Kabbalah, Jewish Mysticism, and Art may seem to be contradictory but many artists in the Israeli city of Safed express their understanding of Kabbalah through their art. Jewish art traditionally centered around ritual objects such as cups used for sanctifying wine at Jewish ceremonies and the candelabra where candles are lit to welcome in the Jewish Sabbath and holidays.
Today, with the heightened interest in spirituality and an awareness of the importance of displaying the sacred texts visually, a number of Safed artists are creating paintings, sculptures, ceramics, jewelry, microcalligraphy, paper cuttings and other types of works that bring the viewer into a heightened awareness of the mystical world that’s akin to winning an online poker
In Hebrew, Kabbalah means “receiving” and refers to the belief that students receive the wisdom of the Jewish texts through the process of having it passed down from master to disciple. The Hebrew root word of Kabbalah is ’kabel, ,which can also mean to “find parallels.” Those meanings fit the kabbalistic focus of finding parallels between the dimensions of time, space and the soul.
In essence, kabbalah refers to the secrets that are embedded in the Torah text. These secrets are concerned with deep questions regarding the essence of G-d, the universe and the soul of man.
There are many people who study kabbalah on various levels – some regard it as a hobby or as an alternate religion while others immerse themselves in these teachings. Kabbalah scholars study Jewish mysticism day and night in an effort to understand what G-d wants of man and how man can use this knowledge to deepen his relationship with his fellow man and with G-d.
Safed is a small mountaintop town, located in Israel’s north. It is located near Mt. Meron, the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The “Rashbi,” as he is known, was a 2nd century Talmudic rabbi who also immersed himself in the secrets of Jewish mysticism. The Rashbi is believed to have written the Zohar, the foundational book of Jewish kabbalah.
Jewish presence in Safed dates back thousands of years. Throughout the Byzantine, Crusader, Mamaluke and Ottoman eras, Safed’s Jewish population always included a smattering of Kabbalah scholars who were drawn to the town because of its proximity to Mt. Meron.
In the 16th century, after Spain and Portugal expelled their Jewish communities, many Jewish refugees from these lands immigrated to the Land of Israel. Amongst those families were the era’s greatest kabbalah. Most settled in Safed, drawn by the close proximity to the Rashbi’s grave. This was the Golden Age of Safed Kabbalah and cemented Safed’s reputation as the City of Kabbalah – a name by which it is still known today.
Today there are numerous artists living in Safed who study kabbalah as serious scholars. They express their understandings of these studies through their art. Among them are multiple world-renowned artists and artisans including:
Dovid Friedman is a native of Denver who settled in Tzfat in the early 1980s. Much of his art integrates Jewish meditation with Kabbalah study. Friedman has developed an original system that translates kabbalistic concepts into graphic shapes and colors as conveyed by the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), a seminal (and some say, ancient) kabbalistic text. He uses his art to simplify and clarify kabbalistic ideas. He calls much of his work “Kosmic Kabbalah” where he strives to illustrate how the physical universe is seen as an orderly and harmonious Whole.
His artwork focuses on Kosmic themes as based on kabbalah such as the themes of Infinity, Eternity and G-d’s Holy names. Friedman integrates various forms of Mandalas
into his work as well as different types of geometric shapes and Tree of Life Diagrams.
Avraham Lowenthal, a native of Michigan, strives to express universal spiritual concepts of kabbalah through his work.
Lowenthal’s work focuses on the idea that caring for each other is at the root of all of man’s spiritual work in this world. He strives to convey the idea that nothing in life is a coincidence and even the most difficult and painful occurrences have a reason. Lowenthal attempts to demonstrate, visually, how everything that we go through in life happens because it was a test that was sent to help our soul come to a place where it can experience infinite goodness.
Sheva Chaya Servetter
Sheva Chaya, originally from Denver, uses Hassidic imagery to guide people to visualize the ideas and thoughts behind Jewish mysticism. Much of her work is inspired by the Breslev Hassidic community whose numerous stories and teaching about mystical concepts are expressed in her watercolors and glass-blown art.
Some of Sheva Chaya’s pieces illuminate Jewish and Hassidic liturgies which originated within the teachings of kabbalah. A good deal of Sheva Chaya’s art focuses on the world of women including friendships, the feminine spirit, motherhood and women’s modes of expression. Sheva Chaya also depicts mystical concepts in her paintings and glass-blown art as she weaves modern Jewish life with Jewish adherence to Jewish traditions and rituals. Sheva Chaya illustrates many Jewish and kabbalistic concepts through her use of Hebrew letters and mystical symbolism.