Thoughts on Yedid Nefesh
Continuing with my college days reminiscences from last week, following my sophomore year living in the Jewish Residence House at the University of Pennsylvania, I spent my junior year studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After a few weeks of the Ulpan in which we picked up some additional Hebrew that might help us better understand terminology that might come up in the classroom as well as providing us with some support in reading the daily newspapers, particularly with their assortment of military and diplomatic language, we needed to find a place to live for the year. A friend from Penn and two other fellows we met in the Ulpan got together and rented a basement apartment in the Rechavia section of Jerusalem owned by the same people who ran the Rimon Restaurant downtown. Though we were on one of the main bus lines, we were actually within walking distance of the University’s Givat Ram campus, more or less, as well as conveniently close to the center of the city and many places in between. As you might imagine, in a city with hundreds of synagogues and prayer gatherings, we had a wide variety of places to attend services for Shabbat and festivals, the closest was right across the street where you could get a bit of snuff along with your prayers. We did check out a number of different groups, each with its own traditions. Frequently on Friday nights, we ended up at Bet Hillel, the Hillel House service on Balfour Street, across from the official residence of the Foreign Minister, at that time, Abba Eban. (A few years later this house became the official residence of the Prime Minister.)
Bet Hillel had a very comfortable service and it was there, I believe, that I first became acquainted with the poem that I am focusing on this week, Yedid Nefesh. At Bet Hillel and at many other Israeli services, I later learned, it was customary, following the minchah service on Friday afternoon, for the congregation to sing Yedid Nefesh followed by a nigun (a wordless melody that went on for several minutes) before the designated prayer leader went over to the Torah reading table to lead Kabbalat Shabbat. The custom there, as elsewhere, was to lead this new-fangled service that was a mere 400 years old from the Torah table to indicate its “novelty” and then, a second leader would come forward and take his place at the regular reader’s stand to lead the ancient evening service, the Arvit. Yedid Nefesh was intended to set the proper tone as we transitioned from the weekday prayers into those of the holy Sabbath day. Some people saw this as a hymn celebrating the “neshamah yeterah,” the additional soul, which descends upon each Jew during the Sabbath day.
Yedid Nefesh is found in many traditional prayer books among the zemirot, the table songs, to be sung at the third meal of Shabbat, the Seudah Shelishit or Shalosh Seudot, referred to in popular language as “Shalasheudos.” In earlier times, it was expected that one normally had two meals each day, one at midday and another in the evening following the day of work. On Shabbat however, it is customary to have a third meal in the late afternoon. This is often a very light repast. In many synagogues nowadays, it may be just some herring or gefilte fish along with some crackers or cookies, served after the mincha service and prior to maariv as one waits for the sun to set and the stars to appear. I have frequently retold the story about the Shalosh Seudot that was served on the weekend I interviewed for my first rabbinic position in Dallas. In order to get ready for a wedding right after Shabbat, the caterer was told by the senior rabbi, that she could warm up food prepared before Shabbat that afternoon, provided some of it was served during Shabbat. The result was a prime rib dinner for Shalosh Seudot. I don’t recall that happening a second time, though we often ate quite well at that meal in Dallas which generally was sponsored by some congregant.
In many traditional prayer books, the zemirot are divided up among the three meals, though some folks pay little attention to this division and sing whichever songs strike their fancy at whichever meal they wish. However this sixteenth century poem by Rabbi Elazar Azikri (others suggest pronouncing the name as Azkari, and since there are no vowels to guide us, it is hard to know which is correct), is placed in the group designated for late afternoon, when perhaps one might feel a bit more spiritual as the day wanes and the sun begins to set.
Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri was born in Tzefat (Safed) in 1533 and was counted among the prominent rabbis of that era steeped in the mystical teachings of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, and others. He was among those rabbis who received the ancient rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Yakov Berav who was attempting to re-establish that tradition. Azikri is best known for his Sefer Haredim, a work on the commandments of the Torah incorporating mystical teachings and organized in accordance with the various parts of the human body to which each commandment was connected. At the end of this book, he included three piyyutim, liturgical poems, one of which was the Yedid Nefesh. It became very popular and was adopted first by the Sephardic community as one of their introductory prayers in the morning service, along with Adon Olam. Later, the Ashkenazic community also adopted the Yedid Nefesh into its liturgy. Rabbi Elazar died in 1600 in Tzefat and was buried close to the tomb of the Ari.
The original manuscript by Rabbi Elazar Azikri can be found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and that version appears in the Lev Shalem Siddur and others. However, a corrupted version that includes some significant changes in wording and many differences in grammar is much better known and is still the popular version sung in most traditional congregations and, surprisingly, that version appears as well in the back of the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefillah. The melody for this hymn that I heard sung at Bet Hillel is a very popular one, still sung in many congregations which fits the more traditional wording. In 1970, a lovely melody for the opening stanza was sung at the Hasidic Song Festival by Edna Lev and is still frequently heard. I recall another Israeli singer who sang that melody so movingly at a Rabbinical Assembly convention many years back (Chava Alberstein, maybe?) that I still feel drawn by her hand gestures whenever I hear that melody sung. In recent years, when I’ve incorporated this prayer into our Friday evening service, I use a beautiful melody I first heard from the Cantor at North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson Station, NY, during my year as interim rabbi for that congregation. It fits the original text perfectly. I know nothing of its origins, however. As with most of the traditional zemirot, as I mentioned in my piece on Yah Ribon, there are undoubtedly countless other melodies that have been proposed. The worst one that I turned up on Youtube sounds like a Country and Western version which I found kind of jarring, so I quickly moved on to another melody.
