The Origins and Meaning of ‘Lecha Dodi’

The Haftarah for this week’s parasha, Shoftim, has several phrases that are very familiar from our prayers, such as hit’oreri hit’oreri (התעוררי התעוררי), uri uri (עורי עורי), and hitna’ari m’afar kumi (התנערי מעפר קומי). We recognize these words, of course, from the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat song of ‘Lecha Dodi’—but they are originally adapted from the prophecies of Isaiah. The first letters of the eight main stanzas of ‘Lecha Dodi’ spell Shlomo haLevi (שלמה הלוי), alluding to the author of the song, Rabbi Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz (c. 1500-1576).

Rabbi Alkabetz was born in Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) to a Sephardic family. He was a student of the great Rabbi Yosef Taitazak (1465-1546), who was among the Spanish Jewish exiles of 1492 and settled in Salonica. Rabbi Taitazak would become the “father” of the Tzfat Kabbalists, for many of his students (including Rabbi Yosef Karo, 1488-1575) were from, or settled in, Tzfat and transformed it into the capital of Jewish mysticism. Another one of Rabbi Taitazak’s students was Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (the “Ramak”, 1522-1570), who was the brother-in-law of Rabbi Alkabetz. Together, the Ramak and Rabbi Alkabetz famously popularized the ancient mystical practice of staying up all night to study Torah on Shavuot.

Tzfat in the 19th Century

Rabbi Alkabetz settled in Tzfat in 1535. One of the notable practices of the Tzfat Kabbalists was to go out into the fields on Friday evening to welcome the “Sabbath Queen”. This is based on the Talmud (Shabbat 119a), which says that Rabbi Chanina would do so, as did Rabbi Yannai, who would also call out bo’i kallah, bo’i kallah. In another place, the Talmud (Bava Kamma 32b) adds that some would say to go out likrat Shabbat, kallah, malkata, to welcome the Sabbath Bride and Queen. The Tzfat Kabbalists resurrected this ancient practice. Rabbi Chaim Vital (1543-1620), the preeminent student and scribe of the great Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), records in his Pri Etz Chaim (Sha’ar Shabbat) the Arizal’s precise procedure for Kabbalat Shabbat:

He would go out into the fields and first recite Psalm 29 (‘Mizmor l’David’). Then he would say bo’i kallah three times, followed by Psalm 92 (‘Mizmor Shir l’Yom haShabbat’). That was it! The Arizal would then return home, and had another set of rituals around the meal table. One of these was to recite the words Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad ne’emru, to recall the mitzvah of Shabbat in the Ten Commandments. Recall that in the first passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, God says zachor et yom haShabbat, to “commemorate” the Sabbath day, while in the second passage of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses recorded it as shamor et yom haShabbat, to “safeguard” the Sabbath day. Our Sages explained that God had said both words simultaneously—the people heard zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad, to “commemorate” and “safeguard” in a single utterance.

The Arizal passed away in 1572, while Rabbi Alkabetz outlived him and passed away in 1576 (or 1580 according to alternate sources). We do not know for certain when Rabbi Alkabetz wrote ‘Lecha Dodi’, but it is quite possible that it was composed in his final years, as the Kabbalah of the Arizal was already spreading. A major clue is that Rabbi Alkabetz incorporated the Arizal’s practice of reciting Zachor v’shamor b’dibbur echad into his song (though it is possible that the Arizal had himself adopted the practice from earlier Tzfat Kabbalists). Rabbi Alkabetz also included the key words from the Talmud, and the phrases from this week’s Haftarah about the Final Redemption and rebuilding of Jerusalem, among other Biblical verses. Encrypted into the popular song are some fundamental and profound ideas. Let’s take a deeper look into what the verses of ‘Lecha Dodi’ really mean.

Prophecy and Redemption

The words lecha dodi, “Come, my beloved”, are straight from Shir haShirim 7:12. The rest of the chorus is based on the Talmudic words mentioned above. We then begin with the important first verse based on the Arizal’s teaching to recite on Friday evening zachor v’shamor. Rabbi Alkabetz reversed the order of words to shamor v’zachor in order to fit the acrostic so that it would spell his name! The verse ends by reaffirming that “God is one and His name is one.” This is of tremendous significance because those attempting to learn Kabbalah often make the fatal error of thinking that the various terminologies for God are somehow, chas v’shalom, distinct entities. It is vital to reiterate again and again that God is entirely one, and all the discussions in Kabbalah of Sefirot, Partzufim, and different manifestations and names of God are just aspects of His oneness, to help us better understand the Infinite. This is all the more important to keep in mind when welcoming Shabbat kallah and the “regal” Shekhinah. Once again, it is crucial to state that these are only manifestations of the one, indivisible, eternal God.

The second verse reminds us that Shabbat is the source of all blessing, and as we go out to “greet” Shabbat we are really going excitedly to collect those abundant blessings. The verse ends with the famous words that Shabbat was last in Creation, but first in thought. It was God’s will at the very Beginning that there would be a Sabbath, and our observance of Shabbat is the key sign of our Covenant with God, as stated in Exodus 31:13-14. The words in Exodus are terribly strict, stating that one who wants to be sanctified by God must keep the Sabbath, while one who doesn’t keep it is spiritually detached from God, with a Heavenly decree of death hovering over them.

