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L’cha Dodi and the Kabbalist Background to Kabbalat Shabbat

The Mystical Background of L’cha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat
Traditional Jewish Homemade freshly baked challah for the Holy Sabbath ritual
Traditional Jewish Homemade freshly baked challah for the Holy Sabbath ritual
Noam Zion is a Senior Fellow Emeritus of the Kogod Research Center at the Shalom Hartman Institute since 1978. He studied philosophy and holds degrees from Columbia University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied bible and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the Hartman Beit Midrash. In the past, he led the Tichon program for North American Jewish educators and he teaches in Hartman Institute rabbinic programs: the Be’eri program
  • Introducing the Mystical Background of L’cha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat
  • Rabbi Nachman goes out to the Fields: What is the “Kabbalah” in Kabbalat Shabbat?
  • L’cha Dodi – Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz – A Thematic Commentary
  • Kabbalist Numbers, Letters and Sefirot in L’cha Dodi
  • Reliving the Spiritual Exile – Empathy with the Shekhinah
  • On the Sacred Marriage during Kabbalat Shabbat
  • L’cha Dodi – An Invitation to a Sacred Wedding
  • Kabbalat Shabbat as the Reception of An Extra Soul into one’s own Soul
  • A Kabbalist’s Guide to the Sacred Marriage of Shabbat by Elliot Ginsburg
  • Appendix: Introduction to the Zohar, the Kabbalah and the Ten Sefirot
  • Introducing the Mystical Background of L’cha Dodi and Kabbalat Shabbat

Strictly speaking a chapter on L’cha Dodi does not belong in book restricted to home Judaism, to the table rituals of Shabbat. Yet the drama of Shabbat ritual as a reenactment of sacred wedding is best epitomized and most popularly understood through the best-loved poem and song of Shlomo Alkabetz. His version of L’cha Dodi played and still plays a central role in both the creation and dissemination of the Safed Kabbalat Shabbat to the whole Jewish world. As Reuven Kimmelman  has shown in his brilliant recent scholarship, the poem functions at multiple levels – Biblical, Midrashic and Kabbalist. Therefore it deserves a popular treatment in this educator’s companion volume with the hope that some people will follow these mini-essays back to their scholarly origins with the accepted bibliographical footnotes.

Our introduction seeks to help one celebrating Shabbat to step into the dramatic role where he or she becomes the bride or the groom or the “bestman.” Thus one can focus full emotional and spiritual attention on the dialogue of lovers and royalty implicit in the metaphoric and mystical world of the song. To that end we will review the multiple, simultaneous meanings of the terminology of acceptance in “Kabbalat Shabbat,” of the invitation to come in “L’cha Dodi” and of the sacred marriage ritual in general. The meanings are not fixed and stable as when deciphering a secret code but rather dynamic and multi-layered as befits Kabbalist mystical poetry. The rich poetic allusions of the poem are unpacked in a thematic commentary chiefly concerned with Biblical and Rabbinic echoes and much less so with the complex world of sefirot.

Azamer B’shvakhim – A Shabbat Song by Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed
(Translated by Elliot Ginsburg )

I sing in hymns to enter the gates
Of the field of apples of holy ones.

A new table we lay for her,
A beautiful candelabrum sheds its light upon us.

Between right and left the bride approaches
In holy jewels and festive garments…

Torment and cries are past
Now there are new faces and souls and spirits.

Her husband gives her joy in twofold measure.
Lights shine and streams of blessing.

Bridesman, go forth and prepare the Bride…

The haunting melodies and the evocative words as well as the suggestive ritual gestures and the timing of L’cha Dodi lead us to basic questions: What is Kabbalat Shabbat? Who created it and in what milieu? What powerful spiritual effects are to be achieved by singing these Psalms and the magnificent song L’cha Dodi?

The answers lie in one of the most creative generations of religious ritual creativity in Jewish history—Safed (Tsefat) in the 16th century and in Shlomo Alkabetz’s nighttime revelation on Shavuot. Alkabetz lived in Greece then a portion of the newly triumphant Ottoman Empire. In 1517, the Sultan of Turkey conquered Egypt and Eretz Yisrael enabling the aliyah of Spanish exiles to their Holy Land. Escaping the Inquisition in Christian Spain, these well-educated, merchant refugees and their families were welcomed in the Moslem Ottoman Empire in Greece, Turkey and now Eretz Yisrael. At that time, Shlomo Alkabetz (1505-1584), born to refugees in Salonica, Greece, was studying Kabbalah with his friend R. Yosef Karo, the future author of the code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch. Both friends decided to make aliyah when a maggid – a Divine voice – called upon them on Shavuot night (at their midnight mystical Tikkun) “to hurry and make aliyah and not to worry, for God will provide them financial support.”

Then Shlomo Aklabetz wrote a letter to his friends in Salonica urging them to follow him to Eretz Yisrael. In his published D’var Torah, R. Shlomo Alkabetz explains his aliyah to Israel based on the verse about donations to the Mishkan / Tabernacle in the desert inviting all whose heart moves them to join in building the Mishkan here interpreted as Eretz Yisrael where God dwells. Making aliyah is designed to help the Tikkun / repair of the human condition and return the people to their original state of spiritual vision. Thus paradoxically physical acts (like building the Mishkan and like making aliyah) are essential to prepare for the Shekhinah.

The letter urges his friends:

“Wake up, be strong and of courage to do our Creator’s work, for as we understood from the Maggid (the spiritual messenger), who came to R. Yosef Karo on the first night of Shavuot – you – some of you or all of you – are destined to do God’s work. … Therefore Y. Karo and I are going to settle in Eretz Yisarel… But don’t you worry about your financial interests here, for “the time of the song bird has arrived” (Song of Songs 2:12). So open your eyes, you have no time to delay. My heart is burning within me…for it is God’s will to show me something great…so hurry…May God allow me to be reunited with you on holy land to serve God shoulder to shoulder.”

So the study partners made aliyah to Safed where they each decisively affected Jewish practice for centuries to come. They joined the circle of faith, wisdom, communal leadership and literary creativity that included:
Alkabetz’s student and son-in-law, the great conceptual systematizer of Zohar mysticism, Moshe Cordovero and the most innovative mystic of the era, Isaac Luria (Ha-Ari,) and his student Haim Vital who together created and disseminated a new interpretation of mysticism called Lurianic. There were many other poets and singers like Yisrael Najara, author of one of the most popular Shabbat Zemirot Yah Ribon and the religious personality, Elazar Azikri, author of the poem Yedid Nefesh.

Liturgically Kabbalat Shabbat involves not only a cycle of Psalms and songs recited before the Friday evening service but a whole series of internal and external rituals that prepares for and expresses the spiritual acceptance of the Divine presence arriving on Shabbat. This concept originates from a minor report of the personal practice of two pious Mishnaic Rabbis (2nd century) who welcomed Shabbat with the greeting Boi Kallah with which L’cha Dodi concludes:

Rabbi Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed,
“Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Shabbat / Shabbat Malka.”
Rabbi Yannai donned his robes on Sabbath eve and exclaimed,
“Come, Bride, Come, Bride! / Boi Kallah.” -TB Shabbat 118b-119a,

Maimonides (12th century Egypt) codified those and other personal practices of the Mishnaic Rabbis for every Jew and integrated the transitional time of Shabbat preparations into the observance of Shabbat. He asked that everyone make physical preparations including doing housework oneself – even if one has a servant – to prepare one’s home for the Shabbat guest as well as donning clean and beautiful clothes (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Shabbat 30:6). But he also includes a reflective technique for enhancing spiritual readiness for Shabbat by sitting meditatively. Interestingly, though, Maimonides changed the imagery of Kabbalat Shabbat from the greeting of a feminine Divine presence – a queen or bride – to welcoming a masculine King.

