27 March 2020

‘Too long have you dwelt in
the valley of tears. He will
shower compassion on you’

‘Come, my Beloved, to greet the bride, and let us welcome the Sabbath’

Patrick Comerford

As the sun sets at the end of this week, I find my self turning to the traditional Jewish hymn Lekha Dodi, which originates among the Sephardic communities in Thessaloniki, and its encouraging words in these difficult times:

Too long have you dwelt in the valley of tears.
He will shower compassion on you

The hymn Lekha Dodi ( לכה דודי‎) is a Hebrew liturgical song recited at dusk on Fridays, usually at sundown, in the synagogue to welcome Shabbat prior to the evening services. It is part of the Kabbalat Shabbat or ‘welcoming of Sabbath.’

The opening words Lekhah Dodi mean ‘Come, my Beloved,’ and this is a request of a mysterious ‘beloved’ that could mean either God or one’s friend or friends to join together in welcoming Shabbat, referred to as the ‘bride’: likrat kallah (‘to greet the [Shabbat] bride’).

When the last verse is being sung, the entire congregation rises and turns west facing the setting sun, or facing the entrance of the synagogue, to greet Queen Shabbat as she arrives, as did the mystics in the fields of Tzefat.

Inside the Monasterioton Synagogue is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki … Rabbi Shlomo ha-Levi Alkabetz, the author of ‘Come, my Beloved,’ was born in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This traditional song was composed in the 16th century by Rabbi Shlomo ha-Levi Alkabetz (ca 1500-1576) from Thessaloniki who later became a Kabbalist in Safed.

As was common at the time, the song is also an acrostic, with the first letter of the first eight stanzas spelling out the name of the author.

The song draws from the rabbinic interpretation of the ‘Song of Songs’ in which the maiden is seen as a metaphor for the Jewish people and the lover (dod) is a metaphor for God, and from Nevi’im, the prophetic writings in the Bible, that use the same metaphor, including Isaiah’s prophecies of consolation, together with Talmudic and Midrashic ideas.

The poem depicts the people asking God to bring upon that great Shabbat of Messianic deliverance. It is one of the latest of the Hebrew poems regularly accepted into the liturgy, both in the southern use, which the author followed, and in the more distant northern rite.

Among the Sephardim, the hymn is sometimes chanted to an ancient Moorish melody that is much older than the text. This is melody of Shuvi Nafshi li-Menukhayekhi, composed by the Spanish Jewish doctor, poet and philosopher, (Judah haLevi (1075/1086-1141), also known as Yehuda Halevi or ha-Levi, or Judah ben Shmuel Halevi, who died nearly five centuries before Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz. In this rendering, carried to Israel by Spanish refugees before the days of Alkabetz, the hymn is chanted congregationally, the refrain being employed as an introduction only.

In some Ashkenazic synagogues the verses are ordinarily chanted at elaborate length by the hazzan or cantor, and the refrain is used as a congregational response. However, in most Ashkenazic synagogues, it is sung by everyone together to any one of a large number of tunes.

In his footnotes in the Authorised Daily Prayer Book (p 266), the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, describes this song as ‘a work of surpassing beauty, speaking in turn of Shabbat, Jerusalem, the Jewish people and the Messiah, before returning in its last verse to the Shabbat again.’

The full nine verses of this song are found in the Authorised Daily Prayer Book (pp 266-271). Sephardic congregations based in the Jerusalem and Aleppo rites omit verse 4 and verses 6 to 8, as they make reference to agony. Many Reform congregations omit verses 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8 that refer to messianic redemption.

Come, my Beloved, to greet the bride,
and let us welcome the Sabbath

‘Observe’ and ‘Remember’ in a one act of speech,
The One, the Only God made us hear,
The Lord is one and His name is one,
For renown, for splendour, and for praise.

To greet Sabbath, come let us go,
For of blessing she is the source,
From the outset, as of old, ordained:
Last in deed, first in thought.

Sanctuary of the King, royal city,
Arise, go forth from your ruined state.
Too long have you dwelt in the valley of tears.
He will shower compassion on you.

Shake off the dust, arise!
Put on your clothes of glory, My people.
Through the son of Jesse the Bethlehemite,
Draws near to my soul and redeem it.

Wake up, wake up,
For your light has come: rise, shine!
Awake, awake, break out in song,
For the Lord’s glory is revealed on you.

Do not be ashamed, do not be confounded.
Why be downcast? Why do you mourn?
In you the needy of My people find shelter
And the city shall be rebuilt on its hill.

Those who despoiled you shall be despoiled,
And all who devoured you shall be far away.
Your God will rejoice over you,
As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.

Right and left you shall spread out,
And God you will revere
Through the descendant of Peretz,
We shall rejoice and we shall be glad.

Come in peace, O crown of her husband;
Come with joy and jubilation,
Among us the faithful of the treasured people.
Enter, O bride! Enter, O bride!

Sunset in Askeaton this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

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