning right about the time of our master rabbis the Rambam and Rashi. I was intrigued as I watched art turn from crude vagueness to vibrant realism. I didn’t learn a lot about how to put art together, the skill of art. But what I did learn was the theories and history of art. One of the things that was stressed was for me to learn about the motivation, even more than the composition itself. My professor constantly stressed to me, “Art is never created in a vacuum;” meaning that the way art is displayed in any given age is a reflection of the values and philosophical process that brought that to fruition as an artistic concept. That idea didn’t come out of nowhere, and just for nothing.

I am reminded of this when I read the following insightful observations made by a former doctoral student at Bar Ilan University (see a most excellent work by David Shneur, titled “On the Making of the Menorah,” 2011, Bar Ilan University):

“The late Prof. Elazar Touitou has repeatedly stressed the importance of being aware of the historical setting for our understanding of exegetical works. Several of his articles on this subject deal with the historical setting of Rashbam’s times and of others in Rashi’s era.[1] Prof. Abraham Grossman mentions Touitou’s findings in his articles and books on Rashi and stresses the importance of studying Rashi’s commentary in the light of the momentous changes taking place among the Jews and gentiles of that era:[2] ‘One cannot fully appreciate the work of men of letters and public leaders without being aware of the social and cultural setting of their times.’ [3]

“Although Grossman was referring to Rashi’s interpretations that deal with love and esteem for the land of Israel, nevertheless it appears that also with regard to his interpretations about the Tabernacle furnishings, including those accompanied by various sketches, Rashi had a clearly didactic bent: to endear the subject of the Tabernacle to those studying the biblical text and to make the form of the Temple closer to the hearts of Jews by visual illustration, especially in a time when the Crusaders were massing for the first crusade to the Holy Land, while its Jewish owners remained in exile.”

The author here makes note in his paper that other rabbinic authors dating back to ancient times attest to sketches of the Temple and its sacred instruments (see Z. Vilnay, Ha-Mappah ha-Ivrit shel Eretz Israel, Jerusalem 1945, p. 6.). This goes back all the way to the Talmudic period, even if drawings were not always present in our bibles. Artistic depiction for instructional purposes is well established in our tradition, it’s not a new invention by booksellers and graphic artists. He asserts that the reason is to validate ones beliefs and offer concrete evidence for the Temple. It appears in this case this is only possible by displaying these sacred objects in a way that shows they are not merely imaginations but true constructible shapes.

I find it very interesting this week to take notice of the rabbinic art regarding the Menorah, during a set of parashiot that talks about the craftsmanship of Bezalel and his artisans. This Torah is wonderfully refreshing, especially after we consider how fiercely the Torah has railed against graven images and idolatry up until now. Our tradition does warn against normative religious iconography and live depictions, but it does not reject artistic expression. It is not just in Bezalel that we find the employment of artistic skill for spiritual purposes, we also find our rabbis doing the same in depicting the instruments and holy land. Their depictions not only demonstrated the clear practicality of their commentary, but they also served to help draw the lessons passionately close. And sometimes this can only be done through artistic expression.

Questions for this week: What type of skill or natural ability do you have? Do you have artistic skill? How can you use these skills and abilities to help deliver the message of Torah? What modern mediums of art do you think best present the Torah for you?


1- E. Touitou, “Ha-Reka ha-Histori shel Perush Rashi le-Farashat Bereshit,” in: Zvi Steinfeld (ed.), Rashi – Iyyunim be-Yetzirato, Ramat-Gan 1993.

2- A. Grossman, Hakhmei Tzarfat ha-Rishonim, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 204-207; A. Grossman, Rashi, Jerusalem 2005, pp.

3- Grossman, ibid., p. 11.

