4.65. Avraham Loewenthal, painting ‘100 Sounds of the Shofar’ (2005)

Avraham Loewenthal (born 1969) studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago and took an interest in Jewish meditation in the 1980s; in 1993, he established himself in the Israeli city of Ẓefat (Safed), a center of kabbalistic study, and dropped his first name Robert.



Fig. 12. Avraham Loewenthal, 100 Sounds of the Shofar. Giclee print on canvas. 50 x 150 cm. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

His painting 100 Sounds of the Shofar: Meditational map of the sounds of the Shofar consists of a stack of 100 horizontal strips with one, three or nine triangles each, corresponding with the 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. A strip with one triangle represents the tekiʿah, a strip with three triangles the shevarim, one with nine triangles the teruʿah and a strip with a broad, white triangle the tekiʿah gedolah. From bottom to top, the painting shows first the sitting blasts and then the standing blasts. The division into 30+30+30+10 blasts is clearly visible: the services begin with a middle blue, orange-light blue, purple-dark blue, and light yellow-light blue strip, respectively. If the horizontal strips can be compared to the weft of a texture, the vertical columns on the left, in the middle and on the right are the warp. In the overlappings, the colors change.

In the concise comments on his work, Loewenthal does not say anything about color, but he does comment on the composition: according to his kabbalistic view, the right column in the painting corresponds with thankfulness and giving; the left column with brokenness, lack and receiving; and the middle column with faith and prayer, and moreover, with the harmony between right and left. “It is taught in the Kabbala that when we reach our truest prayer of the heart, all our brokenness is brought to wholeness in the realization of complete oneness and unconditional love at the root of all creation.” *Loewenthal, “100 Sounds of the Shofar.” Discover Kabbalah. Loewenthal’s concept of giving and receiving fits in with the kabbalistic teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag (1884-1954). Cf. Yedidah Cohen, Ed., A Tapestry for the Soul: The Introduction to the Zohar by Rabbi Yehudah Lev Ashlag 69-70. This book was illustrated by Loewenthal. The three columns also correspond with the three most important shofar blasts: the right one with the whole sound of the tekiʿah; the left one with the shevarim, which is broken into three parts; *The Hebrew word shevarim means “ruptures” and the middle with the nine short notes of the teruʿah, “whose sound is so broken that it is whole.” *A different Kabbalah-inspired symbolism with regard to the shofar blasts—four-part instead of three-part—can be found in Robert Stern’s oratorio Shofar (2009) to a libretto by Catherine Madsen, in which the movements bear the following titles: I. Tekiah: Whole. II. Shevarim: Broken. III. Teruah: Smashed. IV. Tekiah g’dolah: Whole. Here, the teruʿah is considered “smashed” instead of “so broken that it is whole.”

The structure of 100 Sounds of the Shofar, whose height is exactly three times the width, is further refined and takes on fractal-like characteristics, just as the system of 100 shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. The shevarim, connected to receiving, consists of three notes, corresponding with giving, receiving and harmony respectively; the teruʿah, connected with harmony, has three times three notes; the first group of three corresponds with giving, receiving and harmony of giving; the second group with giving, receiving and harmony of receiving; and the third group with giving, receiving and harmony of harmony. The aspects of giving, receiving and harmony converge in the upper strip of the painting in the concluding tekiʿah gedolah, which represents unconditional love and oneness. From bottom to top, the painting reveals an evolution from love for oneself to love for everyone. As Loewenthal puts it:

In a simple understanding, the 1st sound of the shofar represents the lowest level of having love only for oneself. Each progressive sound of the shofar represents higher levels of spiritual development of having more and more love for everyone. The final extra long sound of the tekia gedola represents attaining the spiritual consciousness of complete unconditional love. *Loewenthal, “100 Sounds of the Shofar.” Discover Kabbalah.

The cyclic character of the repeated giving and receiving in the painting is enhanced by the repeated triangles, which fit in with the tripartition on all levels in the system of shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service. *Chapter 3.3. There is one more affinity between Loewenthal’s painting and a metaphor from the Rosh Ha-Shanah prayer book: “May it be Your will, LORD my God and God of my ancestors, that the sound of TaSHaT that we sound today be stitched across the curtain before You by the angel . . . who is assigned to this role.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 498. And though there is no explicit dialogue with Bible verses, Loewenthal’s non-figurative work of art is, of course, perfectly in agreement with the prohibition of images in Exod. 20:4.