What does honoring Shabbat Kavod Shabbat mean? …It is a mitzvah to bathe one’s face, hands and feet in hot water before Shabbat in order to honor Shabbat, then to dress in garments with tzitzit and finally to sit with serious concentration and await the Shabbat as if one were going to meet the King. The early Rabbis would gather their students before Shabbat, dress up and say to one another, ‘Let’s go out to greet the Shabbat King.’ Maimonides, Shabbat Chapter 30:2

The Zohar, by contrast to Maimonides, uses exclusively feminine imagery for Kabbalat Shabbat. Like Maimonides that imagery still contains the royal overtones of a subject singing the praises of the reigning ruler but she is a queen, not a king. She is also a bride being greeted. In fact queen and bride like king and bridegroom are traditionally interchangeable in rabbinic metaphors for a wedding. Everyone is king or queen for day when getting married.

In greeting the sovereign on Friday as Shabbat enters, Maimonides preferred silent reflection, yet even in his day singing was part of the general practice for greeting Shabbat. The Babylonian Geonim recommend Psalm 92, A Song to Shabbat. Singing love songs from Shir Ha’Shirim (as is sung to this day in Sephardic circles on Kabbalat Shabbat) contributed to the Kabbalist notion that Kabbalat Shabbat is welcoming of the bride and groom. As at a wedding, the songs sung by the guests both honor and arouse erotically the new couple who will be making love that night (just as the Rabbis commended all scholars to make love to their spouses on Shabbat). The dialogic language of invitation to love is already found in Solomon’s Song of Songs and it was later used by Shlomo Alkabtez in L’cha Dodi:

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved, let us go into the open / L’cha Dodi neitzei ha’sadeh.
– Song of Songs, 7:11-12

The fixed liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat as we know it in prayer books today had not yet crystallized when Alkabetz arrived in Safed. In those days there was no formal Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening. Sephardim used to sing Psalm 92 for Shabbat but nothing more. Then Haim Vital of Safed,, the student of the great Kabbalist innovator Isaac Luria, began the practice of going out of the city into the field to welcome the Shabbat queen/bride at sunset. He was trying to revive the personal custom of the Talmudic rabbi, Rabbi Hanina who used to say: “Let’s go out to greet Shabbat the Queen.” (TB Shabbat 119a; Baba Kamma 32a). This recalls the description:

One wraps oneself in a tallit and calls together one’s friends, spouse and household, saying: “Let us go forth li-qra’t [conventionally, to greet] the Bride, the Shabbat Queen!” They all join together and say: “Come, O Bride! Come, O Bride!” (Sefer Hakanah 65b)

Moshe Cordovero, the Kabbalist philosopher (whose family probably originated in Cordoba in Spain) and who was also the student and brother-in-law of Shlomo Alkabetz) objected strenuously to literally exiting the synagogue in the direction of the fields to find the Shabbat Queen coming from the direction of the setting sun.

Many have imagined that one needs to go outside to the field to welcome Shabbat. But this is a very astonishing and problematic practice for Shabbat does arrive horizontally from the field but vertically from above descending…The main thing is to bring Shabbat in earlier and Shabbat is best “accepted” in the synagogue by reciting “Let’s go out” and then immediately “Boi Kallah” / Come, my bride. (Moshe Cordovero, Tefillah L’Moshe Ish HaElohim, pa193a)

However he did institute the singing of the Psalm – “Let’s go and sing to God / L’chu N’ranina” every Friday night which he understood metaphorically. There were already some medieval poems recited which Shlomo Alkabetz reworked and expanded into “L’cha Dodi.” The Kabbalist master R. Isaac Luria (HaARI was his acronym) is reported to have adopted “L’cha Dodi” for his personal Shabbat ritual along with Psalm 20 “Havu La’Adonai Bnei Elim” which gave a great impetus to the poem’s institutionalization among both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews.

Shlomo Alkabetz understood his poetic invitation – L’cha Dodi / “Come my Beloved to greet the Bride” – as an inspirational act of meditation. In his commentary on Song of Songs 7:12 the poetic phrase L’cha Dodi, “let’s go out to the field” is explained: “Here this verse specifies the necessary condition for prophetic inspiration – namely, the need for self-imposed solitude (hitbodedut). For anyone who wishes to unite (dvekut) one’s soul with supreme spiritual forces, must remove distractions and go out to the field  for that is a place of meditational solitude.”  Thus for Alkabetz, Kabbalat Shabbat is not only the greeting of the Shekhinah and the receiving of an Extra Soul but also some kind of prophetic revelation.

It is only in the latter half of the 16th century in Safed that Kabbalat Shabbat becomes formalized. Then the six Psalms representing the six days of the week lead up to the Song of Shabbat (Psalm 92). L’cha Dodi provides the bridge between hol and kodesh, between the everyday and the Shabbat, which is “accepted” (kabbalat) officially at this point of the service, not when the first six Psalms are recited.

Beyond those transitional songs and Psalms, the mystics interpreted every ritual act of Friday night to conform to the metaphor of a wedding feast. Rabbi Yisrael Elnekaveh quotes a Midrash that develops an extended marital analogy:

Just as the Kallah arrives before the Hatan, dressed beautifully, with jewelry and perfume,
So Shabbat arrives before Israel dressed beautifully with jewelry….
Just as the Hatan is dressed in magnificent attire, so a person should dress magnificently for Shabbat.
Just as the Hatan enjoys pleasures all seven days of the wedding,
so a person should indulge in pleasures on Shabbat.
Just as the Hatan takes off from work, so does person refrain for work for Shabbat….
One should not eat on Shabbat afternoon so as to enter Shabbat with an appetite,
just as the Hatan fasts from food and drink on the day of the wedding.
So a person should be very careful to sanctify Shabbat with wine,
Just as Hatan is careful to sanctify (kiddushin) his bride [with wine].
(Sefer HaPeliah I 36b)

Kabbalat Shabbat should be seen as the opening reception at the wedding ceremony, which will last all night, consummated in the love bed of the human and the Divine couple.

Rabbi Nachman Goes out to the Fields

We may wish to adapt HaARI’s custom of literally going out of the city to greet the Shabbbat Queen by going out to the garden for Kabbalat Shabbat, We may also adapt Maimonides’ idea of “sitting meditatively” turning it into a meditative walk in nature. Then Hassidic Rebbe Nachman offers us a poetic meditation for such occasions.

“Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields…
There will I give you my love.”

Master of the universe,
grant me always the ability to be alone;
may it ever be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grasses, among all growing things,
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with the One I belong to.

May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field (all grasses, trees, and plants)
may they all awake at my coming,
to send the power of their life into the words of my prayer,
so that my prater and speech are make whole,
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.

May they all be gathered into my prayer,
and thus may I be worthy to open my heart fully
in prayer, supplication, and holy speech,
that I pour out the words of my hear
before your Presence like water, O Lord,
and lift up my hands to You in worship,
on behalf of my own soul, and the souls of my children.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (translated by Shamai Kanter)

What is the “Kabbalah” in Kabbalat Shabbat?

In L’cha Dodi Alkabetz uses for his refrain an ambiguous, multivalent term – Pnei Shabat N’kabb’lah. – “Come …let us ‘accept/greet the face of Shabbat.” The technical term “kabbalah” can mean four things each of which invite us to play a different role in a mystical drama:

We accept “the Yoke of Shabbat” meaning its authority begins from the moment of “making” Shabbat with the conclusion of Kabbalat Shabbat, when we sing Mizmor l’yom ha’Shabbat.(Psalm 92).

