This article is based on a long, enjoyable round of study with my hevruta, Rabbi Joyce Galaski, z”l, and is dedicated to her memory.
Lekha Dodi is a well-loved poem and song. It is sung every Friday night in many communities to greet Shabbat. What’s it about? A cursory look tells us it’s about Shabbat, obviously, and there’s something messianic in there, related to Zion. Some readers might be aware of the references to sefirot, the mystical attributes or layers of Divine self-revelation. (More will be explained about this below for those who don’t know this aspect or want to know more.) But, actually, this beloved poem is about much more than any of that:
The author of Lekha Dodi put a little of EVERYTHING into his poem, including your soul.
Let’s start with some background. Lekha Dodi was written by Rabbi Shlomoh ben Mosheh Ha-Levi Alkabetz sometime in the 16th century. The name “Shlomoh Ha-Levi — שלמה הלוי” appears as an acrostic beginning each of the verses of the song. Alkabetz was born around 1505, probably in the Ottoman (and very Jewish) city of Salonika (now in Greece). By about 1535, he had joined the circle of prominent mystics in Tzfat (or “Safed”) in the Land of Israel. This was a spiritually and historically intense time. It was only shortly after the trauma of the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal. The oppression of the conversos who remained behind was ongoing. Many of the mystics who gathered in Tzfat were the children or grandchildren of Spanish exiles or refugees. On the other hand, the Ottoman ruler, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (reigned 1520-1566), was actively encouraging Jews to settle in his empire. He authorized an enormous expansion of the Jewish population of Tzfat. And he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem — building the beautiful walls that surround the Old City today. When Lekha Dodi speaks of a city “built on its tel” (“on its ruins”), the author is reporting something he himself had witnessed. And into that time and place came a gathering of some of the greatest mystical rabbis of Jewish history: Isaac Luria (“the Holy Ari”), Joseph Caro (author of the Shulkhan Arukh), Mosheh Cordovero and Alkabetz himself, along with many others. Lekha Dodi arises out of that milieu of trauma turned to intense invention, creation and even new possibility.
When we started studying, Rabbi Galaski and I realized there was a serious puzzle hiding in the very first line, the chorus: “Let’s go, my beloved (m.), to meet the bride; We’ll greet (literally: receive the face of) Shabbat.” Who, exactly, are the protagonists in this drama? The speaker has a “beloved.” That beloved is male in the Hebrew (“dodi” – דודי). Is it safe to assume heteronormativity in 16th-century Tzfat? In that case, the speaker is female. But isn’t s/he Shlomoh Alkabetz? Or the normative male service-goer? And further, if “dodi” is the speaker’s male beloved, shouldn’t the speaker be the beloved’s bride? Who’s this bride they’re going to meet? There is a boring solution to this puzzle: reading “dodi” as technical Kabbalah-code for the male aspect of divinity, with no implication of being literally “my beloved.” Nevertheless, we believe Alkabetz is playing Zen master here: He’s intentionally destabilizing the identities of the players, including our own, in order to open up new possibilities in the course of the poem.
Lekha Dodi is highly allusive: It includes very many phrases from Tanakh, as well as references from the Talmud and Zohar and, perhaps, elsewhere. We discovered that paying attention to the source context of these allusions was fruitful. So let’s start with likrat kallah — “to greet the bride.” The most straightforward source is a report in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 32a-b) that on Erev Shabbat,
The author intentionally destabilizes the identities of the players in order to open up new possibilities.
Rabbi Ḥanina would say, ‘Come and let us go out to greet the bride, the queen’ or some report it as, ‘Come and let us go out to greet Shabbat, the bride, the queen.’
But perhaps we also learn something from the seemingly unrelated use of this rarely occurring phrase in a different context: “When does one begin to say the blessing over rain? Beginning when the groom goes out to greet the bride” (Talmud Berakhot 59b). Rashi explains the obscure metaphor: “Because the water collects on the ground, and when a drop falls on it, a lower drop jumps up to greet it.” The groom greeting the bride is a crown of water jumping to meet a drop of falling water. I offer this poem:
Cinquain on Rain
after a comment by Rashi on “likrat kalah”
Pocked and stippled.
Little crowns of rain climb
to meet the falling drops of same.
Let’s jump to the third verse for another indication that this poem is out to destabilize our assumptions about the nature of our world and tell us something about its deeper nature. The verse starts by addressing the “Sovereign’s sanctuary, royal city.” What is God’s city and the city of the Judean kings? Jerusalem, right? But both of those phrases are taken from Tanakh, and neither refers to Jerusalem in its original context. “Sovereign’s sanctuary” is from Amos 7:13, where it refers to Beth El, the site of a secessionist sanctuary built by the king of Israel as a rival to Jerusalem. And “royal city” is from 2 Samuel 12:26, where it refers to Rabbat B’nei Ammon, the Ammonite capital that was on the site of present-day Amman, Jordan.
What’s going on here? The author knows we’re going to take these phrases to refer to Jerusalem and also knows that some of his readers will recognize the source texts. So he’s creating a kind of overlap of Jerusalem with Beth El and Amman. Why? The rest of the verse might give us a clue. The second line tells the addressed city to “leave the ‘hafekhah’” — the upheaval or, even, the upside-down world. “Enough sitting in the Bakha Valley” (often translated as “the Valley of Tears”). This valley, according to Psalm 84, was apparently on the pilgrim road to Jerusalem. We’d like to suggest that every city — whether Amman, Jordan or Willimantic, Conn. — is actually “Jerusalem” in the upside-up world. A sanctuary for the Divine Sovereign. It’s only in our everyday “upside-down” world that they seem to be something else. But, says Alkabetz, enough sitting in the valley of tears on the way to (becoming) Jerusalem. With God’s love, through the magic of Shabbat, every place reveals itself to be God’s home, a sort of Jerusalem. (Perhaps the earthly Jerusalem, too, has to go through this transformation to become the true Jerusalem.)
