Mystical Shabbat

The masters of Kabbalah explained all of the elements of the Sabbath rituals as a consistent thematic drama of the reunion of the Shekhinah the Sabbath bride, with her mate--and in so doing exerted considerable influence on the shape of those rituals.

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Kabbalistic authors drew connections between Shabbat and some of the ten sefirot, which are personal aspects of the one hidden God, often represented pictorially by a diagram resembling a human body. Adapted from The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. © 1988, Jason Aronson Inc.

Most modern Sabbath observers are unaware of the extent to which Jewish mystics, particularly the kabbalists of Safed in the sixteenth century, introduced into Jewish practice new rituals that reflected their mystical view of the Sabbath. For example, it was their custom to go out into the fields to greet the Sabbath. They went out dressed in white ready to join the bride as her entourage in the wedding ceremony. They would face the west from where the Shekhinah would rise as the sun set. The order of prayers for the Friday evening service that accompanied this ritual was established by these mystics as a unitive and restorative ritual. Their order, including the mystical hymn Lekha Dodi, prevails even today. The Zohar included certain blessings such as "who extends a tent of peace" (ha-pores sukkat shalom) and excluded certain prayers such as "He is merciful and acquits transgression" (ve-hu rahum yikhapper avvon) from the Friday evening service, to illustrate the notion that unity prevails and severity is annulled on the Sabbath. 

spiritual womanIn many traditional Hasidic prayer books the following passage from the Zohar is to be recited on Friday night:

The mystery of Sabbath: Sabbath is unification through oneness, which causes the mystery of oneness to dwell upon it. Prayer, which the Sabbath raises up, unifies and perfects the holy and precious throne through the mystery of oneness so that the divine and holy King may sit upon it. When the Sabbath begins, she is made one and separates from the other side [i.e., evil] and all the forces of severity pass away. She remains unified with the holy light and is adorned with many crowns by the holy King. All the powers of ire and forces of severity are uprooted and there is no evil dominion upon the worlds. Her face is radiant with divine light and she is adorned below with the holy people.

The idea that a special soul enters the body and resides there during the Sabbath dates back to the rabbinic period. The Zohar expands this notion and explains that the Sabbath is "the day of the soul, not the body."

The elaborate Friday evening service is not the only mystical Sabbath rite that entered normative practice. The Zohar explains that the head of the household must accomplish ten things at the Sabbath table, corresponding to the ten sefirot. Although many of these are rabbinic practices, the enumeration of ten central customs and the associated symbolism are Zoharic.

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Dr. David S. Ariel

Dr. David S. Ariel is head of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was previously president of Siegal College of Judaic Studies (formerly the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies). He is author of Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life and The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism.