The road through Safed leads everywhere, but the strangest of all weddings took place near it about 420 years ago. Every Friday, before sunset, many Jewish mystics of the holy town in Israel dressed in white garments and formed a procession going through the streets. Along the road, other participants--all grooms looking for the same one bride--joined them and when they reached the end of town, they marched into an open field to the east to welcome the Shabbos Bride. According to Jewish mystical tradition, they sang six Psalms,1 which represent the world of the Six Days of Creation that preceded the holy day Shabbos day of rest.2
From his vantage point, next to an olive tree on his land, an Arab farmer stood, watching the procession with bitterness in his blood. Why do these Hebrews have to pass him as if they mocked his very existence? Why did they have to sing? Why did they have to dance and trample the grass? Once he raised enough money the Arab planned to buy that field and put a stop to the Jews' outrages. This road lead right near his present land, ancient, holy land that was deeded to him by his own father and by his father and his father. He was there long before these present-day Jews came and he would be there long after they left. As far as he was concerned there was no such thing as a permanent Jewish neighbor.
Yet the Jews came. For all Jews, Shabbos was a holy day in the week, but for these mystics each Shabbos was a holy wedding day. Some of the most famous Jewish mystics in history lived in the town of Tz'fat (now city of Safed), such as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shlomo Luria Arizal, Rabbi Moshe ben Yaakov Cordovero, Rabbi Dovid ben Zimra Radbaz, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef Terani Mabit, Rabbi Yosef ben Ephraim Karo, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, and Rabbi Avraham Dov of Abritish, among others, and whose remains are buried there. Yet, as our Sages tell us, these holy Jews live on still in their "abode of the living." "Even after death, the tzaddikim are called living" (Berachos 18a).
Along this road, a veritable "Shabbos Road," the mystics sang "Lechoh Dodi...Come, my Beloved, to meet the Bride. Let us welcome the Shabbos.... Shake the dust off yourself, arise, don your glorious garments--my people...Awake, awake, utter a sing...The Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one."
"Come in peace, Shabbos Queen!" The Jews raised their voices to heaven and the message went forward, heard even by the Arab farmer, who failed to grasp anything about it. In his time Rabbi Akiva3 was often asked: "What makes you think that your Shabbos is more important than the other days of the week?" Once, a Roman officer asked him that, and he boldly answered him with another question, "What makes you think you're more important than anybody else?" Proudly the Roman said, "Because I was chosen to be honored by my emperor." "The same is true about Shabbos," said Rabbi Akiva. "Shabbos is more important than the rest of the week because the king of kings has chosen to honor it."
"Lechoh Dodi, Shabbos Queen," the call of exultation ranged through every Jewish home and echoed in the hills. The theme of bride and bridegroom--the Jewish people and G-d, the Shabbos and the Jewish people--has come down to every Jew. It is part of our heritage.
When the tradition of greeting the Shabbos Bride began is a story in itself. Every storyteller has his own version, all steeped in the truths of Torah and Talmud. One early source, quoted by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai (author of the Zohar), tells us:
When G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day, which He blessed and made holy, Shabbos appeared before the Holy One, blessed be He, and complained: "Master of the Universe, each day of the week has a mate, but I am the odd one, without a mate!"4 Replied G-d: "The Jewish people will be your mate!" Thus, when G-d gave his Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, He began the Fifth Commandment with the words, "Remember the promise I made to the Shabbos that the Jewish people will be its mate."5
But every Jew bound by the Torah knew, or eventually came to know, of the author of "Lechoh Dodi." Renowned for his wisdom and poetry, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz6 composed the niggun around 1571. He lived only a little more than eight more years to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
However, the Arab farmer knew or cared little about such things. Hotheaded and a poor businessman, the farmer witnessed his farm, land become fallow. Rarely now did his fig tree bear healthy fruit, even in season. Why was this so? No doubt, he told himself, the Jews were exacting their price for his open belligerence towards them. Jews--Hebrews--or whatever they called themselves!--were his enemies, enemies of all enemies! They were to blame for all his misfortunes, and he was determined to make them pay. But how? Slowly he plotted his revenge. Slowly he picked his victim. Who? Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz. Why? Did this Arab need any other reason than that Shlomo HaLevi wrote a song called "Lecha Dodi"? "Let's go forth, my beloved." As far as the Arab was concerned, this spiritual, loving niggun summed up everything that separated Jew from Arab. It was these Jews, or their ancestors, who had seen the birth of Mohammed (569-632 c.e.), the camel driver who was "imbued with the fervor of Judaism, proclaiming all Arabs descendants of Abraham and calling for all Jews and Christians alike to join him in a true brotherhood of man in the name of Allah"7; it was these Jews who walked the road adjoining his land and perhaps in the middle of the night ate up his food, stole his grain and plotted their evil. Thinking this made the Arab more angry, and one day when he saw a lone Jew--he knew it was the celebrated Rabbi Alkabetz!--walking along the road, absorbed in his prayer book, he seized the opportunity. Nobody in the universe could attest to what was in his mind and clearly no other person was about. Somebody had to pay for the rejection of his prophet Mohammed and his beloved Koran. Somebody had to pay for the loss of his income. With a hostility that Mohammed must have also felt towards Jews, the Arab farmer waylaid the lone Jew along the road and murdered him.8 The year was about 1580.
