New art piece: To Everything There Is A Season

Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul (which means only one month to Rosh Hashanah). In honor of the new Hebrew month, I’m debuting a new art piece!

As a young teenager, I was deeply into the music of the 1960s, and I still remember getting goosebumps the first time I heard the Byrds’ 1965 hit recording of Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”.

I knew it was taken from a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes, though I didn’t know much more about it than that. Much later, I experienced Ecclesiastes as the Hebrew scroll of Kohelet, which is traditionally ascribed (like the book of Proverbs, or Mishlei ) to King Solomon, and in many Jewish communities is read aloud in its entirety at Shabbat synagogue services during the fall holiday of Sukkot.

A couple of years ago, at a friend’s house, I saw a framed calligraphy piece based on this same passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. That inspired me to want to do a version of my own.

The primary motif I had in mind was to set the English phrases as a sine wave or a helix, winding around the structure of the Hebrew. The above-and-below undulation would convey the duality in each of the pairings. Each Hebrew phrase is color-matched with its English equivalent to create a visual connection between the two levels. I chose to invert the Hebrew in these layers so that the text flow of both languages could run in the same clockwise direction — another way to echo the “wheel of time” feeling of the passage.

Ultimately, I arranged the text in a mandala of four nesting circles. The outermost circle is formed from the opening verse, which provides the conceptual frame for the whole passage. The second layer contains eight pairings, the third layer five pairings, and the last pairing forms the final circle with “peace” at its center… driving the whole composition, like Pete Seeger’s adaptation, toward an optimistic goal at its core.

One note on the translation: The well-known King James Version translates the second half of verse 1 as “and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. The Hebrew word used there, however, is cheifetz, which in other contexts is always rendered as “please” or “enjoy”. (Compare to Psalm 115:3, V’elokeinu ba-shamayim; kol asher chafetz asah. “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.”) Thus, some English translations give it as “to every delight” or “pleasure under the heavens”. Many other translations simply say “event”, “matter” or “activity”. I wanted to find a word that conveyed the semantic direction of “pleasing” without categorizing killing and destroying as “delights”, and settled on “to every impulse under the heavens.” I also tried to preserve the distinctions in the Hebrew between “a time to [verb]” and “a time of [noun]”.

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I created Version I using the classical Roman-style font Trajan for all of the English text, for a smooth and formal look. However, then I wanted to try to bring out the (literal) texture of the passage with a little more contrast, so I experimented with applying a calligraphic italic hand (a font called Aquiline) to accent the changing keywords in each English phrase. This resulted in Version II.

Both pieces are now available in my Etsy shop, along with a hi-res PDF download that includes both versions in case you prefer to print your own.

Which version do you think works best? Let me know in comments.

Chodesh tov!

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