Exploring Lecha Dodi, Part 1: The Refrain

Other entries in this series: Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

With some time off this summer, I thought I would take some time each Friday to explore one of our best-known but least understood Tefillah-songs, Lecha Dodi. Check back each Friday to learn about the next verse or two. I will be taking an approach that combines textual, historical, and philosophical ideas to, hopefully, enhance our Tefillah and our lives as thinking religious individuals.

The refrain:
Lecha, Dodi, likrat kallah; p’nei Shabbat nekablah.
Literally: Come, my beloved (male singular), to greet the bride; the face of Shabbat we will accept.

Issues we will need to consider:
1) Who is the “dod” referred to in the first half of the line? (From the male “Dodi,” we can assume that it is a male.)
2) Based on the song’s use of the word “likrat” (to greet) rather than “nikrat” (we will greet), it seems that the “Dod” is being told what to do on his own, as a sort of command or invitation, rather than being asked to do something with the singer. Yet the second half of the line has the word “nekablah,” we will greet, rather than “likabel,” to greet. Why the change? In other words, who are “we,” and why are “we” added only later in the refrain?
3) Is the “Kallah” Shabbat? If so, why is Shabbat first (in the singular, directive part of the verse) referred to as Kallah and only afterward (in the communal, invitational part of the verse) as Shabbat? In general, what is added or changed in the second half of the refrain?
4) What is the p’nei (“face of”) Shabbat? Does Shabbat have a face? Why not just say “Shabbat Nekablah?”

The basic text of this refrain seems to come from Gemara Shabbat 119a, which, at least according to the commentary “Iyun Tefillah” in the Siddur Otzar HaTefillot, also serves as the impetus for this whole song. Let’s see the Gemara:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קיט עמוד א
רבי חנינא מיעטף (wrapped himself), וקאי אפניא (rooftop), דמעלי שבתא. אמר: “בואו, ונצא, לקראת שבת המלכה!”
רבי ינאי לביש מאניה (special garment) מעלי שבת, ואמר: “בואי כלה, בואי כלה!”

On a simple level, both accounts show great Amoraim expressing their excitement for the onset of Shabbat, and in both cases Shabbat is personified in surprisingly human terms, in one as a “Malkah” (queen) and in the other as a “Kallah” (bride). Our Siddur is inspired by both accounts, borrowing from both Rabbi Yannai, who anthropomorphizes Shabbat as a “Kallah,” and from Rabbi Chanina, who introduces the concept of “Likrat,” our going out to greet Shabbat (as opposed to Rabbi Yannai’s inviting Shabbat to come to us [“Bo’ee”)]. Along the same lines, note the change from “בואו” to “בואי.” In fact, the terms used by each Amorah are consistent with their personifications: one would probably go out to greet (“Bo’u,” “Likrat”) an aloof Queen, but a Chattan might lovingly invite (“Bo’ee,” “Nekabel”) his Kallah to come close to him. Our Siddur, however, chose to combine the two, adjuring us to “Likrat” the “Kallah,” which compromises between the two Amoraim but which also might be said to compromise some fluidity in the process.

Missing from either Talmudic account is the “Dod.” The sense in both stories is that these great leaders were inspiring their students, family, or community members to join them in greeting Shabbat or inviting Shabbat to come to them. The inclusion of some other party in the process is absent from the Talmudic accounts. Who is the “Dod,” and where did he come from?

Yaakovson in Netiv Binah (Heb. Ed., vol. 2, p. 60) quotes Zev Yaavetz who feels that the “Dod” is Knesset Yisrael, and we are thus inviting an inter-generational mass of Jewishkind to join together in greeting Shabbat. The more common explanation, as mentioned by Yaakovson in the name of Rav S. R. Hirsch (based on Yishayahu 5:1 and Shir Hashirim 7:12), is that the “Dod” is Hashem.  The Commentary “Anaf Yosef” (in the Siddur Otzar HaTefillot) explains:

דודי – פירוש”דודי,” הוא הקב”ה. ואנו מתפללים על קץ הפלאות, שינחם לשכינה, הנקרא “כלה.”

Munk in “Olam HaTefillot” (Heb. Ed. p. 12) also assumes that the Dod is Hashem. If this is true, we begin the refrain by asking Hashem (“Dodi”) to go ahead (“Lecha”) and greet (“Likrat”) Shabbat (“Kallah”), which, if He does, would in turn lead all of the Jews together to accept (“Nekablah”) the face of Shabbat (“P’nei Shabbat”). Hashem marches ahead at the front of the line to “greet” Shabbat, so to speak, following which we all together accept Shabbat as a Nation.

This is in line with the Gemara’s understanding that while Holidays are sanctified first by us and only afterward (based on our calculations) by Hashem, Shabbatot are sanctified first by Hashem and only afterward by us:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ביצה דף יז עמוד א
תני תנא קמיה דרבינא: “מקדש ישראל, והשבת, והזמנים.”
אמר ליה: אטו שבת – ישראל מקדשי ליה? והא, שבת מקדשא וקיימא!
אלא, אימא: “מקדש השבת; ישראל, והזמנים.”
אמר רב יוסף: הלכה כרבי, וכדתריץ רבינא.

