The poem "As the Clay in the Hand of the Potter" appears in the Ashkenazi version of the prayer book for the eve of Yom Kippur. The author is unknown. It portrays human beings as being subject to the will of God, who decides who shall live and who shall die. This poem is recited on Yom Kippur because "Yom Kippur is the time for all to repent, individuals and the community at large. It is the climax of forgiveness and of pardon for Israel, thus every person is obligated to repent and confess on Yom Kippur" (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:7).
The poet uses imagery featuring artisans using different kinds of materials; just as human beings are raw materials molded by the hand of God. They recognize their sins and their consequent punishment, yet still ask for mercy: "Look to the covenant and do not incline to your desire ". In other words, God will remember the covenants made by the fathers of the Jewish nation with Him throughout the generations, and thus He shall forgive them.
The list of artisans mentioned in the poem varies in different versions of the ancient prayer books. Some note nine artisans while others list only seven. In one version the artisans are listed in alphabetical order.
This stamp series features three of those artisans: the potter, the glazier and the silversmith.
The illustrations on the stamps represent a metaphoric expression, independent of time and place, of that wondrous moment when the artisan's hands create something new from his raw materials.
According to the interpretation by Rabbi Shlomo Pappenhim (1740-1814), which is based on the seven artisans mentioned in the poem, each artisan represents a period in the life of a person, who is accountable to God.
"As the clay in the hand of THE POTTER, He expands it at will and contracts it at will"
The poem begins with the potter, who also represents God, the creator of mankind. The image is taken from Jeremiah 18:3-4: "Then I went down to the house of a potter, and found him working at the wheel. And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the hands of the potter, so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it". This clay is a type of soil that was used to make pots and is also known as bitumen. According to Rabbi Pappenhim during the first period of his life, a man's life is like soft pliable clay that is in the process of taking shape.
"As the glass in the hand of THE GLAZIER, He shapes it at will and dissolves it at will"
In adulthood, a person's life is like glass, with mental powers that are already refined like glass, knowing right from wrong.
"As the silver in the hand of THE SILVERSMITH, He spoils it at will and purifies it at will"
In old age, a human being's life is comparable to silver, purified of physical desires. According to another explanation, the poet illustrates a person's dependence on God, in that He holds seven major organs needed for a human being to function.
The poem was set to a Hassidic melody attributed to a Chabad-Lubavitch Hassid, Rabbi Shalom Charitonow (1886-1933) of Nikulayev.
Dr. Dov Herman
Department of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University