Tag Archives: Vayak’hel

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.

Is the “Jewish Calendar” Really Jewish?

This week we read a double Torah portion, Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which continues to describe the construction of the Tabernacle and its components. At the same time, we have the special additional reading known as Parashat haChodesh, recounting God’s command to the Israelites to establish the months of the year and observe rosh chodesh. Parashat haChodesh is always read before the start of the month of Nisan, since this is the first month of the calendar (although the new year doesn’t officially start until Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei). It was particularly with regards to the month of Nisan that God commanded the Israelites right before their exodus from Egypt.

Babylonian Calendar

Yet, the term “Nisan” does not actually appear in the Torah. Neither do any of the other eleven months’ names. These names actually come from the Babylonian calendar! Our Sages admit that the Hebrew calendar was adopted from the Babylonians during the Jewish exile in Babylon following the destruction of the First Temple. The Babylonian calendar had essentially the exact same 19-year cycle as the current Hebrew calendar, with a 13th leap month of Adar II added seven times throughout the cycle in order to keep it synced with the solar cycle.

Adopting the Babylonian calendar so directly actually presents a number of interesting issues. The Babylonians named their months based on their idolatrous beliefs. For example, Tammuz was the name of the Babylonian (and Sumerian) god of vegetation. In their mythology, Tammuz died and entered the underworld following the summer solstice, when the length of the days start to decline. Because of this, the Babylonians observed a mourning period in the month of Tammuz, with women in particular weeping in the temples.

In fact, this is mentioned in the Tanakh, where God shows the prophet Ezekiel (8:14-15) a vision of Jewish women mourning for Tammuz by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem!

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of Hashem’s House which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. Then said He unto me: “Have you seen this, son of man? Turn around again and you shall see greater abominations than these…”

‘Ezekiel Prophesying’ by Gustav Doré

This passage has God showing a number of abominable acts committed by the Jews, justifying their destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Technically, Jewish law forbids even mentioning the name of a foreign or idolatrous deity. Yet, Jews to this day refer to the fourth month of the year as Tammuz! And to this day, Jews observe a period of mourning in that month! Of course, this period of mourning is not for the deity Tammuz, but for the destruction of the Temple. The parallels are nonetheless striking.

The Ramban dealt with this apparent contradiction by teaching that it was done on purpose, so that the Jews would never forget their exile. On a more mystical level, mourning for the Temple in the month of Tammuz can be seen as a sort of tikkun, a spiritual rectification for the sin of the ancient Israelites idolatrously mourning the false god Tammuz.

Despite this, there was actually a time when Jews did not exactly agree on their calendar. It isn’t surprising that many weren’t too thrilled with adopting a pagan Babylonian system.

A Strictly Solar Calendar

The Book of Jubilees is an ancient Hebrew text that covers Jewish history from Creation until the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The book is divided into 50 chapters, with each chapter describing one yovel, “jubilee”, the 49-year period proscribed by the Torah. (Multiplying these values suggests that the Torah was given in the year 2450 according to the Book of Jubilees, which is very close to the rabbinic tradition of 2448.) While Jubilees was not included in the mainstream Tanakh, it was traditionally found in the Tanakh of Ethiopian Jews. It is also evident that Jubilees was used by the Hasmonean dynasty (of Chanukah fame), and influenced a number of midrashim, as well as the Zohar.

It isn’t hard to see why Jubilees was not canonized by the rabbis of the day. The book suggests that those who use a lunar calendar are mimicking idol worshipers, and since the calendar is not precise like the solar one, end up celebrating the Jewish holidays on the wrong days.

A section of the Book of Psalms from the Dead Sea Scrolls

At least fifteen copies of Jubilees were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls—more than any other text. The Qumran sect of Jews that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls were clearly at odds with mainstream rabbinic Judaism. They believed that God created the sun and planets with precise orbits, and following these natural cycles reveals His great wisdom. Meanwhile, the rabbis rely on witnesses to spot a new moon before having the Sanhedrin proclaim a new month. The witnesses might err, or it could be cloudy that night, and the calendar would be all wrong!

The Sages responded by citing the Torah (Leviticus 23:1-2):

And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them, the appointed times of Hashem, which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, these are My appointed times.

