I really love the singing on Friday nights and feel so much more spiritual than in other services. What is it that we are singing?
On Friday nights, Jews in synagogues sing a beautiful set of words that are not recited at any other time in prayer during the week. This section is called Kabbalat Shabbat, and it is the “crown jewel” of the Friday evening service. Composed of Hebrew psalms and poems, plus the famous poem called “Lecha Dodi,” the Kabbalat Shabbat “warm-up” section of the service is meant to help Jews experience a profound transformation—leading us away from the busy-ness and mundane activities of the work week into the rest and renewal of Shabbat. Originally Kabbalat Shabbat was meant to be merely an introduction to make the evening service different from the other days of the week; eventually, however, because it is so beautiful, it came to overshadow the evening service on Friday nights.
One of the greatest Jewish teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote that “the higher goal of spiritual moments is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” His 1951 book, “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man,” is a master work of poetry in prose, and in it he suggests that we can face the weekly sacred moment of Shabbat and better sanctify our lives by “sens[ing] the grandeur of what is eternal in time” (page 6).
Traditionally, there are seven psalms that are recited during Kabbalat Shabbat, each one symbolizing one of the days of the week that has passed. Then we come to the spiritual climax of Kabbalat Shabbat, the “Lecha Dodi.”
The mystical city of Tz’fat in Northern Israel was the setting for 16th-century Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz to write the liturgical poem “Lecha Dodi.” Since then, it has been sung by Jews to welcome the “Sabbath bride” using a metaphor of marriage between the Jewish people and God that occurs on the seventh day. The refrain repeats: “Go forth, my love; let us greet the bride! Let us welcome the Shabbat!” “Lecha Dodi” speaks of our renewed connection to God, which we may have lost a little bit during the hectic rushing of the other days of the week. It also symbolizes a repaired world—the ancient rabbis imagined that Shabbat would be a “taste” of the Garden of Eden, a perfect paradise, in contrast to the other six days, when we are well aware of the brokenness of our world, which is symbolized by our work during those days.
Key to any Jewish worship experience is worshipping in community. In some communities, as soon as we symbolically welcome Shabbat by singing “Lecha Dodi,” you are invited to meet one another in the community. In our congregation in Brookline, we symbolically welcome Shabbat by singing “Lecha Dodi.” This increases our sense of connectedness and helps us feel joy, both of which are part of the essential message of Shabbat.