The custom of reciting six Psalms (95-99) identified with the six days of the week as well as with six of the ten mystical sefirot opens with Psalm 95- L’chu (let us) N’ranenah foreshadowing the L’cha (“let’s go”) Dodi’s refrain and setting the stage for greeting Shabbat. The recitation of this seventh and last of the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, along with its companion (Psalm 93), serves a legal function for thereby we commence Shabbat even before sundown. This adds hol (unsanctified time) to kodesh (sacred time).   Thus for those in the synagogue, Shabbat, with its legal prohibitions and spiritual gifts, begins with the singing of this psalm to Shabbat and not at the lighting of candles.

We also “accept” something in the sense of “receiving a gift.” Each and every Jew receives an Additional Soul (neshama yetera), the crown of a new soul on our heads, as we enter the Sukkah of Shalom.”  This acceptance of the Divine Presence and reception of a Neshama Yetera occurs symbolically with the recitation of the words “boi kallah, boi kallah” which are interfaced into the last verse of L’cha Dodi. {See Arthur Green’s further explication of the extra or additional soul below]

Kabbalat Shabbat is also a wedding reception for the bride and groom in which they “accepted” or greeted just as royalty are.
Be joyful as Shabbat enters, like one going out to greet the amazing King or the Bride and Bridegroom. (Tur OH 262).

Kabbalat Shabbat is then part of a wedding ceremony  between chatan v’kallah, Bride and Bridegroom, the individual soul and the Shekhinah, the male and female aspects of the Divine. As the Zohar explains, we prepare the wedding feast on Friday afternoon, then in the evening we go out with the greeting “boi kalah boi kalah” (Zohar 3:272b). At the wedding, we transform the Shekhinah into a Kallah and ourselves into the Hatan, for the marital relationship is necessarily mutual. “Shabbat is called the Queen, the King’s Kallah, because all of Israel are children of Kings.” (Chiddushei Maharasha on TB Baba Kama 32b). In sum, singing Kabbalat Shabbat helps facilitate the union of Israel and God, the male and female sefirot within the Divine, the six days of chol and Shabbat, and one’s soul with its neshama yetera. [See Elliot Ginsburg’s article below for a greater explication of this marital image using Kabbalist terminology]

In addition, these songs serve to “accept,” that is, formally greet the “Face of Shabbat,” the Divine Presence as a form of honoring Shabbat.  Thus at the arrival of a head of state a marching band or choir might grace the ceremony of the red carpet at the arrival at the presidential home. Some of the Kabbalist as is well known went out literally to greet the Shabbat Queen. R. Isaac HaARI walked out of the city towards the West to greet Shabbat as he watched the sunset. Others merely go out of the synagogue to the courtyard. Today for the last verse of L’cha Dodi people often stand up and turn around. In turning from the eastward direction of prayer (in most cities found West of Jerusalem) towards the west where the sun sets, they symbolically imitate HaARI’s actual procession to the field to witness the sunset. However, the spiritual reception of the Shabbat Queen practiced by R. Moshe Cordovero, also a mystic of Safed, rejected the physical excursion as unnecessary and misleading:
“Shabbat does not come via the field [horizontally, spatially] but via the upper realms flowing downward…Shabbat is like an expectant bride who comes as soon as her husband calls her – boi kallah” (Tefillah L’Moshe 193a)

In sum, Jews go forth to greet Shabbat in a spiritual, spatial and temporal sense as one welcomes an honored and beloved guest who is coming to stay with us. Spiritually we prepare our minds with meditation and song; spatially we turn westward to the sunset or at least toward the entryway of the synagogue and temporally we usher in Shabbat early – transforming some of the hol of the six days into sacred time – at the moment we recite Mizmor shir l’yom ha’Shabbat

L’cha Dodi – A Thematic Commentary on L’cha Dodi

L’cha Dodi weaves Biblical verses and Rabbinic and Kabbalist symbols into a poem simultaneously about Shabbat whose origins go back to the mythic past – both to the Creation (Exodus 20) and the Exodus (Deuteronomy 5). However most of its verses are adapted from Isaiah’s poetic description of the messianic future – God’s desire to reunite Israel with its land and its city, Jerusalem. These concrete places and national personages described metaphorically as coming together like bride and bridegroom also represent, for the mystics, Divine forces – masculine and feminine – seeking to be reunited in a Sacred Marriage. Our intentions in actually singing of L’cha Dodi serve not only to recall or even reenact the mythic past or just envision the messianic future. Our singing actually changes the present and may contribute to the bringing of the messianic end of time. L’cha Dodi brings in Shabbat early, transforming hol, into kodesh. It draws down our Shabbat soul and crowns our head with the same crowns granted at Mount Sinai at the original revelation. The observance of Shabbat and its extension into hol serve to reverse the effect of the desecration of Shabbat that brought on exile. Thus Shabbat hastens the process by which all time and space become a long era when all is Shabbat, a foretaste of the world to come.

The verses of L’cha Dodi lead us from two stanzas about Shabbat to six stanzas about Jerusalem and the messiah and then back again to end with Shabbat. In fact, Shabbat represents a foretaste of Jerusalem in space and the messianic era in time. The refrain – the tenth stanza, if you will – expresses the unification of male and female which is the essence of this redemptive process in space and time. Thus all that has been separated into hol and kodesh will be reunited.

Our commentary will attempt to unpack only a fraction of these overlapping meanings, primarily the Biblical ones and some of the Kabbalist ones with the help of Reuven Kimmelman’s seminal research.


The mystery of echad /unity is overcome in the apparent contradiction between two versions of God’s words – God’s fourth commandment at Mount Sinai—“Zachor/Shamor, Remember/Keep Shabbat.” The opening word appears in two versions of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20 and Dt 5) with a slight variation. While the meanings are synonymous, which exact word did God use?

Miraculously – the Rabbinic Midrash and L’cha Dodi each assert – God pronounced both words simultaneously as one (TB Shavuot 20a; Mechilta Exodus 20). This minor miracle merely reflects God’s ability to create unity out of diversity. In the present world God’s name is not yet one and the Divine kingdom is not yet the sole authority, yet as the prophet said and we repeat in the prayer Aleinu – “then God will become sovereign over all the world, on that day God will be one and God’s name will be one” -v’haya YHVH l’melech al kol ha’aretz, b’yom ha’hu yiheyeh YHVH echad ush’mo echad. (Zecharia 14:9). In uniting Zachor /Shamor we recognize God’s messianic plan to unify the world under Divine rule.

At first glance this verse refers to the Sinai revelation without any reference to a Divine marriage implicit in the refrain “L’cha Dodi L’krat Kallah.” Yet the mystics read the masculine-feminine dialectic into this unity and union of these two words.

What is the reason that [the Torah says] “remember” [in one place,] and “keep” [regarding the Sabbath in another]?
“Remember” (zachor) refers to the male (Zachar). “Keep (shamor) refers to the bride. (Sefer Habahir 182)

This interpretation is born out in the mystical custom practiced in Safed on Shabbat eve where two sweet smelling branches are identified with the two terms for Shabbat observance in the Ten Commandments: Zachor and Shamor.

It is a good custom on Shabbat evening to walk around the table twice in silence, starting to the right. Then take two bundles of myrtle (hadas)-one in the right and one in the left hand. Hold them together and make a blessing over their scent. (Sefer Hemdat Yamim)

Shamor and Zachor refer to two aspects of the cosmos which must be untied. Shamor comes first in the poem – even though it appears only later in the order of verses in the Torah – because for the Kabbalists it represents “night,” the feminine bride, the mystical Shekhinah, which is dominant on Friday night when L’cha Dodi is sung. The next day Zachor becomes predominant representing day, masculinity and the Divine sefirah of Tiferet or Yesod.

