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TIOH Art Tour: Alphabet of Creation

  • By Ben Shahn 
  • Serigraph, 1957 
  • Signed left to right in red ink 

The “Alphabet of Creation” is depicted by internationally famed artist Ben Shahn. In this screen-print of 1957, Shahn presents the letters of the Aleph Bet (the Hebrew Alphabet) in deliberately stylized and seemingly random graphics that relate to the mysticism of the Zohar, The Book of Splendor. 

The Zohar is the foundational work of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and itself has an uncertain and controversial origin. 14th century Spanish scholar Moses de Leon asserted that it was written in 2nd century by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. That assertion has been challenged by scholars ever since it was revealed by de Leon and its origins remain a mystery. A mystery like the legend Shahn is portraying here. 

As the story goes: 26 generations before the creation of the world, the 22 letters of the Aleph Bet descended from the crown of God and vied with each other to be selected by God to create the world through him. One by one each letter made his request with reasons. One by one God responded with rejections due to unsavory connotations…until the letter Bet reminded God that daily praise is on mankind’s’ lips: “Blessed (Baruch) be the Lord forever and ever, amen.”  God accepted Bet’s proposal and began creation with: 

Bereshit – in the beginning – God created the Heaven and the Earth.” 

Like this beautiful legend, our first experience of Shahn’s masterpiece is one of shock and confusion. Bold, thick, highly aggressive letters compete with one another for prominence. The visual cacophony is so intense that they appear to blur into one another. It’s only when we stop, consider the intent, that we can see, principally in the negative space an order and pattern to creation. 

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