Texts and Songs—“First Fruits” Journey into Shabbat

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Dec 4, 2013 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer | Prayer

First Fruits: Erev Shabbat, the preliminary partial edition of Siddur Lev Shalem, which will become the new siddur of the Conservative Movement, has just been published. Let us look at the journey of Shabbat liturgy, a journey of text and music. The formal liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat, the Friday evening service) begins with a series of six psalms (Pss. 95–99 and 29) followed by Lekha Dodi. A generation ago, almost all siddurim and services began with “Lekhu neranena . . . ” (the opening of Psalm 95), perhaps preceded by a reading or devotional prayer. The magisterial Minhag Ami: My People’s Prayer Book, a contemporary commentary to the siddur, follows this practice (vol. 8: Kabbalat Shabbat, 49). It was a custom of Sephardim and some others to read Shir Hashirim (the Song of Songs) before this service, seeing this ancient collection of lovers’ poetry as symbolic of the love between God and Israel that is “fulfilled” or “consummated” on Shabbat.

In the 1960s, beginning perhaps in some minyanim (informal congregations) and centers of learning in Jerusalem, the practice arose to sing the ancient love poem Yedid Nefesh (Beloved of my Soul), written in Safed in 1584 by the kabbalist Rabbi Eliezer Azikri. Siddur Sim Shalom includes this poem (with a stirring translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi) along with several other alternative choices for the opening song: Shalom Aleikhem, traditionally sung before kiddush, and Shabbat Hamalkah (The Shabbat Queen), the first verse of a longer poem by the leading figure in the modern Hebrew renaissance, Hayyim Bialik (see Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat, 13–15).

This first extract from Siddur Lev Shalem has consolidated the more ancient text and song, offering two alternatives, Yedid Nefesh and the opening verses of Shir Hashirim, with a slightly fuller version of Shabbat Hanalkah inserted as an option for the end of the service. This compels the congregations using Siddur Lev Shalem to engage with love, lovers, and yearning at the very beginning of the Friday night service, setting an anticipatory tone for Lekha Dodi and affirming the ancient metaphor of Shabbat as “bride” to the community of Israel (see First Fruits: Erev Shabbat, 7–9; Shabbat Hamalkah is on page 69).

It is certainly not by chance that each of these selections has many beautiful and haunting musical selections. We also note the radical innovation of juxtaposing the traditional six psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat with further selections from Shir Hashirim, allowing the metaphor of yearning lovers to be continued until it culminates with Lekha Dodi (9–24)Rabbi Edward Feld, editor of the Lev Shalem series, has offered our communities a new pathway to guide us into Shabbat—a new pathway of text and song paved with sources from ancient texts and wisdom.

I look forward to the unfolding journey of our communities in walking that path through the pages of Siddur Lev Shalem.

Listen and enjoy:

Moroccan setting of Yedid Nefesh from Hazzan Maimon Cohen

classical cantorial setting by Hazzan Samuel Malavsky

klezmer recording of a melody widely familiar in the United States and Israel

The opening of the Song of Songs, chanted in Moroccan tradition

As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at sabarth@jtsa.edu.