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Aharon Varady

Aharon Varady

Community Planner (M.C.P.) and Jewish Educator (M.A.J.Ed.) working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of Torah study. I am the founding director of the Open Siddur Project, http://opensiddur.org

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All Streams, One Source: Shesha and the Mystery of the Four-headed Shin

From flickr user tovavia via But Does it Float

From flickr user tovavia via But Does it Float

From Genesis 2:5-6 and 10-14:


וְכֹ֣ל ׀ שִׂ֣יחַ הַשָּׂדֶ֗ה טֶ֚רֶם יִֽהְיֶ֣ה בָאָ֔רֶץ וְכׇל־עֵ֥שֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה טֶ֣רֶם יִצְמָ֑ח כִּי֩ לֹ֨א הִמְטִ֜יר יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהִים֙ עַל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְאָדָ֣ם אַ֔יִן לַֽעֲבֹ֖ד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

No shrub of the field (siaḥ ha-sadeh) was yet in the ground, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for HaShem Elohim had not caused it to rain upon the ground, and there was not an Adam (earthling) to cultivate haAdamah (the earth);


וְאֵ֖ד יַֽעֲלֶ֣ה מִן־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְהִשְׁקָ֖ה אֶֽת־כׇּל־פְּנֵ֥י הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

but a mist arose from the ground, and watered the whole face of the earth….


וְנָהָר֙ יֹצֵ֣א מֵעֵ֔דֶן לְהַשְׁק֖וֹת אֶת־הַגָּ֑ן וּמִשָּׁם֙ יִפָּרֵ֔ד וְהָיָ֖ה לְאַרְבָּעָ֥ה רָאשִֽׁים׃

And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became four heads.


שֵׁ֥ם הָֽאֶחָ֖ד פִּישׁ֑וֹן ה֣וּא הַסֹּבֵ֗ב אֵ֚ת כׇּל־אֶ֣רֶץ הַֽחֲוִילָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־שָׁ֖ם הַזָּהָֽב׃

The name of the first is Pishon; that is it which compasses the whole land of Ḥavilah, where there is gold;


וּֽזְהַ֛ב הָאָ֥רֶץ הַהִ֖וא ט֑וֹב שָׁ֥ם הַבְּדֹ֖לַח וְאֶ֥בֶן הַשֹּֽׁהַם׃

and the gold of that land is good; there is bdellium and the onyx stone.


וְשֵֽׁם־הַנָּהָ֥ר הַשֵּׁנִ֖י גִּיח֑וֹן ה֣וּא הַסּוֹבֵ֔ב אֵ֖ת כׇּל־אֶ֥רֶץ כּֽוּשׁ׃

And the name of the second river is Giḥon; the same is it that compasses the whole land of Kush.


וְשֵׁ֨ם הַנָּהָ֤ר הַשְּׁלִישִׁי֙ חִדֶּ֔קֶל ה֥וּא הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ קִדְמַ֣ת אַשּׁ֑וּר וְהַנָּהָ֥ר הָֽרְבִיעִ֖י ה֥וּא פְרָֽת׃

And the name of the third river is Tigris; that is it which goes toward the east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

A Midrash of the Jews of Yemen dating from the 13th century provides the following explanation for the mystery of the four-branched shin. There is one “head” for each of the following facets: cogitation, imagination, memory, and estimation.[1]paraphrasing Midrash haBeur, translated in Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, edited by Y. Tzvi Langermann, p. 242. Additionally, the midrash provides the following astrological explanation for the three and the four branched shin appearing together on the tefillin shel rosh: together their seven heads make up the seven visible wandering stars (i.e., the planets), whose celestial powers in Jewish cosmology must have one root in the mind of G!d.

When, exactly, the tradition of imprinting shins into either side of the tefillin shel rosh became a familiar and accepted motif on the tefillin remains a mystery to me. I’ve only been able to find a limited number of pictures of tefillin found in the Cairo Geniza and at Qumran, and none of these seem to show a four-branched shin.

Nevertheless, the mystery of the shin has inspired many creative and useful insights. One of my favorite is a mind-bending explanation is that the three letter shin fits inside the negative space of the four letter shin (if you imagine the three letter shin hanging upside down inside the four letter shin).

Livetrace of tiny illustration in Munk's Wisdom of the Hebrew Letters

An illustration of the three and four-branched shin from Munk’s Wisdom of the Hebrew Letters (Mesorah 1983)

It occurred to me that this same idea could suggest the Shefa Tal (see below), if you placed the four-branched shin upside down the gaps between the fingers of the two hands spread according to the tradition of the Birkat Kohanim.

Shefa Tal, Hanau, 1612. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress. The position of each hand in this image forms the Hebrew letter shin ( ש ), the first letter in en:Shaddai ( שדי ), the name of God that refers to Him as a protector. This is the root of the Vulcan greeting from en:Star Trek, used to convey security and prosperity.

