Friday, May 20, 2011

a last peek at bike judaica: the yad

The yad (Hebrew for hand) is a sort of stick with a point on one end, used to mark one's place while reading or chanting Torah aloud in the synagogue. Many of these will include an end shaped like a tiny hand.

I started making these over a decade ago, when I was playing around with bike parts as a way of connecting more deeply to my Judaism. They were an immediate hit with my friends at the synagogue where I was a member; my rabbi at the time asked me to make her a left-handed version, unusual for a yad. I gave them as B'nei Mitzvah gifts and made one for the woman who used to be my boss at the temple religious school.

They're my favorite thing to make.

And here's my little midrash (interpretation) about them:

I use a bench vise and needle-nose pliers to make these. Each spoke is bent by hand into the shape of a tiny hand. (The spokes are stainless steel and they require a fair bit of hand strength to bend them into the shapes I want.) The tools leave tiny gouges on the surface on the metal. I could take a lot of time and try to buff these gouges all the way out and completely smooth the surfaces. Instead I sand them just enough to remove the risk that a sharp edge could damage the Torah scroll as it glides across the parchment. If you look at the close-up, you'll see a few tiny scuff marks on the "knuckles" of the "hand". I decided to leave them there for two reasons:

a. Before the rabbinate was professionalized -- before rabbis made enough money to only be rabbis -- nearly all of them also worked at a trade. Akiva was a stonecutter; Maimonides was a doctor. Many lesser-known rabbis served smaller communities and also worked as cobblers, housepainters, and bricklayers. (Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher who ended up as a heretic but began as a rabbinical student, worked as a grinder of lenses for telescopes and eyeglasses.) So I could imagine a rabbi from these older times approaching the Torah with hands scrubbed clean for the Sabbath but still showing the scrapes and callouses of the week's work.

b. I work with my hands; I've been a bike mechanic for many years. And yet, I enjoy Torah study and read a bit of Torah faithfully each week (usually on Shabbat afternoon). The cerebral gymnastics and the focus required to dig beyond the surface meaning of Jewish texts stimulates me in a way unlike any other. And while the rabbinate has become professionalized, our tradition teaches that regular study is required for every Jew, and that Torah is -- and must be -- accessible to everyone in the community. The aforementioned rabbi from my old synagogue used to tell a story of a group of woodchoppers somewhere in Eastern Europe who saved up their money and bought a set of book-bound Torahs -- and had the leather bindings embossed with lettering indicating that these Torahs were the property of this group of woodchoppers. Apparently, they met every Shabbat afternoon to study Torah together.

So the tiny gouges on the knuckles of these yaddayim are symbolic for me, of the connection between the work of one's hands and the work of one's mind and heart. Each informs the other. And that's why all my yaddayim come with callouses. I won't make them any other way.



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