“Happy is the one who knows how to unite Shamor and Zachor and thereby brings blessings to the world – both external and internal.” (Ibn Gikatalia, Shaarei Orah I 136). Under Kabbalist influence it became the practice to light not one but two Shabbat candles which are called Shamor and Zachor (Rabbi Yaacov Landau, Sefer Agur 358). (Reuven Kimmelman, p. 37-41).


While the first stanza of L’cha Dodi returns us only to the events at Sinai, the second stanza explains the refrain’s sense of movement toward Shabbat. “Likrat Shabbat/Going toward Shabbat” as a return to the source, to the original blessing of Creation. The poet combines Rabbi Hanina’s …“Bo’oo V’neitzei ha’sadeh likrat shabbat ha’malkah” (Shabbat 119a) and Isaiah’s 2:5 “l’chu v’nailchah ba’or YHVH.” Thus God’s Shabbat and Divine Redemption become one.

Sof ma’aseh b’machHsavah t’hilah is a prophetic and later philosophic term but also a kabbalist one. In prophecy Isaiah says God predetermines history from the beginning through to the end of time (Isaiah 46:10). In philosophical terms this means God had planned out in his mind all that God went on to do in the six days of Creation. In Kabbalist terms it means that the tenth sefirah, the Shekhinah symbolized by the Messiah (who comes at the end of history) and the Shabbat the last day of the week are already implicit in the first sefirah, the Keter, the most abstract thought. Thus the circle is completed and all that emerges in the end was already implicit in the beginning.


While the first two stanzas refer to the temporal image of Shabbat as a mitzvah and a source of blessing, the next six stanzas relate to Jerusalem, the spatial image, personified as the bride of Israel and God, now abandoned in its destruction. Jerusalem is not a virginal young bride but an abandoned woman sitting shivah. This is the imagery of Eicha /Lamentations, the poems lamenting the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE).

The task of the singer of L’cha Dodi is to comfort the mourning city and to urge her to “get up” from sitting shivah, to change clothes and to leave behind the emek ha’baca/the valley of tears.  He reassures her that the original beloved bridegroom who abandoned her will be back and now it is time to ready herself for his return. V’hu yachamol ali-eech chemlah is a play on the prophet Jeremiah (15:5) Mi yachamol ali-eech Yerushalyim?! which was said pessimistically.  Now the poet Shlomo Alkabetz promises optimistically that God will be back filled with compassion replacing his former anger at Jerusalem’s infidelities.

The Biblical customs of mourning are used not only for death but for abandonment, captivity involving enslavement and loss of status, and nidui / banishment. Sitting on the ground, covered in dust especially on one’s forehead, the place of tefillin, and wearing torn or shabby clothes, are typical. Israel, God’s marital partner sanctified in the covenant / brit of Sinai, is understood by the prophets as having betrayed God and preferred the gods, religions and kings of pagan powers. Therefore God has abandoned her in anger and in vengeance to the whims of her fickle “lovers” who shamed her and she watched her sons and daughters be carried off to exile and her beauty, i.e. her walls, palaces and Temples be desecrated. Yet that “widow”/abandoned woman is promised by the same prophets and especially by the later Isaiah (41-66) that her Divine husband will forgive her, return and replace anger with compassion.

Precisely after L’cha Dodi, as Shabbat comes in, it is customary for the community to welcome to the synagogue that week’s mourners who during the week say shiva at home. On Shabbat when there is no public mourning, there is still communal words of consolation. The traditional greeting repeated now combines personal and national comfort in the spirit of L’cha Dodi – ha’makom y’nachem etchem yachad im avlei tzion v’yerushalyim.


Jerusalem in ruins is also a symbol of Israel the degraded captive woman in exile and the promised lover/dodi is David/Beloved one, son of Yishai born in Bethlehem who will bring ge’ulah/redemption. (The messiah is also nicknamed M’nachem, the Comforter). The image of shaking off the dust and dressing in grand clothing is a central metaphor in Isaiah. It refers both to the transition from enslaved capture to royal lady  and from abandoned woman mourning her beloved and her exiled children to remarriage in bridal clothes, setting on a bride’s throne. Hitna’ari meyafar kumi commands the poet (Isaiah 52:2), to throw off your depression, regain your dignity and self-respect, and prepare for your liberation from captivity. The Shabbat entrance is correlated with Israel’s rise to redemption. So Alkabetz’s messianic metaphor is the commandment to change our “literal” clothes and our mood as Shabbat approaches and we emerge from the alienation and dusty reality of weekday existence. [On the hidden Kabbalist level the poet signals that the marriage of God’s inner aspects – male and female, Tiferet and Shekhinah, are implicit in the wearing of b’gdei tiferet /the clothes of the sefirah of Tiferet.]


The prophet Isaiah calls upon Jerusalem to awaken from its stupor, to emerge from its gloom and to shine forth. Combining these verses from Isaiah,
Isaiah 51:17 – Hitoreri hitoreri kumi yerushalyim – “Awake, awake, stand up, Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 52:1-2 – uri uri livshi uzaich – “Rouse yourself, dress in your splendor.”
Isaiah 60:1 – Kumi uri ki vah oreich k’vod YHVH alai-eech zarach –
“Stand up, rouse yourself,
for your light has arrived. Adonai shines upon you.”

The poet redoubles the urgency of the command to prepare for the imminent arrival of Jerusalem’s source of light – her Divine redeemer who will be revealed. In the context of L’cha Dodi’s love imagery, the kallah, Jerusalem sits in the darkness, but she begins to shine in response to the expected arrival of the “light of her life” – oreich – which is her personal source of illumination. The kallah is invited to sing /shir. Even today the typical language of love songs is suffused with light imagery as are folk songs. For example, the American song, This Little Light of Mine:

The light that shines is the light of love – some say, ‘it’s dark, we cannot see’
But love lights up the world for me.
The real power is yours and mine, so let your little light shine!

In the Shabbat context in which L’cha Dodi is sung, ironically as dusk comes, the darkness is lit up by the light of love as God illuminates our lives. For mystics, this involves a spiritual awakening as well.

Reuven Kimmelman (pp. 70-71) notes that just as Alkabetz has reversed the Biblical order of Shamor and Zachor, so he has intentionally ascribed the awakening of the bride to the external impetus of the coming of her male redeemer, her light. Thus this final redemption on Shabbat is unlike many other places in the Zohar (I 88a) where the awakening begins from below and then arouses the male forces above to action (hit-orrut d’l-tata). Even though in some sense human initiative helps create the eros of redemption on Shabbat through our acts of Tikkun, in this case Alkabetz like Moshe Cordevero hold that Divine initiative will determine the ultimate redemptive process described.

Reuven Kimmelman offers an even more radical interpretation to this central stanza of the poem. This stanza – fifth of nine, and its central phrase about the coming of the light comes exactly 65 words after the poem began and 65 words before it comes to a conclusion. Based on the Biblical allusions of each of its verses drawn from Isaiah it refers to Jerusalem as the bride to be aroused and dressed in clothes of glory, clothes of marriage.

However it is most surprising when Kabbalist and Midrashic allusions are used to decipher its message. Or and Uri, the key words of the stanza, have roots with different meanings – “light” with an aleph and “awake” with an ayin. Yet there similarity of sound and spelling recalls a midrashic pun. Or with an ayin means “skin” or more broadly one’s physical body that clothes our soul. God made humans clothes from skins of animals after Adam and Eve listened to a naked animal – the snake – and ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The implication is that the woman had intercourse with the snake (this is the Midrash preferred in much Kabbalist writing that promotes a belief in the Fall).

