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.