The road through Safed leads everywhere, this time to the courtyard of the farmer, directly to the fig tree, where he now buried the Jew. The story is recounted in the book, Safed: The Mystical City:
The following day the tree blossomed and bore fruit--exceptionally large and delicious figs ... yet it was out of season!
Soon news of the miraculous occurrence reached the ears of the Turkish provincial governor. He summoned the Arab farmer.
"What is your secret of outstanding horticulture?" he asked. "This is the first I've ever heard of a tree bearing fruit before its appointed time."
The farmer remained silent. He was afraid of the consequences should he confess.
The governor asked again, more firmly this time, more demanding of an explanation. The farmer remained mute. Finally, the governor ceased to tolerate the farmer's insolent silence, and ordered that he be tortured. The Arab finally confessed to killing Rabbi Alkabetz, and admitted that from the day he had buried him the fig tree had begun to bear fruit.
Startled and impressed by this revelation, the governor commanded that the farmer be hung from that very fig tree as punishment for slaying a holy man of Israel!9
As we're beginning to realize now, the road through Safed leads everywhere, this time beginning with "Lechoh Dodi" and ending with immortalizing Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz. You can find his name in the first letters of each of the eight verses of the niggun, which he composed that way. Beginning with the letter "shin" ("Shamor v'zachor," etc.), they spell out his name, Shlomo HaLevi. You can also find "Lechoh Dodi" as one of the ten niggunim of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chasidism (1745-1812). Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn (1860-1920), the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, used to recite Shema Yisrael in his prayers to this tune.
The melody is also a traditional Breslover10 Shabbos table niggun that was set to "Lechoh Dodi" in recent years and has become very popular in Breslov. There, the song has a total of nine verses.
Finally, on erev Shabbos, the road through Safed leads to you, to your lips, to prepare the way for the Shabbos Queen.11
"Come, my beloved ... Lechoh Dodi ..."
As Shabbos puts her arms around you, there are no words to describe it. That's what a niggun is for.
1. These tehillim--Psalms 29 and 95-99--are now a part of our "Kabbalas Shabbos" ("Welcoming the Shabbos") service to this very day. The custom began about 400 years ago and was introduced by the Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero (1522-1570) of Safed (brother-in-law of Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, author of "Lechoh Dodi").
2. According to Rabbi M. Cordovero, as quoted by Nissan Mindel's book, My Prayer, vol. 2, p. 10 and in Siddur Otzar Hatefilot, vol. 1, p. 590.
3. 40-135 C.E. Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph. Often called the father of Rabbinical Judaism, he was the greatest scholar of his day, a true giant in the history of Judaism. And if you think you're not where you'd like to be in embracing Yiddishkeit, consider this: Akiva was virtually uneducated until he way 40; after you couldn't hold the holy man down. At one point when he established his own school in B'nei B'rak, he had 24,000 students!
4. "The seven days of the week may be divided into three parts of days, each pair adding up to seven (one and six; two and five; three and four), leaving the seventh day as a single day." My Prayer, Nissan Mindel, vol. 2, pp. 28-29.
5. See Bereishit Rabbah 11:9, see also My Prayer, vol. 2, pp. 28-29.
6. "Rabbi Solomon Alkabetz, a kabbalist of Safed, is reputed for composing the popular hymn Lechoh Dodi in 1529 (according to others, 1571). The poem is a mosaic of biblical and rabbinic phrases and no less than six of its nine stanzas are devoted to the yearning for Jerusalem. Accepted by all Jewish communities throughout the world, it became a favorite of Hazzanim, synagogue-composers, and Hassidic sects. Abraham Z. Idelsohn, the foremost Jewish musicologist, estimated in the early 1900's that there were some 2,000 melodies written for the Lechoh Dodi text. Certainly this number is far greater now because of the many contemporary settings and oral Hassidic tunes sung since Idolsohn's time." Macy Nulman, Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer, p. 88.
7. Jews, G-d and History, Max I. Dimont, p. 186.
8. Safed: The Mystical City, by David Rossoff, p. 80.
10. Chasidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, 1772-1811.
11. "In the ghetto of Prague between 1594 and 1716, Jews welcomed the Sabbath with hymns and instrumental music. It was in the synagogues of Prague where the organ (ugab) and string instruments (nebalim) were played. According to rabbinic rule, the musicians had to cease playing their instruments immediately before the recitation of Psalm 92, Mizmor shir leyom haShabbos, at which point the Friday evening service officially began." Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer, p. 88.
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