ECSTATIC UPHEAVAL: A conversation with artist David Chaim Smith (Arthur, 2013)

Originally published in Arthur No. 34 (April 2013)….


Is there a way to examine the nature of existence at its very foundation? Esoteric mapmaker DAVID CHAIM SMITH say yes—but there’s a price.
by Jay Babcock

I first encountered David Chaim Smith’s remarkable, bewildering work through Pam Grossman’s Phantasmaphile newsletter, a daily email bulletin spotlighting a contemporary or historic personage up to something witchy and beautiful, usually in the visual arts. Smith’s work was particularly striking in its unusual combination of diagrammatic composition, simple media (pencil!?!) and unapologetically rarefied Kabbalistic-Gnostic content. Generally that would be more than enough to warrant further investigation, but it was the work’s difficult-to-grok provenance that intrigued me the most: these pieces looked like plates that could have been included in Alexander Roob’s Taschen compendium of dazzling Medieval alchemical artwork, The Hermetic Museum (alternative title, courtesy of Adam Egypt Mortimer: The Original Face Melter Times A Thousand). They seemed like the kind of work that’s usually brought to light by accident, decades after the a recluse’s death or disappearance (or committal to a mental ward): strange, highly charged devotional work rescued from a trashbin, the details of its artist’s life and practice gone to dust, Iain Sinclair on the case.


And yet, the author of these stupefying drawings is alive and well—David Chaim Smith [above] is a contemporary New York artist with an MFA, a publisher and (until recently) a gallery. Despite living a semi-monastic life, Smith seems eager to engage with a curious public. He has a website. He’s on Facebook. Dig a little and you’ll find a few occultist-oriented podcast interviews and accounts of public talks he’s given in the last few years around the publication of his two books—2010’s esoteric exegesis The Kabbalistic Mirror of Genesis: Commentary on Genesis 1-3 (Daat Press) and 2012’s massive art/text collection The Sacrificial Universe (Fulgur)—and a 2010 gallery show. And now, here he is on the other end of the telephone line in late January, just days after completing his new book, Blazing Dew of Stars, set for publication this springOctober 23, 2013 by Fulgur. A surprisingly garrulous fellow, Smith spoke frankly about who he is, where he comes from and how his day-to-day life and spiritual practice generates such artwork. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.

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The Influence of Coffee on Kabbalistic All-Night and Midnight Vigils


The Influence of Coffee on Kabbalistic All-Night and Midnight Vigils

One of the innovations of Lurianic Kabbalah was the creation of a variety of rituals which took place late at night. Joseph Karo is credited with the creation of the all-night study session on the eve of Shavuot, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot.

The Ari himself emphasized the importance of prayer and meditation late at night (called Tikkun Chatzot or Tikkun Rachel) and early in the morning (called Tikkun Leah). These times connected the individual with the daily creations of light and darkness. It also was an ideal time (according to the Zohar) to mourn the banishment of the Shechinah from Jerusalem. It also connected the individual with King David, who was said to have created the Psalms at midnight. The powerful image that the gates of Heaven are most available for prayer late at night was thus concretized in Tzfat in the late 16th century. Ironically, it didn’t catch on in Jerusalem at the same time even though Jerusalem mystics were certainly aware of the Zohar’s emphasis on midnight and all-night vigils. Jerusalem’s mystics focused on pre-dawn rituals instead.

Elliott Horowitz provides us with a fascinating thesis about the creation and development of late-night and all-night rituals as opposed to early morning rituals in 17th-18th century Jewish mystical circles. He notes that coffee arrived in Tzfat in 1528, and the first coffee house appeared in Tzfat in 1580.

None came to Jerusalem. The use of coffee as a stimulant might have encouraged the mystics of Tzfat to focus more on all-night and late-night rituals because they couldn’t sleep anyway. Karo’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot appeared two or three years after the introduction of coffee to Tzfat. Horowitz quotes the following description of Tzfat in 1587: (Abraham haLevi Beruchim) would rise at midnight and walk through all the streets, raising his voice and shouting bitterly, “Arise in honor of the Lord…for the Shechinah is in exile and our Temple has been burnt.” And he would call each scholar by his name, not departing until he saw that he had left his bed. Within an hour the city was full of the sounds of study: Mishnah and Zohar and midrashim of the rabbis and Psalms and Prophets, as well as hymns, dirges, and supplicatory prayers.”

By 1673, Tikkun Chatzot had become the known ritual for the vast majority of Palestinian Jewry, and Italian Jewry knew that most Palestinian Jews drank coffee before prayers. Coffee had not yet arrived in Italy.

In the late 1570’s, Italian mystics created their own pre-dawn rituals. They called themselves Shomrim LaBoker, the Guardians of the Morning. These rituals were apparently initiated by kabbalists who were familiar with the midnight and all-night devotions of the Jews of Tzfat. They acknowledged that midnight was the best time for prayer “when God amused Himself with the righteous in the Garden of Eden,” but they were not willing to maintain the midnight tradition. Instead, they slept through the night and woke before dawn for their early prayers. At least seven editions of predawn liturgies were published indicating their popularity.

Coffee arrived in Venice in 1615. The first coffee house (making coffee available to the masses) opened in 1640. In 1655, a liturgy for Tikkun Chatzot was published in Italy and a Chatzot group was formed. In that same year (for the first time), Italian Jews accepted Joseph Karo’s ritual of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. However, coffee was not as popular in Venice as it was in Tzfat. By 1683, there was still only one coffee house in Venice, and there were few Jews drinking the exotic drink. By 1759, coffee-drinking had soared in Italy. There were more than 200 coffee houses in Venice, including two in the ghetto. Jews in Mantua were making a fortune in the coffee industry. A scandal resulted in a ruling that “women could not enter coffee houses whether by day or night.”

The popularity of Tikkun Chatzot also rose impressively. By 1755, most pre-dawn prayer groups in Verona had become midnight and all-night prayer groups. The same thing happened in Mantua. The same thing happened in Modena and Venice. Coffee arrived in Worms Germany in 1728. By 1763 mystic circles were regularly celebrating midnight and all-night vigils for the first time.

In short, although the Zohar and kabbalistic works had always emphasized the special significance of midnight, ongoing prayers and all-night vigils did not become an important part of Kabbalistic life until the introduction of coffee into each Kabbalistic community. Today, midnight and all-night prayers remain an important part of Kabbalistic ritual, and many Jews continue to stay up all night on Shavuot and meet for supplication prayers at midnight on Selichot. Our level of caffeine stimulation makes our participation in such all-night rituals much easier.