There hasn’t been much time in my household over the last few years for Kabbalat Shabbat, the prayer service welcoming the day of rest, recited at dusk on Friday evening. In our home, that hour is generally reserved for the usual ritual of scrambling to get the kids fed, washed and into bed (hopefully with enough time left over for two pooped parents to wish each other “Shabbat shalom” and call it a night). But now that the kids are growing up and staying awake later – and taking advantage of the early onset of Shabbat during the winter months – we’ve been able to make it out to Kabbalat Shabbat a couple of times in recent weeks. It’s been a rewarding experience.
What I have recalled, sitting in shul on Friday night, I can only really describe as a kind of warmth. It seems to me, thinking back now, that when I would sit in shul next to my father and grandfather on Friday night during Kabbalat Shabbat, freshly showered and dressed in a suit (or at least a stiffly pressed white dress shirt), I would feel pleasantly, physically warm. I can’t think of another prayer service that has affected me the same way on a consistent basis.
According to halakhah, Shabbat begins for women with the blessing of the candles. For men, Shabbat starts at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat (although the rabbis argue whether the final prayer of the service or the first blessing of Ma’ariv, the service immediately following, marks the true beginning). Kabbalat Shabbat might be seen as the equivalent of those moments prior to blessing the candles when women wave their hands in the air, drawing the literal heat of Shabbat inward.
It is also quite likely the most musical of the services. The psalms that open Kabbalat Shabbat call for joyful singing. “Come, let us sing joyously to the Lord,” the first psalm begins; “Sing to the Lord a new song,” the second proclaims; “With trumpets and the blast of the horn raise a shout before the Lord,” another one demands. The final psalm concludes, “You have loosened my (mourning) sack and girded me with joy. So that my soul will sing praises to You and not be silent.”
Over the centuries, Jewish singers and cantors have taken literally this imperative to sing out during Kabbalat Shabbat, and today we benefit from scores of tunes, some sung quietly under the breath, others communally, invented and adapted to accompany the psalms. You could go to five shuls and hear five different ways to sing Kabbalat Shabbat (or you can go the Carlebach route, and sing the same tune over and over again).
The centrepiece of Kabbalat Shabbat, Lekhah Dodi, follows. Composed in the 16th century by the kabbalist Shlomo ha-Levi Alkabetz (his name is preserved in the poem’s acrostic formulation), Lekhah Dodi literally welcomes the “Shabbat bride” with love – love for the decidedly non-human, but for the fellow human traveller, too. “Let’s go, my beloved,” the chorus intones, “to meet the bride.” And like the rest of Kabbalat Shabbat, Lekhah Dodi also lends itself to a variety of tunes, both traditional and modern – if you’re lucky, you’ll find a congregation where they switch it up midway through the prayer.
My kids were still singing Lekhah Dodi on the way back from shul the other week. It was dark and cold outside, and I was battling unsuccessfully against a too-small double stroller and two puffy snowsuits. We’d blown right through bedtime, and we weren’t even home yet. But all I felt was the warmth of Kabbalat Shabbat.