Tag Archives: Tzfat

Kabbalah of Judaism’s Four Holy Cities

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, a unique term appears a whopping five times: l’shakhen shmo sham, a place where God will choose “to rest His Name there”. Outside of this parasha, the term only appears once in the rest of the Tanakh. It refers to the only place where Jews are allowed to bring any sacrifices to Hashem (Deuteronomy 12:11), and where Jews should pilgrimage on the major holidays to “rejoice before God” (Deuteronomy 16:11). Although the Chumash doesn’t explicitly say where this place is, it is of course referring to Jerusalem, as we learn later in the Tanakh (for example, I Kings 11:13).

“Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple” by Alex Levin

Why doesn’t the Chumash itself name Jerusalem? This is because the Israelites were still in the Wilderness at the time, and at that point they brought their sacrifices in the mobile Mishkan, or “Tabernacle”. In the Wilderness, the Mishkan was the place where God’s Presence rested. Even when the Israelites entered the Holy Land, it took many years for them to reconquer and settle all of it, so the Mishkan remined mobile. The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) lists all the places where the Mishkan was parked:

After 39 years in the Wilderness (since the Mishkan was built and inaugurated a year after the Exodus), it was in Gilgal for 14 years. Half of that time was spent conquering and half dividing up the land among the Tribes. The Mishkan was then placed in Shiloh and remained there for 369 years. However, there was no king in Israel then, and no leader arose to build a permanent Temple. The Talmud states that when Eli the Priest died, Shiloh was destroyed so the Mishkan was moved to the town of Nov. Later in the Tanakh we read how Nov, too, was destroyed, so the Mishkan was moved to Gibeon. When David became king he first reigned for seven years from Hebron. After that, he acquired Jerusalem and brought the Mishkan there. Henceforth, Jerusalem became the seat of the Davidic dynasty, and the place where God’s Name would rest forever.

What makes Jerusalem so special?

Centre of the Universe

Jerusalem’s Temple was built atop Mount Moriah, and the Holy of Holies over a special stone. The Talmud (Yoma 54b) states that this stone, even shetiyah, the Foundation Stone, is literally the point from which God created the universe. The Sages find proof in Psalms 50:1-2, which states: “God spoke and called the Earth, from the rise of the sun until it sets, out of Zion all beauty God shone forth.” That initial burst of light in Creation was at this very point atop Jerusalem.

The word “Zion” itself implies a foundation of sorts. In the Tanakh, we read how the Jebusites built a massive fortress there, metzudat tzion, which the Sages say means an “outstanding fortress”, one with such strong foundations that none could conquer it. Until King David, that is. The Jebusites scoffed at David when he approached with his armies, thinking that their fortress was unconquerable. David proved them wrong, then renamed the fortress after himself, and called the city ‘Ir David, “City of David” (see II Samuel 5).

Long before it was known as City of David, or Zion, and before it was settled by Jebusites, it was already famous as a holy mountain. Upon it, various priests would come to offer incense. This is where the name Moriah comes from, literally mor, “myrrh” (or “incense”), and Yah, “God”. The first priest active there was Melchizedek, identified with Shem, the son of Noah. The Torah calls him a “priest of God, the Most High” and introduces him as the “king of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18). The Book of Jubilees tells us how Noah divided up the Earth among his three sons, and Shem received all the holy places, including Zion (Jubilees 8:19).

Shem built his home on Zion, and called it Shalem, a place that was “wholesome” and “peaceful”. Later on, God commanded Abraham to take Isaac upon Mt. Moriah. At the end of that episode, we read how Abraham called the place Hashem Yireh, since this is the place where “God is seen” (Genesis 22:14). The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 56:10) states that this holy site now had two names: Yireh and Shalem. Each of these names was given by a holy man, so which would stick? In order not to favour one holy man over another, the two were combined to create Yerushalem, or Yerushalayim, “Jerusalem”.

Jerusalem, Zion, City of David, Moriah, Shalem, Yireh—all are names for this holy place, each signifying something of its incredible past. Indeed, it is said that Jerusalem has seventy different names, just like God, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel, and just as the Torah has seventy different faces. Whatever the case, it is the city that “brings everyone together” (Psalm 122:3) and has the power to “make all Israel friends” (Yerushalmi Chagigah 3:6).

Gate to Heaven

The Midrash states that Zion is the place through which all the blessings from Heaven enter this world, and the place through which all blessings descend upon the Jewish people (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 392). At the same time, it is the place through which all of our prayers ascend to Heaven, too. This is why Jews always pray towards Jerusalem. And if they are in Jerusalem they pray towards the place where the Holy of Holies stood.

More amazing still, some say that Mt. Moriah is the peak upon which God gave Israel the Torah! In other words, Moriah is one and the same as Sinai. The Midrash (Shocher Tov 68) states that God took off a chunk of Moriah (like a piece of challah) and transplanted it to the Sinai wilderness. After He gave the Torah, He put that chunk back in Jerusalem. This is why the Talmud (Ta’anit 16a, with Tosfot) states it is called Moriah, from root hora’ah, “instruction”, the same as the root of Torah. On Mt. Moriah the Torah was given! And from here, the “fear” or “awe” (mora) of God entered the world.

“Jacob’s Ladder” by Stemler and Cleveland (1925)

There is a further allusion to this in that the gematria of Sinai (סיני) is 130, equal to sulam (סלם), “ladder”, referring to the Heavenly Ladder that Jacob envisioned (Genesis 28:12). This vision also took place upon Mt. Moriah. Afterwards, Jacob called the place Beit El, “House of God”, for he had foreseen that the Holy Temple would be built there. Jerusalem is therefore a “ladder to Heaven”, and a place through which angels enter and exit our world.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Jerusalem is so important to the Jewish people. It is mentioned over 600 times in the Tanakh (and, it is fitting to add, not once in the Koran). It has had a nearly continuous (with minor blips) Jewish habitation and presence for some 3000 years. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Roman historian Tacitus estimated a Jewish population in Jerusalem of 600,000, while Josephus counted over a million.

Even in the most difficult of days, Jews hung on to their holy city. When the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) arrived in 1267 following the horrors of the Crusades, he still managed to find two Jewish families. By the Ottoman period in the 16th century, Jews once again formed the largest proportion of the population. In 1818, Robert Richardson found that Jews, while not the majority, made up the single largest group of people in the city, and estimated there were twice as many Jews as Muslims. Prussian consul Ernst Gustav Schultz noted something similar in 1844 (counting 7210 Jews to 5000 Muslims, and 3390 Christians), as did Swiss explorer Titus Tobler two years later (7515 Jews to 6100 Muslims, and 3558 Christians).

Today, there are over half a million Jews in Jerusalem. At the time of the Temple’s destruction, the Midrash records that there were a total of 481 synagogues in Jerusalem, each with a Torah school inside (Yalkut Shimoni, Ezekiel 390). A study in the year 2000 found that Jerusalem now has over 1200 synagogues. This is undoubtedly more than at any time in its history. The borders of Jerusalem today are larger than they have ever been, and the city is flourishing in every way. Indeed, this is one of the great prophecies of the End of Days, and Jerusalem will only grow further, as the Talmud (Bava Batra 75a-b) states:

In the time to come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will add to Jerusalem a thousand gardens, a thousand towers, a thousand palaces, and a thousand mansions; and each will be as big as Sepphoris in its prosperity…

Four Holy Cities

A 19th century map of the Four Holy Cities

While the entire land of Israel is holy, and Jerusalem is undoubtedly its focal point, it is often said that Judaism has four holy cities. In addition to Jerusalem, the other three are Hebron, Tzfat, and Tiberias. Where did this notion of four holy cities come from?

In 1492, the Spanish expelled all of their Sephardic Jews. It is reported that the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II said of his Spanish counterpart at the time something along the lines of: “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man, but he is a fool, for he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Bayezid sent his navy to bring many of those Jews to his empire, especially to the cities of Thessaloniki and Izmir. Others went to Europe, North Africa, or even the New World, while some headed straight for the Holy Land.

