Thoughts on religious iconography from Cambodia and Vietnam
There is an impressive and seamless continuity between texts, mythologies, art, ritual objects, and architecture within Hinduism and Buddhism. A perfect example is the lotus. In mythology and sacred Hindu texts the lotus grows from the navel of Vishnu, the sleeping god whose dream is the universe. Brahma sits on the lotus, the symbol of divine energy and divine grace.
This theme of the lotus growing from the navel of the deity is echoed in Buddhist literature. Siddharta dreams that a lotus tree rises from his navel up through the worlds to the Heaven of the “Final Limit of Form” and the very summit of the cosmos of formal manifestation… In this symbolic formula the flowering of the lotus is the attainment of Enlightment: the petals open to disclose the Buddha seated on the lotus, and in the “lotus position”. (see The Symbolism of the Stupa, By Adrian Snodgrass pp 205
Brahma sits on Lotus flower, Valley of 1000 Lingas, Cambodia
In fact, the design of the Temples at Angkar follows the pattern of the lotus flower (un-open) emerging from a base representing the lotus petals.
The complex Angkor Wat with it’s central lotus surrounded by four lotuses is no exception.
At its core the image of the lotus plant arising from the navel and the flowering of the lotus is the essence of creation and sexual in nature. The phallic nature of the temples at Angkar are oblivious.
In its most minimalistic form the lotus flower/petal motif takes the shape of the linga and includes the mountain iconography most noticeable in the structure of the Angkar temples. The lingam is often represented alongside the Yoni, a symbol of the goddess or of Shakti, female creative energy.
The yoni is the creative power of nature and represents the goddess Shakti. The linga stone represents Shiva, and is usually placed in the yoni. The lingam is the transcendental source of all that exists. The linga united with the yoni represents the nonduality of immanent reality and transcendental potentiality.
The Yoni represents the petals out of which the Linga emerges and rests and more ancient specimens from matrilineal societies are square, while later versions, have their power reduced by rounding.
In fact this combination of Famale petals and male lotus flower is the brand of Buddhism and I might add, a lot of Cambodian and Vietnamese companies.
This brand is called the Linga and nowhere more apparent than at the River of A Thousand Lingas a 40 minute drive from the temples at Angkor.
Judaic Iconographic Tour 1.01
So I get it. Judaism does not condone images. It hardly has a brand mark. Unlike the menorah, the Lion of Judah, the shofar and the lulav (our lotus?), the Star of David, considered by most to be the Trademark of Judaism, was never a uniquely Jewish symbol.” Our ancient art is limited and mostly derivative of other pagan cultures in the neighborhood (see: signs of the Zodiac).
But certainly there must be some iconography which a tour guide of Judaism could point out. Are there primal and seminal shapes and messages hidden in our texts and rituals, that we just ignore or have left buried under the surface?
So here’s a stab at giving such a tour…
Enter the SQUARE…
I have always been intrigued by the ambiguous relationship of the Hebrew Bible to corners and squares.
The word in Classical and Modern Hebrew for square is ribu’a (ריבוע) which really just comes from the word 4. This word, along with the word for Circle (עיגול) do not to my knowledge appear in the ancient biblical texts. Geometry was not the Bible’s favorite subject… But we do have the word for corner “Payah” (פֵּאָה) which not only appears, but appears to play an important role.
Keeping the “corners” of the beard is the source for Jewish beards and side curls.. called Payot (corners).
You shall not round off the corner of your head, and you shall not destroy the edge of your beard.(Leviticus 19: 27)
לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ
The word for “round” used in the verse is (נָקַף ) which means to go around, surround, encompass, enclose, to make the round, complete the circuit.  (Compare: Hakafa הקפה “[to] en/circle” or “going a/round” in Hebrew, referring to the times when celebrations in Judaism have its adherents dance or walk or celebrate by moving in circles.)
