Thoughts on L'cha Dodi
It is not always clear how or when most prayers came into our Siddur. For the most part, our liturgy goes back a millennium and half or more. While we find some hints in the ancient rabbinic teachings, we don't have a lot of information about their origins. However, when it comes to the section of our Friday evening worship known as Kabbalat Shabbat, the Welcoming of the Sabbath, we seem to have much more information since, relatively speaking, these prayers were introduced fairly recently, going back only to the 16th century.
“Kabbalat Shabbat” has a technical meaning. While Shabbat begins at sunset, one can accept the restrictions of Shabbat upon oneself during a brief period prior to sunset. The rabbis indicate what actions or prayers might represent “kabbalat shabbat,” accepting Shabbat for yourself. For example, when a woman lights the Shabbat candles, usually at least 18 minutes prior to Shabbat, she thereby accepts the restrictions of Shabbat upon herself from that moment on. For others, the recital of the Psalm for Shabbat, Psalm 92, indicates that they have accepted Shabbat. However, Kabbalat Shabbat can also mean greeting Shabbat personified as the Sabbath Bride or Sabbath Queen. We find in the Talmud (Shabbat 119a) Rabbi Hanina would put on his coat on the eve of Shabbat and announce “Let us go out and greet the Sabbath Queen”. Likewise, Rabbi Yanai would get dressed up and go out on the eve of Shabbat and call out, “Come, O Bride. Come, O Bride.”
In the 16th century Kabbalistic center of Safed, the Kabbalists decided to act out this drama each week. They would literally go out into the fields to greet Shabbat before sunset each Friday evening. They would recite six Psalms, one for each day of the workday week, then sing a song of welcome to Shabbat. It seems that there were several versions of the L'cha Dodi hymn that we know today. At the conclusion of this song, they would turn toward the west, to the setting sun, and echoing Rabbi Yanai, call out, “Boi kala, Boi kala, come, O Bride, come, O Bride.' This section would end with the recital of Psalms 92 and 93, the Psalms of the Sabbath Day.
This newly minted tradition began to spread over time, though as with most new customs there was some resistance to adding this material to the evening service. Others though were quick to embrace it. In some traditional congregations, I visited in Israel, there Is a remnant of that reluctance to embrace this tradition fully. I noticed that the person who leads the Kabbalat Shabbat does not stand at the regular podium of the reader. Rather it is customary to lead this section from the bimah, from the Torah reading table. After concluding Kabbalat Shabbat, the reader comes down from that bimah and walks over to the regular reader's stand, puts on his tallit, and continues with the evening prayers in the usual place.
Rabbi Issachar Jacobson in his multivolume work on Jewish liturgy, Netiv Binah, reprints one of the alternative versions of L'cha Dodi that was recited in some communities. This version focuses on past history and the redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery. To my mind, it is lacking the power and energy of the version that was ultimately accepted as the L'cha Dodi that we all know. It is interesting though to note that the opening stanza and one of the last stanzas are very similar to our traditional version and may have been adapted into the later poem.
“Our” L'cha Dodi was written by Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (1505-c.1584), a Kabbalist of the school of the famous teacher, Rabbi Isaac Luria, better known as the Ari. Born in Salonika, Alkabetz arrived in Safed in 1535 and was recognized as a great scholar among many great scholars of that era. You can still visit Rabbi Shlomo's gravesite at the cemetery on the hillside of Safed to this day. Apparently, the Ari gave his stamp of approval to this version of the poem. We can still find Rabbi Shlomo's signature inscribed in the opening letters of each of the first eight stanzas, Shin, lamed, mem, hay, Shlomo. Hay, lamed, vav, yud, Halevi. If you had any doubt about this, the first stanza proves it, for originally, in the other version we find “Zachor v'shamor b'dibbur echad” (Remember and Observe [the Sabbath day] in a single word) while Alkabetz reverses the first two words to get a Shin at the beginning of the line for Shlomo, “Shamor v'zachor b'dibur echad.” (Observe and Remember in a single word),
The poem has echoes of the biblical love poetry of the Song of Songs and indeed, as in so much of the Kabbalistic literature, it uses erotic images to describe the relationship of God to Israel or to Shabbat, and in the Kabbalistic system the union of the sefirah, the divine emanation, of Tiferet, which is known by the four-letter name of God, to the Shechinah, the Divine Presence. Shabbat is seen as a time for the union and consummation of the deep love of God for His people and the union of the elements of divinity within the upper spheres.
One sees in this prayer the great love Alkabetz had for the land of Israel and Jerusalem and his longing for redemption, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the return of God's Presence to that holy site. No wonder the early Reformers in the 19th century, who were against the notion of returning to Zion, felt the need to edit this song greatly or remove it altogether from the early Reform prayerbooks. Not surprisingly, however, in the latest versions of the Reform liturgy, L'cha Dodi appears in its entirety reflecting the embrace of Zionism by the Reform Movement since the middle of the 20th century. Our sages described Shabbat as a foretaste of the world to come, a symbol of the ultimate redemption. Thus the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat look to a future perfected world and L'cha Dodi is a celebration of that ultimate day which is described as a day entirely of Shabbat and rest (yom shekulo Shabbat umenuchah).
The refrain which we sing between the verses is “L:cha dodi likrat kalah, come my beloved to greet the bride, p'nei Shabbat n'kablah, to welcome the presence of Shabbat.” The second phrase is a direct quote of Rabbi Hanina from the passage in theTalmud. The big question is “who is Dodi, the beloved in this prayer?” As our rabbis read Song of Songs, the beloved there is identified as God and His Raya, his companion, Is seen as the people Israel. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and others take our verse as a personal invitation to God to join us in our observance of Shabbat, as we welcome the bride.
Redemption is the main topic of this hymn, however. Of its nine stanzas, six describe that redemption, the ultimate Shabbat, while the other three fulfill the task of welcoming the current Shabbat for this week. The six stanzas on redemption provide a progression that gradually unfolds from the warmth of God's compassion to the rise of the holy city, the rebuilding of the Temple, the embrace of God and Israel, and the welcoming of the Messiah, described as ben Partzi, the son of Peretz, King David's ancestor. Each stanza has four lines, the first three all rhyme and all of the fourth lines end with the syllable -lah, allowing Craig Taubman to create a whimsical version of the song ending each verse with lah-lah-lah-lah-lah-lah-lah.
Taubman is only one of countless composers who have created settings for L'cha Dodi, joyful or solemn, fast-paced or stately. I try to vary the melody each Shabbat among the several versions with which I'm familiar. Indeed, each Shabbat's welcome has its distinctive character including the more somber version last Shabbat prior to the fast of Tisha B'Av, when we sang L'cha Dodi to the melody of the closing elegy of the service on this fast day, Eli Tziyon.
In the opening narrative of Genesis in which we read our ancient story of Creation concluding with the seventh day on which God ceases His labors and sanctifies that holy day, “Ki vo shavat mikol m'lachto asher bara Elohim la'asot,” “For on it He ceased from all His labor which God had created to be done.” That last word, la'asot, sometimes taken to mean all that God had created and done, is really a challenge to us all as we realize that God purposely created a world in which each of us has a task to perform in order to complete the work of Creation. As the Slonimer Rebbe explained, if we did not have a purpose to fulfill, God would not have bothered to create us. Each Shabbat as we rest from the previous week's work, it is a time for us to renew our spirits and prepare to go forth after havdalah to take up our responsibilities for perfecting this world and bringing about that day entirely of Shabbat and rest. L'cha Dodi urges us to go forward, to shake off the dust, to rise up and do our part to make this a better world.