In 1516, the Ottoman Turks conquered the Holy Land, allowing even more Jews to settle there. Many Jews relocated, particularly to Hebron and Tzfat, in addition to Jerusalem. Just a few decades later, the great Donna Gracia (1510-1569) and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi (1524-1579) sought to re-establish a semi-autonomous Jewish state in the Holy Land (three centuries before the Zionist movement!) and actually received a permit from the Sultan to settle Jews in Israel. Don Joseph particularly liked the Tiberias area, and was officially given the title “Lord of Tiberias” by the Ottoman throne.

By 1640, the Jewish communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat were very large, though still struggling financially. Throughout history, it was customary for Jewish communities in the diaspora to send money in support of Jewish communities in the Holy Land. This was seen as both a huge mitzvah—supporting those brave Jews that risked so much to stay in their ancestral land—as well as a way for Jews in the diaspora to participate in the monumental mitzvah of dwelling in the Promised Land. The Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Tzfat regularly sent emissaries across the diaspora to collect funds. Around 1640, the leaders of these three communities got together and decided to unite their funds. They became known as the “Three Holy Cities” (or by their acronym יח״ץ), and sent a single emissary to collect on behalf of all three. By 1740, the Jewish population of Tiberias had grown large enough that they joined the fund, too, and thus was formed the “Four Holy Cities”. (Some say that the Four Cities first merged earlier, in the late 16th century.)

Still, while the concept of “Four Holy Cities” might be recent, it is by no means meaningless or coincidental.

Four Aspects of Judaism

Why did Jews migrating to Israel choose to settle in these four cities in particular? It was not by random chance that Jews yearned to settle in them! These cities are indeed of greatest significance to the Jewish population, which is why Jews went there in the first place. Jerusalem has already been discussed; what of the others?

Tzfat is first mentioned in the Talmud as a place where signal fires were lit so that all the surrounding towns would know the new moon had been announced (Yerushalmi, Rosh Hashanah 11b). By the end of the 16th century it had become renowned as the centre of Kabbalah, and was the home of greats like the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) and the Radbaz (1479-1589), the Arizal (1534-1572) and Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620). It is where Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) produced the Shulchan Arukh, still the foremost code of Jewish law.

Hebron was King David’s first capital before he built Jerusalem. It was there that he was accepted as king by the nation, and where he was anointed by the elders of Israel (II Samuel 5:3). It is the birthplace of the Davidic dynasty. Meanwhile, Hebron is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the resting place of the forefathers and foremothers of Israel. It is explicitly mentioned in the Torah multiple times. Later, it would become a centre of Jewish mysticism, too, like Tzfat, and was home to the great Kabbalists Rabbi Malkiel Ashkenazi (d. 1620) and Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas (1518-1587), among others.

Tiberias is actually built on an older Biblical town. It is quite ironic that it is referred to as Tiberias, named after the Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BCE-37 CE). To the ancient Jews it was “Rakat”, as we read in the Tanakh and Talmud (Joshua 19:35, Megillah 5b). Tiberias did not participate in the Jewish revolts against the Roman Empire, and was spared both in 70 CE and in 135 CE. This is why many Jews resettled there, and it is where the Sanhedrin was re-established around 150 CE. Rabbi Akiva was buried in Tiberias, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai called it home. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi lived there, too, and it is where he put together the Mishnah. The Talmud Yerushalmi followed, and was similarly composed in Tiberias.

Tiberias continued to have a large Jewish population for centuries. The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) was buried there in 1204. The city was completely destroyed during the Mamluk period, and when Rabbi Moshe Bassola (1480-1560) visited in 1522, he found nothing but a few households and many marauding Arabs. This is where Donna Gracia and Don Joseph come into the picture, receiving a permit from the Ottomans in 1561 to rebuild the city and settle Jews there. It was Don Joseph who rebuilt its ancient walls (dating back to the time of the Biblical Joshua), and planted its first orchards.

In short, these three additional Holy Cities all played instrumental roles in Jewish history. Without their flourishing Jewish communities—which produced the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi, the Shulchan Arukh and the bulk of Kabbalah—Judaism as we know it would not exist. So, while the notion of “Four Holy Cities” may have formally originated in the 18th century, its spiritual origins go back much further.

