One of the most beautiful moments in the week is the time, late Friday afternoon, when the work week is finally ending and Shabbat is about to begin. It is, for those of us who take Shabbat at all seriously, a special, spiritual mystical time. It is a moment when we can feel enveloped, not by the worries and cares of everyday life, but by the peace and security of God’s protection and God’s loving gift to us, a day of rest, family and prayer. It is not unlike the feeling of pulling a blanket up to our chin on a cold night.
There are two rituals in particular that we can use to make this moment even more special. One, of course, is the lighting and blessing of Shabbat candles, introducing a sacred light into our homes. The other is the synagogue service, between the Friday afternoon service and Shabbat Ma’ariv (the evening service).
Kabbalat Shabbat means the welcoming, receiving or accepting of Shabbat. Think of the sign at the front desk of an Israeli hotel except that we are the hosts and Shabbat is the welcome guest. It is a service where we can enter a Shabbat mood and make it ours. It reflects, in its texts, awe love and joy.
The Kabbalat Shabbat service is introduced by a lovely hymn called Yedid Nefesh, Dear Friend Of My Soul. It addresses a loving, compassionate parental God as one’s soul-mate. Its lyrics speak of love, protection healing and warmth. One of the song’s main themes is light, not only physical light but the light of love, of God’s grace. It is sung, as I know it, to a gentle, sweet, soothing melody, evocative of a parent hugging and soothing a child.
The next part of the Kabbalat Shabbat consists of six psalms, representing the six days of creation. Each of these psalms (95, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 29) urges us to sing praises to God as a majestic ruler and sovereign Who, even in Gods great might, rules with justice, compassion and mercy. The psalms are sometimes recited quietly and sometimes sung out loud. The melodies I have heard are joyous and triumphant. Taken as a whole they convey and instill as sense of awe and of gratitude towards God.
These six psalms are followed by a song called L’cha Dodi, Come My Beloved. L’cha dodi is an amazing song. It composed, according to tradition and the initial letters of its first eight verses, by a man named Shlomo Ha’Levi, a sixteenth century mystic in the city of Tsfat. L’cha Dodi is a joyous entreaty to welcome the Sabbath as a beloved bride, as a source of beauty, light and radiance. The beloved (Dodi) addressed seems to have several identities. Sometimes it feels like the singer id addressing God; sometime his or her own beloved and sometimes Shabbat, as a bride, herself. It ends up feeling like a high-spirited celebration of a loving marriage among God, Israel and Shabbat. (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals has a lovely introduction to L’cha Dodi on page 21).
As the week concludes with a seventh day, so Kabbalat Shabbat concludes with a seventh psalm, known as “A Song For The Sabbath Day”. It tells us “it is good to acclaim God” to sing praised to our loving, protecting, and nurturing creator. By the time Kabbalat Shabbat is completed and Ma’ariv is about to begin we find ourselves in (to paraphrase Billy Joel) a Shabbat state of mind. May every Shabbat be Shabbat filled with shalom, love and joy