Soul Food Archive: Desserts & Snacks
Radha and Krishna Feeding Each Other in the Glade
Western India, 19th century*
Desserts & Snacks can come in spiritual flavors. There are times when the hearty meal or novel fare just doesn't appeal to our taste buds. Instead, we hunger for small after-dinner tidbits, simple comfort food, the treats of childhood. Here are some assorted tasty morsels and indulgences for times of spiritual play (and, no calories!).
Please visit our Main Courses and Guest Caterer Specials for heavier meals. Also, don't forget our earlier offerings, stored in the Soul Food Archive. Your comments are always welcome. Read others' comments about this page.
How beautiful are the twenty-two Hebrew letters! And, more than beautiful, each letter is thought to have its own pulsating vibration of divine energy. In the mystical thought of Judaism, meditation on the Hebrew letters is seen as spiritual practice which enlightens the soul--"within each letter are worlds," were the words of the Bal Shem Tov (Israel ben Eliezer, 18thc.). Jewish religious practice deeply honors the Word—and the Word is made up of sacred letters.
Even those of us who don't read Hebrew can appreciate how this calligraphy's shapes and rhythms integrate beautifully into works of art, as in these two examples:*
But there's more: Many spiritual traditions teach the value of tracing or copying letters, phrases or symbols. In medieval Christian monasteries, scribes who labored intensely over just a few letters of the Roman alphabet learned to experience their work as prayer—precisely because it was time spent solely with line and shape. Line, shape and the other staples of geometry were thought to be building blocks in the mind of the Creator. Thus, the letterers—freed from concentration on meaning—could approach union with the divine by replication of the Almighty's "vocabulary." Similarly, the letters of the far older Hebrew alphabet have been termed "emanations from the mind of the Creator," with the trust that time spent with them can unite one with their Designer. (Coloring is yet another right-brain activity that, with intentionality--kavana in Hebrew--can become meditation and/or prayer. ◊)
Jewish tradition teaches that re-creating these millennia-old Hebrew letter forms, through tracing or copying or free-hand calligraphy, is the richest way to engage the transforming radiance of the letters. And so, here is the next-to-last letter of the Hebrew alphabet: the beautiful Shin.
Shin is the first letter of several "S words" (of which there's a multiplicity in the world's spiritual traditions). It begins Shalom, or peace. It begins Shabbat, the time of rest after busyness. And it opens the word Shechina, the presence of the Holy One among us. Then, too, Shin's next-to-last placement in the alphabet carries connotations of fitting together scattered pieces, and of heading towards completion.
To try: At the moment, meanings connected to Shin are secondary. For those of us touched by the idea of simply re-creating this letter—or any of the other twenty-one letters of the Hebrew alphabet—here are some thoughts:
- What is it like to focus on this letter, close my eyes and see Shin floating before me?
- Then, what happens if I invite the letter to dance her way into my heart?
- Next, might I trace the letter with my fingertip, right here on the computer screen?
- Shin can become even more alive to those who copy her. How does it feel to draw with pencil or pen the three branches of Shin? This letter has been written in various ways, from very plain to very ornate, often with more than one crown(let).
- Following the steps above can make a letter part of our inner world, a seal upon the heart. A next step could be to write Shin (or another letter which has called out to us) very carefully and beautifully on paper worthy of its history, something to frame and live with. Choice of colors and backgrounds for the letters is completely up to the artist. (A browse through websites on Hebrew letters or Hebrew calligraphy will reveal a world of beautiful interpretations of this alphabet. Search, also, Jewish scribes to appreciate the precision of those who prepare and restore Torah scrolls.)
- And, for those who find this a stirring way of prayer, an even more ambitious soul-venture is to calligraph the entire Hebrew alphabet (easily found on the web, in many dictionaries, and in the books recommended below). This artwork can be done on just one page, on cards, in a blank book, or by creating a scroll (not so difficult: just two sticks or dowels, with a long strip of paper anchored to each so the scroll can be rolled up and tied). Remember: Hebrew reads from right to left.
Spending time with some or all of these living letters/celestial patterns can become a beautifully simple spiritual practice—a link to ancient times, available to anyone captured by the history and power of this alphabet. Future "Desserts & Snacks" entries will explore other traditions of spiritual calligraphy and their Soul Food possibilities.
Read Others' Comments...
This is a beautiful idea. It never occurred to me, as a Roman Catholic, to look to other traditions for inspiration and ways of spiritual practice. I'm just getting there now, at 56 years, so please keep sharing gems like this with us. The letter Shin keeps dancing before me, and now I want to meet some of the other letters also. Thanks again.
San Luis Obispo, CA
Thanks for sharing. Always good to find a real expert.
* Credits for this page:
~ Radha and Krishna Feeding Each Other in the Glade, Western India, 19th century
~ Picture on left: From a late medieval Haggadah ("telling, story"), the Jewish text that sets out the order of the Passover meal. The story told is of the Exodus from Egypt; the two large letters are the beginning of the Seder prayer, "May all who are hungry come and eat…." Note the floral border and decorative mythical creatures, similar to those found in Christian art of the same period (e.g., books of hours, missals). From The Art of Illumination, Alan Weller, ed. in the Dover Pictura series, 2009.
~ Picture on right: Collage and gouache model for one of Marc Chagall's 1956 windows in the Hadassah Hospital, Jerusalem. The twelve stained glass windows honor the tribes of Israel; this one evokes the spirit of the tribe of Asher. From The Jerusalem Windows Postcard Book (Dover Publications, 1993. Our thanks, once again, to Dover for gracious permission to use their reproduction of unique artworks.)
~ The classic beginners' primer on our topic is Lawrence Kushner's The Book of Letters: A Mystical Alef-bait (NY: Harper & Row, 1975; Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1990 anniversary ed.) Our illuminated rendition of Shin is from this work, a copy of which was a gift to our Center from Rabbi Anne Brener of Los Angeles. Thank you, Anne, for this gift and for consultation on these pages; we also thank Orly Marmur of Israel for sharing her Hebrew expertise. See also The Hebrew Alphabet: A Mystical Journey by Edward Hoffman (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998). The appendix, "Techniques for Spiritual Development," is especially helpful. And for a source work, see one of many translations of The Zohar—The Book of Splendor, from 13th century Spain. This major text of the Kabbalistic tradition sets forth multiple layers of meaning and practice contained within the Hebrew alphabet.
◊ See, in our Soul Food Archive, the Winter 2010 entry under Desserts & Snacks: "A Mandala to Color."