God clearly commanded us to appoint the convocations, and whenever we would do so, He would declare them as His appointed times! The Talmud elaborates that God wanted us to reconstruct our own calendar, and the Heavens will reflect our actions here on Earth. There is a far more profound lesson here that our Sages wanted to teach us.

One of the central themes of Passover is that God transcends nature. The laws of Creation can be broken, and inexplicable miracles do happen. Since human beings are made in God’s image, we too are capable of transcending nature. (See ‘Transcending Nature’ in Garments of Light.) This is our very purpose in life; to break free from the confines of the physical and ascend ever further spiritually.

The Sages established a lunar calendar that would allow people to participate in God’s creation—and teach them that they don’t have to be subject to the strict laws of nature—while at the same time wisely syncing the calendar with the solar cycle to ensure the years don’t lag behind. Ultimately, the calendar was fixed so that we no longer need any witnesses or a Sanhedrin to establish a month. Nonetheless, we celebrate the same holidays at different times every year to remind us of the great potential that lies within each of us; that we are not meant to be slaves of nature, but masters of it.

*For a more detailed analysis of the conflict surrounding the Hebrew calendar, see the third chapter of Barry Freundel’s Why We Pray What We Pray.

Shabbat, Technology, and Our Cosmic Purpose

This week’s Torah reading is Vayak’hel, which is mostly a repetition of earlier passages regarding the construction of the Tabernacle. It begins by restating the command of keeping the Sabbath: “Six days shall you work, and the seventh day shall be for you a holy day of complete rest for Hashem…” (Exodus 35:2). The mitzvah of Shabbat is among the most commonly mentioned in the Torah. It is also among the most severe, with those who desecrate the Sabbath being “cut off” from among their people, and ultimately succumbing to death.

Although the Torah suggests a death penalty for those who desecrate the Sabbath, an accepted tradition is that no one was ever actually put to death for doing so, except the one case mentioned later in the Torah (though even that case is more complicated than it appears). Certainly, in the post-Biblical period no one was given the death penalty for Sabbath desecration. In most cases, the punishment of death is seen as more of a spiritual death, not a physical one.

In any case, Shabbat is unarguably of tremendous importance. It is so central to Judaism that when Jews inquire whether other Jews are religious, they often simply ask if they are “shomer Shabbos”. And, of course, the Torah itself begins with the creation narrative that lays down the blueprint for Shabbat, right from the very beginning. Before there is any mention of Israel or Hebrews, laws, commandments, Patriarchs, or prayers, there is a description of the Sabbath. What makes it so special?

The Simple Answer

In simple terms, everyone understands the inherent beauty of Shabbat. After all, the majority of people only get through their work week because of the promise of a weekend. Everyone needs a break; a time to recharge their batteries and relax. Shabbat takes the concept even further, offering a true day of rest by disconnecting from the wired world: no cellphones or computers, no bad news or annoying messages, no politics, no advertising, no finances, no celebrity gossip. An opportunity to restore some mental sanity and emotional peace, to actually spend time with family (instead of spending time with the television), and not have to worry about running errands, doing chores, or having to be somewhere. Scientific studies show that having a Sabbath-like day of rest (without work and worry, and with prayer and family involved) was one of the key factors in living a longer and happier life (see here).

Having said that, Shabbat is far more than just a day of rest. The Torah commands us not only to observe the Sabbath (shamor) but also to remember, or commemorate, it (zachor). What exactly are we supposed to be remembering?

Our Cosmic Purpose

When we recite Kiddush on Friday evenings, we say zecher l’maase beresheet, “a remembrance of the Work of Creation.” Shabbat is supposed to remind us of God’s creation of this universe. To remember His creation is really to remember why it was that He created it. Although the Torah does not explicitly say so, the purpose of creation is clear. God created the universe and then placed man, the pinnacle of creation, within it, in a Garden of Eden, to enjoy the delights of this amazing world. And God made man in His own image: a creative, intelligent being. He gave man the potential to further improve an already incredible place, and bring about even more pleasure, beauty, and comfort. Man’s role was to complete the creation started by God. This is what the Torah tells us, and what we read every Friday evening:

“And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, for in it He rested from all of His work, which God had created to complete.” (Genesis 2:3)