Each of the four stanzas of Yedid Nefesh begins with one of the letters of God’s unpronounceable name for which we generally substitute the name “Adonay,” yud, hey, vav, and hay. As with many of our prayers it is known by its opening words which are “yedid nefesh,” beginning with yud, translated in Lev Shalem as “Beloved of my soul.” I notice that the original version also appears in the Koren Siddur and Rabbi Sacks’s translation is similar, “Beloved of the soul.” The reference is supposed to be a Kabbalistic reference to the Shechinah, the lowest sefirah of the mystical system, an element which is often seen to be in exile along with the Jewish people and longs to be returned and reunited with the upper sefirot. So we begin the prayer with the words, “Beloved of my soul, compassionate father, Av HaRachaman, a term we find in several blessings in our daily prayers, draw me, Your servant to Your desire.” This image “m’shokh avdach el r’tzonach” and the words which follow, “yarutz avdach k’mo ayal,” “like a deer will Your servant run and fall prostrate before Your beauty” “yishtachaveh el mul hadarach,” is reminiscent of the fourth verse in the opening chapter of Song of Songs, “Moshkeini acharecha narutzah,” “Draw me after You, let us run.” (Koren) It was that image that became vivid for me when I watched the singer at the convention gesture as though something was pulling her forward. “Ki ye’erav lach yedidutach minofet tzuf v’chol ta’am,” “for I find Your love sweeter than honey or any delight.” (Lev Shalem).
As we continue into the second stanza, beginning with the letter hay, “Hadur, naeh, ziv ha-olam,” “Glorious, beautiful, radiance of the world.” The poet continues, “Nafshi cholat ahavatach,” “my soul is sick with love for You.” What is the proper remedy for this lovesickness? The poet quotes Moses’s prayer for healing his sister Miriam, “Ana, ‘El na r’fa na lah’” “Please ‘God, heal her now.’” and continues, “b’har’ot lah noam zivach,” “by showing her Your tender radiance” (Koren) or “by bathing her in Your serene light.” (Lev Shalem). “Az titchazek v’titrafei,” “then she shall surely be strengthened and healed.” “V’hay’ta lach shifchat olam,” In the original version this stanza ends, “and be Your servant (shifcha) forever.” In the version found in most older books, “shifchat olam” becomes “simchat olam,” “and eternal gladness will be hers.” (Artscroll)
The third stanza addresses God as “Vatik” beginning with the letter vav, “the ancient one” which in Kabbalah might well refer to the highest levels of divinity in this system of ten sefirot. The poet calls on the ancient one, “Vatik, yehemu rachamecha,” “let Your mercy be aroused”(Koren) or “let Your compassion flow” (Lev Shalem). “V’chus na al ben ohavach,” “please have pity on Your beloved child,” whom I assume is us, the Jewish people. “Ki zeh kamah nichsof nichsaf lir’ot b’tiferet uzach,” “for I have yearned so long to see Your luminescent power.” (Lev Shalem) How long have I yearned to see the glory of Your strength.” (Koren). The passage concludes, “Ana, Eli, machmad libi,” we address God once more, “Please, my God, my heart’s desire.” “Chushah na v’al titalam,” “Hasten, do not hide Yourself.” Here too, the older volumes have instead of “chusha” “hasten,” the original text by the poet, they have “chusah” “take pity.”
The final verse draws upon the image in the Hashkiveinu prayer following the Sh’ma on Friday night calling on God to shelter us in His sukkat shalom, His tabernacle of peace. Here we find the final letter of Adonay, the hay, “Higaleh na ufros, Chaviv, alai et sukkat shlomach,” “Reveal Yourself, Beloved, and spread over me the tabernacle of Your peace.” Lev Shalem prefers “the sukkah of Your love.” “Tair eretz mikvodach,” “May the whole world be illuminated with Your glory.” “Nagilah v’nism’cha bach,” familiar words from countless bar mitzvah parties, when we dance to “hava nagilah v’nism’cha.” “Then shall we be glad and rejoice with You.” The song ends with this final line, “Maher, Ahuv, ki va moed, v’choneini kimei olam,” in a reference to our messianic hopes, the poet concludes, “My lover – come quickly, for the time has come, (the time of redemption we assume) – have compassion for me as in days of old.” The phrase rendered “for the time has come,” appears in Psalm 102, where we find, “You surely will arise and take pity on Zion, for it is time to be gracious to her; the appointed time has come, ki va moed.”
It should be very clear by now that this is a deeply personal prayer in which we express our devotion to God who is not pictured as some distant, impersonal deity, but rather as a close, intimate lover. We cannot find enough words to express our love, “y’did nefesh,” “machmad libi,” “chaviv,” and “ahuv” are all expressions that one might whisper to one’s lover. So while the Kabbalists, as always, are picturing the unification of various element of divinity above, the worshiper who chants these lines feels a deep sense of connection with a loving God and seeks to be drawn closer to that force which illuminates all the worlds and gives meaning to our lives. When we look at the various uses to which this prayer has been put, whether as an opening meditation in the Sephardic liturgy each morning or as an introduction to Shabbat on Friday evening among Ashkenazim, or as a reflection upon the neshamah yeterah, the additional soul about to depart at the end of Shabbat, these words are most moving and appropriate.