Shefa Tal, Hanau, 1612. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress.
The position of each hand in this image forms the Hebrew letter shin ( ש ), the first letter in en:Shaddai ( שדי ), the name of God that refers to Him as a protector. This is the root of the Vulcan greeting from en:Star Trek, used to convey security and prosperity.

I have heard that the practice of contemplation in Zen gardens also relates to conditioning the mind to recognize and appreciate how negative space defines the form in which we more commonly view things and that this space is hidden by its veritable ubiquity. There are two midrashic ideas which I think point to a related pedagogy. The first is an idea based on Exodus 32:16, that the luḥot were engraved by G!d, the letters were part of the very essence of the rock itself, and could be read from either side.[2]Avot d’Rebi Natan ch. 2. See also Rabbeinu Bachya, Sisa 32:16. Attempting to visualize such an artifact is a fun gedanken experiment. The second idea is that the Hebrew letters of the Torah are black fire written on white fire; the empty spaces are also pregnant with meaning. (This is an idea which Scott McCloud has written at length in Understanding Comics (1993) concerning where the reader cognitively creates the narrative implied by the panels in comic book. The secret is: mind the gaps between the panels.)

Gershom Scholem mentions something incredible said by David Ḥabillo, a contemporary of Shabbetai Tzvi, concerning the four-branched shin. Ḥabillo identified two Satans, one being the “Satan of holiness” signified by the four headed shin. Writes Scholem, “Ḥabillo’s identification of the ‘fourth head of the shin’ with the ‘Satan of holiness’ provides an interesting illustration of C.G. Jung’s interpretation of the quaternity symbol. According to Jung, the fourth represents the Satan or an analogous entity, whereas three (or the Trinity) is an incomplete and one-sided symbol of divine wholeness.”[3]Gershom Scholem. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676, ft. 178, p. 173. I think what Scholem is referring to here is an idea that Jung posited that the idea of the trinity was an expression of certain subsconscious aspects of the human psyche, but that this arrangement was incomplete without admitting an adversarial aspect into this grouping.

My own insight into the mystery of the four-branched shin is that its symbolic meaning seems to relate strongly to Shesha, the primordial Naga in ancient Persian and Hindu mythology. Vishnu dreams our reality while reclining on Shesha, a naga depicted sometimes with seven crowned heads and sometimes with many more (but often only with five heads). The word naga is a cognate to the Hebrew word for serpent, NaḤaSh. The idea of the shin as signifying the cognitive root of a number of mental facets or mental states is what connects it in my mind strongly to Shesha, the personification of the divine subconscious from which reality is dreamt into existence.

Vishnu resting on Ananta-Sesha, with Lakshmi massaging His feet. 17th century

Vishnu resting on Ananta-Sesha, with Lakshmi massaging His feet. 17th century

A relevant note on the calligraphy of the Hebrew letter shin: Jen Taylor Friedman, the hardest working sofer I know, explains that the leftmost head of the shin is usually a zayin “unless you’re writing ARI z”l script,” the other branches being made from a Yud and Vav. The Zohar describes the four-branched shin as being comprised of multiples of the letter Zayin. The crown over the left-most branch is my only visual cue to the branch being a zayin. The rules for crowning letters, recorded in Babylonian Tractate Menachot 29, places a crown on the Zayin. The shin is thus a crowned letter as it is composed with a zayin.

"Zayin" drawn and animated by soferet, Jen Taylor Friedman.

“Zayin” drawn and animated by soferet, Jen Taylor Friedman.

Now the numerical value of the Zayin is 7. I’ve always been interested in how the word for six in Hebrew is שֵׁשׁ (shesh) — with two shins, and how one might spell Shesha. A creative gematria relating Shesha back to the number 7 would be to take Shesh (6) and add Alef (1) — שֵׁשָׁא. What more Shesha’s many heads are also depicted as crowned. Unfortunately, this is all fun and speculation, and there’s no end to it really, which is a wonder. I’m not an expert in Hindu mythology to offer any more critical comparison, just that an appreciation of the sacred nature of serpents seems to be an element of ancient Israelite mythology witnessed in the Torah that was shared with the mythology of ancient Iran. How Shesha relates to other ancient divine hydras, such as Tiamat/Leviathan seems another obvious connection. While Shesha is seen in a positive light in Hindu mythology,[4]From wikipedia:

In the great epic Mahabharata, the depiction of nagas tends toward the positive. An epic calls them “persecutors of all creatures”, and tells us “the snakes were of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures” (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 20). At some points within the story, nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil nor deceitful than the other protagonists, and sometimes on the side of good.The epic frequently characterizes nagas as having a mixture of human and serpent-like traits. Sometimes it characterizes them as having human traits at one time, and as having serpent-like traits at another. For example, the story of how the naga prince Sesha came to hold the world on his head begins with a scene in which he appears as a dedicated human ascetic, “with knotted hair, clad in rags, and his flesh, skin, and sinews dried up owing to the hard penances he was practicing.” Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head. (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 36.)

the primordial and creative chaos represented by Tiamat/Tohu in biblical mythology is more negative and ambiguous.[5]Shesha’s closest analogue, I think would be the angel Sandalphon (Talmud Bavli Hagiga 13b) who performs the role of crowning G!d. Tiamat/Rahab/Leviathan are primordial beings that G!d must contend with in order to proceed with creation. Only by disciplining, repressing, or forcing into submission these beings can the divine project succeed.

