L’chah Dodi

Music and recording © Alexander Massey 22 January 2013

The poem L’chah Dodi grows out of the kabbalistic tradition of 16th century Safed. It was popularised by Isaac Luria (the ‘Ari’, 1534-1572), whose ideas were recorded and disseminated by others such as Hayyim Vital (e.g. in ‘Etz Chayim‘); Luria was a pupil of the author of L’chah Dodi, Shlomo Alkabetz (c 1500-1580). Alkabetz was brother-in-law (and teacher) of Moses Cordovero (Ramak, 1522-1570), a prolific writer whose works include Tomer Devorah (the ‘Palm Tree of Deborah’), and who was a pupil of Joseph Caro (1488-1575), author of the Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative code of Jewish law.

L’chah Dodi draws upon a number of themes. Its central idea is welcoming Shabbat on a Friday evening. Some commentators believe that the ‘beloved’ refers to tiferet (beauty), which in kabbalah is associated with the male principle. The poem becomes an elaborate metaphor of the wedding between the Shabbat bride (the feminine aspect of God as represented by the Shekhinah, the ‘indwelling presence’), and the Shabbat husband (Israel). This is why it was considered especially auspicious for husband and wife to mirror heavenly union by making love on a Friday evening.

In the first verse, we are given the two Biblical commandments for Shabbat, to ‘observe/guard’ it, and to ‘remember’ it. Rabbinic tradition (Shevu’ot 20b) teaches that God miraculously uttered both words simultaneously. The original poem has nine verses in total. However, a number of them (3, 4, 6, 7, 8) are often omitted in non-Orthodox communities because they refer to both the restoration of the Temple (and, by implication, its sacrificial rites) and Jerusalem as the (presumably exclusively) Jewish city, and the coming of a Messiah (and the Davidic line that will lead to that), ideas that are problematic for many non-Orthodox Jews. However, we could bracket off the particularity of geography and nation, and reframe this poem for ourselves as a message of how sanctification (respectful delineation) of time (the Sabbath) can help bring about the sanctification of space (Jerusalem/Temple) or vice versa. On a Friday evening, we sanctify both our time and space.

It is common for communities to switch tunes at least twice during the singing of L’chah Dodi, the change moment varying depending on the community. The poem begins with inviting people to go and greet the Sabbath bride, which kabbalists in the 16th century would do by dressing in beautiful clothes and going out into the fields to sing. When the Messianic era is evoked, with past sadness and troubles being cast off (and textual references to Isaiah), a more lively tune is introduced – ‘arise, shine, for your light has come!’. Finally, imagining that the bride is now at the door (at which point communities turn to face the door as someone opens it), the tune becomes even more joyful.

This setting (of verses 1, 2, 5 & 9 of the original poem) begins in the Ahavah rabbah (freygish) mode, a weekday musical prayer mode. The harmonies of both the refrain and the first two verses hold us away from the home key of the piece, reflecting the waiting and yearning for the Shechinah to arrive. At the words Hitor’ri, hitor’ri (‘Rise, rise!’), exactly the same tune is used, but transformed from the minor key to the major; this brings us into the Adonai malach mode, the lighter mode used on Shabbat to reflect its peace and joy. The refrain after this third verse returns to the minor, and it is only after the fourth and final verse, when the Shabbat ‘bride’ has arrived, that a chorus is sung – and even danced – joyfully in the major key. There is another, more subtle musical parallel to an aspect of the poem. In verse 2 of the piece, we are told that Shabbat existed meirosh – ‘from the beginning’ of Creation. Rosh (head / beginning) is spelled with the three Hebrew letters reish-aleph-shin; going one step forward in the alphabet from each of these letters, and we get shin-beit-tav, which spells shabat. As the Shabbat bride arrives in the poem and in the music, the 3rd and 6th note of the minor scale of the first musical section take a ‘step up’ (a semitone) to give us the major key of Shabbat, the last section of music.

I composed this for Shabbat Shirah 5773 (2013), the week where the Torah reading (parshat Beshalach) includes the Song at the Sea (Shirat Hayam). This was the occasion when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds and escaped the Egyptians. This Shabbat is traditionally a very musical one, not least because it was when the Israelites sang a shira chadashah, a new song.

My new translation, keeping the same rhyme schemes as the Hebrew:

My love, my love, come near my love and welcome the bride,
The soul of Shabbat, and bring her to our side.

‘Revere’ and ‘recall’, the words were one; Once heard, then God’s will must be done.
God is One and his name is One In fame and beauty glorified.

Let’s welcome Shabbat and go with all speed. She is the fount of blessings we need.
From the time of Creation she was decreed, Last to be made, but the first sanctified.

Rise, rise! Rise, rise! Arise for the light shining bright in your eyes.
Wake up, wake up with tuneful cries. The glory of God can no longer hide.

Come in peace, our people’s crown, Come with joy in your wedding gown,
Come to the place where God’s blessing comes down. Come bride! Come bride!

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