Pittsburgh artist retells the binding of Isaac, with a Sephardi gloss
'Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach,' by Ben Schachter
Ben Schachter. Illustration from 'Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach'
High HolidaysIllustrating Isaac and the famous sacrifice

Pittsburgh artist retells the binding of Isaac, with a Sephardi gloss

‘Et Shaare Ratson’ was composed almost 900 years ago. Ben Schachter finally illustrated its text

Main image by Ben Schachter. Illustration from 'Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach'

A classic Jewish story is getting some new ink. The biblical binding of Isaac and near human sacrifice committed by his father, Abraham, now appears in comic book form.

Illustrated by Ben Schachter, a professor of digital art at Saint Vincent College, “Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach” recounts the tale of Genesis 22 in which God orders Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, in Moriah, on an unnamed mountain.

According to the text, after binding his son to an altar, Abraham nears completion of the divine command. An angel of God, however, calls out to Abraham and orders cessation of the oblation. A ram appears caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham retrieves the ram and sacrifices it in Isaac’s stead.

Countless elucidations — spanning faiths and disciplines — have parsed the biblical narrative.

Illustration from ‘Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach’ by Ben Schachter

Schachter, 49, told the Chronicle his illustrations build on a medieval Sephardic interpretation.

Around the 12th century, Yehudah ben Shmuel ibn Abbas, of Morocco, composed “Et Shaare Ratson.” The piyyut (liturgical poem), whose chorus invokes a remembrance of “the binder, the bound and the altar” is sung Rosh Hashanah morning, before shofar blowing by Sephardi, Mizrahi and Maghrebi Jews, according to Jewish educator Rabbi Stephen Belsky.

Schacter said he was intrigued both by the poem and its placement within the service.

After Abraham ties Isaac to the altar, a passage details Isaac’s concern for his mother, Sarah, and thoughts about the knife and forthcoming act:

“Please sharpen it, father, and my bonds /
Strengthen, and burn the fire in my flesh /
Take with you that which remains from my ashes /
And tell Sarah ‘This is Isaac’s perfume.’”

“Isaac’s perspective grabbed me,” Schachter said. “It turned the story on its head.

The protagonist was always Abraham, who was most devout, and here the sacrifice becomes the protagonist.”

After studying the poem, Schachter attended a Sephardi service on Rosh Hashanah in 2022.

Listening to the piyyut, whose final stanza beseeches God to “remember the storm-tossed and afflicted congregation” and hear the shofar’s calls, “just made a real connection,” Schachter said.

He hopes his comic book has a similar effect.

Available at jewce.org, “Binder Bound and the Mizbeyach” includes more than 30 pages of illustrations, excerpted Midrashic interpretations on Genesis 22 and the entire “Et Shaare Ratson.”

Including “original texts” is critical, Schachter said: “People can go back and forth between the pictures and the words and see what I’ve done, and see the back and forth between the pictures and the original.”

Ben Schachter. Photo courtesy of Ben Schachter

For decades, Schachter has enjoyed similar interplays. His work enables readers and viewers to reimagine their relationship to classic Jewish texts and items. In 2020, he illustrated and drafted “Akhnai Pizza,” a graphic novel about the oven of Akhnai. Schachter retold the Talmudic dispute by placing the events in modern-day Pittsburgh.

Ten years earlier, he worked on a series of paintings depicting identifiable boundaries, used primarily by Orthodox Jews, that permit carrying on the Sabbath. Schachter’s “Eruv Maps” received global attention from museums, galleries and writers.

In each of his artistic undertakings, Schachter finds a deep personal connection.

“I visualize and imagine lots of things. That is part of my personality in how I engage the world,” he said.

He plans to share more, both in print and as part of an upcoming panel. On Nov. 11-12, the Pittsburgher will join fellow artists at the Jewish Comics Experience in New York City at the Center for Jewish History.

From there, he plans to continue another illustrated project — the legend of Pardes. According to rabbinic literature, four first-century rabbis visited a figurative orchard (Pardes) of Jewish study. Only one of the scholars emerged safely.

Schacter’s excited to bring the classic saga to fruition.

“It’s going to be a psychological portrait of four rabbis in comic form,” he said. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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