For the Torah, the corners seem to be holy or consecrated, which means that they need to either be dedicated to God or to his chosen on earth… the poor and the stranger. The biblical editor establishes an obvious thematic link between the corners of the beard and the corners of the field. Just a few verses earlier in Leviticus 19 we read:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not fully reap the corner of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. .. You shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord, your God. (Leviticus 19: 9 – 10)
וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט
לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם
And of course, what discussion of sanctifying the square or corner would be complete without mention of the four-cornered garment and the requirement for fringes. The word Kanaf (כָּנָף) usually means wings as in the Cherubs in Exodus 25:20
who shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, ….
וְהָיוּ הַכְּרֻבִים פֹּרְשֵׂי כְנָפַיִם לְמַעְלָה, סֹכְכִים בְּכַנְפֵיהֶם עַל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת, וּפְנֵיהֶם, אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו; אֶל-הַכַּפֹּרֶת–יִהְיוּ, פְּנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים
It is tempting to suggest a connection between wings/corners and the Hebrew creation myth which begins by God fluttering (rä·khaf’) over the abyss.
Now the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:2)
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱ-לֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest, acoveter in Old French, to cover, hover over.
ורוח א-להים מרחפת כסא הכבוד עומד באויר ומרחף על פני המים ברוח פיו של הקב”ה ובמאמרו, כיונה המרחפת על הקן אקוביטי”ר בלע”ז] לכסות]
Similarly, the bird hovering/fluttering metaphor is used for both the Exodus and Revelation myth as well:
He [God] found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye. As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions. (Deuteronomy 32: 10-11)
כְּנֶשֶׁר יָעִיר קִנּוֹ עַל גּוֹזָלָיו יְרַחֵף יִפְרֹשׂ כְּנָפָיו יִקָּחֵהוּ יִשָּׂאֵהוּ עַל אֶבְרָתוֹ
He encompassed them: [Rendered by Onkelos :] “He made them encamp round about His Divine Presence”-the Tent of Meeting [where the Divine Presence rested] was in the middle [of the camp] and the four divisions [i.e., the tribal camps, surrounded it] from all four directions.
hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]
spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4] (see for hebrew text)
Not only does the hovering wings motif include the trifecta of Creation, Exodus and Revelation, but according to the sources that Rashi references, the Biblical hovering “kenafim” wings is a four cornered force field of tenderness and protection.
If we are discussing holy squares and rectangles, we need to mention the Mishkan – Tabernacle (מִשְׁכַּן) and the Beit HaMikdash – Temple (בֵּית־הַמִּקְדָּשׁ ) which, like Hindu and Buddhist temples was to be situated on the top of a hill/mount (הַר הַבַּיִת).
The shape of both were rectangular. Of interest for our discussion is that the word used for side is actually our friend corner-Peyah.
And thou shalt make the boards for the tabernacle, twenty boards for the south side southward (Exodus 26: 18)
וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-הַקְּרָשִׁים, לַמִּשְׁכָּן, עֶשְׂרִים קֶרֶשׁ, לִפְאַת נֶגְבָּה תֵימָנָה
In addition to corner, Peyah can also mean extremity, edge or border.
As Rashi writes:
for the southern side: Heb. לִפְאַתנֶגְבָּה ךְתֵּימָנָה. [The word לִפְאַת is derived from פֵּאָה, which usually means “corner.”] This [use of the word] פֵּאָה is not an expression meaning “corner,” rather the whole side is referred to as פֵּאָה, as the Targum [Onkelos] renders: לְרוּחַ עֵיבַר דָרוֹמָא, to the side toward the south.
