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OBJECT OF THE MONTH – August 2005


Shiviti with Daily Psalms (at Spanish Synagogue)

Moravia, Hayyim Wolf Teltsch, 1857-58
paper, ink, soot, golden colour and watercolours, embossed paper appliqué

Shiviti is a calligraphic picture composed out of Hebrew texts with a purpose to help purification and concentration of the mind in the moment before and during prayer. Its content and the tradition of its confection emerged from the doctrine of the Jewish mysticism at the end of the seventeenth century, when the doctrine spread through Kabbalah writings and rituals into the everyday life of the faithful. Most often, Shivitis were made by professional Jewish scribes. In Ashkenazi synagogues, the Shiviti is usually set next to the Holy Ark on the pulpit of the cantor who leads the prayer.
The two essential elements of the Shiviti are the verse of Psalm 16:8 and the menorah with Psalm 67 inscribed in its seven branches. The verse of the Psalm, “I have set [Heb. Shiviti] God always before me”, reminds man of God’s omnipresence and in the same time, serves as an aid to the visualization of the Tetragram. This four-letter Name of God, the original and holiest of the Divine names, is credited with magic powers. Protective powers are ascribed also to the combination of the menorah and the Psalm 67 and to other quoted texts: Shiviti, then, is also used as an amulet to protect one in prayer, the synagogue and the entire community. By reading the Psalm in the form of the menorah, the worshipper symbolically relights the Temple menorah, becomes spiritually linked to the Temple and, in so doing, anticipates its restoration and redemption. The light of the menorah symbolizes the light of God’s commandments and, in a mystical sense, God himself. The entire calligraphic image thus becomes a symbol of God.
Besides these essential elements Shiviti often bear other texts, which clarify or further develop its meaning. Here we read, as a kind of a heading, a Hebrew verse: “Prayer without intention is as a body without soul”. Bellow we find a quotation: “Know before whom you are standing: before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” – only the initial letters (coloured in gold) of the first five words are enough to hint to this well-known maxim. Words of a memento mori, quoted from the book Sefer ha-Hayyim by Simon Fraknfurter, run in the frame of the panel: “Man fears that he will lose money, but fears not that his days are hastening on. Money will not help and the days will not return.”
The lower text panel contains, besides the Tetragram, other Holy names formed of out various verses from the Bible and prayers, and opening words of prayers included in the kabbalistic ritual. On the sides of the menorah we read, written vertically, two abbreviation words reminiscent of the names of two rare materials, velvet and atlas. They are composed of the initials of two biblical verses representing the worshipper’s “robe of the soul” (as they are referred to on some Shiviti plaques), samut: “Depart from evil, and do good” (Psalm 34:15) and atlas: “Surely God is good to Israel” (Psalm 73:1). The whole composition is framed by an ornamental border with micrographic texts of daily Psalms incorporated into the Jewish liturgy.
The shiviti by Hayyim Wolf Teltsch is an invitation to the exhibition of Jewish art on parchment and paper with the title “Those who see this picture won't sin”, on display in the Robert Guttmann Gallery until August 28, 2005.

 

 

 


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