12 November 2021

The Spicebox of Earth
and welcoming the
Sabbath in Venice

Two 18th century Sabbath spice boxes, part of the ritual of welcoming the Sabbath, in the Jewish Museum in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I arrived back in Dublin from Venice late this afternoon after a five-day city break to celebrate some family birthdays and anniversaries. Throughout this week, in my prayer diary each morning, I have introduced the five surviving, working synagogues in Venice, and in my prayer diary tomorrow morning I plan to introduce the Jewish Museum in Venice.

On the Sabbath, Jews say, the ‘Sabbath Queen’ or the ‘Sabbath Bride’ descends from Heaven to heal the sufferings of the Jews. The arrival and departure of ‘Her Majesty’ is marked by ceremonies. When she enters, everybody is happy; when she leaves, there is a strange sadness. But people take comfort in a symbolic tradition that includes inhaling the aroma of spices contained in an ornamental box, often made of silver, the spice box.

Spice-boxes are an essential part of Havdalah (הַבְדָּלָה, ‘separation’), the ceremony marking the symbolic end of Shabbat and ushering in the new week. Like kiddush, Havdalah is recited over a cup of wine. The ritual involves lighting a special Havdalah candle with several wicks, blessing a cup of wine and smelling sweet spices.

Havdalah engages all five senses: to feel the cup, to smell the spices, to see the candle flame, to hear the blessings, to taste the wine.

Spices in Hebrew, are usually kept in decorative spice-boxes to beautify and honour the mitzvah, and are handed around so that everyone can smell the fragrance. In many Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, branches of aromatic plants are used for this purpose, while Ashkenazim have traditionally used cloves.

A special braided Havdalah candle with more than one wick is lit, and a blessing is recited. If a special Havdalah candle is not available, two candles can be used, and the two flames joined when reciting the blessing.

The central blessing of the Havdalah is:

Blessed art thou, God, our Lord, King of the Universe
Who distinguishes
Holiness from the everyday,
Light from dark,
Israel from the nations,
The seventh day from the six workdays.
Blessed art thou, God,
Who distinguishes holiness from the everyday

As people recite the words ‘Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam, bo’re m’orei ha’esh,’ they hold their hands up to the candle and gaze at the reflection of the light in their fingernails.

As Havdalah concludes, the leftover wine is poured into a small dish and the candle is extinguished in it, a sign that the candle was lit solely for the mitzvah of Havdalah. In a reference to Psalm 19: 9, ‘the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes,’ some people dip a finger in the leftover wine and touch their eyes or pockets with it.

After the Havdalah ceremony, it is customary to sing ‘Eliyahu Hanavi’ (‘Elijah the Prophet’) and to bless each other, Shavua’ tov, ‘Have a good week.’

The text of the Havdalah service exists in two main forms, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. The introductory verses in the Ashkenazic version (beginning הנה אל, Hinei El) are from the Books of Isaiah and Esther and the Psalms. In the Sephardic liturgy, the introduction begins with the words ראשון לציון, Rishon L’tsion, and consists of biblical verses describing God giving light and success, interspersed with later liturgical prose.

The four blessings over the wine, spices candle and praising God for separation between the holy and the profane are virtually identical between the traditions. The phrase בין ישראל לעמים, bein Yisrael l’amim, ‘between Israel and the nations,’ is based on Leviticus 20: 26.

The Spice-Box of Earth became the most popular and commercially successful of Leonard Cohen’s early books, established his poetic reputation in Canada, and brought him a measure of early literary acclaim.

My copy of this book, to paraphrase words in another Leonard Cohen song, ‘has grown old and weary,’ or, rather, it is battered, stained and dog-eared. As I read through it the other evening, I could remember which poems I had selected for poetry readings in Wexford in the early and mid-1970s, including ‘I have not lingered in European monasteries’ and ‘The Genius.’

In Out of the Land of Heaven, the poem that gives this book its title, Leonard Cohen writes:

Out of the Land of Heaven
Down comes the warm Sabbath sun
Into the spice-box of earth.

The poem seems to be a verbal invocation of a painting by Marc Chagall. The rabbi thrusts his hands into the ‘spice-box of earth’:

Down go his hands
Into the spice-box of earth,
And there he finds the fragrant sun
For a wedding ring
[for the Sabbath Queen]

And he tells them:
The Queen makes every Jew her lover.

The book concludes with ‘Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal’ and the final verse is an ‘Inscription from the family spice-box’:

Make my body
a pomander for worms
and my soul
the fragrance of cloves.

Let the spoiled Sabbath
leave no scent.
Keep my mouth
from foul speech.

Lead your priest
from grave to vineyard.
Lay him down
where air is sweet.

Following the success of The Spice-Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen retreated for several years to the Greek island of Hydra, where he worked on more poems and songs.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, who rules the universe, Creator of all kinds of spices.

A variety of spices on sale near Rialto Bridge in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Shabbat Shalom

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
167, the Scuola Spagnola, Venice

The Scuola Spagnola in Venice founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Jews whose families had fled the Inquisition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

I am coming to the end of my city break in Venice this week. I have been spending a few days at the Hotel San Cassiano in the Ca’ Favretto in the Santa Croce district, just a few minutes’ walk from Rialto, and celebrating some important family birthdays and anniversaries.

Before the day begins, and before I pack to catch a mid-afternoon Ryanair flight to Dublin, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this week, my photographs are from the ghetto in Venice. I am looking at each of the five historic synagogues in the Ghetto in turn each morning this week.

My photographs this morning (12 November 2021) are from the Scuola Spagnola, founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews.

Inside the Scuola Spagnola, rebuilt in 1635-1657 by the architect Baldassare Longhena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Spanish Synagogue is one of the two functioning synagogues in the Ghetto, and is open from Passover until the end of the High Holiday season.

The Spanish Synagogue was founded by Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal during the Inquisition in the 1490s. They reached Venice in the 1550s, usually through Amsterdam, Livorno or Ferrara, in the 1550s. Many of these people were crypto-Jews and Maranos, whose families had been forced to convert to Christianity in previous generations.

This four-storey, yellow stone building was built in 1580-1584. A document in 1582 speaks of ‘a school that hosts foreigners.’ It was rebuilt in 1635-1657 by the architect Baldassare Longhena (1598- 1682).

This was a clandestine synagogue, tolerated on condition that it was concealed inside a building that does not look like a house of worship from outside.

This is the largest and best-known of the five surviving synagogues in Venice, and it is entered through a wide double staircase that leads upstairs. On the stairs one finds an ancient alms box.

Inside, this elegant synagogue is elaborately decorated, with its Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in multicoloured, and a high, marble elliptic women’s gallery.

A tablet on the back wall is inscribed with the names of the Jews deported from Venice in the years 1943-44. Many tablets on the side walls include the names of well-known Venetian Jewish families: Treves, Maurogonato, Gentilomo, Belilios, Coen, Caravaglio …

A marble commemorative plaque on the façade outside is dedicated to the Jews of Venice murdered in the concentration camps during the Holocaust in 1939-1945.

The synagogue was completely restored in 1980-1983.

The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in the Scuola Spagnola (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 17: 26-37 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 26 ‘Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them. 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30 — it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it. 34 I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.’ 37 Then they asked him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’

The bimah in the Scuola Spagnola (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (12 November 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for young adults in higher and further education. May they emerge from this difficult time as conscientious individuals confident in themselves and curious about the world.

The ceiling in the Scuola Spagnola (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The names of the dead in tablets on the walls of the Scuola Spagnola … ‘May their memories be blessings unto us’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Holocaust memorial on the façade of the Scuola Spagnola (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)