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Reprinted with permission from Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals, published by Pocket Books.
In the first verses of Bereshit Genesis, God creates light and “there was evening and morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1:5) The rabbis reasoned that if the Torah, the product of divine revelation, said that the first day began with evening, that must have been God’s intention, for “days” to begin at sunset. So when the sky is streaked with the fading Friday sunlight, in Jewish homes around the world, candles are lit, b’rakhot are said, and Shabbat is welcomed. And in synagogues, the Friday ma’ariv service begins with a series of hymns, Psalms, and blessings collectively known as Kabbalat Shabbat/ Welcoming the Sabbath.
In Orthodox congregations, Kabbalat Shabbat consists of Psalms 95 through 99, Psalm 29, the hymn L’khah Dodi/Come my beloved, Psalms 92 and 93, a lengthy reading from the Talmud passages governing the Sabbath, placed here to separate Kabbalat Shabbat from Ma’ariv, and both the Mourner’s Kaddish and Kaddish de-Rabanan, a Kaddish said after learning in a group, in honor of our teachers. In Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist services, the Talmud passages and the two versions of Kaddish may be omitted, often re placed by a half-Kaddish that separates the Kabbalat Shabbat from the Ma’ariv service proper.
Shabbat is a time of joy, and the six Psalms that make up the bulk of the Kabbalat Shabbat are celebratory, corresponding to the six days of creation; but it is L’kha Dodi that many feel is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Shabbat evening service. In the sixteenth century, the small town of Safed, located in the mountains of Galilee in northern Israel, was a center of Jewish mysticism. Solomon ben Moses Halevi Alkabets was one of the many mystics who lived and studied there. On Friday nights, Alkabets and his colleagues would dress in white like bridegrooms and joyously dance and march through the fields outside town to greet the Sabbath, which is depicted in both Talmud and in mystical texts as a bride and queen. Around 1540, Alkabets, a poet, composed a beautiful ode to the Sabbath Bride, L’kha Dodi, urging Jews to greet the Sabbath and extolling her virtues. The poem quickly became an eagerly awaited part of the Friday night service, adapted by German Ashkenazim within less than a hundred years. Today, with more than two thousand musical settings of Alkabets’s Hebrew text, it is recited or sung in virtually every synagogue in the world as the Sabbath is ushered in. In many congregations, when the final verse is sung and the word s “Enter, O Bride,” are said, the worshippers will turn to the entrance of the sanctuary and bow in honor of the Sabbath Queen. (Incidentally, the initial letter of each of the first eight verses of L’kha Dodi form an an acrostic spelling of Alkabets’s name, one example of the linguistic cleverness or a poem that is full of biblical allusions, puns, and wordplay.)
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