By Israel Drazin


The following is the second part of my two-part description of mystical notions with an explanation of the prayer Lecha Dodi. In the first part, I described the mystical belief developed in Safed, Israel, in the sixteenth century, that envisioned God as comprising ten parts that were somehow detached from each other, and humans have a duty to help God reassemble the ten parts, especially the middle part called Tipheret with the lowest part, the feminine aspect of God, called Malkhut and Shekinah. God, according to the mystical view, cannot do it alone. Once Tipheret and Malkhut are joined, the messianic age will begin. Shlomo Alkabetz was a member of this mystical group. He composed the famous hymn Lecha Dodi which contains this mystical idea. Most people think that the song refers to the joys of the Sabbath, but do not understand most of it because it has many allusions to this mystical concept. I will mention just some of the illusions.[1]


The refrain opens the hymn and is repeated after each stanza. It has the message of the song: Lecha dodi likrat kalla, p’nei Shabbat nikabela. The literal translation is “go my beloved to your bride, welcome the Sabbath.”[2]  However Alkabetz, who composed Lecha Dodi, understood “my beloved” as Tipheret, “bride” as Malkhut, nikabela as sexual union, as it is sometimes used, and Sabbath as the messianic age which will be the best kind of Shabbat. Thus the refrain is urging Tipheret to go and combine with Malkhut, and by doing so usher in the messianic age.

The first stanza begins Shamor v’zachor bedibbur echad. It refers to a solution offered to why the Decalogue version in Exodus 20 starts the Shabbat command with Zachor, “Remember (the Sabbath),” while the Deuteronomy 5 version starts with Shamor, “Keep.” The solution, states the Babylonian Talmud, Shavuot 20b, is that God was miraculously able to combine and articulate both words simultaneously. Alkabetz, the mystics explain, is referring here to the miraculous union of Tipheret with Malkhut. This stanza mentions Tipheret and Tehilah, “praise,” the second is understood as Malkhut, who is the praised one, the lowest Sephira which relates most closely to people. The stanza also states “God is one and his name[3] is one,” referring to the ultimate goal: reuniting God’s Sephirot that God is one again.

The second verse is “Toward the Sabbath (to obtain the messianic age), go, we will go (both Tipheret and Malkhut) for this is the source of the blessing (this is how the messianic age can be obtained).” It continues, “The last deed was the first in thought,” the ultimate messianic age was the original goal as the end of existence.

The third section is: “Arise, go, from haphekha”: it requests Malkhut to cease remaining at the bottom; rise and go up from haphekha,[4] from always looking downward with your back to all the other Sephirot.

The fourth stanza states “Wake up, rise from the dust, (meaning, Malkhut should realize that it is time to move from being the lowest Sephira) cloth yourself with the splendor of my people (the word for “splendor” is Tipheret, thus it is stating cloth yourself (join) with Tipheret.”[5]

Similarly, the fifth stanza “Wake up, wake up, for your light has come, rise and shine.” The poet is telling Malkhut that the time of darkness has ended; it is time for the light of the messianic age to shine. This section ends “The glory of the Lord (Tipheret) is revealed on you (should be joined with you).”

The sixth paragraph mentions the purpose of the union, the messianic age brought about on earth by a descendant of King David.

The seventh states: “Your God (Tipheret} will rejoice over you as a groom rejoices over his bride (by joining one with the other in a sexual embrace).

The last stanza calls Malkhut ateret ba’alah, the crown of her husband. Malkhut crowns her husband Tipheret when she rises above him and then descends upon him and joins with him. It tells her to “come with peace,” referring to the messianic age that results from the union.[6]

This last paragraph if accompanied by Sympathetic magic, by an act on earth that was understood to precipitate a similar action in heaven. The congregation is told to stand for this paragraph, turn to the rear of the synagogue, and recite “come in peace,” to encourage the bride (Malkhut) to come, and bowing twice as a sign of greeting her, with the hope that this performance will cause Malkhut to move upward from her lower position and join Tipheret.

These are just a few of the many illusions in this famous poem to the hoped for joining of the two divine Sephirot. