Rafał Jakubowicz / שיש/SHE’EIN

The neon, i.e. Rafał Jakubowicz’s work entitled שיש/SHE’EIN , is composed of two phrases. The first one, אור שיש בו  מחשבה in Hebrew, means “light full of thought”, the other one, also in Hebrew, but written with Latin letters – OR SHE’EIN BO MAHSHAVA – translates as “light without thought”. The work refers to a concept of Nathan of Gaza (1644-1680), a Kabbalist, the author of Sefer ha-Bri’a (Book of Creation) of 1671, where he developed Isaac Luria’s doctrine (1534-1572), and, above all, the doctrine of Sabbatai Zevi (1626-1676), a prophet of a Kabbalistic “messiah”. According to Nathan of Gaza, there are two kinds of light in Godhead, i.e. in Ein Sof: or sheyesh bo mahshava (light full of thought) and or she’ein bo mahshava (light without thought). The first one contained a thought about Creation from the very beginning. The other one contained no such thing. אור שאין בו מחשבה (or she’ein bo mahshava)  i.e. “light without thought”, according to Gershom Scholem, “ was to rest in itself and to emanate unto itself, without leaving the realm of Ein Sof”. Nathan of Gaza’s concept is an original idea of the dualism of form and matter as good and evil. „The thought-filled light has, from the very start, an element of form, while the thought-less light negates all forms and wants nothing but its own essence […]”, writes Scholem in his book „On the Mystical Shape of the Godhead”. „Since the light wanted nothing but itself, it exerted passive resistance against the emanations created by the thought-filled light in Ein Sof, and thereby became the source of evil in Creation. […] The thought-filled light thus enters into a primal conflict with a realm in Ein-Sof that does not wish to be penetrated by it and, in resisting this formation, tries to destroy the structures created by it”. Jakubowicz’s project, which may be described as Kabbalistic conceptualism, what matters is the manner in which the two phrases were written, where the other one – although it may seem to be a transcript of the first one, especially to someone who does not speak Hebrew – is, in fact, its negation. An additional context is defined by the exceptional status of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet in Kabbalah. As early as in Sefer Yetzirah, i.e. the Book of Formation, one reads: „Twenty two letters he carved. He hath weighed, permuted, mixed, melted and formed of them the essence of everything which is and shall hereafter be.” In Abraham Abulafia’s view (1241-1291), the author of Sefer ha-Ot (The Book of the Sign), the concealed structure of the Hebrew language contains all languages of the world and through a correct use of roots and letters it is possible to find the meaning of these words – a feat only a Kabbalist can perform: „Putting together, separating and combining letters again, a Kabbalist not only perceives rational philosophical truths (which is only the first stage), but also – as Gershom Scholem writes in his „Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism” in the context of Abraham Abulafia’s prophetic Kabbalah – deep mysteries revealing themselves thanks to connecting all languages with the sacred language”. Through writing down foreign words with the Hebrew alphabet one acquires analytical capabilities which allow the deciphering of language meanings. Hence, the Hebrew alphabet is more important than the language in the context of Kabbalah. Each letter of the alphabet, when properly delved into by a mystic, constitutes a world in itself. Abraham Abulafia wrote his most important works in the period when another book, essential for Kabbalah, was put together, i.e. Sefer ha-Zohar (The Book of Splendour), attributed to Moses De León (1250-1305). It was published in Lublin in 1623. Also Zohar emphasises the unique status of the Hebrew alphabet: “For two thousand years before creating the world, the blessed Holy One contemplated them and played with them. As He verged on creating the world, all the letters presented themselves before Him, from last to first”. Both trends – represented by Zohar and Abulafia – are opposing trends of Spanish Kabbalah which Scholem defines as ecstatic and theosophical. Letter combination is important in Kabbalah – e.g. the first three letters of the wordsיש בו מחשבה – i.e. יבמ (yod, bet, mem) form one of the 72 names of God. “There exists philology and gnosis of each Hebrew letter, word and grammatical unit. In the mystical tradition of Merkava, each alphabet letter is perceived as the embodiment of a fragment of the universal plan of Creation; entire human experience, including everything that will be said until the end of time, is hidden in the graphics of the alphabet letters. The supernatural letters, which form the seventy-two names of God – were the deepest levels of the meaning hidden in them examined – could reveal the configuration code of the Universe. For this reason, prophetic kabbalism focuses on developing the letter combination science”, as writes George Steiner. The sequence in which Jakubowicz’s neon modules light up can bring to one’s mind the emanations of the divine light, i.e. the so-called Sefirot. The artwork, which, at the first glance, seems to be a typical conceptual game in the field of semantics, requires from its viewer a knowledge of Jewish mysticism, including the metaphysics of Merkava, kabbalistic combinations and gematria.


Rafał Jakubowicz was born in 1974. A graduate of the Art Education Faculty and Painting, the Graphics and Sculpture Faculty at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, as well as of the Modern Languages Faculty at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (specialisation: Hebrew Studies). Associate professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, he runs the Public Space Art Studio at the Faculty of Art Education and Curatorial Studies. Among others, the author of the work Pływalnia / Indoor Swimming Pool (2003) concerning the Poznań synagogue converted into an indoor swimming pool in 1940 which functioned in that capacity up to August 2011. He also co-curated (with Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz, Valentina Marcenaro and Dorota Monkiewicz) the exhibition Vot ken you mach? Sztuka, filmy, koncerty, komiksy, wykłady oraz dyskusje o żydowskiej tożsamości w dzisiejszej Europie / Vot ken you mach? Art, Concerts, Comic Books, Lectures and Discussions on Jewish Identity in Today’s Europe, which took place in Kunsthaus Dresden in 2013, and in the Contemporary Museum in Wrocław in 2015. Most recent exhibitions organised by him include Pedagogika wstydu / Pedagogy of Shame at Miejski Ośrodek Sztuki in Gorzów Wielkopolski (2018), and Pedagogika wstydu II / Pedagogy of Shame II at Galeria Le Guern in Warsaw (2019). Currently, he is researching the topic of Hebrew Language in the Art of Conceptual and Post-conceptual Artists in Israel within the framework of the statutory research of the Art Education and Curatorial Studies Faculty at the Adam Mickiewicz University, financed as a research project by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education through 2016/2018 educational resources.

rafał jakubowicz