Each city can be said to parallel a different facet of Judaism. Hebron plays a big role in the Chumash, while Jerusalem is the primary locale of the rest of Scripture, the Nevi’im and Ketuvim. Tiberias is the home of the Mishnah and Talmud, while Tzfat is the capital of Kabbalah. Hebron represents the Patriarchs, Jerusalem represents the Prophets, Tiberias the ancient Sages, and Tzfat the Kabbalists. In fact, each of these four cities symbolizes something even greater.

The Four Elements

Ancient texts from all around the world, as well as Jewish mystical texts, speak of four primordial elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the oldest Kabbalistic texts, explains how God formed all of Creation starting with these fundamental entities. First came the most ephemeral and intangible of them: air. This came out of God’s Spirit, which itself came out of the Ten Sefirot (1:9-10). Then came “water from breath” (1:11), and then “fire from water” (1:12). These three elements correspond to the three “mother” letters of the Hebrew alphabet: Aleph (for avir, “air”), Mem (mayim, “water”), Shin (esh, “fire”). Only much later was created the most physical and tangible of the elements, earth.

These four primordial elements neatly correspond to the four scientific elements upon which all life is built: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon (sometimes abbreviated as “HONC”). Hydrogen is the key element in water (its name literally means “water-maker”), and it is specifically those intermolecular hydrogen bonds that give water most of its incredible properties. Oxygen is what feeds a flame, and without it no fire burns. Nitrogen makes up 78% of our air, while carbon fills our earth, whether in coal, oil, diamonds, or countless other substances.

The Four Holy Cities also correspond to those four primordial elements. Tzfat is atop a mountain, and with an elevation some 900 metres above sea level, is the highest city in Israel. It is quite literally “up in the air”. Tiberias, meanwhile, rests on the shores of Israel’s most important body of water, the Galilee. Hebron is associated with that plot of earth that Abraham purchased, and within which the patriarchs are buried. And Jerusalem is where the Eternal Flame, esh tamid, burned for centuries, and will be reignited once more in the near future.

Four Holy Cities Summary Table

The 24 Ornaments of a Bride and Tikkun Leil Shavuot

In this week’s parasha, Emor, we read the command to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. The Torah doesn’t explicitly say why we should do this. The Zohar (III, 97b) comments on the parasha that when the Torah says to count sheva shabbatot temimot (“seven complete [or pure] weeks”) there is a hint in there that we are supposed to become tamim, “pure”.  The point is to purify ourselves over these seven weeks in preparation for the great revelation at Sinai which took place on Shavuot. The Sages always describe the Sinai Revelation as a wedding between God and His people. In fact, the Zohar compares the counting of the seven weeks to a woman’s counting of seven “clean days” following menstruation and before immersing in the mikveh, after which she can reunite with her husband.

On the next page, the Zohar goes on to describe the “wedding”, where God is the “groom” and the Jewish people are the “bride”. The Zohar alludes to an ancient teaching that a bride should be adorned with 24 ornaments on her wedding day. This actually goes back to the Garden of Eden, where God made Eve and adorned her with 24 ornaments before her marriage to Adam. The Midrash (Beresheet Rabbah 18:1) brings Scriptural proof for this, citing Ezekiel 28:13, which says:

You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering: the ruby [odem], the topaz [pitdah], and the diamond [yahalom], the beryl [tarshish], the onyx [shoham], and the jasper [yashfe], the sapphire [sapir], the carbuncle [nofech], and the emerald [varkat or bareket], and gold [zahav]; the workmanship of your settings and of your sockets was in you, in the day that you were created they were prepared.

If we count the precious stones and metals in the verse, we find only ten, not 24. However, one of the minor principles of Torah interpretation is when a general statement is introduced followed by a specific list, the general statement both includes the specific list, and adds to it (כְּלַל וּפְרַט, עָשָׂה אֶת הַכְּלַל מוֹסֶפֶת לַפְּרַט). So, since the verse begins with a general statement (“every precious stone”) and then goes on to list ten precious materials, we actually learn from this that there was a total of twenty precious materials. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish held that one should also add “every precious stone” as a special stone of its own, meaning there were eleven stones, and since we double that, we have a total of 22. Plus, the verse goes on to speak of “your settings and your sockets”, bringing us to a total of 24 ornaments!