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Parshat Terumah (2013)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Making a Dwelling Place for G-d

Hashem spoke to Moses saying:

Speak to the Children of Israel

and let them take for Me a portion,

from every man whose heart motivated him

you shall take My portion.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| veyikchu-li trumah

| me’et kol-ish asher yidvenu libo

| tikchu et-trumati

Exodus 25:1

Pillar of Smoke and FireThis weeks parsha begins with the words “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor / Hashem spoke to Moses saying.” The first question we should ask ourselves is, when did He say this; when did this take place? There are various possibilities presented to us by our Sages and Rabbis. The Baalei Tosafot, Ibn Ezra, the Zohar and several other commentaries say that these words were spoken to Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our Teacher – when he went up to the mountain for 40 days. However, Rashi’s commentary of Exodus, with both Tanchumah and Seder Olam Rabbah, contend that these words were spoken after the incident of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to receive the second set of tablets. However the point should be made that we are certain that these words are connected to either one of these events; you see the book of Exodus primarily concerns itself with two topics from here on. Aside from the story of the Gold Calf (which only takes up two chapters), the remainder of the book of Exodus is devoted to the preparation for construction of the Mishkan the Tabernacle. This parsha is named Trumah, after the portion contributed by each person to help build this Tabernacle sanctuary mentioned here.

In terms of the dictation of biblical commandments, the central focus of the mitzvot of Exodus surrounds the Mishkan. This being the case then we must furthermore ask ourselves what the significance of the Mishkan is. For the Hebrew speaker the word Mishkan is so direct and simple that the profoundness of it can easily be missed; Mishkan literally means a dwelling place, or a habitation. Before the Beit haMikdash the Temple – this was done in the Mishkan tent and not a fixed building, but here in this parsha we see the foundation of Temple worship laid for both instances. Our parsha reads:

Now they shall make Me a sanctuary,

and I will dwell among them.”

| Ve’asu li mikdash

| veshachanti betocham.

Exodus 25:8

And that is really all the place was, a sanctuary constructed unto G-d. There was indeed a type of worship that was centered in this complex, it was designed with altars for sacrifices of all sorts, but namely the perpetual tamid offering of incense that was always lit as the central element of worship. The other task of temple worship was to care for the Holy of Hollies (Kadosh Kadoshim), held in an inner building that also had a perpetually lit candelabrum, the Menorah that illuminated the sanctuary. This was considered the earthly dwelling place of the G-d of Israel. It was so notorious that people from all over the world came to witness it, even though no one other than the high priest was allowed to go into the innermost sanctum. The priests occupied themselves with maintaining this during the day, but the symbols of its occupation through its fires was constant.

What demanded so much attention? What made this all so holy that it would drive the theme of the scriptures so much and the imaginations of people throughout the ages in such a profound way? Even those who are not G-d fearing have asked this question.

In the year 63 B.C.E. after years of besieging the city of Jerusalem the arrogant Roman general Pompey insisted as “victor” had the right to enter into the Holy of Holies itself – beyond of the veils into the Kadosh Kadoshim, his motivation seemingly one of defiance as much as curiosity. Roman historian Tacitus made note of it this way:

Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity — the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.”

The Histories:” Book Five §9,

Cornelius Tacitus, 105 C.E.

When Pompey entered he found no images, no symbols of any kind. All he found was old Torah scrolls occupying the inner chambers. Though this is documented over 150 years after the fact, this is one of the only historical and independent reference we really have that describes the interior for us. Flavius Josephus would also note this event as well, but aside from that the only thing we know about the Temple is from the Torah and the Talmud.

I find it interesting that of all the things that is noted by the classic historians, they would marvel in the lack of images or representations of a deity. Also when Tacitus and Josephus, both imperial Romans but one being non-Jewish and the other Jewish, make this point and note that it is unoccupied they are making a huge statement. Normally in the Greco-Roman custom, like for most other non-Jews of the region, it was common for even a priests or priestesses to be consecrated as a living deity and abide in the inner chambers of their temple complexes. But this was not the case here. It was unique and noteworthy, there were no idols nor demigods or devis in this sanctuary.

Though this is not what surprises most of us Torah students, we are not at all taken back by its lack of images or representations. In much of our recent studies we have discussed the Torah’s demand that we not give in to idolatry and how it champions iconoclasm. In terms of general religion this complex is pretty simple, but this Temple is not exactly empty though. So what should surprise us is the nature of the commandments being given in order to make a sanctuary. The specifics for construction are extremely detailed and demanding, building instruments that are intended for a home; candelabras, tables, curtains, ect. Why are they being told to build things out of precious gold, to make a dwelling tent for an incorporeal G-d? What type of need does it satisfy?