And perhaps this is how the divine project of creation or the very human struggle towards creative realization can be thought of in Jewish sources. In Jewish prayer, the challenge is in aligning multiple facets of one’s self (bekhol levavekha, uvekhol nafshekha, uvekhol m’odekha) through one’s practice. All streams are rooted in one source, whether they are the creative and divine attributes of the sephirot in Kabbalah, or separate facets of mind in Yemenite Jewish philosophical midrash. Impressed into this crown worn during prayer, the three and four-branched shins in the tefillin shel rosh may be a helpful reminder that all seemingly conflicted thoughts, seemingly divergent mental states, and seemingly divergent realities are manifestations of one mind. For me, the shins represent the phoneme for the sound “sh” and so suggests the shin of the shema, to listen carefully and practice awareness; the shin of the divine name Shadai whose nurturing and sustaining nature is something I can emulate through sharing; and the ambient sound “shh” which is naturally soothing in limited doses.

Which brings me back to the four mythic rivers that flow from Eden. The pattern drawn into the landscape by rivers are serpentine, and this extends from physical landscapes to mythical ones, and conceptual ones. I think the four rivers are metaphors for four different paths one can follow back into Eden, which is another way of saying, back into our cultural memory in myth through different mental states. Rivers form natural pathways, and they are one of humanities most ancient rapid transit systems. The entire symbol system associating snakes (leviathans, etc.), is to embody the metaphor of river systems as cognitive processes. The serpentine pattern carved into the landscape by rivers and tributaries is something I think is an important universal symbol for the creative power and beauty of Nature. Andy Goldsworthy, in his art (or shamanism masquerading as art) has also worked to share this insight. For a while now, I’ve associated the Leviathan in Jewish mythology with the creative unconscious, an underground river or aquifer which we always have access to, but need to cultivate an awareness of in order to access. I think Philip Glass articulates the idea very well in this short clip on the source of his compositions:

In my spiritual practice, I emulate G!d, the creator, by being creative, and this entails a lot of frustration. It also makes me very sympathetic with the Genesis myth in the Torah as essentially telling the story of an artist at work, and the additional creation myths found referenced in Psalms, Job, and other works as a story of G!d as a frustrated but successful artist. For these reasons and more I thought I’d add the three and four-letter shin to my headphones. See below.

Erev Shavuot 5773.

Aharon Varady, Erev Shavuot 5773.

 . Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike . 3.0 . Unported .
“All Streams, One Source: Shesha and the Mystery of the Four-headed Shin” is shared by Aharon Varady with a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

About Aharon Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner (M.C.P.) and Jewish educator (M.A. J.Ed.) working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of Torah study. His work and writing have been featured in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz, as an outspoken representative of the free-culture and open-source movement in the Jewish community. He currently studies the intersection of theurgy, experiential education, and ecology at the JTS/Davidson School of Education. He welcomes your comments and personal messages.

Notes   [ + ]

1. paraphrasing Midrash haBeur, translated in Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah, edited by Y. Tzvi Langermann, p. 242.
2. Avot d’Rebi Natan ch. 2. See also Rabbeinu Bachya, Sisa 32:16.
3. Gershom Scholem. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah 1626-1676, ft. 178, p. 173.
4. From wikipedia:
In the great epic Mahabharata, the depiction of nagas tends toward the positive. An epic calls them “persecutors of all creatures”, and tells us “the snakes were of virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures” (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 20). At some points within the story, nagas are important players in many of the events narrated in the epic, frequently no more evil nor deceitful than the other protagonists, and sometimes on the side of good.The epic frequently characterizes nagas as having a mixture of human and serpent-like traits. Sometimes it characterizes them as having human traits at one time, and as having serpent-like traits at another. For example, the story of how the naga prince Sesha came to hold the world on his head begins with a scene in which he appears as a dedicated human ascetic, “with knotted hair, clad in rags, and his flesh, skin, and sinews dried up owing to the hard penances he was practicing.” Brahma is pleased with Shesha, and entrusts him with the duty of carrying the world. At that point in the story, Shesha begins to exhibit the attributes of a serpent. He enters into a hole in the Earth and slithers all the way to bottom, where he then loads the Earth onto his head. (Book I: Adi Parva, Section 36.)

5. Shesha’s closest analogue, I think would be the angel Sandalphon (Talmud Bavli Hagiga 13b) who performs the role of crowning G!d.

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