Alternatively, there is another Scriptural verse which brings us the 24 ornaments more simply and directly (though without mentioning Eden), listing explicitly what each specific piece of jewellery was. This is Isaiah 3:17-23, which says how the daughters of Zion were adorned with

…the anklets [‘achasim], and the ribbons [shvisim], and the crescents [saharonim]; the pendants [netifot], and the bracelets [sheyrot], and the veils [ra’alot]; the headdresses [pe’erim], and the armlets [tza’adot], and the sashes [kishurim], and the corselettes [batei hanefesh], and the amulets [lehashim]; the rings [taba’ot], and the nose-rings [nizmei ha’af]; the aprons [mahalatzot], and the shawls [ma’atafot], and the hair-coverings [mitpachot], and the girdles [charitim]; and the robes [gilyonim], and the fine linen [sadinim], and the headscarves [tzenifot], and the mantles [redimim]…

A count of these brings us 21. In addition, the verse that follows speaks of perfume [bosem], a belt [chagorah], and hair curls [petigil], giving us a total of 24 ornaments.

Elijah confronts the priests on Mount Carmel

Kabbalistically, these 24 ornaments have tremendous meaning. The sefirah of Chessed, which represents love and kindness, has three inner states, each of which is made up of 24 parts. (The gematria of Chessed [חסד] is 72, and dividing that number by three gives us 24.) This is why Eliyahu poured an extra three measures of water (water being Chessed) on his altar when he went head-to-head with the idolatrous priests (see I Kings 18). The altar which he built was actually made up of precious stones, too (I Kings 18:31-32), and then he had water poured from a jug called a kad (18:34). The gematria of kad (כד) is, as we might expect, 24.

That word is the exact same used when the Torah introduces Rebecca: “And it came to pass, before [Eliezer] had done speaking, that, behold, Rebecca came out… with her jug [kadah] upon her shoulder.” (Genesis 24:15). Kabbalistically, Rebecca is the embodiment of Chessed (see Zohar I, 137a) and she graciously provides water for Eliezer and all of his camels. Eliezer realizes that she is the perfect one for Isaac, and immediately proceeds to adorn her with all kinds of jewellery: “And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden nose-ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands, of ten shekels weight of gold…” (Genesis 24:22) After the marriage was arranged, Eliezer gave the soon-to-be bride even more jewellery: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca…”

If one looks carefully at these verses in Genesis 24 (not a coincidental number), and applies the classic rules of interpretation, they will find that Eliezer also brought for Rebecca 24 ornaments in preparation for her wedding! Rebecca went on to marry Isaac, and they had the purest love of all the forefathers and figures in the Torah. In fact, the first time that the Torah describes a husband loving his wife is with Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 24:67). This is one reason why there was an old custom to adorn a Jewish bride with 24 ornaments. Alternatively, a husband may fulfil this special segulah by purchasing 24 adornments or pieces of jewellery for his wife—not necessarily all at once! (It is especially good to get white gold, since it is symbolic of Chessed, while yellow gold is the opposite, Gevurah.)

24 Ornaments of the Jewish People

If a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments, and the Jewish people were God’s “bride” at Sinai on Shavuot, what were our 24 ornaments? The Kabbalists teach us that these are the 24 books of the Tanakh! The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343, on Exodus 31:18) comments that every Torah scholar is adorned with these 24 books just as a bride is adorned with 24 ornaments. And this is why, the Zohar states, one should stay up all night on Shavuot and study Torah, especially the 24 books of the Tanakh (Zohar I, 8a; though in Zohar III, 98a there is an alternate suggestion to study the Oral Torah at night and the Tanakh in the day). In so doing, one is spiritually adorning himself in preparation for the wedding (as well as adorning the Shekhinah herself).