However, that Fall is not final. The messianic world will return to human beings the clothes or body made of Or with an aleph – clothes of light. Rabbi Meir, the Talmudic rabbi whose name means “light” had a version of the Torah that had the Hebrew letters for “clothes of skin” that god made for humans written as kutnot or with an aleph instead of with an ayin. This implies that God will one day return to human beings the original skin or body of light that covered them before the Fall. The Zohar explains that the or with an ayin represents the number 70 for the 70 nations of the world that rule over Israel during our exile from the Garden, from Jerusalem. In the exile we are protected from these 70 wolves by skins of holiness, the Tefillin which are made of animal skins. Yet on Shabbat we have no need of the Tefillin. We are protected by observing Shabbat in such a way as to make amends for the sin in the Garden. In pace of the skins we wear Shabbat clothes and in place of the illicit intercourse with the snake, man and woman have holy intercourse on Shabbat when sexual unification is mandated.

In Safed HaARI and other mystics chose to wear not just beautiful clothes on Shabbat but white clothes. White represents “clothes of light,” purity from the sin of the Garden, mercy by which God judges us, sanctity like the high priest on Yom Kippur and the cloths that we will wear in the world to come in which we will resemble the angels of light. In short we awaken to light and dress in light and thus redeem humankind from the Fall and prepare the way for the world to come where all wear white clothes. .


Beginning with this stanza Hassidim generally change the melody from sadder to a more hopeful and assertive one for the messiah has been mentioned and it is no longer time to be shy and ashamed. (German Jews customarily change the tune in the previous stanza). In these three stanzas Shlomo Alkabetz adopts Isaiah’s extended metaphor comparing the remarriage of the abandoned woman to her original husband, to the rebuilding (v’nivneta ir al tila) of the abandoned city of ruins, Jerusalem and the return of her children and oni ami her Divine spouse. Isaiah portrays Israel’s shame as “an abandoned woman, sad in spirits” who is “remade” by her lover’s return. (Isaiah 54:3-6 – ki yamin usmol tifrotzi … ki lo teivoshi v’al tikalmi ….ki boshet alumotayich tishkachi vcherpat … ki baalayich osei-eech … ki k’isha azuva v’azuvat ruach korayich Adonai..)

Thus the city sits in ruins but her remarriage to her returning husband involves a change of clothes, the rebuilding of her walls and her expansion –left and right- breaking out beyond her previous borders. (Yamin usmol tifrotzi). All of her destroyers (Shosai-eech mevaleich) will be far removed. Then on the wedding day, God will take joy in Jerusalem as if she were his young wife on their original wedding night.

Isaiah 62:5  ki yivaal bachur betulah, yivalei-eech banaieech umsos chatan al kallah yasis alayieech elohaiyich. In the messianic context, the poem identifies the husband’s return with King David the messiah whose lineage goes back to Judah’s son Partzi. In the Shabbat context the marital metaphor for rebuilding Jerusalem comes to refer to the Jew’s joy in relation to God’s presence. In the Kabbalist context the divine aspect of male and female are reunited.


As L’cha Dodi comes to a climax, the poet adopts Jacob’s blessing – “to the right and to the left you shall spread out” (Genesis 28). Reuven Kimmelman (pp.82-98) suggests that there are four dimensions in which we are destined to overflow our orders. Here we will spread out not as a curse when were sent into exile but as blessing. The four levels of transcending borders are spatial / temporal / sefirotic / and human or political.

Spatially Eretz Yisrael (or Jerusalem) will be so filled with people as to expand beyond all borders. This fulfills Jacob’s promise of fertility but it also connects to Isaiah (58:13-14) who promised that all who celebrate Shabbat will be granted Jacob’s inheritance, bli mitzarim, without borders. The sanctity of Israel is therefore not in principle limited to its narrow borders distinguishing it from other lands. Some Kabbalists (Shelah) argue that if Adam had not sinned that all space and all time and all human beings would have been holy – with borders, with impurity. That is the hope of Moshe Cordevero and Alkabetz that by adding from hol to kodesh, by absorbing some of the week into Shabbat as we do by accepting Shabbat in early, we have begun the redemptive process by which all distinction between holy and secular will be abolished for everything will return to its sacred origin in God.

Temporally Shabbat is to be viewed not as end of the week but as the middle of the week just as Israel is the center of the earth, its navel according to ancient midrashic traditions. Thus Shabbat will expand to the left and to the right temporally absorbing part of Friday and part of Sunday. Ultimately Shabbat will absorb all time and the world to come will be a day which all Shabbat (yom shekulo Shabbat).

In sefirotic language the central sefirot of Tiferet and Shkhina will expand left and right to absorb the flanking opposites – Din and Rachamim.

On the human – political level – Reuven Kimmelman discovers the most radical message. The children of Jacob who are the center will absorb the right side, the first born of Abraham (Rachamim) and the left-side, the first born of Yitzchak (Din). That is Ishmael, the Moslem whose color is green (the Arab color), and Esav whose color is red (the blood of Jesus) will be converted to Judaism and become part of the white light of Jacob (p. 157-161). In other words while some Kabbalah demonizes the non-Jew, the mystical tradition of Alkabetz envisions all nations becoming one in service of God. Rabenu Bachya says: “Ishmael and Esav are destined to be joined with our people, to convert and to become one nation, as it says “on that day God will be one and the Divine name will be one.” The messiah son of Peretz whose name and whose ancestry suggest breaking beyond bounds will bring us back to the garden to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and of Life for then all oppositions will fall away.


In the final stanza the poet returns to the greeting of Shabbat by the Galilean Mishnaic Rabbi Yannai whose custom is the historic kernel of the Safed invention of Kabbalat Shabbat. Now as part of the faithful (Toch emunai am s’gulah) community, the treasured people, we greet Shabbat as the crown of her Divine husband and/or national spouse (ateret b’alah) with the double greeting: boi kallah boi kallah.

The metaphor functions on three levels:
1. sexual fulfillment
2. official welcoming of Shabbat and
3. a Kabbalist reunion of the Divine Shekhinah and the Divine Husband – Tiferet.

L’cha Dodi combines Redemption and Shabbat as do the Rabbis and many Kabbalists. For as the Rabbis explained: (TB Shabbat 119b) “Jerusalem was destroyed only because of the desecration of Shabbat” and (TB Shabbat 118a) “If only Israel would observe just two Shabbatot, then they would immediately be redeemed.” For as the Spanish Kabbalist Ibn Gikatillia said: “Anyone who observes Shabbat unites the lower 7th, “Shabbat” with the upper 7th, “Olam Haba,” thus connecting all ten sefirot above and below.” [Kimmelman p.61]

Kabbalist Numbers, Letters and Sefirot in L’cha Dodi

The Hassidim of 13th century Germany and afterwards the Kabbalists believed deeply that the number of letters and words in prayers carry the deepest mystical meanings. (This is also typical of Dante, the medieval Italian poet whose massive religious poem, The Divine Comedy, is organized into 1 +33+33+33 = 100 cantos). Therefore R. Shlomo Alkabetz naturally created his poetic prayer to express its message in numerology as well as rhyme.

What are the secret numbers of L’cha Dodi? 6,7,10,26

10 = The ten sefirot, God’s aspects, are represented in the 9 stanzas and the 1 refrain of L’cha Dodi, that refrain is repeated 10 times.

6 = The six days of the week, the six days of creation; the six thousand years of Exile, are represented by six stanzas (3rd-8th) that describe the exile and yearn for redemption.

7 = The last stanza, boi kalah, welcomes the seventh day, Shabbat, and stands for redemption in time, the seventh millennium. This is the 10th and final sefirah — Malchut/Shekhinah/Messiah/Shabbat.