Though often translated otherwise, this well-known verse ends with the words asher bara Elohim la’asot, literally “which God had created to complete.” God created it for us to complete it. This is why man is often described as “God’s partner in Creation”. And sure enough, this is what mankind has been doing since the earliest days. We have taken the raw material that this universe provides us and improved upon it. It is incredible to think that you are reading this right now on some sort of digital device that runs on a silicon chip – essentially made from melted and crystallized sand. Your device also has copper and gold, among other elements, taken out of the earth, purified and transformed into a wire that can carry information. You might be wearing clothes made of linen, cotton, or silk – extracted from plants or animals – or taking life-saving medications derived from trees or bacteria. God gave us the raw materials, together with a divine intellect to transform them into wonderful technologies that make our lives so much better.

Returning to Eden

All of this technology is slowly bringing us back to a perfect world, as God originally intended. What the Sages of past centuries described as miracles that will happen in the future Messianic world, we take for granted as everyday normalities. There are references to these technologies across Jewish texts.

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

Grape-Harvesting Machine (Credit: Wineanorack.com)

In one place, the Talmud (Ketubot 111b) describes the wheat in Messianic times as having grains the size of kidneys! This must have sounded far-fetched in those times, but today is quite possible with tools like genetic engineering. The same page of Talmud describes thirty kegs of perfect wine being produced effortlessly, without a person needing to tread upon the grapes, and without even needing to harvest them with back-breaking labour, as was normal in those days. Indeed, today’s wineries use machines to harvest the grapes, with an automated production process that has sensors to ensure the ideal levels of sugar, alcohol, and so on, resulting in the same perfectly-tasting wine year after year.

Jewish texts describe Messianic events being witnessed by the whole world, and Mashiach himself being recognized universally, leading the entire globe. This was hard to imagine before the era of modern communication, yet satellites, television, and the internet make it very simple for Mashiach to be recognized and heard internationally. These technologies also bridge together cultures, spread truth and understanding, and ultimately serve to break down barriers. It is no longer so difficult to envision a united, peaceful world working together.

Partners in Torah

In the same way that we are God’s partners in creation, fulfilling the physical realm, we are also His partners in the spiritual realm. Like the raw material of the Earth, God gave us the Torah in raw form. It was the Sages that then interpreted, explained, modified, enhanced, and continue to reinterpret the Torah, generation after generation, further improving God’s Word. What began as Moses’ five books turned into a Tanakh of 24 books, then a Mishnah of 63 tractates, followed by an even longer exposition on each tractate in the form of Talmud, and then even more texts of Midrash, Kabbalah, Halacha, Mussar, and so on.

Where once divine service consisted primarily of offering sacrifices, we have evolved to “pay the cows with our lips” (Hosea 14:3), and instead serve God in prayer. Indeed, the Rambam writes (Moreh Nevuchim III:32) that God only permitted sacrifices temporarily in order to slowly wean people away from such bloody practices; prayer was always the ideal form of communing with God, and what He intended all along.

In the same way that we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting the physical world, we are fulfilling God’s will, and our purpose, by perfecting ourselves in the spiritual world.

The Psychology of Shabbat

Shabbat is meant to remind us of our purpose in God’s creation. We should never lose sight of why we are really here: to be His partners in completing the world, both physically and spiritually, and returning it to its intended state of Eden.

This is yet another reason why Shabbat is so important, and inscribed among the Ten Commandments, those ten that are most central of God’s many other commands. A person who does not observe the Sabbath is not only missing out on a day of proper rest and relaxation, but also forgetting their true purpose. And without purpose, life loses its meaning. This was the conclusion of the great neurologist and psychologist Viktor Frankl, who found that the real source of depression, anxiety, and mental pains is not the many troubles of life, but simply a lack of purpose:

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state, but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.”

Smith explains purpose in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’

Beyond being a day of rest, Shabbat is a tool that gives our lives a grand sense of purpose. God commands us to work diligently towards the fulfilment of this purpose for six days. But on the seventh, we should take a break, and simply enjoy the fruits of that labour. The Talmud (Berachot 57b) reminds us that the pleasure of Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the pleasure of the World to Come. We should spend Shabbat as if we have already completed our mission. And then, after recharging, and reminding ourselves why we are really here, we should go into a new work week, refreshed, to continue our special task as God’s partners in His universe.

Shabbat Shalom