לפאת נגבה תימנה אין פאה זו לשון מקצוע, אלא כל הרוח קרויה פאה, כתרגומו לרוח עיבר דרומא
We will conclude our survey of ambiguous sanctification of the corner/square with the one object in Judaism which cries out for a contextual reference, and whose cries have been met with a deafening silence. This ritual object are strange to the extreme. I am referring, of course, to the Tefillin (תפילין )… The fact that this pair of black leather boxes with black leather straps do not really have a name  might point to their ancient origin. In any case, they are so distinctive in the eye of the beholder that they carry a Greek name which has survived until today – phylacteries (from Ancient Greek φυλακτήριον phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning “to guard, protect”). The first use of this name is in Matthew 23:5 in the New Testament where Matthew complains about the Jews: “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long;” [2a]
We know that their square shape is ancient since Yigal Yadin found a pair of tefillin in a cave belonging to 1st century Jewish partisans serving under bar Kochba. (see)
For a wonderful scholarly treatment on Tefilin feel free to visit Probing the Earliest Origins of Tefillin (phylacteries) in a blog called Yomin D;min Alma which includes a picture of tefillin found in the Cairo Geniza that are conical in shape (so much for corners and squares!) and look a lot like our Lingas (Lehavdil)…
Whenever I have thought about a context for odd shape of tefillin I have always thought of the Kaaba in Mecca  … not only because they look so similar, but also because the tefillin are also referred to as a Bayit or house… or Battim in the plural. Since the Jewish temple is also referred to as a Bayit, (as in Beit HaMikdash and Har HaBayit), it seemed to me natural to think of it as a miniature temple and to look to our rectangular temple for context.
Fortunately, I am not the only one who has thought of this comparison.
Billy Phillips, in his blog kabbalahstudent.com argues for a connection between tefilin and the Kaaba (here)
His picture is worth a thousand words (or maybe lingas):
Granted that he shows a traditional tefillin box and not uncovered tefilin, but I think his visual comparison is well taken.
He goes on to argue that the Sephardim wrap the tefillin around the left arm seven times, counter-clockwise and compares this to Muslims circumventing the Ka’ba at the end of the Haj. Whether he is guilty of sharing too much detail or not, his point is well taken. There seems to be a tradition of circumvention when it comes to our squares. Today’s Jewish custom of dancing in a circle (Hora dance) and of circling the alter in the Synagogue on Sukkot (Hoshanot) comes from ancinent times. “It was customary to make one procession around the altar on each day of Sukkot, and seven on the seventh day” (Sukkah 4:5)
It may even be that on each of the three Pilgrim festivals, ancient Jews ascended to the temple and completed their pilgrimage, by circling the square Temple.
Think also of a bride circling the groom under the square wedding canopy (Chuppah).
This post is more of a question than a statement. It is more of a request for further comment and research. But certainly students of Judaism need to explore this interest in sanctifying the corner.
Comments and suggestions are welcome!
 See Rashi
You shall not round off the corner of your head: This refers to someone who [cuts his hair in such a way that he] makes [the hair on] his temples even with that behind his ear and on his forehead [i.e., the front hairline], thereby causing [the hairline] surrounding his head to become a circle, since the main hairline behind the ears is at a much higher level than [the hair on] his temples. — [Mak. 20b]
the edge of your beard: [meaning:] The end of the beard and its borders. And these are five: two on each cheek at the top [edge of the cheek] near the head, where [the cheek] is broad and has two “corners” [i.e., extremities, one near the temple and the other at the end of the cheek bone towards the center of the face]-and one below, on the chin, at the point where the two cheeks join together. – [Torath Kohanim 19: 74; Mak. 20b]
לא תקפו פאת ראשכם זה המשוה צדעיו לאחורי אזנו ולפדחתו, ונמצא הקף ראשו עגול סביב, שעל אחורי אזניו עקרי שערו למעלה מצדעיו הרבה
פאת זקנך סוף הזקן וגבוליו. והן חמש שתים בכל לחי ולחי למעלה אצל הראש שהוא רחב ויש בו שתי פאות, ואחת למטה בסנטרו מקום חבור שני הלחיים יחד
The ultimate origin of Hebrew “tefillin” is uncertain. The word “tefillin” is not found in the Bible, which calls them ṭoṭafot. The Septuagint renders “ṭoṭafot” ἀσαλευτόν, “something immovable.” Some believe it refers to a charm, similar to the Hebrew neṭifot, “round jewel.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 4b) explains that the word ṭoṭafot is combination of two foreign words: Tot means “two” in the “Caspi” language and Fot means “two” in the “Afriki” language, hence tot and fot means “two and two”, corresponding to the four compartments of the head-tefillin. Menahem ben Saruq explains that the word is derived from the Hebrew Ve’hateif and Tatifoo, both expressions meaning “speech”, “for when one sees the tefillin it causes him to remember and speak about The Exodus from Egypt.”