Or = Light is located at the literary and dramatic center of the poem. The words “hit-oreri hit-oreri, ki vah orech, kumi uri” / Awake, awake, for your light has come, get up are both preceded and followed by 65 words exactly.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
L’cha / DODI / Li KRAT / KaLaH / PNEi / ShaBaT / N’KaBeLaH
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

15+11 = 26 = The gematria, the numerical value of the letters of God’s special name Y-H-W-H, is 26 for Y+H (10+5) plus W + H (6+5)

10 sefirot = Letters of YHVH  where H+V+H+Y = Hochma / Keter (Wisdom) and H = Shekhinah, V = 6 middle sefirot, H = Bina, and Y = Keter

Reliving the Spiritual Exile – Empathy with the Shekhinah

While on Shabbat Alkabetz sings about the Shekhinah shaking off mourning and dressing in royal clothes just as we do in observing Shabbat, on weekdays the Safed Kabbalists, Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and Solomon Alkabetz (c. 1505-1584), practiced gerushin. Gerushin literally means “exiles” or “wanderings.” They would “wander” amongst the numerous gravesites in the environs of Safed in self-conscious imitation of the exiled Shekhinah:

A person should exile himself from place to place for the sake of Heaven, and in this way he will become a vessel for the exiled Shekhinah….he should humble his heart in exile and bind himself to the Torah and then the Shekhinah will accompany him. And he should carry out gerushin by exiling himself from his house of rest constantly, after the fashion of Rabbi Shimon [bar Yohai according to the Zohar] and his company who exiled themselves in order to study the Torah. And how much better is he who bruises his feet wandering from place to place without horse and cart. Concerning him it is said: ‘His hope (sivro) is with the Lord his God,’ (Psalm 146:5) which they explained from the expression shever (‘to break’), for he breaks his body in the service of the Most High (Cordovero, Tomer Devorah, chap. 9).

Elsewhere Cordovero reports that his master Alkabetz, “decided upon the innovation that in the summer months especially we should, on occasion, walk barefooted in the mystery of the Shekhinah” (Sefer ha-Gerushin, chap. 1). To deliberately “exile” oneself, then, is a symbolic act of humility that enables one to express as well as experience the humiliation to which the Shekhinah is Herself subjected.

On the Sacred Marriage during Kabbalat Shabbat

L’cha Dodi – An Invitation to a Sacred Wedding

When Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz composed the refrain of his poem “L’cha Dodi” in Safed, he chose the metaphor of marriage based on the words of the original Kabbalat Shabbat of the Mishnaic Rabbi who also lived in the Galilee in northern Israel 1300 years earlier, Rabbi Yannai, who used to don his robes on Shabbat evening and exclaim: “Come, Bride! Come, Bride.” But what marriage are we invited to attend? Who are the bride (kallah) and bridegroom (hatan)? What is our task at the ceremony and who has sent us this invitation? How does this serve as a model for our Shabbat observance in prayer and in lovemaking?

Let’s go Beloved/Friend L’cha Dodi
To greet the Bride  L’krat kallah
The face of Shabbat  P’nei Shabbat
Will be received. N’kabbalah

Who is the Friend/Dodi? Who is the Bride/kallah? Who is the speaker?

There are at least five answers, which may all be correct, part of the rich connotations of the ambiguous poetic metaphor, part of the multiple levels of reality envisioned by the mystic.

On the temporal level, a man or woman calls upon their lover or friend to greet the arrival of Shabbat, the bride or the queen. As a group of loving friends we welcome Shabbat even before it arrives at sunset, just as we would honor the incoming Queen by going out to meet her on the road to our home. Here the language of Queen or bride may be merely honorific and there is no real marriage, though we do joyfully greet the holy time, the bride-cum–royalty.

The bride and groom in Rabbinic literature are treated as royalty for a year (chatan l’melech damei). One legend relates that King Agrippas, the Jewish King of the 1st century honored a Hatan and Kallah whose bridal procession crossed his path. As king he had the right of way but he deferred saying that the chatan v’kallah were royalty for only a day.

On the cosmic-cum-rational level, God is the speaker, the matchmaker urging his friend, the people of Israel, to come meet their Shabbat bride and consummate their engagement. The Mishnaic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, according to tradition the fountainhead of the Zohar and its main character, explained this marriage. It was arranged on the day of Creation and fulfilled at Sinai when Israel received the Torah. The fourth commandment – “Remember the Shabbat Day to sanctify (l’kadsho) it” (Exodus 20) – is interpreted as a marital metaphor, to sanctify is to consummate the Kiddushin. .

R. Simeon bar Yohai taught: The Shabbat pleaded to the Blessed Holy One:

“Sovereign of the Universe. All the other days have a mate [three pairs of six days]; am I to be without one?”
The Holy One said to it: “The Community of Israel shall be your mate.” As it is said, “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it le-qaddesho [here read]: to betroth it [as in kiddushin].” (Exodus 20:8)
So when they stood before the mountain of Sinai, He said to them, ‘Remember what I said to the Shabbat, that the Community of Israel is your partner, [hence, God reminds Israel] — Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8). – Genesis Rabbah 11:8

Israel, then, is commanded to sanctify the Shabbat as its Bride with no less than God as the “best man.” As Achad Haam the Zionist thinker put it, “More than Israel has kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept Israel.” These mutual vows to keep our Shabbat bride are renewed ritually in reciting L’cha Dodi and the Kiddush.

On the messianic-spatial level, God urges his people Israel to return from the exile to its beloved but abandoned capital, Jerusalem. The city so often personified as a woman in the descriptions of its abandonment, rape and exile, now becomes a bride; a widow is reclaimed and reborn rising from its mourning for its lost partner who has now been revived. God is re-making the old familial match of the land and the people, the city and its children of Zion and thus announcing the messianic reunion.

In the 6th century BCE after the first Temple was destroyed, Isaiah was the prophet of Israel’s restoration as a people to its land and its city. He provides the metaphors for Alkabetz’s L’cha Dodi but Alkabetz shifts the imagery from God’s engineering the remarriage of Israel and Jerusalem to God himself returning to dwell in Jerusalem, “rejoicing as a bridegroom over his bride.”

For the sake of Zion I will not be silent
For the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still,
…Nevermore shall you be called “Forsaken,”
Nor shall your land be called “Desolate”;

But you shall be called “I delight in her,”
And your land “Espoused [betrothed].”
For the LORD takes delight in you,
And your land shall be espoused.
As a youth espouses a maiden,
Your sons shall espouse you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
So will your God rejoice over you.
(Isaiah 62:1-5)

Symbolically God’s return to Jerusalem is God’s remarriage to Israel. At Sinai God married Israel while Moshe served as a harried matchmaker negotiating the terms of the covenant / Brit between a nervous human bride and an anxious Divine bridegroom. When the Temple in Jerusalem, God’s home shared with Israel, was destroyed, it was a physical expression of God’s abandonment of his unfaithful partner Israel. Yet the Divine-Israel home can be rebuilt in Jerusalem and that is the messianic hope of Isaiah and Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz.

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
Come, my beloved, let us go into the open;
L’cha Dodi neitzei ha’sadeh -Song of Songs, 7:11-12

The term “L’cha Dodi” is taken from the Song of Songs traditionally attributed to King Solomon, king of Jerusalem, builder of the Temple-home of the Divine Presence on earth. Solomon is, nicknamed by God Yedidya, Beloved of God, and he is son of the Messiah, David, God’s Dodi / beloved. (II Sam 12:25). It is typically understood by the Rabbis as a love poem of God and Israel. Here is in this most erotic description of Biblical love-making, the invitation “to go out into the field” – “L’cha Dodi n’zah ha’sadeh” – is a direct reference to consummation. In Alkabetz’s L’cha Dodi it becomes an invitation to go out into the field to greet Shabbat at sunset but it never loses its Eros even though it is suffused with spiritual significance. In Sephardi tradition, shir ha’shirim / Song of Songs is sung every Friday night.