What might it mean that every city is Jerusalem? What is the deeper reality that Lekha Dodi is pointing to? To understand that, we have to understand a little bit of the role of the Shekhinah in Kabbalah and how Kabbalist literature works.
In the Kabbalist worldview, the ultimate truth and nature of Divinity is unknowable to us. It’s too abstract, un-formed, infinite. But God does reveal Itself. I sometimes teach my students that it’s like the old TV show, “The Invisible Man.” By putting on garments, which are, in a sense, concealing, the Invisible Man reveals himself. The same with God. In the Kabbalah, there are 10 concealing-revealing garments called Sefirot. They proceed in a particular order and each is considered an additional layer of concealment-revelation. The tenth of these layers is Shekhinah. Shekhinah is the “closest,” most revealed presentation of divinity to us. Shekhinah is also female. In the essentialist imagination of traditional Kabbalah (which I think is open to reconstruction), that meant being receptive, being a container or vessel for the flow of blessing from the “prior” male sefirot. The male presentation/aspect of divinity is sometimes called “the Holy One, blessed be He.” (Technically, this is sometimes considered a name of one Sefirah – Tiferet, and sometimes a group of six sefirot.) The problem — and by “problem,” the Kabbalists mean the fact that the world is so broken and messed up — is that there’s some disconnect between the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Shekhinah. She’s somehow separated from him, or, it’s often said, she’s in exile. Instead of unity and a fruitful flow of blessing, there’s alienation and barriers to blessing. The Kabbalists’ goal is to restore unity, to reunite the male and female presentations of divinity.
In the Kabbalist worldview, the ultimate truth and nature of Divinity is unknowable to us.
We’ll see how this shows up in Lekha Dodi, and its powerful implications, by noting a characteristic of Kabbalistic literature. Much of the power of that literature, including the Zohar, derives from its creation of a kind of poetic thesaurus of Sefirot that ends up allowing for a reinterpretation of the Bible (and even of the world around us) as all being about the drama of the separation and reunion of the Shekhinah and the Holy One Blessed be He, or as Rabbi Isaac Luria would say, the drama of tikkun olam — repairing the brokenness of the world. Thus, “vessel” easily becomes a word for Shekhinah. Other places where water is held, like wells or springs, also become references to Shekhinah. “Shabbat,” which is a feminine word and follows the six days of work/creation, just as Shekhinah follows the six Sefirot of the Holy One, Blessed be He, becomes associated itself with Shekhinah. One might say that anywhere God bubbles up into our world is Shekhinah. “Zion” also is Shekhinah. And so our poem, Lekha Dodi, is full of references to Shekhinah and to her separation or union with her beloved.
The poem tells us that union (or repair/wholeness) is available on Shabbat. Or we might say that on Shabbat, we look beyond the veil of the “upside-down world” and see the deeper reality of the One. Thus, in the first verse, we read, “‘Keep’ and ‘remember’ in one utterance.” This is a citation of a midrash regarding the different wordings regarding Shabbat of the two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah. One starts “keep” and the other “remember.” The midrash says that God spoke both at the same time in one utterance. But the Zohar associates “remember/zakhor” with the male (‘masculine’ in Hebrew is ‘zakhar’) and “keep” with the female. And so the poem is telling us that male and female are united as one. And the verse goes on, “YHWH is one and His Name is one — adonai ehad ushemo ehad.”
Again the Kabbalah understands “YHWH” as the Holy One, Blessed be He, and “His Name” as Shekhinah. (A Zohar passage about this appears in many siddurim as part of the Shabbat evening service.) This is a radical statement! In its biblical origin in the book of Zechariah, the prophet says (as we do at the end of the Aleinu prayer), “On that [messianic, future] day, YHWH will be one and His name one.” In Lekha Dodi, we don’t wait for “that day.” Right now, in the parallel reality of this Shabbat, which is traditionally considered a “taste of the world to come,” that unity is already available!
And who or what participates in that unity? Not only are Shabbat and Zion Shekhinah — springs where God wells up — so are you. The soul is mentioned explicitly in the fourth verse: “Draw near to my soul; redeem it/her!” But perhaps a hidden allusion in the sixth verse is more indicative of the role the soul plays in this poem. The verse starts with a quote from Isaiah 54:4, in which Zion is told “you shall not be ashamed and don’t be confounded.” It’s a context that is easily read kabbalistically as addressing the Shekhinah. Lekha Dodi then, in the second line, alludes to Psalm 42:12: “Why should you be downcast, my soul, why disconsolate?” The poem leaves out the word “my soul,” but, again, the author knew that some of his readers would recognize the original quote and associate the phrase with the soul. He overlays “my soul” and “Zion” through the allusions in this verse, both being the site of redemptive unification.
Lekha Dodi encompasses the whole of divinity from “male” to “female” and the whole of God’s creation. While in our broken, weekday experience, these seem separate, at their root, and in the messianic future, they are one. And we can taste that unity on Shabbat. The uniting female Presence, Shekhinah, is divinity entering our world in the guise of Shabbat, of Zion and of our own souls. We began with a puzzle, or maybe a “koan,” in the chorus: Who are “we,” going to greet the bride with “my Beloved?” Shouldn’t “we” be “the bride?” Indeed we are. “Penei Shabbat nekablah” — literally, “we will receive the face of Shabbat.” For this day, the veil is lifted from our Shabbat face, and we become one with our source.
This article presents the main conclusions of my study of Rabbi Galaski, z”l. A more complete presentation of the allusions and related texts we found interesting and important can be found on Sefaria here.