Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Shema: A journey into the realms of the Spirit

A little over a year ago, a friend asked me to do a painting for him that contained the "Shema", that most ancient Hebrew prayer: "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One".

This small request was interesting because I do not read Hebrew, and up to this point hadn't written it either. In addition, it gave me the excuse to embark on a course of study that was to take me into the realms and the complexity of the Jewish Faith.

In the resulting paintings, the three parts of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41) are written in separate pages of Hebrew, then the two pages in the middle are translated in English. The main verses are layered over all of it...

(Click on the image to enlarge)

The word "Shema" means "listen" or "hear". One of the first books I read dealt with the meaning of  the "Shema" through the context of the various cultural stages in the long history of the Israelites. One of the most interesting observations of this book was that when Moses addressed the Israelites and asked them if they would accept and practice these tenets and precepts (this way of life), they replied
"We will do and we will hear".(1)
The order of the words is very important here; this form of "hearing" is by the experience of doing; the opposite of our idea in the western culture of "knowing why" before we choose to do something. In our culture we would say "we will hear" and then "we will do". There is an element of faith in the "doing" first and then coming to an understanding later through that process. (1)

I became more and more intrigued with the roots of this ancient prayer: This is the root of our Judeo-Christian culture of faith. I embarked on a three month long course of study which included books and writings about the origins of the Hebrew alphabet, the culture from which it was born, the mysticism associated with each letter, and the spirituality associated with each word which is made up by each of these individually significant letters, and the lessons that can be taken from what we take for granted to be "just words". *

Of course, I couldn't just stop at just one of these paintings. 

My good friend Izzy Pludwinski (2), the wise and accomplished calligrapher from Israel, was extermely patient with me in analyzing and helping me to learn to write the Hebrew text. I ended up doing a series of four paintings. One common visual theme among these paintings was that I wanted the representation of "pages" to have a couple of characteristics: I wanted them to be sort of "floating" (as through the mists of time), and I wanted them to look more ancient. I had a "dead sea scroll"(3) -type look in mind.

One of the series of paintings incorporated the gems which I had studied in a  recent, previous painting called "Forever". For that painting, I had researched many of the physical, metaphysical, mystical and spiritual beliefs centered around  various precious stones.
(Click on the image to enlarge)

In the painting above ("Shema 4"),  the stones in the middle represent the 12 tribes of Israel and are the stones of the breastplate of the High Priest; they also are the same stones represented as the Foundation Stones of the New Jerusalem spoken of in the New Testamant book of Revelation.

I also found that the number 13 is a significant number in Judiasm, being (among other things) the numerical value of the word ahava (love, Alef-He-Bet-He) and of echad (one, as in the Shema, G-d is One!, Alef-Chet-Dalet).  "Echad" is such a key word in the main part of the "Shema" (referring to the oneness of G-d), that placed behind the whole composition, and out of which the whole painting "springs forth", is the larger, crystal clear "13th stone".

In addition, there was room on Shema 4 to add more to the composition, and this was done by exerpting another verse, in background texture: "You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up"(4). I just happened to like the lyricism and the rhythm of these words that, to me, speak of parenting and direction; a passing on of a sacred tradition.

I find that paintings like this are the most intriguing to me... they are a challenge on a multiplicity of levels. I love to do paintings that contain significant themes, and this one certainly opened new vistas of insight and thought for me.

I look forward to the next journey.

*More information on these paintings, including the books used in reference and larger detail images, can be found at either of these links:'ma.htm

(1)  Witnesses to the One: The Spiritual History of the Sh'ma ~ 2006 Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler; Jewish Lights Publishing
(2) Izzy teaches correspondence course in Hebrew Calligraphy, and is a sought after artist. His website is:
(3) note: the Dead Sea Scrolls had a more ancient Hebrew style of text; I opted for a more readable version of text for the current viewer of the painting.
(4) Deuteronomy 11:19 (NKJV)


  1. Wonderful, Randy!
    You learn when you paint, and we learn through you! Thanks for explaining the journey. Julie

  2. These are very beautiful artistic displays of the Hebrew text. Thanks!