Finally on the mystical level, the Kabbalist dimensions of the Divine, there is a marital reunion between the male and female aspects of God. Here the speaker is the Jewish “everyman” or perhaps the kabbalist, for example, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz himself, playing the role of go-between to arrange the Sacred Canopy for the male-like Tiferet (the six sefirot, the throne) and the female-like Shekhinah (the seventh sefirah, entitled the Shabbat, the Bride and the Queen). The cyclical renewal of the male-female union on the Divine level has its analogue on the cosmic, the natural and the personal level.

What is left for the human if this is a sacred affair between aspects of the Divine at a supra-cosmic level? Humans are first of all the children of God’s marriage with his Bride. Shabbat is the day of family reunion, renewing the togetherness of Divine Bride and Groom but including the human children.

Why is it written, “My sabbaths you shall keep,” [in the plural] rather than “My sabbath” [in the singular]?

To what may this be compared? To a king who had a beautiful bride, and every week she would set aside a day to be with him. The king also had beautiful beloved sons. He said to them, “Since this is the situation, you should also rejoice on the day of my joy. For it is for your sake that I strive, and you also honor me.” Sefer HaBahir 57:17c-17d (#181).

Human beings also play an active mystical role in arousing the masculine aspect of the Divine to make love with the feminine aspect of the Divine. They are God’s “best men,” shushbinim, who help to crown the kallah, making her attractive in the hatan’s eyes. In Rabbinic thought a best man and OR even a normal invitee to a wedding is not a passive guest but one whose job is to dance before the couple, making them happy with one another.

A Kabbalist’s Guide to the Sacred Marriage of Shabbat

Drawing upon Elliot Ginsburg’s beautiful and scholarly work The Sabbath in the Classical Kabbalah , we have, with his permission, woven together from disparate quotes a bouquet of some of his insights into the development of the central mystical drama of Shabbat, the wedding between male and female. Every Shabbat observer is invited to become an active participant in this festive and romantic event that occurs weekly. This imagery is of course very palpable in Shlomo Alkabetz’s poem L’cha Dodi but it suffuses the understanding of all the Shabbat rituals as understood and developed by the medieval mystics.

The mystical history of this sacred marriage first transforms Shabbat into a bride for whom God prepares a bridal chamber. However the bridegroom is variously imagined. On one hand, it may be Israel the sacred nation that sanctifies Shabbat as one sanctifies one’s Kallah – harei at m’kuddeshet li. Perhaps Shabbat is God’s Bat, his daughter, while Israel is God’s son-in-law. On the other hand, Shabbat may best be better envisioned as God’s bride. Then Shabbat observers are the “best men” preparing the Huppah and dressing the Kallah by the evocative power of the blessings they recite. Finally we bring the intriguing image of each individual as Divine Shabbat’s marital partner.

Why it is said: Remember [the Sabbath] [Ex. 20:8] and Keep [it] [Dt. 5:12]? Remember [Zachor] refers to the Male [Zakhar] and Keep refers to the Female. (Bahir 182) (p.107)

[The Sabbath] is the perfection of Male and Female…the Mystery of
One….On Shabbat all is one entity.  Moshe de Leon, Sefer ha-Rimmon (p.106)

The entire harmonious configuration is called Shabbat, the mystery of coupling, for [on the Sabbath-day] the lovers [Tif’eret and Shekhinah] have returned to each other face-to-face. (Tolaat Yaacov by Meir ibn Gabbai 45a) (p.73)

Only in Kabbalah does bridal imagery become a controlling rather than intermittent motif, coloring virtually every Sabbath ritual. …The Kabbalists reveled in the imagery of the feminine Sabbath, discovering in it a great mystery. (p.106) The transformation of the divine world on Shabbat is perhaps most dramatically articulated by the myth of Sacred Marriage, the holy union of the masculine and feminine aspects of God. The Exile of the week is overcome as [the Divine sefirot, male and female aspects] Tif’eret/Yesod and Shekhinah enter into that relationship which the Zohar calls zivuga’ qaddisha’[the holy coupling, the sacred marriage]…In the rich and fluid Kabbalistic imagery Male and Female become the archetypal Bride and Groom donning ever shifting masks and personae: now they are the king and his consort, …Solomon and the unnamed shepherdess of the Song of Songs, or Jacob and Rachel, or the Holy One and the mystical Community of Israel; such are the guises of the protean Groom and Bride.

The re-imaging of Shabbat as a marriage festival is one of the most significant contributions of the classical Kabbalistic tradition to the later Jewish celebration of Shabbat. It laid the groundwork for the ritual innovations of the Safed mystics and has greatly influenced the popular celebration of Shabbat in recent centuries…

We shall see some of the ways in which this myth was made real for the Kabbalist by examining its articulation and embodiment in Sabbath ritual. (p.101)

Sabbath as a Bride. Two virtually identical Talmudic passages   personify the Sabbath as Bride. They explain that on Sabbath eve at sunset various rabbis used to wrap themselves in special garb and go forth to greet “the Sabbath Bride,” some proclaiming. “Come, O Bride! Come, O Bride!” A similar personification is found in the Amoraic midrash Genesis R 10:9. Through a clever word-play, the phrase “And God completed (vaye-khal) on the seventh day” (Gen. 2:2) is rendered “And God made a bride (kallah) of the seventh day”:

This may be compared to a king who made a bridal chamber which he plastered, painted and adorned.
What was the chamber lacking? A bride to enter it.
Similarly, what was the world lacking [at the end of the six days of Creation]? Shabbat!

Israel’s Bride and God’s Daughter. The Midrash Genesis Rabbah 11:8 attests to the love affair between Israel and the Sabbath by likening them to husband and wife. According to this Midrash, God paired all the days of the week: Sunday had Monday, Tuesday had Wednesday, Thursday had Friday. Only Shabbat was left alone. (p.102)

The Sabbath came before the Holy One and said: “Sovereign of the Universe. All the other days have a mate; am I to be without one?”
The Holy One said to it: “The Community of Israel shall be your mate.” As it is said, “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it le-qaddesho [here read]: to betroth it [as in kiddushin].” (Ex. 20:8)

In a striking image Moshe de Leon, [author of the Zohar] suggested that the newly configured divine world literally spells Shab-BaT. According to the Zohar, Shekhinah, the King’s daughter (BaT), is in Exile during the week; but each Friday evening She is able to return home, assuming Her rightful place in the divine structure. (p.73) [In some sense God marries off his beloved daughter to Israel every week.]

God’s Bride. In another source (Leviticus Rabbah 27:10) it is God who is wed to Shabbat. To use the midrashic simile, Shabbat is God’s beloved Queen, the King’s Matrona’or “Lady.” (p.103)

The Holy One ushered in the princess of the Sabbath [sarat ha-Shabbat, in the feminine!] and sat her on His Throne of Glory [i.e., alongside Him]. He brought before her each and every prince of each and every firmament and lower expanse. They danced [meraqqedin] and exulted before [the Sabbath] and said: Shabbat hi’ la-YHVH: “The Sabbath, she is the Lord’s” [Lev. 23:3]….The Holy One even lifted up Adam to the heights of the highest heavens la-sos u-le-sammeah be-simhatah shel Shabbat, to regale her and rejoice in the Sabbath’s joy. (Seder Rabba di-Vreshit sec. 852) (p.104)

By implication, the Sabbath is God’s Queen and Bride. Her ascent to the Throne clearly marks her coronation alongside Him, while key phrases subtly evoke a wedding: Shabbat is called “the Lord’s,” surely a cipher for marriage. Moreover, the angelic dancing (meraqqedin) brings to mind the Talmudic phrase keizad meraqqedin lifnei ha-kallah—“how does one dance before the bride”—(TB Ketubot 16a), even as the terms la-sos u-le-sammeah and maon shel simhah—site of the supernal rejoicing—echo the phraseology of the traditional nuptial benedictions – Sheva Barchot (TB Ketubot 8a).