In the Talmud people also wrestle with this question, and the rabbis come to an interesting conclusion as to why all the ritual tenants of the sanctuary were created:

Rabbi Sheshet retorted: ‘Place the lampstand outside the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant…’ (Lev. 24:3) Does [the Holy One, blessed be He] need it’s light? All forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, were they not following His light? However, the lampstand attests to all who are in the world that the Divine Presence dwells among Israel.”

מתיב רב ששת: (ויקרא כד) מחוץ לפרוכת העדות יערוך וכי לאורה הוא צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו בני ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל:

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 22b

In this text Rabbi Sheshet asks us to consider a section of Torah of Leviticus 24:1-4. What our text seems to imply is that even though some of the ritual items appear to have a usefulness, their purpose is for more than mere functionality. For those who are keen to the rituals of Torah know there were no Temple services that took place during the evening, there was no work for the priests to do that demanded light. The lamp-stands were purely intended to stand before the presence of G-d, in the same way as the golden cherubim that were made also stood there to herald the presence of G-d in the sanctuary and flood it with reflective light off their golden wings. The priest didn’t work by the menorah’s diffused light, nor did G-d need its light as He showed His presence in a self-illuminating cloud before His people during the Exodus. Our rabbis here contend that the reason for the ritual items was to signify to the world that G-d’s presence dwells among Israel.

I want us to remember that this section of Torah goes in tandem with Golden Calf crisis, either being immediately before or precisely after the incident. It may seem odd to us that G-d, who unleashes wrath on the people for making a cult around objects of gold and worshiping before them, that here He would be commanding people to make a Temple complex and corresponding rituals for it in worship to Him. Again, no one is exactly sure if this is taking place while the people are below building a Golden Calf or if it is after the fact; but what the juxtaposition of these stories tells us is that G-d had to define right away how the people of Israel were going to be able to relate to Him because left to their own devices they would degenerate into idol worship. And that is exactly what happened, after Moses and the cloud of glory ascended to the mountain and was far off from them for long.

Though our Talmud lesson here turns it all around on us, it make the point that G-d did not need any of these items anymore than He needed a lamp for light. But the people felt a great need, they intensely needed something to symbolize that G-d dwelt among them. Just like the pillar of cloud by day, the smoke of incense offerings would raise up from the middle of the camp; and the same as a pillar of fire by night, the Menorah would shine its light to remind the people of the Divine Presence that dwelt among them.

I have to stress that point, that this sanctuary is to remind the people that G-d dwells among them, because the truth is that G-d is always with us. In all instances before the dedications or restorations of the Temples G-d made it known that He would dwell their in their midst, not just because they had built a complex but because He dwells with His people forever. (compare Exodus 25:8, 29:45; Zachariah 2:14-15; I Kings 6:13; Ezekiel 43:9)

We need to understand that this commandment regarding building of the Tabernacle and the Temple instruments is not one of, “Build it and He will come.” Instead it is more like, “Build it, so that you will know that He is with you.”

As we look back at our ancestors and consider the context of their way of worship, perplexed as to what motivated them to show their adoration for the Divine in this way, we need to understand that all people have an innate drive to bring holiness and wholeness into the world. We all desire to make things better than they are, to bring a purposefulness and intentionality to things in our world. And this was their way of showing it. In the chassidic, mystical work of the Tanya we find the following statement made:

Now it is so for every person, |

and the purpose of all His creations |

and the creation of all the worlds, |

to make a dwelling place for |

G-d in this lower world.” |

זה כל האדם 

ותכלית בריאתו 

ובריאות כל העולמות 

עליונים ותחתונילהיות 

לו דירה זו בתחתוני

Likkutei Amarim – Tanya, Chapter 33

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe

On a fundamental level, everything in the universe was created to be an embodiment of godliness. The kabbalists teach us that the universe was created as a space in order for the Divine to be manifest. The universe is a canvas, and the elements in it are materials we can artistically fashion to show the glory of the Divine. And each of us people, our desire is to bring completion and holiness to this world. Us living things have an internal drive to be partners in this act of creation, taking the basic elements of the world and fashion them into a display of higher order. That is just what we are meant to do.

Though we do not have a Temple that stands before us, we need to be aware that the Divine Presence does dwell among us. And this Torah displays many other ways, aside from just the commandments of building a Tabernacle, for how we can manifest holiness in this world. We can take the basic elements of everyday life and raise them to holiness through completing mitzvot. We can take the ordinary things of life and impart spirituality and intention into them, and thus allow holiness to dwell in our homes and lives. In this way we can cause Hashem to dwell among us.

