When I pray, words wash over me. The ideas they carry fill my brain. The images they convey float through my mind. The feelings they evoke dance in my heart. But I don’t even notice the letters that comprise them — the shapes and the lines — because I’ve been trained to fuse them into words, and to treat the words only as springboards to ideas, images, and feelings. I rarely pay attention to the letters themselves; they simply dissolve as my eyes pour over them.
What a jolt, then, to turn to Page 14a in the draft of the Yom Kippur Evening Service in Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor currently being piloted. That’s where I re-discovered the Sh’ma. Just as in Mishkan T’filah, the lettering of the Sh’ma gets special treatment. It’s the largest in the book and the font is distinct, at once elegant and archaic. It unfurls like a parchment buried for millennia, unseen by human eyes until just now, by me. It demands my attention.
The font evokes the calligraphy of a caravan-leader’s map, with its curvaceous lines and serifs. At the same time, it’s modern, clean, and strong. The lines swoop to the left, creating the feeling of forward movement. The black of the top line is darker than the second, mimicking the volumes with which we sing them.
The unique font of the Sh’ma helps me see how Hebrew letters are constructed from fundamental strokes. It shows me the ‘yud’ in the ‘vav,’ and the ‘vav’ in the ‘tav’ and ‘chav sofit.’ ‘Hay’ contains a ‘reish,’ and there’s an ‘ayin’ in the ‘sin.’
Some letters in this shema are pictograms for me. The ‘lamed’ looks like a tulip, celebrating spring. The ‘shin’ reminds me of a Viking vessel, crashing through the ocean. In the ‘sin,’ my husband sees God’s “hand” holding the world. The ‘reish’ is a cat, rresting on a mantel, purring contentedly. The ‘mem’ is the same cat, stretching after her nap, meowing energetically. The ‘mem sofit’ is the bearded face of an Assyrian trader.
Torah is written in black fire on white fire. That image, from the Zohar, asks us to pay attention to the negative space created by a letter, not only its form. Negative space is the space that surrounds and penetrates a subject. It provides boundaries and contrast. When we notice it, we come to understand that Torah is shaped by what’s missing as well as what’s there. The negative space in this font is bulbous, bounded by curving lines. It’s as if blocks of black have been burrowed into by critters. The lacunae look like little cul-de-sacs, adding to the sense of travel.
No matter how it’s printed, the Sh’ma unifies all Jews, bringing us together like the tassels of a tallis. When we recite it, divisions of time and place disappear. We are all One. This font, at once ancient and timeless, invites me to see with the eyes of the ancestors and to contemplate the hearts of our descendants. It reminds me to broaden my scope.
I’m excited for my congregants to encounter the Sh’ma afresh in Mishkan HaNefesh. As the Sh’ma is supposed to do, it calls us to pay attention.
Rabbi Dean Shapiro serves Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ
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