Rescuing and Reuniting the Bride with her Beloved.

Moshe de Leon [author of the Zohar] in his boundless mythic imagination, developed the Sabbath into a three-fold mystical drama embracing:
(i) Shekhinah/Shabbat’s liberation from Her entanglement in the demonic forces of Sitra’ ‘Ahra’ (the Other Side), suggestively symbolized as the six profane days,
(ii) Her marriage/reunion with Her lover, the Holy One, and
(iii) Their coronation and attirement in garments of divine light. (p.102)

Shekhinah, the tenth sefirah is depicted in a state of Exile which is periodically overcome. The goal of intradivine life is union, the end of fragmentation and separation. Redemption signifies a return to the world of Creation, the continual coupling of the masculine and feminine potencies. (p.107)

…Before the wedding can take place, Shekhinah must be liberated from her Exile amidst the profane weekly forces, most radically symbolized as Sitra’ ‘Ahra’. Influenced by the Castilian ‘Gnostics,’ Moshe de Leon introduced a kind of dualist tension into the Sabbath-drama not found in earlier thirteenth century writings.

In this view, sefirotic union is the culmination of Shekhinah’s transformation or restoration. By focusing on the twin myths of Liberation and Union, de Leon has shifted the theological focus to the Shekhinah. Poised between worlds, Her status serves as an index for the state of the Cosmos and, by implication, for the state of the Jew….

The Zohar …portrays this transformation in highly pictorial language: during the week, when She is among profane or demonic forces, Shekhinah is said to be like a closed rose, but on Shabbat, She “opens to receive spices and fragrances”—a reference to Her union with Tif’eret—“and to give souls and joy to Her children.” During the week, Malkhut is called “the closed womb.” And in allusion to the Bride in Song of Songs (4:12), “the locked garden, the sealed spring”; on Shabbat She opens to meet Her lover. During the week, She is called “Fear”; on Shabbat “Love.” During the week she is in niddah (the time of menstrual ‘impurity’) and hence, “off-limits to Her Husband”; but on Shabbat, separation is overcome and the two lovers reunite. (p.115-116)

Preparing the Huppah and the Bridal Dress – A Jew’s Privileged Task

Through the drama of Shabbat the Bride is re-integrated in the divine world and the cosmos placed under a sacred Canopy. In a striking image, fashioned by Moses Cordovero from Zoharic sources, the newly configured divine world is seen as if within a huppah:

The entire divine emanation [of ten sefirot] is likened to a Wedding Canopy….Keter is the awning….And Hokhmah, its walls; Binah is the entry and Hesed, Gevyrah, Nezah and Hod are like the poles that support it; Tif’eret and Malkhut are the Groom and Bride underneath the canopy, ushered in by Yesod, the attendant. (Pardes Rimmonim: Gate 23). (p.116

R. David Ben Judah carried bridal imagery into the week. The weekday morning prayers comprising the Yozer serve as a mystical bedecking of the Bride, a means of arraying Her in angelic garments. …“Each word.” R. David wrote, “forms a garment for the Bride.” … On Shabbat …the expanded format [of prayers] esoterically indicates that She is now bedecked in multi-layered holy raiment …

During the week She wears special garments, but on Shabbat She wears layered and thoroughly lovely garments, with many folds, raiment of the supernal Kingdom. For on Shabbat, the mystery of the Upper World…(p.120)

(6) Performing the Wedding Ceremony of the Shekhinah
by Reciting and Reinterpreting the Traditional Friday Night Prayers of Shabbat

[In Kabbalat Shabbat] the Bride is welcomed into the devotee’s hearth and home, and Her numinous presence felt:
The Holy Bride is ushered into Israel’s abode, to be in their midst, as the Sabbath begins. (Zohar 3:300b-301a)

The opening Friday night prayer, the Barekhu, marks the completion of the Bride/Queen’s nuptial preparations and Her incipient union with Her mate. As the Sabbath begins, Shekhinah enters the divine Palace. She is escorted both by Her angels on high–Those supernal maidens who…decorate matronita’ [the royal woman] and escort Her in the presence of the King (2:131b).

And by Israel below. As the people break forth into prayer, they crown Her and so, adorn Her for the royal wedding:

She is crowned from below by the holy people….They bless Her with joy and beaming faces, reciting the prayer: “Barekhu ‘eT YHWH ha-mevorakh, Bless ‘eT [Shekhinah] YHWH [Tif’eret], the blessed One, “…blessing Her first. (2:135a-b)

According to the Zohar, the mystical meaning of this prayer is that Israel must attend to the Shekhinah’s renewed perfection [tikkun] on Shabbat. By reciting this prayer, Israel attests to this perfection and initiates Her union with the King. (E.Ginsburg, Sabbath in Classical Kabbalah p.113)

Many Kabbalists located the mystery of sacred marriage in the evening prayers that followed. The author of the Qanah/Peli’ah called the whole service qiddushei ‘ishah, – the Shekhinah’s betrothal and consecration (Peli’ah 36b). Other adepts focused on specific sections of the prayers. The “Standing Prayer” or ‘Amidah was said to constitute a mystical wedding ceremony, its seven benedictions paralleling the seven traditional nuptial blessings. Most commonly the Kabbalists would focus on the ‘Amidah’s middle benediction ‘Attah Qiddashta, [“You have sanctified”] inserted expressly for Shabbat. Their interpretations are based on the double meaning of the root QDSH, indicating both sanctification and betrothal. Israel betrothes Bride to Groom through reciting the prayer and more generally, through sanctifying the Sabbath.

The following passage from the ‘Or Zaru’a of David ben Judah he-Hasid illustrates this well:
‘Attah Kiddashta: “Your sanctified [the seventh day].” We now betroth the Sabbath day, the Diadem [Malkhut]. She is the exalted and lovely Bride, resplendent in Her beauty. She is the Bride of the King, the Lord of Hosts who approaches Her to enter into the supernal union each Shabbat. So we must betroth Her and bring Her to the supernal Kiddushin [here, both wedding and sanctification], [showering] Her with light, hues and the luminosity of the supernal world. (EG p.117-118)

In facilitating the Divine marriage that occurs at the entrance of Shabbat, human beings earn the neshama yetera, the additional spiritual soul as a crown and as a partner.

She is crowned below by the holy people,
and all of them are crowned with new souls. -Zohar 2:135a-135b

However one should not misunderstand the Jew’s intimate relationship with the Divine and with the spiritual soul as a competition with the earthly love of husband and wife. Precisely, our Shabbat love making reflects and engenders the Divine union celebrated in L’cha Dodi!

My Own Bride: the Shabbat Observer’s Own Marriage to the Divine Shabbat Kallah

The exaltation that the devotee experiences on Shabbat is indicated in relational symbolism as spiritual marriage. Not only can he become the shoshevin or bridal attendant of the Shekhinah, but he may – in some scenarios – become the spouse of divinity. He may be a groom unto the Bride … or more traditionally, a bride betrothed unto God. (p.286)

The Spanish Kabbalist Joseph Giqatilia wrote:
On Shabbat one leaves the realm of the Profane and enters the Holy Palace to stand before the blessed Name. For his soul is wed unto God. (p.287)

[However one should not misunderstand the Jew’s intimate relationship with the Divine and with the spiritual soul as a competition with the earthly love of husband and wife. Precisely, our Shabbat love making reflects and engenders the Divine union celebrated in L’cha Dodi!]

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