What type of contribution are you willing to make today in order to bring godliness into the world?

Related articles:


Shiviti: Menorah L’MaNatzeach B’Neginot


Shiviti: Menorah L’MaNatzeach B’Neginot
The Menorah Psalm Shiviti

Menorah Sheviti in ColorThese images have been some of the most popular and most requested on this blog. Unfortunately the originals weren’t the best quality, as they were just something I was toying with at the time in order to accompany text; they were more of an afterthought. After being able to get copies of the original software again I was able to do some corrections and updates (you know some Operative System updates are terrible about supporting old packages sometimes!). These new releases are set in a more widely recognizable JPG file-format for you to share across platforms. Thank you to everyone who helped with the corrections and suggestions, including my friend Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project.

Menorah Sheviti Milim Corrected (June 2012)You can also download the new three-paged Psalm 67 Meditation Packet, which contains the full-sized images, along a Hebrew/English translation of Psalm 67!

For more information about the meaning of the Shiviti see the following related posts. These lessons go in a systematic order to help you grow in your understanding of this practice:

You can also find a beautiful restored historical Shivit from our friends at The Open Siddur Project, find it here:


The Menorah Psalm – Meditative Paths


Introduction to the Menorah Shiviti  (Newly Edited June 2012)

Earlier this year with the coming of the Sefirat haOmer when I released the sections of the Nusach haAri-z”l relating to the blessings of the count I also felt the odd urge to muse concerning the kavanah (Heb. “intention;” meditation) of Psalm 67 as instructed by the Baal haTanya. Little did I know that would become one of the most well read blogs I’ve written. It was later followed up by introducing to the morning prayers the kavanah of Shiviti Hashem, as an example of meditative liturgy; this post is also one the most requested to date. In both blogs I made mention of the kavanah of the Menorat L’MaNatzeach – commonly known as the Menorah Psalm – but did not explain the actual practice of saying these menorah kavanot. But it was a good start because we got to see how to do a kavanah and then how to Shiviti, before we work on putting both practices together today. It is due to the high interest regarding this topic I will now be explaining these practices for the first time, we will start simple and continue to work our way up one level of understanding as we go. I would encourage you to read the other two blogs to get an idea of the background of such traditions, and the meaning of the Psalms itself. Here we go….

The History of this Practice

Menorah Sheviti Milim Corrected (June 2012)No one is certain how far back the tradition of saying the kavanah of the menorah goes. What we do know is that the custom of reading Psalm 67 in the form of the menorah was encouraged by great mystics such as Rabbi David ben Yosef Avudraham as far back as 14th century Spain. That is the same country and around the time in which the first siddurim (Hebrew prayerbooks) were created. But even before siddurim it was the custom of some to say this psalm from a written parchment, akin the the custom of the pious to read the ketoret from a handwritten parchment that some still practice to this day.

Judaism has never been inclined toward using images or iconography, lest these be misconstrued with idolatry. Instead, in the near-eastern tradition art is often made of the written word. If images are use, they are generally of items which relate to the elements of the Holy Temple. In a blending of these traditions comes forth the Shiviti of the Menorah, in which the words of Psalm 67 are depicted in the form of the seven branched menorah of the Temple. Though this is often depicted in the siddurim of the orient and of mystical schools, this is more widely known for being hung in holy shrines and in synagogues in front of the place from which the chazzan lead prayers, and in sight of all to see.

Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the Ari z”l, instituted this practice and instructed that we should say Psalm 67 at certain times during our davening. First is during the morning Pekudei D’Zemirah – the introductory psalms of the Shacharit; then after the Vidui confession, and for the closing of Shabbat1.  It is also included along with prayers for certain mitzvot such as Sefirat haOmer and the lighting of the Chanukah candles. Some say it after the close of the Amidah. Others say it in preparation for or during a journey. It may be said at any time.2  The custom is to read Psalms 67 in the form of the menorah whenever it is said.

The Purpose of This Meditation

The purpose of this kavanah is to ready the mind and purify ones thoughts. As we do this we are putting aside all distractions. For this reason the shviti first charges us:

Know before whom you stand,

before the King who reigns over kings,

the Holy One, blessed be He.”

