The Tree of Life Shtender
David Moss and Noah Greenberg devoted 18 years to the design and adornment of The Tree of Life Shtender. The result is a unique and stunningly beautiful work of Judaic art and craftsmanship. The Tree of Life Shtender, based on the prayer and study lectern of Jewish tradition, is an elegant piece of furniture. It also serves as a treasure chest containing every ritual object needed for Jewish religious observance throughout the year. The harmonious and organic unity of Jewish life is expressed in this unique functional work of sculptural art. The longing heart of Jewish prayer, the insightful mind of Jewish learning, and the caring hand of Jewish practice, are embodied through the exquisite hand carvings of the plants of the Land of Israel, and the intricately detailed and richly finished woods of this piece. Selected individual objects from the Shtender are also being offered outside of the Shtender edition.
Some of the items included are:
Treasures of wickedness profit nothing; but righteousness (or charity) saves from death. Proverbs 10:2Hundreds of traditional charity boxes preserved from the past have the verse “charity saves from death” inscribed upon them; our Tzedakah box combines charity collection with the memorial candle for the first time in Jewish art. The decorative carvings of fig leaves and fruits on the Tzedakah box allude to the Tree of Knowledge, which Rashi tells us was a fig tree; eating from the tree of knowledge was what brought mortality into the world. Tzedakah the Hebrew word means “righteousness” or “justice” not pity or commiseration. In Jewish understanding, our wealth does not belong to us, but is merely ours in trust. Our Provider entrusts us with wealth in order to distribute it justly throughout the world. Thus, giving to charity is not a mere act of individual generosity, but a requirement of righteousness, which places us in a pivotal role between God and our fellow man. The most sacred and defining elements of the Jewish world-view flow from this centrality of relationship. The Jewish model of Tzedakah is an ongoing, caring, loving relationship of responsibility which applies to all areas of life.
The entire Tree of Life Shtender began as an idea to create a comprehensive piece of art that would encompass the organic and comprehensive nature of Judaism. The Shtender was conceived to unite the Jewish heart at prayer, the Jewish mind in study, and the Jewish hands in practice. As the concept evolved, it was decided that objects would need to be included to represent the full spectrum of Jewish practice and values, and that each object would be primarily of wood, decorated with plant motifs in realistic carvings, and that the Shtender and all its objects would be fully functional and of a useable size. From this point on, the working out of each individual object began and was a fascinating interplay between the inherent constraints of each object and our own research, imagination, and design. This process caused some of the objects to almost suggest and create themselves. It also ensured that other objects would become innovations in the history of Jewish ritual art. Such was the case of the Tefillin Box. After checking with museum curators and experts on Jewish art, we discovered that we have created the first Tefillin Box ever! In the long history of Tefillin (and ancient Tefillin have been discovered actually dating back to antiquity) they have apparently always been contained in a sack or pouch. Of course, once the decision to make every Shtneder object of finely crafted, carved wood had been made, the notion of a wooden Tefillin Box became obvious. Carved into the Tefillin Box are sprigs of apple trees, with leaves and blossoms. The apple is very significant in Jewish lore. The mystical apple orchard is a beautiful and common reference. “Under the apple tree I awakened you”—Song of Songs.) In that apple orchard are hidden all the secrets that we dare not plumb. As the apple orchard represents the Torah, the hidden and the revealed, our Tefillin case is the Shtender’s object representing the Torah. The Tefillin themselves may be seen as a concise, miniature embodiment of the Torah itself.
There is no joy except through wine—Pesachim109B. In Jewish tradition, wine is consistently a symbol of joy. Every joyous event, whether related to the calendar or to the life cycle, is consecrated with an overflowing cup of wine. Just as the presence of wine is a symbol of joy, its absence is an indicator of sorrow. Wine (among other things) is not permitted for a mourner when he is within the seven days of mourning, nor is it allowed during the nine days leading up to and including the fast of Tisha B”Av. The cup of wine presides over the weekly and annual Jewish cycle of joy and at each joyous or important occasion in our lives: from the brit where even the newborn baby gets his first taste of wine, to the wedding, the most joyous of all times, where double cups of wine are interwoven within the celebrations at every point. The motif for this object was obvious—the beautiful grapevine was to be the decorative theme. Unlike many of the other objects in the Shtender, the wooden part of this object is the container for the objects, not the ritual object itself. Our thought was that along with the Challah board and candelabrum, it would remain to beautify the Shabbat table even after the silver objects had been taken out. It was therefore essential that the piece function visually both when it contained the silver Kiddush Set, and also that it stand alone as a beautiful sculpture when the vessels were removed. The result was a deeply layered, intricate carving. The interior spaces that hold the silver cups and plates were also carved in the nearly inaccessible interior depths of the piece, creating an artistic surprise as the cups and plates are removed. The secret interior carving also hints at the well-known adage: Nichnas yayin, yotzi sod. when wine goes in, secrets come out. In vino veritas! Indeed the Zohar (Bamidbar 189) calls Bread and Wine, the pride of a table.