In Jeremiah 33:25, God declares that were it not for His Covenant, He would have never created the universe to begin with. And so, we can understand why Shabbat was very much first in thought, for nothing would have been created if not for Shabbat, the eternal sign of His Covenant. One who keeps Shabbat affirms that the one true God created this universe, thereby upholding the Covenant. Amazingly, Tikkunei Zohar points out numerous times that Beresheet (בראשית) is an anagram of yireh Shabbat (יר”א שב”ת), so from the very first Utterance of Creation the awe of Shabbat imbued the universe. Simultaneously, Beresheet (בראשית) is an anagram of brit esh (ברי”ת א”ש), God’s fiery Covenant.

The third verse switches the focus to Jerusalem, and the hope of its rebuilding. The term emek habacha (עמק הבכא), “valley of tears”, is from Psalms 84:7. There, the Sons of Korach sing how if one trusts fully in God, then God will surely transform a person’s valley of tears into a fountain of blessings. The very next verse in that Psalm is that such people will merit to “Go from strength to strength to appear before God in Zion.” And then there is a prayer for God to send His anointed one, Mashiach. These words tie directly to the next stanza of ‘Lecha Dodi’, which is a simple rephrasing of Isaiah 52:1-2 from this week’s Haftarah. The conclusion of the stanza is how our souls await the coming of Mashiach, who is of the line of Yishai of Bethlehem (father of King David).

The fifth verse of Lecha Dodi is also from the Haftarah (Isaiah 51:17), as well as from Isaiah 60:1 (which reads קוּמִי אוֹרִי כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ וּכְבוֹד יְהוָה עָלַיִךְ זָרָח). Rabbi Alkabetz replaced the word zarach with niglah, from “shine” to “reveal”. The 60th chapter of Isaiah is particularly significant because it describes the Final Redemption of Israel. There is an incredible prophecy here, which we have lived to see in our days: “Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders… Who are these that float like a cloud, like doves to their cotes? Behold, the coastlands await me, with ships of Tarshish in the lead, to bring your sons from afar…” Isaiah describes the Ingathering of the Exiles much like it really happened in the last seven decades, with Jews eagerly flying back to their Holy Land, through the clouds, “like doves” back to their nests, in addition to the many Jews who returned by sea.

We have yet to see the rest of Isaiah 60, which describes the rebuilding of the Temple, and a new era of peace in the Holy Land. Isaiah says that the “cry of violence” will no longer be heard in Israel. The wording here is also shockingly prophetic, for the precise choice of words that Isaiah used were lo ‘ishma od hamas b’artzekh (לֹא יִשָּׁמַע עוֹד חָמָס בְּאַרְצֵךְ), that Hamas will be no more! (Hamas literally means “violence” in Biblical Hebrew.) And Isaiah says that a time will come when “The children of those who tormented you will prostrate at the soles of your feet…” (60:14) The same verse continues to say that those who once disparaged Zion will change their tune and declare: “Zion, the Holy One of Israel”. (This is a good one to remember for all the “anti-Zionists” out there.) The chapter ends with the famous verse that when the time comes for the End of Days, God will “speed” things up, perplexing words which we have already explored in depth here.

The next verse of ‘Lecha Dodi’ quotes from Jeremiah 30:18, about Jerusalem being rebuilt upon its hilltop. Here, Jeremiah is describing the Final Redemption, too, and once again we have lived to see much of his prophecy fulfilled. Jeremiah says the Jewish people will be in great distress and suffering a “terror without relief” (30:5). People will wonder why God was so cruel to His nation, but God answers: “I did these things to you because your iniquity was so great, and your sins so many.” (30:15) Then God will heal His people, restore them to their ancestral tents, and their holy city will be rebuilt. Jeremiah ends the chapter by telling us this will only happen in the far future, “in the End of Days”. God also declares that “You shall be My people, and I will be your God.” These words lead right to the next stanza of ‘Lecha Dodi’.

The seventh verse quotes from Isaiah 62, with the common Biblical metaphor of God as Groom and Israel as Bride. Our “marriage” to God is permanent and eternal. God promises several times throughout the Tanakh that He will never abandon His bride, Israel. God’s commitment to His people is so solid that even when the bride sometimes goes astray, God always takes her back. In the End of Days, the marriage will finally be wholesome as God intended. With this in mind, ‘Lecha Dodi’ moves into the eighth stanza about the Redemption bursting forth through the hands of Ben Partzi—the descendant of Peretz, son of Judah—another title for Mashiach. (Perhaps Rabbi Alkabetz changed zarach to niglah in the fifth stanza to avoid confusion of Peretz with Zerach, his twin brother!)

Lastly, we are brought to the seventh and final millennium of human history, the millennium that is kulu Shabbat, a one thousand-year global Sabbath of peace and prosperity. This ties right into the concluding verse of ‘Lecha Dodi’, which gives a final welcome to Shabbat—both the immediate Shabbat that we are bringing in now, and more cryptically to the final Shabbat era of mankind, which we are surely at the doorstep of.

Shabbat Shalom!