Shabbat was not born a woman; she became a woman, a bride and queen, through a complex and wondrous cultural process that exacted a price. The disparity between Shabbat as a desired woman and flesh-and- blood womanhood displaced and marginalized the latter. Contemporary poetry by women offers a different framing for women to relate to Shabbat and a refreshing way of thinking about Shabbat within our culture and our lives.
How did Shabbat become a Woman?
In the Hebrew language, nouns are gendered masculine or feminine. The Scriptural record is inconsistent about the gender of the word “Shabbat”. The Rabbis, however, determined the femininity of the Sabbath, and not only as a matter of grammar: “Rabbi Caninah would wrap himself [in a cloak] on Shabbat eve and say: ‘Let us go forth to greet the queen, Shabbat.’ Rabbi Yannai would dress up on Shabbat eve and say: ‘Come O bride! Come O bride!” (BT Shabbat 119a)
This romance with Shabbat remained ever-present in the internal Jewish grammar and emerged in its full glory 1,300 years later in the “Kabbalat Shabbat” liturgy developed by the Safed Kabbalists – a renewal of marriage vows that quickly spread throughout the Jewish people. At the heart of the ceremony is the refrain: “Go forth, beloved, to greet the bride.” Another three centuries go by, and secular Zionism rebels against traditional Shabbat observance and “makes its own Shabbat.” Yet we still find the Shabbat queen/bride in its canonic songs. In Yehoshua Rabinov’s “Shabbat Descended” (Yardah HaShabbat), for example: “Shabbat descended on the Valley of Ginosar, with an ancient scent at the edge of her garment.” The blatant eroticism of “Shabbat kissed the head of the cypress” merges, at the end of the song, with the rejuvenation of the Valley of Ginosar,” which becomes “the spirit of exalted Hebraism.” Here, within a secular space, a special quality that brings together the erotic, the sublime, and the religious is preserved.
The Real Cost of the Metaphor
The likening of Shabbat to a woman anticipating her marriage expresses a powerful theological, spiritual, and cultural concept. Shabbat took a multifaceted shape that remains foundational to the realities of our lives today. It is not just a matter of reciting Kabbalat Shabbat or bowing in greeting at “Come, O bride!” In Israel, stands pop up on Friday to sell flowers – like bridal bouquets – for Shabbat. In nursery schools, ceremonial white tablecloths are spread out to welcome Shabbat. The tranquility of the public sphere and the muted tones of radio broadcasts as the sun sets on Fridays resonate deeply with Rabbi Hanina’s call: “Let us go forth to greet the queen, Shabbat.” In other words, theology has founded a real-life existence spanning centuries, from Rabbi Yannai’s day until ours.
This cultural element draws its strength from the social sphere and the roles it assigns to men and women, which has heavy costs, while simultaneously utilizing heterosexual attraction, desire, and love as its driving metaphor. Its power is eternally relevant. I emphasize that this relationship with Shabbat is full of romance, devotion, longing, and love. From this angle, it is no wonder that the metaphor was so deeply internalized and remains so attractive.
Yet the transformation of Shabbat into a desired woman took its toll on the place of actual women vis-a-vis the longed-for Shabbat. In the next sections, I will show, by means of three different texts, how relating to Shabbat as a woman pushed real women aside, by differentiating between the holy woman, Shabbat, and earth-bound mothers and housewives, who remain backstage.
The first text is from Shivhei HaAri, a collection of stories about Rabbi Isaac Luria and his circle of 16th-century mystics in Safed:
Once, on Friday evening, before the entry of the bride, Rabbi [Luria] and his disciples went out of the city of Safed, dressed in four white garments […] to greet Shabbat. They began, “A psalm of David: Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty” [Psalms 29:1]. As they were singing, the rabbi said to his disciples: “Friends, shall we go to Jerusalem before Shabbat and spend Shabbat in Jerusalem?” Jerusalem is more than 25 parasangs from Safed. Several disciples responded: “We agree.” Some responded: “We will first go notify our wives, and then we will go [to Jerusalem].” The rabbi then trembled in fear, clapped his hands, and said: “Alas! We were not worthy of redemption. Because you refused this, exile has returned to us in this world. Had you unanimously responded that you agree to go joyfully, all of Israel would have been redeemed immediately, for this moment was ripe for redemption!”
Rabbi Luria and his disciples leave the city on the eve of Shabbat, just as the “bride” makes her entry. He invites them to spend Shabbat in Jerusalem – that is, to take a leap of faith and miraculously cover 25 parasangs in an instant, for travel is forbidden on Shabbat. The disciples fail this test of faith when they say, ““We will first go notify our wives, and then we will go.” Their statement is interpreted as cowardice, as an inability to let go of this world and give themselves over to the mystical, to go to the bride. The opportunity for redemption is missed.
In this image, Shabbat, the bride in whose honor they wear white, sing, and rejoice, is placed in opposition to “our wives,” the real women waiting for their husbands to return from their prayers. Devotion to real, earth- bound wives symbolizes material existence and exile.
Shabbat not only replaces real women as objects of desire, but even reinforces their wretchedness, the hopelessness of their trivial, material actions. They drag their husbands down toward the mundane and routine and make them cower in the face of spiritual boldness. It goes without saying that this reflects their social status and the position of women in the community, where they take no part in the sacred.
The story about Rabbi Luria is not the only one that expresses this bifurcation of the feminine. Our second text was composed by Shmuel Bass in 1960 and has been one of the best-known Israeli nursery rhymes for decades. Here is a rendering of its opening lines:
Soon it will descend to us –
the good Sabbath day (yom shabbat hatov) In its honor (lichvodo), mother will prepare abundant treats
Come come (bo-e, bo-e) O blessed one / Shabbat day, O day of rest!
Please come, please come / O queen!
In the first two lines, “Shabbat” is treated as a masculine word, but then, in the next two lines, it is inflected to the feminine. Why? The central human figure in the song is the flesh-and-blood mother toiling to prepare the Shabbat meals. In the composer’s eyes, it was not possible that the mother was cooking in honor of another woman – Shabbat – so he chose the masculine inflection. Once the woman has finished her preparations for the man, the song reverts to the familiar, feminine Shabbat, calling out “come, come” (in the feminine case) like Rabbi Yannai, and calling Shabbat a queen, like Rabbi Haninah. In other words, this song echoes the disparity between the real woman who toils in honor of Shabbat and the bride to whom the man comes forth, the bride to whom Rabbi Luria calls on his disciples to devote themselves.
I am not claiming a conspiracy; presumably, this choice was wholly unconscious. But it is precisely this lack of awareness that shows how durable the idea of assigned gender roles is, and how tragic the disparity between the desired woman and the flesh-and-blood woman. The same conflict, between Shabbat and a real woman, appears slightly differently in our third text, a midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:16): When Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s mother would chat excessively on Shabbat, he would to say to her, “Today is Shabbat,” and she would be silent.
Rabbi Shimon wishes to fulfill the Sages’ interpretation of the words of the prophet: “If you call Shabbat ׳delight,’ the Lord’s holy day ‘honored’; and if you honor it and go not your ways nor look to your affairs, nor speak of matters” (Isaiah 58:13).
In their interpretation, “your speech on Shabbat should not be like your speech during the week; one should not say, ‘I will do such-and-such thing tomorrow.’” Out of concern for the honor of Shabbat, Rabbi Shimon silences his mother, who acquiesces immediately. Perhaps she closed her mouth because she agreed with him or was afraid of him. Perhaps she was proud of her son, the Torah scholar. But has this story ever been read as a criticism of Rabbi Shimon? We see an elderly woman who simply wanted to talk to her son on Shabbat. Her son’s terse response relates to their shared commitment to Jewish law and their prioritization of Shabbat over the mother’s needs. Nevertheless, here, too, a real woman – and the obligation to honor one’s mother – is ignored. We now place family at the center of the Shabbat experience, so the Shabbat of this midrash is a different Shabbat, a Shabbat of longing that has nothing to do with family-centeredness.
Israeli Women “Write Shabbat”
For centuries, women did not participate in the world of the beit midrash or in Jewish creativity more generally. Rachel Elior put it best when she said that from Deborah the Prophetess to Deborah Baron there was (almost) no woman who wrote a book in Hebrew. In other words, the portrait of Shabbat that I have painted thus far is linked to the fact that only men articulated its character, from their perspective, expressing their desires and in light of their view of intimacy. What happens to Shabbat when women write about it? What does their perspective add or change?
Over the past fifty years, women have written poems about Shabbat. Their writing both reflects and causes change. In what follows, I will relate to several poems that offer a model that is not that of a man longing for the feminine Shabbat. While studying the poems, we will ask what has been lost and enriched in the new Shabbat, which is being developed in a different voice.
Accepting Shabbat (Kabbalat Shabbat), Agi Mishol
F&%k that stain of kindness
That spreads from my chest Into the world.
I don’t give a damn about the Shabbat queen.
Along with all her cousins
And the chicken in the oven
And my father and my mother
And my husbands and my kids and the mother-in-law (sun-חמה)
That has finally disappeared
From the treetops.
I begin with this poem because it expresses the first feminist reaction: rage, tearing the the mask off Shabbat, exposing the toil that goes on daily behind the curtain and the transparent, Sisyphean activities that are completely devoid of spirituality or exaltedness. Mishol’s poem is full of humor, yet is sophisticated and cuts deeply. It takes all the exalted places of Shabbat and throws them down to the ground of reality: the warm embrace of family appears in the poem in the words “And my husbands and my kids and the mother-in-law/sun (חמה).” The pluriform “husbands” neutralizes any marital intimacy, as though the husbands are just more people to take care of, like the kids, and the kids are additional “masters,” like the husband (the Hebrew word for “husband”, “ba’al,” can also mean “master” or “owner”). Moreover, the word “chamah” (which can mean “sun” or “mother- in-law”), is initially understood to mean the latter.
It is only the next line that shows it to be an obvious parody of Bialik’s poem, “the sun has disappeared from the treetops” (נסתלקה האלינות מראש החמה). All the familial complications that are present in the relationship between a mother-in-law and daughter- in-law (the Hebrew word for which is “kallah” – same as the word for “bride”) overshadows the joy of the daughter-in-law/bride and her groom. The “cousins” of the Shabbat queen, her “b’nei dodim,” hark back to the refrain, “go forth, my beloved” (Lekhah Dodi).
The petit-bourgeoisie family-centeredness symbolized by the chicken in the oven is grating and suffocating. I tentatively suggest that the profanity that opens the poem is a caricature of kabbalistic eroticism, as well as an expression of what happens when eroticism encounters the annoyances and frustrations of daily existence.
The Kabbalat Shabbat of the poem’s title, which is supposed to indicate spiritual exaltation and yearning for the sublime, is transformed into an oppressive burden, into a pretense that is thoroughly exposed through sharp humor. This poem gives voice and perspective to the wives of Rabbi Luria’s disciples, waiting for their husbands to return from prayers.
After the anger, without the nuclear and extended family and the work they generate, there emerges the possibility for a woman to sense a Shabbat of her own. Rachel Shapira writes lyrics that are saturated with Shabbat-spirit, titled “Shabbat in your Heart”:
Shabbat in your Heart
(Shabbat be-libekh), Rachel Shapira
Twilight quietly descends / it is soon Shabbat / in your heart
The long week / slowly, slowly / slips off your shoulders.
You ask what you’ve repaired / and what remains broken still
And which of your actions, daughter / should be forgotten / as the sun goes down?
From whence comes this blessing / what is your power / what in you does not back down from darkness / as the sun goes down / from whence comes the blessing…?
This composition is likewise woven from various sources that link it to Shabbat. The words “from whence comes the blessing?” echo those of Lekhah Dodi: “for she is the source of blessing”; “the sun going down” reminds us of the sun that disappears from the treetops; the same Shabbat that descended on Ginosar descends here with the quiet twilight. Even echoes of the nursery rhyme are present: “Soon it will descend to us – the Sabbath day, so sweet” – “it is soon Shabbat in your heart.”
Thus, the lyrics resonate with all the meanings of Shabbat in Israeli culture, but it also tells a different story. Shabbat, in these verses, is a time of ingathering, of compassionate introspection: “What in you does not back down from darkness / as the sun goes down / from whence comes the blessing…?” Shabbat permits the removal of emotional darkness and invites women to be self-sufficient. The words contain the cautious promise that blessing is to be found. As in Lekhah Dodi, Shabbat is the “source of blessing.”
But what is the meaning of the dialogue in these stanzas? Who says, “It is soon Shabbat in your heart”? It could of course be an internal dialogue, but the voice of the mother is also heard here, asking: “And which of your actions, daughter / should be forgotten / as the sun goes down?” Is Shabbat the mother, the woman who is no longer the object of desire but a mature mother? Or perhaps the power of this poem lies in the symbiosis of three feminine figures: the speaker, Shabbat, and the mother?
From this perspective, this lyric provides a partial answer to Mishol’s poem – it attests to what is left of Shabbat once all the “feminine” duties are removed. It now becomes clear: It is not the isolation of a woman in search of a man, but the fullness of existence of a woman whose mother and Shabbat, jointly and separately, are in the recesses of her soul.
These two poems offer an alternative to the Shabbat shaped by men. However, it seems that even the male-female eroticism of Shabbat changes when it is described from a woman’s perspective. In a poem by Sivan Har-Shefi, both he and she are present within Shabbat, which reflects – and is responsive to – a more complex and harmonious eroticism:
A Delicate Balance
(Izun Adin), Sivan Har-Shefi
That only I can bring in
That only you can lead out
Holding two lamps.
But at its end, they become one
Two wicks in one lamp
For a new beginning.
And at the beginning we were Janus-faced
The world was suspended by a
Now two spinal columns
Hold up a home
And when I bend a bit,
And when you do, a delicate balance.
Har-Shefi’s poem speaks in a feminine voice that has marital intimacy and the home at its center. The two Shabbat lamps or candles appear as the central pillars (“columns”) of the house in a childlike schematic drawing. Shabbat heralds the spiritual movement of one to the other; as Shabbat begins, the candles are separate, and at the end, the wicks are interwoven in a single Havdalah candle. The roles are complementary; the woman brings Shabbat in, and the man ends it by separating the sacred from the profane.
The poem boldly uses the expression “two wicks in one lamp,” which originates as a Talmudic metaphor for an affair involving a married woman (BT Gittin 58a). Har-Shefi shatters the association of the lamp – the receptacle for the oil – as feminine and the wicks with the masculine. Instead, the two wicks are he and she, a couple whose light is kindled by the sanctity of Shabbat. Gone is the competition between Shabbat and the real woman, as the intimate relationship of marriage is built up through Shabbat. This portrait of mutual need is reinforced by means of an allusion to a familiar, Platonic portrait of Adam, the first human: “When the Holy One created the first human, He created him two-faced, and then cut him in half and made two backs – a back for this side and a back for that side” (Genesis Rabbah 8:1). In this poem, masculinity and femininity oscillate between tenderness and power, between spinal cords and melting candles. This movement is what enables the delicate balance that manages to reinforce masculine and feminine roles within an egalitarian portrayal, anchored in Shabbat.
I think that Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poem, “Delight,” is the boldest of all Shabbat poems by women. The poem veers away from the personal, the social, and the religious to describe the fullness of an existence drenched by the mystical, bursting forth from the self to the divine and seeking to tell about it.
Dahlia Ravikovitch (translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)
There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might
Round and round like a river streamed the light
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day.