Today, it has become the norm in all synagogues and yeshivas around the world for everyone to stay up all night and learn Torah, as the Zohar instructs. This practice was initially popularized by the kabbalists of Tzfat in the 16th century. The earliest reference to a tikkun leil Shavuot, a fixed text of study for the night of Shavuot, comes from a letter of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576), most famous for composing Lecha Dodi. He was born to a Sephardic family in Thessaloniki, or Salonica (then in the Ottoman Empire, now the second largest city in Greece).

In 1533, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) settled in Salonica (he was born in Toledo, Spain before the Expulsion), and the two became close. One Shavuot night, they stayed up together studying Torah as the Zohar states. (In addition to Tanakh, they learned a little bit of Mishnah). Suddenly, the Shekhinah filled Rabbi Karo and spoke out of his mouth! Such revelations would continue for most of his life, and are recorded in his book, Maggid Mesharim. On that Shavuot night, the Shekhinah revealed many secrets and instructions. Among other things, She instructed the pair to move to Israel. In 1535, they did so and settled in Tzfat, the centre of Jewish mysticism.

In Tzfat, the pair would meet the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who later married the sister of Rabbi Alkabetz. When he was twenty years old, the Ramak heard a Heavenly Voice instructing him to seek out Rabbi Alkabetz and learn Kabbalah with him. He did so, and went on to become the preeminent Kabbalist of Tzfat. He was succeeded in the position by the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572).

Meanwhile, Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) went on to publish the Shulchan Arukh, still the central code of Jewish Law. Interestingly, he did not write anything about a tikkun leil Shavuot in the Code. He believed that it was a practice for Jewish mystics, not for the average Jew. Nonetheless, the custom spread very quickly, first in Tzfat, then across all of Israel. When the Shelah HaKadosh (Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, 1555-1630), who was born in Prague, moved to Israel in 1626 he wrote how all the Jews living in the Holy Land stay up all night on Shavuot. The Shelah put together a text of study of his own for the night of Shavuot. In addition to portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, he added the first and last verse of every Mishnaic tractate, and the first and last verse of Sefer Yetzirah, along with the Zohar passage from this week’s parasha with which we began, and a recitation of the 613 mitzvot.

In the ensuing centuries, the custom spread further across the entire Jewish world. Various other tikkun texts have arisen over that time. Today, it is normal for many synagogues not to follow any tikkun at all, but simply to have lectures on different topics by multiple speakers, or to learn whatever Torah text people wish, and this is appropriate as well. Having said that, the original Kabbalistic way—as suggested in the Zohar, practiced by the early Tzfat mystics, and affixed by the Arizal—is to study specific portions from the 24 books of the Tanakh, together with mystical commentaries on them. (This is the version we used in our Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which has the proper text of study in both Hebrew and English, along with commentaries from the Zohar and Arizal.)

Rectifying Sinai and Purifying Our Souls

On a simple level, the word tikkun may refer to a “fixed” text of Torah, such as that which a ba’al kore uses to study the weekly parasha before reading it publicly in the synagogue. On a mystical level, “tikkun” refers to a spiritual rectification. When it comes to tikkun leil Shavuot, it is commonly taught that staying up all night in study is a spiritual rectification for what happened at Sinai over three millennia ago. At that time, the people had fallen asleep before God’s great revelation. Though some say they slept so that they would have energy to witness the tremendous event, others state that they were wrong to fall asleep so casually the night before the biggest day of their lives. Would a bride sleep so soundly the night before her wedding? Therefore, when we stay up all night on Shavuot, we are spiritually rectifying the mistake that the Jewish people made.

If we delve a little deeper, we might find an even greater tikkun on the night of Shavuot. The Talmud (Shabbat 146a) tells us: “When the Serpent came upon Eve, it infused in her a spiritual contamination [zuhama]. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, the zuhama was removed.” Eve was the first to be decorated with 24 ornaments in the Garden of Eden, but then fell from grace and was spiritually contaminated. In a cosmic rectification, the Jewish people were “decorated” with 24 books of the Tanakh on Shavuot, and that impurity was removed. Each year since, we have a tremendous opportunity to cleanse ourselves of our own spiritual impurities on this special night, by immersing ourselves in the purifying words of our holy books.

Shalom Aleichem: To Sing or Not to Sing?