דע ליפני מי אתה עומד |

לפי מלך מלכי המלכים |

בקבה |

Then the shviti opens up with the words of Psalm 16:8, the main thought of the kavanah:

I have set YHVH before me at all times”

שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד

Shiviti YHVH l’negdi tamid

We begin to place G-d before us. We recognize that G-d is watching over us, so we take on a solemness of being before the King. Not only that, we focus on the placing the name of G-d before us. Not just figuratively, in its form as literally done in a artistic shviti. We mean to make a conscious choice to connect to G-d through the meaning of His Four-Letter Name, Havayah (יהוה); havaya (הֲוָיָה), as the name is refereed to among the kabbalists means being, existence or experience. In everything we encounter though out our day we make a choice to experience G-d in it.

We wish to draw the light of righteousness and truth to shine over the face of the earth. We do this by meditating on this happening and connecting to the holy Name of Havayah (יהוה), to seek Hashem so that He “ya’air panav itanu / shine His face towards us” as described in verse 2. Ya’air means to enlighten, to brighten, to illuminate, and to kindle.

How To Say this Meditation

As we focus on this psalm we consider ourselves as though we are lighting the actual menorah of the Temple. But we should not think that our devotion in any way kindles the Light of G-d, meaning to set His glory ablaze. No, the light of G-d is eternal. It is like the ner tamid, the light of the center shaft that is always kept lit day and night; unlike the six branches of the menorah of the Temple which was only kept alight at night. The center light is the Shechinah, the presence of G-d that is eternal, with no beginning nor end. It has no correspondence to anything as it is a manifestation of the Ohr Ain Sof, the Infinite Light that is transcendent; we only know it through the familiar Name of Havayah (יהוה). Thus the name of Hashem stands in the center of the Shiviti, in the place of the center light. 

Menorah Sheviti in ColorFrom that eternal life of G-d’s whole and holy light we seek to light our own flame. The Torah tells us how the lamps of the menorah are to be aligned and lit. What do I mean by aligned? When the menorah was created it was made so that “v’he’ehlah et nairoteh’ha v’hay’ir al ay’ver paneh’ha / they shall light the lamps so that it lights the face of it.” (Exodus 25:37) And this is exactly how it happened when Aharon (Aaron) the High Priest went about it, as instructed by G-d through Mosheh (Moses), “Behalotecha et-ha-neirot / when you light the lamps / el mol pnei menorah / toward the face of the menorah / yairu shivat hanerot / shall the seven lamps be lit.” (Numbers 8:2) The lights are lit and are turned in order to shine towards the center light, which symbolizes the Shechinah (Presence of G-d), in order to accentuate and aggrandize it. And being turned in this way the lamps also shine off the body of the menorah as well, so that the very face of its body reflects this light and floods the whole sanctuary with light. The body of the menorah has seven branches which relate the seven lower sefirot – the mystical manifestations of Divine action in the physical world – from Chesed to Malchut.3 First we focus our minds toward G-d. Then we make the intention to take every element of our physical lives and reflect the Light of G-d’s goodness on to it, bringing the light of His presence to all parts of our mundane existence; then shinning it into our entire world.

The first line consists of the first four words of Psalm 67, this is not considered actually part of the psalm but the header to it. These four words of verse 1, “L’MaNatzeach b’neginot mizmor shir4 / For the conductor, on the neginot (an instrument); a psalm, a song,” span across the six flames and the additional ornamental bowl that tops the menorah. These words help us set up the psalm. From right to left these words are set up, just like we set up our candles on Chanukah. This order of right to left is also the direction in which Hebrew is read. The letters of the phrase are almost evenly divided, to span all the branches.

Now one will notice that the seven branches contain verses which are set on their side. The words of each verse span from top to bottom. It is the custom that as the words begin to bend and turn we keep the Shiviti upright, focusing in order be able (to read the verses without turning it in any way. Of course, as one reads it they should consider the meaning and significance each line.

There are 49 words of the Psalm that relate to parts of the menorah body. These words begin with verse 2, “Elohim yachanainu viybaracheinu / May G-d be gracious to us and bless us…” It is common tradition for the next seven verse to go from left to right. One verse for each of the branches, including the center shaft. This is candle-lighting order, the same order that candles are to be lit on Chanukah. Though the verses can be said in any order, the only requirement of our custom is to say it in the form of the menorah.

