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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1. Light at least two Sabbath candles: The woman head of the household lights at least two Sabbath candles at the table before the onset of the Sabbath, corresponding to the two versions of the Sabbath law in the Ten Commandments. In the Zohar the candles symbolize hesed (mercy), and the table symbolizes din (severity). Symbolically, this act dispels din from the table.

2. Bless the cup of wine: The male recites the kiddush, the Sabbath blessing over wine, at the table. The first part of the kiddush, taken from the biblical description of the first Sabbath, is associated with yesod, a masculine sefirah. The second section is associated with the feminine malkhut. Together, the kiddush symbolizes the unification of masculine and feminine sefirot.

3. Perform the ritual handwashing before breaking bread: This rabbinic law is a requirement before eating bread. The Zohar requires that one hold a cup filled with water in the right hand, which symbolizes hesed, pass the cup to the left hand, which symbolizes din, and pour it first upon the right hand then pass the cup again and pour upon the left. This is done so that the priority of hesed over din on the Sabbath is emphasized.

4. Put two loaves of bread on the table: Two loaves are traditionally used to recall the double portion of manna that rained down before the Sabbath. According to the Zohar, the two loaves placed together symbolize the union of malkhut and tiferet. The Zohar requires that the diners eat from the lower of the two loaves, when one is placed on top of the other, to symbolize the lower sefirot, especially malkhut.

5. Eat three festive meals: The major meals of the Sabbath are Friday evening, Saturday lunch, and later on Saturday following the late afternoon service. According to the Zohar these meals ceremoniously invoke the power of malkhut, keter, and tiferet, respectively. Special songs (zemirot) are sung at each of the meals, many of which were composed as hymns to the sefirah associated with that meal.

6. Discuss Torah at the table: According to the rabbinic tradition, the Shekhinah dwells at any table where Torah is discussed.

7. Welcome poor guests to the table: Charitable concern for the poor is a feature of the social consciousness of the Zohar. The poor are believed to bring special merit to the table and aid in the achievement of unity.

8. Perform ritual handwashing after the meal: This is a rabbinic custom called "final " (mayim aharonim). It is done after the meal before saying the blessing after food. The Zohar explains that this custom is performed in order to cleanse the hands of evil and to remove the impurities that cling to them. It is also intended to wash away particles of food which are then considered a concession and nourishment to the evil forces.

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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.