This week’s parasha, Vayak’hel, begins with God’s command for Israel to observe the Sabbath. One of the most famous symbols and songs of Shabbat is undoubtedly Shalom Aleichem, traditionally sung before the evening Kiddush. The lyrics of Shalom Aleichem welcome the Sabbath angels into our homes, and for many, serve to set the atmosphere of Shabbat itself. Yet, some of our wise rabbis in the past have cautioned against singing this song!  Where did Shalom Aleichem come from, and who composed it? When did Jews start singing this song, and why?

A Mystery Song

Much of the beloved Kabbalat Shabbat service is of very recent origin. For example, Lecha Dodi, through which we welcome in the Sabbath, was composed by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576). In fact, the eight verses of Lecha Dodi form an acrostic, the initials spelling his name. Born in Greece, Rabbi Alkabetz later moved to Tzfat, the capital of Jewish mysticism. He studied with Rabbi Yosef Karo (c. 1488-1575), famed composer of the Shulchan Arukh, and was the brother-in-law of the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570), who led the Tzfat Kabbalists before the arrival of the Arizal (Rabbi Itzchak Luria, 1534-1572). Many practices and customs of Judaism as we know them today originated in this incredible circle of Jewish mystics in Tzfat. One of these is the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer service.

Although Rabbi Alkabetz certainly wrote Lecha Dodi, there is little evidence that the wider Kabbalistic circle of Tzfat recited it in his own day. Contrary to popular belief, the Arizal did not sing this song. We know the Arizal’s teachings and practices from the writings of his students, namely his primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital (1542-1620). In Pri Etz Chaim, Rabbi Vital makes it abundantly clear, and repeats multiple times, exactly how the Arizal would perform Kabbalat Shabbat (see, for example, Sha’ar Shabbat, ch. 6):

The Arizal would go out into the fields, and recite Psalm 20 (with the most important verse there being the tenth, which starts Hashem l’mabul yashav, the initials spelling a Name of God, יל״י). He would then say Bo’i Kalah, “come my Bride” three times (based on a teaching in the Talmud, Shabbat 119a). Following this, he would recite Psalm 92 (Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbat), which also contains hidden Names of God. That would be it for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Vital explains what happens next:

And when you come home from the synagogue after praying Arvit, stand at your place at the meal table, and say “This is the meal of the Holy Apple Orchard”… and after this, encircle the table around the right, silently. Then, take in your hands two bundles of hadas [myrtle branches], and join them together, and say the blessing [besamim] on them, and smell them. And afterwards, encircle the table a second time with the branches in hand, silently. Then say “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say Kiddush.

After eating the meal, recite some passages from the tractate Shabbat, then birkat hamazon, then say again “Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru”. Then say the blessing on the hadas a second time. In the morning, for the second Shabbat meal, do the same as you did the previous night [during the first meal], and do the same for the third meal [seudah shlishit].

‘Sabbath Queen’ by Abigail Sarah Bagraim

Thus, while we find some words that remind us of Lecha Dodi, such as “bo’i kalah” and “zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad” (rearranged by Alkabetz in Lecha Dodi so that “shamor” comes first, to spell his name “Shlomo”), there is no mention of an entire Lecha Dodi. Nor is there any mention of singing Shalom Aleichem (or Eshet Chayil for that matter).

The Arizal did teach that one should say the words “shalom aleichem” three times at the end of Birkat Levanah, the blessing on a new moon recited once a month (Sha’ar Rosh Chodesh Chanukah v’Purim, ch. 3). This is still done today. The Arizal explained that saying shalom aleichem three times serves to remove any kitrug, spiritual “prosecution”. Based on this, some believe that whoever composed the song Shalom Aleichem incorporated this teaching of the Arizal. This is probably why some (especially Sephardis) have the custom to sing only the first three stanzas of Shalom Aleichem, thus saying the words “shalom aleichem” three times. Alternatively, this may be why many others (especially Ashkenazis) have the custom to recite each stanza of Shalom Aleichem three times.

The Origin of Shalom Aleichem

So where and when did Shalom Aleichem first appear? It seems the earliest source is Seder Tikkunei Shabbat, a work first published in Prague in 1641. I found a 1650 Krakow edition, and its Kabbalat Shabbat service and meal table ritual is nearly identical to what is generally practiced today. There are the six Psalms before Lecha Dodi, then Lecha Dodi itself, followed by two more Psalms. Then there is Shalom Aleichem, with all four stanzas—each to be read three times—followed by a prayer called Ribbon Kol HaOlamim, and then Eshet Chayil.

Cover of Tikkunei Shabbat

The cover page of the text says it is based on the teachings of the Arizal. It isn’t clear who exactly put the book together, though it appears to mention a “Rabbi Isaiah Nasi”. That may be Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Shelah HaKadosh, 1555-1630), a renowned Kabbalist who was born in Prague and lived for a time in Krakow. He got hold of the teachings of the Arizal, and towards the end of his life travelled to Tzfat in hopes of learning directly from the Arizal’s disciples. Considering that Seder Tikkunei Shabbat was first published twenty years after the Shelah left Europe, and eleven years after he died, it may have been put together by someone else, based on his teachings, which were in turn based on the Arizal.

Still, we do not know who it was that composed Shalom Aleichem. Whatever the case, within a century it had become popular enough that there were those who opposed singing it. One of these opponents was Rabbi Yakov Emden (1697-1776). He published his own siddur, where Shalom Aleichem is missing. He pointed out several issues with the song, including the absurd request for angels (and not God Himself) to bless us (although earlier Jewish works don’t necessarily have a problem with this), and the strange wording of the song, especially the word “mimelekh”. Amazingly, modern versions of Rabbi Emden’s Beit Yakov siddur do include Shalom Aleichem! The earliest Beit Yakov siddur I could find was from 1881, which has Shalom Aleichem in full, though without that problematic word mimelekh.

Shalom Aleichem, with commentary, in an 1881 Beit Yakov siddur

The commentary in this version of Beit Yakov explains that the custom of singing Shalom Aleichem is based on the Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that when one comes home from the synagogue on Friday evening he is followed by two angels:

Rav Chisda said in the name of Mar Ukva: “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Vaykhulu, the two ministering angels who accompany the person at all times place their hands on his head and say to him: ‘And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned.’” [Isaiah 6:7] It was taught [in a Baraita]: Rabbi Yose bar Yehuda says: “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his home, one good angel and one bad angel. And when he reaches his home and finds a candle burning and a table set and his bed made, the good angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the bad angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’ And if the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the bad angel says: ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against his will: ‘Amen.’”

It is these angels that Shalom Aleichem is apparently referring to. The angels are welcomed into the home, asked to give us their blessing, and to head back out. We see above that one of the angels is a kategor, a “prosecutor”. As we learned from the Arizal, saying shalom aleichem three times eliminates kitrug, “prosecution”, thus neutralizing that “bad” angel.

As for the argument that the song is requesting blessings from angels, I believe the second argument regarding the strange wording of mimelekh actually serves to neutralize the first argument. This line is meant to remind the singer and the audience that, of course, we are really just request a blessing from God Himself—through His messenger angels (something that happens many times in the Torah)—hence the words “From the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (מִמֶּלֶךְ מַלְכֵי הַמְּלָכִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא). We are welcoming the angels that are coming our way mimelekh, “from the King”, and who are blessing us mimelekh, “from the King”.

To summarize, Shalom Aleichem probably did not emerge among the early Tzfat Kabbalists, nor was it recited by the Arizal as some believe. It had only become widely popular by the middle of the 18th century. The identity of the author remains unknown.

So, should we recite Shalom Aleichem, or not? For those who have reservations (like Rabbi Emden, and apparently also the Vilna Gaon) and feel strongly that it should be skipped (or wish to mirror the early Tzfat Kabbalists as closely as possible), they have on whom to rely. However, it is difficult to avoid such a deeply-rooted and widely-accepted custom. Ultimately, the song is based on a Talmudic passage, speaks only of positive things, and affirms God is the “King of Kings”. It is a mystical, albeit mysterious song, and a beautiful, peaceful way to start the Sabbath festivities.