Further Contemplation: Considering Our Core

There are also other ways we can further contemplate upon the menorah when lined up in this progressive fashion. Let us take a look at two more quick kavanot to further fine-tune our minds and focus, ones that can be done while saying the psalm.

As we say the psalm we make notice that the verses concerning the benefit of Israel, and the well being of all the nations intertwined through out the chapter. Now notice that the 3rd and 5th branches, the innermost spanning arm contains a unique occurrence of mirroring verses. The two arms bear the words “Yoducha amim Elohim / G-d, may the peoples give thanks to You / yoduch elohim kulam / let the peoples, all of them, give thanks to You.” At our core we should be aware and intend that our actions bring godliness to all parts or our lives, so that we can show people the goodness of life for which one can be grateful. First we can start considering all the reasons we have to be grateful. Then we think about sharing this attitude of gratitude. Why is this represented on the right arm and the left arm of the menorah? Its like a person that shares a loaf of bread with a friend, he tears it in half, this is your share and this is mine; however, like a good friend, the pieces in both hands are equal.

Keeping Ones Self Grounded

Other wonderful thought is to consider the center shaft of the menorah. It contains 49 letters, just like our Psalm contains 49 words that associate with the body of menorah. This psalm can be thought of a summary of the whole chapter, the nature of the chapter condensed down and concentrated in this one verse. Also the center shaft is where the menorah meets the ground, and upon which all the other branches rely. This is what we should hang out hopes on. Understanding our goal here is what keeps us “grounded.” This is the central reason for our devotion, to make this possible, that…

The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For You will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.

Selah.”

| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| Selah.

Psalm 67:5

We are desire and intend to draw godliness in the world so that not only will we be singing and praying songs of gladness, so too will the entire world. Let let all the nations of the world sing for joy! We desire and intend to help spread equality, fairness and justice across the entire face of the earth.

Also, feel like your are in a situation where an unfair judgment is hanging over you? This is a perfect time to open one’s heart and feel the light of G-d’s truth illuminating the situation so that the darkness of confusion dissipates.

Download the Liturgy Aids!

It is with great excitement that I release the two shivit shown above that I have created. They are according to traditional texts and created after carefully comparing many traditional sources.

As this is a liturgy based project I am keeping my commitment to partner with the Open Siddur Project, and release traditional materials with a Creative Commons Zero licensing. Using free and open source material that are free of copyright helps enriches the entire Jewish community! You may download, print, copy and redistribute this material as much as you want. These items are now liberated and the property of the entire Jewish community!

I owe a special thank you to my friend Aharon Varady, founding director of Open Siddur, for guiding me through the design of these graphics.

Included in the following packet are the two full paged shviti presented above, and a new translation of Psalm 67 with brief instructions to help you focus on each branch of this kavanah.

To download click on the image below. As usual, this is a work in progress. Do keep a look out for future updates and additions that are sure to come!

 

Footnotes:

1 – It is not the case for Ashkenazim to say it motzei shabbat, as expressed by the Rema in the Shulchan Aruch. Nor is it the custom after the Vidui, which is a Sephardic custom.

2 – In an informative paper titled “Seven Branches of the Menorah” Rabbi Dovid Sears presents the following wonderful leads that confirm its varied placement in various siddurim: “For example, the popular Sefardic Siddur Tefilat Yesharim arranged by Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad presents this Menorah facing the “Baruch she-amar” prayer. Among the editions of the Siddur ha-ARI, in the 1972 reprint of the Siddur Kol Ya’akov (Slavita 1804) it appears immediately following the Author’s Introduction, while in the 18th century ms. Siddur ha-ARI of Rabbi Avraham Shimshon of Rashkov (facsimile ed. Bnei Brak 1995), it follows the passage of Ketoret.”

3 – 1 Chronicles 29:11

4 – however, here it includes a Vav, coming from the use of a holamוֹ“, thus a silent letter for the sake of implying a vowel. However, the Vav is intentional, as it represents a dividing line of one side from the other.