The Sabbath Candelabra
“He made the menorah out of pure gold, hammering the menorah along with its base, stem, and decorative cups, spheres and flowers out of a single piece of metal. Six branches extended from the menorah’s sides, three on one and three on the other. There were three embossed cups, a sphere and a flower to each branch. This was true of all six branches extending from the menorah—Exodus 140:17. The Tree of Life Sabbath Menorah, a seven-branched almond sprig intricately carved from a solid block of walnut wood, alludes to the Menorah in the Temple which was molded from a single piece of gold. Our almond branches are also carved from one solid block of wood. The branches of the original Menorah were said to be ‘meshukadim’ (decorated) with cups, spheres, and flowers. From the same Hebrew root is the word ‘shaked’ almond. Thus the almond motif was deemed most appropriate for our Sabbath Menorah, illustrating the intrinsic and organic connection between the mishkan (the tabernacle) and the Sabbath, so much so that the Sabbath has even been called “A Temple in time” (Abraham Joshua Heschel—The Sabbath) The verses regarding the keeping of the Sabbath are juxtaposed in the Torah with those regarding the building of the mishkan and the categories of tasks prohibited on the Sabbath are precisely those required to build the mishkan. These form the entire basis for the halachic structure of Shabbat.
The Challah Board And Knife
When God cursed the earth and made it sprout forth weeds and thorns, tears flowed from Adam’s eyes; but when God said that by his sweat he could have bread to eat, he was comforted. Eruvin 118A Bread is a reflection of the Torah. Bereishith Raba. The Challah Board is decorated with carvings of wheat plants flanking the cutting surface. A knife, the handle of which is also carved in the wheat motif, is stored within the board, and within the handle of the knife is a removable salt shaker to provide salt for dipping the challah. Shabbat and festival meals begin with Kiddush, followed by the ritual washing of the hands, after which the blessing is recited over two loaves of bread: Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the Universe, who brings bread out of the earth. This blessing is perhaps perplexing. By comparison, the blessings for fruits “Who creates the fruit of the tree” or for vegetables “Who creates the fruit of the ground” are more immediately comprehensible. When we hold an apple or carrot in our hands before biting into them, they are exactly as they were when they came off the branch or were uprooted from the soil. The origin of such food seems indeed to be a miracle springing directly from God. Our gratitude for this kind of food seems as natural as the food itself. But what a difference, though, between full sheaves of wheat blowing in the wind, and the rich brown loaves we now hold in our hands. Virtually everything about bread seems to point, not to Divine creation, but to human accomplishment. The human effort required to put this bread on our table is tremendous and multifaceted: plowing, sowing, tending, reaping, gathering the sheaves, thrashing, winnowing, cleansing, grinding, sifting, kneading, and baking! Indeed, these very actions represent over one quarter of the primary kinds of activity which the Torah defines as creative human actions specifically the 39 melachot (tasks) forbidden on the Sabbath. It is a simple matter to be filled with wonder and thank God when we look at an absolutely exquisite, perfect fruit; it is perhaps more difficult to sense the Divine contribution in a loaf of bread (or for that matter in a 10-year Shtender project!). Yet it is just this sense that our sages seem to be attempting to instill in us when we hold the bread in our hands and bless God as if we had plucked this loaf directly out of the soil of the field. Without the raw material itself provided by the Creator, and the inspiration with which He blesses us, grains of wheat would never become fragrant and sustaining loaves of bread, nor could fine wood and silver be transformed into the Tree of Life Shtender.
The Succot Objects
“And you shall take to you … the fruit of the goodly tree, branches of palm trees, and boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brooks, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God.” Leviticus 23:40 “This is my God, and I will beautify him.” Exodus 15:2. Hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of the mitzvot, is the very concept upon which Jewish ritual art is based. It is embodied more in the etrog than in any other mitzvah. Whereas each mitzvah is supposed to be performed in a manner that beautifies and enhances it, in the case of the etrog, beauty is an essential prerequisite to the mitzvah itself. The quest for a beautiful etrog is a traditional Jewish endeavor into which immense efforts are invested each year. All the aesthetic attributes are studied and refined in the search for the beautification of this mitzvah: color, texture, symmetry, liveliness, perfection, symbolism. As our Tree of Life Shtender itself is a work of art and an object of beauty, the Etrog box can perhaps be thought of as the very heart of the Shtender. Don’t read Etz Hadar, but Etz Hiddur, “The Tree of Beautification (of the commandments)!”
Seder Plate Set
Eat the (sacrificial Passover) meat during the night, roasted over fire. Eat it with matzo and bitter herbs. Exodus 12:8. Hyssop, aizov in Hebrew was the plant used to sprinkle the blood of the Paschal lamb on the doorposts of Jewish homes on the night of the Exodus. Aizov, from the Hebrew root meaning abandoned, is heavily branched and grows low and close to the ground. As Rashi says in Parshat Metzorah aizov represents humility; and yet, here we see the lowly aizov performing this momentous function. As we say in the Hallel: “The stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone.” Just as the lowly hyssop plant performs a pivotal function, so the Jewish people are to metamorphose from being lowly slaves into a free people. The Paschal lamb is represented by the hyssop that is carved around the lower matzah container, the one that will hold the matzot. The second component of our Seder Plate Set, the dish and cup storage piece, is carved with the horseradish plant. The lower side displays the roots and underground portion of the plant (the part that is eaten); the upper side shows the foliage. Stored in this jungle of horseradish are the utensils themselves: six silver dishes for the required foods, one silver bowl for salt water, and a goblet and larger dish for the Cup of Elijah. The third wooden component of the Seder Plate Set is the thin platter itself. Each of the three components is folded for storage. When they are unfolded and assembled, the pieces stack one on top of each other to form the completed Seder Plate Set.