It was a typical Tuesday morning for a few of the students of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch. After they prayed the morning prayers and were ready to begin their study of the Zohar one student turned to the others and asked, “What do you think would happen if we prayed the Sabbath prayers tonight?” They all speculated whether it was the actual day of Shabbat itself or the saying of the Shabbat prayers with their rituals that made it feel like Shabbat. They decided to conduct an experiment. That evening while the other students were praying the regular weekday Jewish Vespers the experimenting group, in the back of the sanctuary wearing their Shabbat finery, recited the Shabbat prayers. As they began to sing the Shabbat hymn, L’cha Dodi, a tremendous feeling of Sabbath spirituality entered each student’s body. This freaked them out and they each ran out of the small sanctuary. “What have we done?” “We are in big trouble!” The students, terrified that they may have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum found themselves running to their teacher’s study. They nearly tore the door off its hinges as they barged into the small room. Stroking his beard the Maggid silently instructed the students to sit. After what seemed like a full hour of silence the Chasidic master declared, “I always wanted to know where the Sabbath Bride went on Tuesday nights…”
A strange story with an even stranger ending. What did the Maggid mean with his cryptic statement? How did he know what his students experienced? Did he believe in a personified Shabbat presence? As with many Chasidic stories the concern of whether these events actually occurred is not the point. The Story illustrates the power of ritual and seems to imply that even when it’s not Shabbat, the seventh day sacraments can spiritually take you there.
Where is it that we want to go on Shabbat? To a place and time of centeredness, connection, balance and serenity where we can sense the joy in our worlds and not be enslaved by judgement or negativity or those distractions that take us from being present for ourselves, our family and friends, and those with whom we work. We want to transform the nega – נגע, or negativity to oneg – ענג, or delight.
Kabbalat Shabbat is the ritual to accept and be receptive to Shabbat. The Kabbalat Shabbat ritual, created by a small circle of Kabbalist Jews from Tz’fat, Israel in the 16th century, was not a part of the original Jewish prayer service but soon after it’s creation it caught on and spread to virtually every Jewish community’s prayerbook. Consisting of 6 Psalms (Psalms 95-99 & 29) and an original liturgical poem, L’cha Dodi, these seven components are seen to symbolize the seven days of creation, the seven emotional attributes of God mirrored in the human, or even the seven blessings chanted at a wedding ceremony. A wedding is a good metaphor because Shabbat is personified as a Bride that the Holy One of Blessing and the Jewish people are married to every Friday night.
Kabbalat Shabbat is based on the premise that after decompressing and letting the past week go while trying to uncover the divinity in each day, we can have an actual relationship with God in the space and time of Shabbat. This is difficult to develop during the week when we are trying to make a living, or run a household or business, or go to school, or any of the million things we do during the week that keep us spread thin and pulled in numerous directions.
There is a state of mind we unfortunately achieve all too easily which is called Pizzur HaNefesh, or the scattered soul. It describes us after a busy and challenging week where we can’t seem to focus on what really matters. Pizzur HaNefesh occurs when we can’t let go of the past and when we can’t stop projecting into the future. It prevents us from being in the here and now. Shabbat and Kabbalat Shabbat were designed for us to bring it all together at the end of the week and then let it go, making us more receptive to the healing and restorative qualities of Shabbat rest. The Kabbalists believed that by reciting the psalms and then L’cha Dodi, the Sabbath piyut, we release ourselves from the anxiety of each day of the week and allow our souls to expand thus making ourselves open to experience Shabbat rest, delight and holiness.
A meditation on the six days of the week each Psalm represents one day. As each Psalm is chanted one meditates on that particular day to find its “sparks of holiness” hidden behind the “husks” of our perceived reality. When the six Psalms, and each day, are properly chanted and contemplated one would be ready to bring in Shabbat with the singing of L’cha Dodi.
Inspired by the Song of Songs, a Talmudic Shabbat greeting and the vision of Isaiah, L’cha Dodi was written by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, father in law of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero – the Head of the School of Kabbalah in the mid-sixteenth century. Purposely embedded with deep secrets of Kabbalah, one would need to study Kabbalah and other Jewish disciplines for a long time in order to discover all its secrets.
The first secret is that it is an acrostic, a stylistic method of writing poetry in which the author spells out a word or name with the first letter of each verse. A crude form of copyright, the acrostic form insures that we remember who wrote it as it spells out the author’s name, “Shlomo HaLevy” in 8 of 9 verses. But more importantly, it helps us remember the order of the poem.
Another secret is that the refrain in gematria (Hebrew numerology) spells out God’s name, יהוה – YHVH, by the number of letters in each line. There are 15 letters in the first line (לכה דודי לקראת כלה) equaling the numerical equivalent of the letters י (Y) and ה (H). The second line (פני שבת נקבלה) has 11 letters the numerical equivalent of the letters ו (V) and ה (H). By singing the refrain we are in a sense uniting and completing God.
Is God broken? Yes. Tz’fat Kabbalists believed that this may account for all the suffering and evil in the world. Just as we, in the 21st century are still theologically stumped by the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jews in the 16th century were trying to understand the world and the workings of God in the aftermath of the Expulsion From Spain in 1492, the most traumatic event in our history up to that time. Many of the families of Jews living in Tz’fat came directly from Spain. Hence the name of leading Kabbalist, Rabbi Moses Cordovero whose family, scholars posit, was from Cordoba, Spain.
Used in several verses of L’cha Dodi, the destroyed city of Jerusalem and the Temple is a powerful image as well as the cryptic mention of King David who liberated Jerusalem and unified it as the Capitol of the whole Kingdom of Israel. The author of L’cha Dodi used these images to describe the brokenness of the world and God. By comparing the image of the destroyed Jerusalem to a mother with no children, we further feel the urgency to make her complete.
But the completion of creation is not accomplished without the actions and deeds of people. We are seen as partners with God. God created humanity to correct what is broken in the world. This is through a process called Tikkun Olam, correcting or repairing the world. But Tikkun Olam can also be understood as “establishing” the world. The mission of the Jewish people outlined in the concluding Aleinu prayer: l’takein olam b’malchut Shadai – to establish the world according to God’s operating system.
And how do we do this? Shabbat. Torah. Ritual. Good Deeds and Social Action. By living our lives in righteous ways we help to complete the puzzle and realize the purpose for our existence. With the whole world operating in this way, we can achieve the messianic visions of the Prophets for a perfected world. This is a universal vision of peace and security for all nations. For Jews, that vision also involves a redemption from our two thousand year exile from Israel. And on a personal level, we reach a messianic state when we are completely released from those things that distract and derail us, that enslave us to our negative thoughts and habits.
As a taste of the world to come, Shabbat gives us a glimmer of that ideal. And so the transformation of the weekday world into the holy Shabbat mirrors the redemption of the Jewish people from exile. This also mirrors the redemption of our souls from materialism and negativity. Why would God have created such a broken world where our souls and hearts get broken all the time? Perhaps it’s because God had always intended for us to be partners in fixing the world. And thus our need for Kabbalat Shabbat As a verse in L’cha Dodi says, “Sof Maaseh b’machashavah t’chilah – last in making but the first in planning.” It was the plan for Humanity to complete the work of Creation. And this is the purpose of Shabbat, to tie together loose ends, to help complete the process of creation, if just for one day, to feel peace, the pride of accomplishment, to feel whole and connected.