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray
It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
This poem describes remarkable exultation, filled with the ecstasy implicit in the word “delight.” This word “delight” expresses a palpable desire for the sublime, experienced in the spirit and in the flesh: “And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.” Exultation, momentary fullness, an implied orgasm that is woven with the enigmatic language that is entirely Shabbat.
The poem contains the linear, phallic movement of the tree boughs, which lust and reach for the sky, complemented by the circularity of the orange, the lilies, the mouths poised to swallow, the movement of the light. These circles are “gaping,” “swallowing,” and “insatiable,” anthropomorphized as a female nymphomaniacally driven to swallow everything. The masculine and feminine thus extend beyond the human, and merge, together with all of nature, in a blend of realism and mysticism: Rivers and ripples, bushes and reeds, trees and oranges.
In contrast to “Shabbat descended,” in which the Sea of Galilee, Ginosar, and the Golan Mountains are a vital presence, the experience described here can happen anywhere; from this perspective, it is universal. Still, the marking of sacred time locates the mystical experience of the poem, which is fundamentally universal, within a Jewish context. The poem in the original Hebrew emphasizes that the Sabbath is “the seventh day,” and that only it can enable this experience of wonder.
Bringing our discussion full circle, this poem abandons the femininity of Shabbat. It appears not as a feminine figure but as a time period, which is gendered masculine. The speaker is a woman, and the man is identified with divine light.
In a world where only men set the cycle of holidays, only men write about it, and only men shape its rituals, Shabbat becomes a rich and fertile channel of creativity, but one that is limited, because it expresses only the perspective of men. When women participate in the discourse, the channel changes course. Numerous tributaries with different directions and courses – but which originate in the same sources – flow into it.
We have seen how the Shabbat poetry of women expresses feminine mystical experience, rage and frustration, an inner, spiritual presence, and marital harmony. These are but a few examples of the new facets of Shabbat that have been articulated. Gender plays an important role in our identities and culture. In each generation, masculinity and femininity are charged with meanings that are deemed essential but are actually flexible and fluid. The tension between the vitality and fluidity of gender characteristics is an amazing cultural resource, and the addition of the feminine poetic voice is an excellent example of the power unleashed when gender roles become more fluid.
If we invert our perspective, we can see that even if our mothers prepared “abundant treats,” this was not the only possibility. The early Rabbis prepared food for Shabbat: Rabbi Safra seared meat; Rava pickled fish; Rabbi Huna lit candles (Kiddushin 41a). Women in synagogues serenade and greet the Shabbat bride, as though they are the grooms, and were a man to declaim the poem of Rachel Shapira, it would be understood as speaking in the voice of a father, not a mother. Who knows? Perhaps the masculine portrayal of Shabbat can still be recovered.
This discussion of the dynamic relationship between the mythic and the real, between the mystical and the mundane, shows how sociology and theology can nourish and influence one another in various realms of our lives. Reality changes, so we think about God differently. Our theology, and its mythic underpinnings, are altered, and by weaving new ideas from ancient words, it once again can provide the ground of our reality. Cultural creativity mediates between the old words and the new social context in which it operates.
There is no need, then, to oppose the eros of the Shabbat bride and her groom. Its intimacy, longings, warmth, and devotion still nourish Shabbat each week. Rather, broadening the metaphor, making it more flexible, and placing other models alongside it can provide a vital and authentic response for our lives today.
Precisely because the struggle over Shabbat in Israel today can seem like a zero-sum game, it is important to offer a model for healthy cultural development – one that does not dismiss the rich past, but that builds on it. This opens new possibilities and invites those whose voices have never before been heard into the community. It is precisely because Shabbat permeates every level of our culture – our schools, our families, the public square, personal observance, and spiritual experience – and that we have access to the riches of Jewish culture, that we, men and women alike, are privileged to play a role in shaping the personal and familial, communal and national Shabbat of our day.
Find a pdf of this essay here.