The first texts to use “tefillin” are the Targumim and Peshitta and it is also used in subsequent Talmudic literature, although the word “ṭoṭafah” was still current, being used with the meaning of “frontlet.” “Tefillin” may have derived from the Aramaic palal, “to plead, pray,” a word closely related to the Hebrew tefillah, “prayer.” Jacob ben Asher (14th century) suggests that “tefillin” is derived from the Hebrew pelilah, “justice, evidence,” for tefillin act as a sign and proof of God’s presence among the Jewish people.
The only instance of the name “phylacteries” in ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5) whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. “Phylacteries” derives from the Greek phulaktērion – φυλακτήριον, “defences,” and in late Greek, “amulets” or “charms.” Neither Aquila nor Symmachus use the word “phylacteries.” see
[2a] Interesting to note that the Jews are identified by two square shaped “cornered” wearable objects… the Talit and the Tefillin. This charge of the demonstrative nature of the commandment is, in fact, confirmed by the rabbis, who interpret the verse “and all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee” (Deut. 28:10) to refer to “the tefillin of the head” (Ber. 6a). (see Encyclopedia Judaica Tefilin). Imagine a Jew walking by wearing talit, tefillin and sporting a beard and/or payos… that would make three sanctified squares all identifying the individual as a Jew!
For more on tefillin see: Yonatan Adler, The Content and Order of the Scriptural Passages in Tefillin: A Reexamination of the Early Rabbinic SourcesIn Light of the Evidence From the Judean Desert
The Kaaba –
The Arabic word Kaaba comes from the Arabic ka’bah meaning “square house,” which in turn comes from ka’b meaning “cube.”… According to tradition the Kaaba was built by Ibrahim (Abraham). It is stated in the Qur’an that this was the first house that was built for humanity to worship Allah (God).
In her book, Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong asserts that the Kaaba was at some point dedicated to Hubal, a Nabatean deity, and contained 360 idols that probably represented the days of the year. In Guillaume’s translation of Ibn Ishaq, an early biographer of Muhammad, the Ka’aba itself was addressed using a feminine grammatical form. Circumambulation was often performed naked by men and almost naked by women, and linked to ancient fertility rites.
Also of interest, is that reference is not made to the four sides of this cube, but rather to its four corners: Corner of the Black Stone (East), Corner of Yemen (South-West). Corner of Syria (North-West). Corner of Iraq (North-East).
For more on what the Jewish/Hebrew God looks like see: Seeing God(s) in Temples, the Heavens, and in Model Shrines: A Problem in Ancient Metaphysics by Ziony Zevit, American Jewish University, Los Angeles and Seymour Gitin Distinguished Professor
5 responses to “rounding the corners”
fabulously interesting (comme toujours)
Fascinating treatment of very important topics. Thanks for the plug!
Re: Tefillin and the Kaba’a, you may find this interesting
“Items on display include tiny tefillin worn covertly under Muslim garb, a miniature phylactery that was secreted beneath Islamic headgear during the Jewish owner’s Hajj to Mecca”
Thanks for sharing this article…
I was having the same insight and being in india right now, at the sight of a particular lingham which was more square in shape it gave me a deep sense of connection and powerful familiarity, and then thinking of teffilin, the visual similarities and the feeling that such a form provokes is uncanny. intrestingly i have heard ideas that the jewish people may have been linked to shiviates, i dont know if thats true but this is another intresting finding that would suggest a connection.
Thanks for the insight!