100 Sounds of the Shofar is an example of the conceptual art which arose in the late 1960s. An important representative of this movement was the American Sol LeWitt (1928-2007) and what he said about the modular use of simple basic units applies as well to Loewenthal’s 100 Sounds:

When an artist uses a multiple modular method he usually chooses a simple and readily available form. The form itself is of very limited importance; it becomes the grammar for the total work. In fact, it is best that the basic unit be deliberately uninteresting so that it may more easily become an intrinsic part of the entire work. *LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art.” Artforum 5. 

In Loewenthal’s painting, these “deliberately uninteresting” basic units are on the one hand the triangle, and on the other hand, the rectangle in the form of a horizontal strip or a vertical column. LeWitt continues, “Using a simple form repeatedly narrows the field of the work and concentrates the intensity to the arrangement of the form. This arrangement becomes the end while the form becomes the means.” *Ibid. An example of this, a work that shows many similar characteristics to Loewenthal’s painting, is LeWitt’s painting on the Ark in the synagogue Beth Shalom Rodef Zedek in Chester, CT. It consists of a large circle, containing a Star of David, both composed of parallel strips in primary colors. The same principle determines, mutatis mutandis, the refined system of 100 shofar blasts as simple basic units in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service.

The maker of a conceptual work of art creates a concept and draws up a plan of work; once he has taken all decisions, the realization of his concept according to the plan is a routine job, in which his professional skill plays a minor role. Loewenthal worked for years on paintings inspired by shofar blasts: “The 2 that are on the website were both started as paintings on wood that looked very different from the prints you now see. . . . I then manipulated the pictures digitally and then printed them.” *Loewenthal, e-mail to the author, April 6, 2010. The website is the Tzfat Gallery of Mystical Art. http://www.kabbalahart.com. Not the artist but instead, the ink-jet printer paints or jets the work of art on the canvas. The print is not a reproduction of an original painting, but an original work, and in contrast to an etching from a copper plate, which is subject to wear, all prints have the same quality. One of Loewenthal’s recent works, ShofarSounds: Seeing the Sounds (2013) is even more consequently conceptual by the use of another machine in the creative process: “in this piece i took one set of shofar sounds (tekia, shevarim, terua, tekia gedola) and sounded them through a spectrograph, which is software that maps out the sound waves. i then took the resulting image and digitally manipulated it into this piece.” *Loewenthal, e-mail to the author, May 1, 2013.

In 100 Sounds of the Shofar, the dual Past of Kabbalah and liturgy is represented by the warp and weft of the composition: the warp represents the 3 or 3 x 3 kabbalistic elements of giving, receiving, and harmony; the weft the system of 100 shofar blasts from the Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy; warp and weft are at right angles to each other, but fall apart without each other. The Present is represented by the concept of the artist, which determined the triangular forms, the colors, and the production process.

As a conceptual painter, Loewenthal is the only artist in A Tool of Remembrance to treat the system of 100 shofar blasts as an algorithm. According to the definition by the philosopher David Berlinski, an algorithm is “a finite procedure, / written in a fixed symbolic vocabulary, / governed by precise instructions, / moving in discrete steps, 1, 2, 3, . . ., / whose execution requires no insight, cleverness, / intuition, intelligence, or perspicuity, / and that sooner or later comes to an end.*Berlinski, The Advent of the Algorithm: The 300-Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer xviii. David Berlinski is the son of the composer Herman Berlinski. Cf. Chapter 4.38. As described in Chapter 3.3, the procedure for blowing the 100 shofar blasts is indeed a finite one; in Loewenthal’s painting, it is written—from bottom to top—in the fixed symbolic vocabulary of triangles, governed by the rules regarding the number of symbols per line. After the 100 discrete steps through the three vertical, kabbalistic columns, the artist automatically arrives at the large, white triangle at the top, symbolizing complete wholeness, and attains “the spiritual consciousness of complete unconditional love.” The artistic and religious algorithms in Loewenthal’s painting fit perfectly with the technical algorithms of the computer and inkjet printer, which control the printing process of the colored triangles.


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