Carlebach Rabbi Explains the Meaning of the Lecha Dodi Prayer
The highlight of Shabbat for many people is Lecha Dodi, the prayer that welcomes the Shabbat. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach composed a special melody for each of the nine stanzas.
The prayer was written by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz (1505-1584), who became immortalized through the composition. “Lecha Dodi” means “Come, My Beloved.” Alkabetz’s name appears as an acrostic in the prayer.
Rabbi Alkabetz was an important link in the chain of Tzfat Kabbalists, becoming the teacher of his brother-in-law Rabbi Moshe Cordovero. In addition to his continuing the traditions of Kabbalah, his composition of Lecha Dodi successfully integrated Kabbalistic ideas about the nature of Shabbat into mainstream Judaism.
And while most Jews who recite Kabbalat Shabbat have no idea of its rich mystical significance, they can’t help but be inspired by the powerful, poetic, romantic nature of the psalms – especially of the Lecha Dodi.
The Lecha Dodi is poetry based on quotes of the Bible and Talmud arranged in such a way that it leaves one with a sense of the lost and found element – a lover being reunited with his beloved.
This concept of the unification of the lover is a metaphor for a coming together of the feminine and masculine aspects of Divine emanation that need to be realigned to face one another and enter into a state of spiritual intimacy. This idea of two parts being reunited is also the metaphor for the Divine presence (The Holy One, Blessed be He), which represents the six Divine emotions of which Tiferet is the center, uniting with the Shechina, the indwelling of the Divine whose presence is felt in the world.
In short, the transcendent unites with the immanent.
This unification happens on the levels of time, space, and self. Shabbat is seen as the unifier of time, when transcendence and immanence meet. Jerusalem is seen as the center of the world, which, while still in exile, waits for its true nature to be revealed – the ultimate unity of the transcendent G-d within it. The Children of Israel represent the embodiment of soul or self that is yearning for oneness with their Divine source that can bring G-d’s deepest desire into reality.
Although many people are aware that Kabbalat Shabbat in general, and Lecha Dodi in particular, are Kabbalistic in Nature, I would like to share some insights regarding the first Paragaph of Lecha Dodi, based on Kol Cheftzey Shamayim, a collection of the Arizal’s teachings, that illuminates the mystical meaning of Lecha Dodi.
Although Lecha Dodi was composed by Shlomo Alkabetz before the Ari taught his system of Kabbalah, Kabbalists have taken the liberty of using his system even to explain earlier Kabbalistic works.
First Paragaph of Lecha Dodi
Shamor v’zachor b’dibur Echad hishmiyanu Ai-l ha’meyuchad Hashem Echad u’shmo Echad l’shem u’letiferet v’ltihila
Observe and remember the One and Only G-d caused us to hear in a single utterance; The Lord is One and his Name is One, for renown, for glory and for praise.
Shamor V’zachor: Observe and Remember in Exodus, in the Ten Commandments, the verse (chapter 20, verse eight) says “Zachor et yom ha’Shabbat l’kadsho,” remember the day of Shabbat to sanctify it. Later, in Deuteronomy, when it repeats the Ten Commandments, it says (chapter 5, verse 13) “Shamor et yom ha’Shabbat,” observe the day of Shabbat.
Question: Why does Lecha Dodi change the order given in the Bible?
Answer (1) Shamor, observe, represents the evening of Shabbat, and Zachor, remember, represents the Day of Shabbat, so we are going according to the sequence of time.
Answer (2) Zachor, remember, represents the positive Mitzvot, as the numerical value of Zichri Vav Hai is 248, the number of Positive commandments. Shamor, observe, represents the negative Mitzvot, as the numerical value of Shmi Yud Hai equals 365, the number of Negative Commandments. The first two letters of G-d’s Name are connected to the Negative Commandments and the last two letters of G-d’s name are connected to the Positive commandments; thus, in a certain aspect, in observing the Negative Mitzvot, when we withhold ourselves from breaking a connection we cause a Higher Divine light to be manifested. This is why we start with Shamor – because in a sense, it is a higher light.
Answer (3) as the verse says “Turn from evil and do good,” first turn away by observing Shamor and do the positive and remember, V’zachor.
B’dibur Echad: In a single utterance The Talmud (Shavuos 20b) explains that when the commandment of Shabbat was given, G-d spoke one utterance, but we heard two; the positive and negative (zachor v’shamor). This world is defined by opposites: good deeds and bad deeds, night and day, happy and sad, and it would be hard to understand happiness without sadness, etc. In fact, these opposites have in them a source from above, so that the world was created one thing opposing the other thing. This is the source of free choice – without good and bad you would have no free choice, no reward and punishment.
The diversity of desires and interests creates a dynamic interplay of raising the sparks of Holiness or causing them to descend into the netherworlds by our actions. Although life seems to be diverse in its variety of life forms and vast distinctions in its eco systems from the micro to the macro, nevertheless all this diversity, including good and evil, are, at their source, all really one existence brought into being with one utterance. Everything was as if it was placed before Him, and then the Creator set each thing up according to its place.
Hishmiyanu: Caused us to hear the idea of speech being the energy that G-d uses to create the world with, although found in the Talmud (for example, Rosh Hashana 32a), is a key concept in Zohar and Kabbalah. Divine speech can be broken down into a more abstract pre-verbal light and a more articulated speech that is revealed within the vessel of our existence. These two elements of revelation are often termed light and vessel.
Generally, what is a source of inspiration is light, and the being that receives the inspiration is a vessel. Here the idea of causing us to hear means that the light comes into the vessel. The Kabbalistic name of G-d associated with receiving of the light is Ban – a way of spelling out G-d’s name so that its numeric value is 52.
Ai-l Ha’meyuchad: The One and Only G-d
Why is the One G-d the source of a single utterance? The term Ai-l Ha’myuchad, the One and only G-d, conveys a sense of unity.
Hashem Echad U’shmo Echad: The Lord is One and his Name is One
The unity of G-d’s name, the numeric equivalent of the two names Havaya and Adnut is in Amen (Havaya =26 and Adnut =65; 26+65 = 91, Amen). The Holy One Blessed (Havaya), needs to be united with the Shechina (Adnut). The verse says Ba’yom Hahu, “On that day Hashem will be One and His Name will be One,” which means that which is not presently in a constant state of Unity will enter into a perfect unity. The unity of Dodi Z”A (light) and Kallah Nukvah (vessel).
L’shem U’leteferet V’ltihila: for renown, for glory and for praise Tiferet is the term for Zeir Anpin (the name of Havaya). Tehilah and Shmo represent Malchut; so once again, we are talking about the unity of the divine emotions and Malchut. This unification of the Divine light, referred to as Zeir Anpin, and the Divine vessel, referred to as Malchut or Shechina, is the goal of Kabbalat Shabbat, the masculine and transcendent side of G-d uniting with the feminine immanent aspect of G-d.
Rabbi Naftali Citron is head Rabbi of The Carlebach Shul on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.