Shabbat Eve (Part 2): Shabbat Angels—Blessings or . . .
“Shalom aleikhem” is a traditional greeting exchanged upon encountering a friend or acquaintance, and also the opening phrase of the familiar song chanted around the Shabbat table before Friday night kiddush (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, 13, 309).
This song (author unknown) is an innovation of the 17th century, and it faced significant opposition from a number of authorities, including the great liturgist Rabbi Jacob Emden. He wrote, “I never saw my father, my teacher recite any form of supplication upon returning home from synagogue . . . and we should be additionally concerned about requests addressed to angels . . . Why should we introduce innovations which our forefathers never conceived?”
In spite of these sentiments—which arise in the face of almost every liturgical innovation—the song has become an established and beloved part of Leil Shabbat. It is based upon the well-known talmudic legend (BT Shabbat 119b) that teaches that two angels accompany a person home from synagogue on Friday night. If all at home is well prepared for Shabbat, the “good” angel declares, “So may it be for next Shabbat also!,” and the “bad” angel perforce must answer, “Amen!” If the home is not prepared for Shabbat, the roles of the angels are reversed, although the angelic remarks remain the same.
It is interesting that the angels are formally greeted with the words shalom aleikhem only upon arrival at home, even though the Talmud suggests they have shared the journey home from synagogue. Perhaps we learn from this that there is a special quality to the greeting we offer guests as we welcome them across our threshold into our home, our own space. The song, after greeting the angels, invites them into the home, perhaps to inspect the quality of Shabbat preparations (the Arukh Ha-shulhan suggests that even the guest beds should be prepared with care). The phrase “Barkhuni le-shalom” then asks for blessing, following which the angels depart.
Hayim Bialik wrote a poem with four stanzas called Shabbat Ha-malkah, exquisitely woven around the metaphors and message of Shalom Aleikhem. The first verse is well known, often sung at summer camps and in congregational services (Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, 13).The three remaining verses are (sadly) little known, but are critical to understanding Bialik’s work as a poetic midrash on Shalom Aleikhem, for the final line of each verse by Bialik corresponds to the first line of the same verse of the song.
Our liturgy retains mention of angels in the prayer Hashkiveinu in the Ma’ariv (evening) service and in the prayers said immediately before sleep, in keeping with our seeking angelic presence among family and friends as we welcome Shabbat each week.
My teacher Rabbi Lionel Blue offers an alternate vision of Shabbat angels.
My grandmother (bubbe) took me on expeditions.On Thursday nights she woke me up and at dead of night, when the gas-lamps were turned down to a flicker, we went round the block putting little packets through letter boxes. They were little parcels of money and food to help poorer families celebrate Shabbat. They were given at night so that giver and receiver would never meet, and neither would feel obligation or shame.
He went on to write,
I was surprised when I first saw a picture of angels after I became an evacuee [from London in the war].Who could believe in their too sweet smiles, the peroxide blonde hair and the fairy wings? My angels were solid from the neck down.They were Semitic, rheumatic and waistless. When the Messiah comes they might levitate, but in this reality their poor bodies were stuck only too closely to the earth.
May our experiences of Shabbat each week bring out our own angelic qualities and invite blessings upon us.
Listen and enjoy:
A haunting rendering of the “traditional” melody for Shalom Aleikhem with Shabbat images
A performance by Avishai Cohen, a contemporary Israeli artist
The setting by Malavsky, performed by Hazzan Yakov Rosenfeld in Haifa in 2007 (along with other Shabbat songs)
A choral setting by HaZamir at the 2010 convention of the Cantors Assembly
A contemporary cantorial setting that musically alludes to the connection with Shalom Aleikhem
A story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach expands on the reminiscence of Rabbi Lionel Blue: “Yossele the Holy Miser”
Hear the same story told in Hebrew.
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.