As you know, a little less than a decade ago, we at Union Temple began including an introductory segment at the beginning of our Shabbat Evening Services. This segment is called Kabbalat Shabbat, Welcoming (literally “receiving”) Shabbat, and is relatively standard now at the beginning of most Reform congregations’ Friday Evening Services, as it has been in Conservative and Orthodox Judaism for quite some time. As a liturgical unit, the Kabbalat Shabbat section of the service is largely sung, and occurs at the very beginning of the service to help us usher in Shabbat. It consists of six psalms: Psalms 95-99 and 29, which, according to tradition, represent the six days of the week that is just ending. The psalms are followed by Lecha Dodi, a poem composed in 16th-century Tzefat by Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, one of the outstanding Kabbalists of that community. Many of the mystics of Tzefat at the time were exiles from the Iberian Peninsula, having fled the Inquisition there. Alkabetz and his brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, were among the exiles, and became leading mystics of the Tzefat community. The arrival of Rabbi Isaac Luria from Egypt in 1570 bolstered the mystical teachings coming out of Tzefat, and Lurianic Kabbalah soon spread to Ashkenaz (European Jewish communities) as well.
Alkabetz composed the verses of Lecha Dodi as an acrostic, with the first letters of the verses spelling out his name, Shlomo Halevi, throughout the poem. On Friday afternoons Alkabetz and his disciples would dress up in their finery as though they were going to a wedding. As the sun set over the hills of Tzefat, they would go out to the hilltops and “welcome the Sabbath bride.” The imagery is wonderfully rich, and it must have been a transcendent experience for them each week in the majestic beauty of those hilltops. But the metaphor of the Shabbat both as bride and queen far preceded the mystics of Tzefat, as both are found numerous times in the Talmud. The title itself, Lecha Dodi, is taken from the Biblical Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs (7.12), in the utterance: “Come, my beloved, let us go into the field, let us stay in the villages; let us go early to the vineyards…” The Rabbis later reinterpreted this romantic language as referring to the relationship between God, Israel, and Shabbat.
The imagery of the “Sabbath bride,” metaphoric though it may be, has captured the imagination of each generation of Jews since then. In fact during the singing of Lecha Dodi, it is customary for the entire congregation to rise at the final verse and face the back of the room, which is assumed to be the west, to face the setting sun. The words of this final verse are: “Enter in peace, O crown of her husband, even in gladness, and good cheer, among the faithful of the treasured nation. Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride!” At the singing of “Enter, O bride,” the congregation traditionally bows from side to side, as though in the presence of a queen entering the room as the sun sets.
The metaphor of sovereignty also goes to a deeper level of the meaning of Shabbat, which is articulated in the Psalms 95-99. (Ps.95) “Come, let us sing to Eternal; let us trumpet our Rock and Deliverer. Let us come before the Almighty with praise, trumpeting with songs. For the Eternal is a great God, a Sovereign greater than all other gods… Let us bow down low, kneeling before Adonai our Maker….” One of the elements of messianic hope envisions the whole earth as finally coming under God’s rule over a paradise of eternal life and peace, when justice and compassion will reign over the Earth. Each week Shabbat is embraced by Jewish tradition as a foretaste of what it will be like when the messianic vision is realized. This construct of Shabbat drives the Jewish exaltation of Shabbat as a day of rejoicing, rest, and peace, connection with family and friends, and putting aside the labors of our daily work. Thus we mean it quite literally when we greet each other with “Shabbat Shalom.”
One of the last stops on our “Breadth of Israel” tour took us last Thursday morning to Tzefat, where the mystics studied, prayed, and developed this wonderful practice of Kabbalat Shabbat. If we wonder at all about what it was that so inspired this scholars to engage in this practice, we can get at least some idea from the breathtaking vista they beheld there on the hilltops of Israel in the city of Tzefat. While a mere photo could not possibly do it adequate justice, I can tell you that it is breathtaking indeed. I hope that all those who have visited, and will visit, this place, will remember it fondly as we celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat for the rest of our lives.
The Youth Group has shared so many fun activities, visited some amazing places, and built long-lasting friendships during this last and memorable year. Building DIY kites and flying them in Prospect Park, making hamantaschen in the 3rd floor kitchen, bowling in Times Square, and creating a complete Hanukkah feast. It wasn’t only about having fun; it’s also about giving back to the community and helping those in need. We’ve gone on Midnight Runs to cloth and feed the homeless and helped out at the Temple on Martin Luther King Jr. day to prepare food and goods for the elderly. Some places we visited this year include the Museum of Jewish Heritage and two different cemeteries along the Jackie Robinson Parkway. Thank you to everyone who helped make this year so special.
We are excited to announce that as of May 2015 UT is now part of a cohort of 6-10 synagogues participating in the UJA-Federation Synagogue Inclusion Project “House of Learning for all People: Opening Our Synagogues to Include People with Disabilities. Read more →
This past Thursday was Lag Ba’omer, and here in Israel, there was great rejoicing – bonfires, weddings, and music. By pure coincidence, our tour group struck a lucky, unplanned moment by happening upon a great celebration. We had spent the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, as we stepped back through some 3,000 years of Jewish history, here in the layers of the City of David. The excavations that have been conducted, and the structures and artifacts that have been found, are nothing short of extraordinary, all shedding light upon the period of the establishment of the Jewish kingdom under Kings David and Solomon, and periods following. Then we strolled a bit through the Jewish Quarter, and ate lunch in the Quarter Cafe, as we gazed out over an extraordinary panoramic view of the Mount of Olives. Later in the afternoon, it was time for us to visit the Western Wall for some personal reflection. Then, by dumb luck, as we approached the Western Wall – the Kotel Hama’aravi – we arrived exactly as a major celebration was taking place at the Wall, scheduled for Lag Ba’omer. It was a “moving up” ceremony for the Israel Defense Force, particularly for the units of the Tzanchanim – paratroopers. They had completed their basic training, and just as we arrived at the Kotel Plaza, the soldiers were gathering in formations with their commanders to receive their red berets, and be officially welcomed into these elite units. In addition, each received a Tanakh, which they keep with them at all times.
Here in Israel, as you know, upon graduation from high school, everyone is required to serve in the Army, men and women alike. There are many different kinds of assignments, several very elite combat units. In order to be accepted into the Tzanchanim, if a young man is an only son, he must bring written permission from his parents to serve in this capacity, which of course carries with it the potential for great danger. In fact the same holds true to any unit of active combat. For us in the United States, for whom military service is strictly voluntary, the relationship that most of us have to the military is markedly different from that of Israelis to the Israel Defense Force. Every Israeli has an intimate relationship with the Army. They have served in it themselves, their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends, all serve in the Army. The Army, in fact, is the great leveler of Israeli society. It is there that Israelis of different ethnicities and socio-economic strata come together, serve together, grow together, and entrust their very lives to one another. It knits together what ordinarily would be very disparate threads of Israeli life.
Sometimes even the most carefully planned itinerary must make allowances for moments of spontaneity such as the one we experienced on Thursday. It was a very special moment indeed, one that none of us will ever forget.