When it comes to Shabbat, Hashem takes the lead in creating the sanctity of the day which we then harness for ourselves. That is why Kiddush on Shabbat begins with Vayechulu – a declaration of Hashem’s having already made Shabbat Holy – before we can make Shabbat Holy for ourselves in the second half of Kiddush. Yom Tov Kiddush contains no such introduction because the Holiness is initiated by us, not by Hashem, after which Hashem follows our lead in accepting our declaration of the new month which has led the holiday to be celebrated on that particular day. Instead, we end Yom Tov Kiddush with She’hechiyanu, thanking Hashem for “doing His part” by bringing us to this new opportunity to declare the new month and celebrate the holiday at this exact juncture.

This same theme is mirrored in the refrain to Lecha Dodi. “Lecha, Dodi, Likrat Kallah” – You go first, Hashem, to sanctify Shabbat; and only then, “Pinei Shabbat Nekabelah” – we will all go, following your lead, and accept Shabbat for ourselves. Perhaps the role-reversal of Yom Tov is also why we do not say Lecha Dodi on Yom Tov – this refrain would not be relevant to a day on which we do not want or need Hashem to take the lead in sanctifying the Day.

We have now answered the first two questions with which we began our discussion. As to Question #3: why the change from “Kallah” to “Shabbat” part-way through the refrain? In order to answer this question, let’s pose one more: Why say Kiddush on Shabbat at all, if Hashem has already been Mekadesh the Seventh Day? Although Hashem initiates the Holiness of Shabbat – as the Gemara said, “שבת מקדשא וקיימא” – the full effect of that initiation is still predicated on our being Mekadesh Shabbat ourselves. In other words, the Seventh Day itself is Holy either way, but its Holiness, and the attendant opportunities that that Holiness provides, do not transfer to us without our active involvement (i.e., Kiddush). (It could be for that reason that on Shabbat we do “קִידוּשׁ,” while on Pesach [and on other holidays, if we cared to use the term] we do “קַדֵשׁ.”) Without that transfer of Holiness from the Day to us, Shabbat remains merely the Kallah that it is in the first half of the refrain – brimming with potential, but short on experience or affect. For as long as only the Dod, Hashem, has “greeted” the day, the day is merely a Kallah. Only at the point at which “Nekablah,” we accept Shabbat for ourselves, can we refer to the day as Shabbat.

Yet even then, Shabbat will not effect us the right way simply by our having been “Nekabel” Shabbat. Even after Hashem (the “Dod”) has initiated Shabbat’s Holiness by sanctifying the Day and we have been “Nekabel” its Holiness onto ourselves, we have still only reached the “P’nei” Shabbat. The way in which we act for the next 25 hours will determine whether Shabbat truly has any meaningful or lasting impact on our lives. In theory, we can make Kiddush and then forget about Shabbat, to varying degrees of negligence, until Havdalah. The third and final stage of the process implied in the refrain of Lecha Dodi is to move the “Kabbalah,” a mere acceptance of Shabbat, into action over the rest of Shabbat so that more than merely the “P’nei” Shabbat can affect our lives.

We tend to feel differently about Shabbat at its beginning than we do at its end – the creeping hordes crowding the exit door during the final Kaddish (or earlier) at Maariv at the end of Shabbat may have greeted the “P’nei” Shabbat nicely 25 hours earlier, but may also have missed some of the follow-through of that excitement as Shabbat moved along. In fact, in shoving Shabbat out the door like a house-guest we just found out is a jewel thief, we actually violate several Halachot, among them:

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן רצ”ג – רמ”א
ונוהגים לומר “והוא רחום” ו”ברכו” באריכות נועם, כדי להוסיף מחול על הקודש (א”ז).

Whoa – try doing that in your local Orthodox Shul next week! A drawn-out “Vehu Rachum” and “Barchu” at the end of Shabbat? Duck! Projectiles incoming! Try advertising a Carlebach end-of-Shabbat Maariv and see who comes. Actually my father-in-law, who maintains his Dutch Minhagim fastidiously, does do this and has not (yet) been shot. The rest of us are, of course, one foot out the door (figuratively if not literally).

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים סימן ש – רמ”א
הגה: לעולם יסדר אדם שלחנו במוצאי שבת כדי ללוות את השבת, אפילו אינו צריך אלא לכזית.

Are we careful about Melave Malka? Or has the P’nei Shabbat we so excitedly greeted turned on its heels and run?

So the short refrain reminds us of many important points: Shabbat’s Holiness comes directly from Hashem, but it does not transfer to us unless there is a Kabbalah by us as well – an acknowledgement that we want to begin the process of accepting Shabbat in our own lives. And even then, we have only reached the “P’nei” Shabbat, because – as any Kallah knows – it is easy to dream and want good things from the outset, but maintaining that commitment, or feeling its freshness, over time is not as easy. Moving from the “Kallah” stage to the “P’nei” stage and then carrying the feelings long beyond are all challenges, but it behooves us to invest more effort than entailed by our singing about them in a nice song.

OK – next week we’ll explore Verse #1.

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