Sefirat haOmer: The Kavanah of Psalm 67


To Focus on a Purpose Greater Than Us Alone

The counting of the omer is one of the most mystical rituals in Judaism. It’s reflection on the elements of burnt offerings, as with all offerings and sacrifices, has been interpreted as a symbol of spiritual elevation. Both the topics of sacrifice and ecstatic spirituality so much turned off modern and “enlightened” people that many communities had abandoned the omer all together. Interestingly though, in recent years the resurgence of interest in mysticism has caused such a demand for these type of prayers that you will now find them in the siddurim (prayerbooks) of just about every movement of Judaism. The other prayer making an amazing comeback is the Ana Bekoach, which is usually paired closely with Psalm 67 in Chassidic and Sephardic siddurim.

The Ari z”l himself instituted the inclusion of Psalm 67 and the Ana Bekoach into the daily prayers and when performing special mitzvot. However, the method that was related from the Ari z”l through his disciple Rabbi Chaim Vital in how to recite these prayers was presenting in very detailed kavannot (focused mediation) that were very complicated and involved. Psalm 67 is a great example, because the method most often used to meditation on this verse was not to just read the text, but instead to imagine the 49 words being a 7 branched menorah, with each of the 7 branches containing a verse of the Psalm. Each of the branches relates to one of the 7 sefirot that are active in the physical world, just as with each of the 7 lines of the Ana Bekoach does as well.

The Nusach Arizal as presented by The Baal haTanya – Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe – though it is a kabbalistic prayerbook, was purposefully freed of nearly all the kavannot in order to focus on creating a prayerbook that was appropriate for users of all skill levels. Complicated diagrams and pages of meditation material interspersed within selections of actual prayers were put to rest. Instead his text was complete yet concise, as well as clear and understandable as a true liturgical work. Though the Baal haTanya did not include the meditating upon the form of the menorah, he did prescribe a reading of Psalm 67 and some interesting kavannot relating to it. What made these kavannot so meaningful that he felt compelled to include them?

It is quite standard for most traditional siddurim to include the reflection upon the names of the sefirot relating to the day. Less common is the meditation of assigning one of the word or names of the Ana Bekoach to each day, though this sometimes appears in the Sephardic and oriental texts. However, in addition to including a plain reading of Psalm 67 after the counting of the omer, along with the prescribed words for declaring the day’s count one is also provided one word of the psalm and one letter of verse 5. Psalm 67 contains 49 words, and verse 5 of that same chapter contains 49 letters. There are 49 days counted in the sefirah period, so each day one focuses on one pieces of the picture for what we hope to achieve during this time of personal reflection.

When it comes to the reason this chapter and this verse is chosen for meditation, the reason does not appear as clear as the reason we include the Ana Bekoach which contains supplications for the removal of sin and purification. This is in line with the tone of the season. Instead Psalms 67 starts out with a request, not a humble confession that we would normally expect during a season of personal refinement. We read the words:

“G-d be gracious to us, and bless us;

May he cause his face to shine upon us.

Selah.”

| Elohim y’chanainu viybar’cheinu;

| ya’air panav itanu

| selah.

Psalms 67:2

Now lets looks at verse five alone. When we read it we find something seemingly completely unrelated at first glance:

“The nations will be gland and sing for joy.

For you will judge the nations fairly,

and the peoples of the earth will rejoice.

Selah.”

| Yismauchu viyarnenu, l’amim.

| Ki tishpot amim mishor:

| ul’amim ba’aretz tan’chaim

| selah..

Psalms 67:5

Here we see that this second meditation, upon verse five, seems to be a related to conceptualizing human equality and the pursuit of happiness. So we have prayer for the blessings of the nation of Israel, and a reflection upon the goal of universal betterment. For a start, we see that it is a good practice to be as concerned about the welfare of all people just as much as we are concerned for ourselves. It is balanced.

That’s a nice idea, and rings true. However, the message goes deeper than that, as it is clear if we read the rest of the chapter in context. Yes, this request seems different in tone than we would expect. But it is not a a brazen request for divine favor just for the purpose of our own security. If your asking yourself why this request of verse 2 is so bold, we find our reason in the next immediate verse. It also answers for us why we find ourselves considering the People of Israel, as well as all the nations of the earth in these meditations. It asks for blessing for a special reason:

“To make Your way known upon the earth,

and your salvation among all the nations.

| Ladaat ba’aretz dar’kehcha;

| b’chol goyim, yishuatecha.

Psalms 67:3

The topics are not unrelated. They are completely related because we are people in need of blessing, just like the rest of the nations of the earth. However, it asks for blessing for Israel not merely for our own contentment but in order to enable us to make the ways of godliness known to the people of the world. It asks for blessings so we can share it with others and model graciousness. We ask for the face of G-d to shine upon us so that it can reflect off us, that we be spotlighted as an example of salvation.

There are plenty of people out there who say that this dream is impossible to achieve, and therefore foolish to consider. But being able to show this truth through the example of our own experience is the type of truth people cannot easily deny. In fact we see a few times in verses 4 and 7 that when this happens the people will then be able to “yoducha” which means to admit and acknowledge, as well as give thanks. That people will see the goodness of this way of godliness for themselves though our lives. Then the nations will even become glad, knowing that there is hope for themselves.

So the request isn’t as self-centered as it sounds. It’s not necessarily a request for prosperity or even success, you will never find such hopes directly expressed anywhere in this chapter. What it does ask for is for us to be blessed, which we all know in Hebrew means to be set apart for a special purpose. When we bless something we take an ordinary thing, and by doing a special mitzvah with this object the item becomes special because it was a part of doing something sacred. The item was ordinary before, but now merely because it was used to do something special it becomes recognized and designated for that special purpose. This item isn’t better, it’s just purposeful now and worthy of being respected accordingly. How can I be certain of this? Near the end of this short chapter we read,

“The earth has yielded her produce,

May G-d, our own G-d, bless us.”

| Aretz, nat’ena y’volah;

| y’evracheinu elohim eloheinu.

Psalms 67:7

Now we have a good clue as to why this verse is appropriate for this season of harvest, because it references this good fortune of the reaping already taking place. And yet it still asks for being blessed, which only makes sense in the classical sense of being consecrated and not according to the misconception of blessing as random fortune.

When we think about it this way, these meditations become a beautiful way of looking at why we are going through this time of personal reflection and development during the omer period. The reason the children of Israel went through this process of development for the 49 days after the exodus was to be prepared to receive the Torah. We all know and recognize that. But what we are doing here in these meditations is deeply focusing on the reality that the Jewish people are blessed with Torah in order that all the peoples of the world benefit from it.

The two meditations, one for blessing Israel and the other for the betterment of the nations of the world are not unrelated. This is what our purpose should be, to be worth of being blessed in order to be a blessing to others. Our fate is very much tied to that of the rest of the people on the earth, so we need to get serious about becoming better people because we aren’t the only people that need to benefit from our enrichment. During this season we become better people so we can be better to others! That’s why the last verse sums it up simply:

“Bless us, our G-d;

so that all the ends of the earth will be amazed by you.”

| Yebar’chainu elohim;

| veyir’u oto, kol af’sei aretz.

Psalms 67:7

It is very easy for us to just scan Psalm 67 and quickly dismiss it as arrogant and nationalistic. Or we might lazily just look at it, then simply conclude that their incorporation into the siddur was only because the body of the text has 49 words and coincidentally a verse with 49 letters as well; just like the sefirah period counts 49 days. Though others might say it was just a pretty random pick, chosen because it quickly mentions the reaping of the earth’s produce. That might be an easy assumptions for scholars and even some general Hebrew speakers I suppose, because a simple reading brought these ideas to mind even for me. First, read it all; be patient with the process. Second, remember that as people who practice Judaism everything we read has to be thought of as a way to help us make tikkun olam – reparation of the world. If it doesn’t then we are reading it wrong!

During the Sefirat haOmer we have a moment everyday for nearly 50 days to pursue personal growth in order to be a better example of goodness, and be a favorable display of Torah powered chesed (kindness, goodness). If we follow through we are assured results that will amaze everyone, maybe even ourselves!

Ready to make it happen? You can download the blessings for the Sefirat haOmer hosted HERE or also graciously hosted  by The Open Siddur Project HERE, as well as find all other related liturgical transcriptions.

Do you need a siddur? This blog proudly cooperates with The Open Siddur Project. The project is a volunteer based organization dedicated to documenting and making the wealth of Jewish prayer and prayer resources available with free, redistributable licensing in electronic format and print formats. You can find my contributions of liturgy HERE. Find out how you can also be a part of this worthy cause!

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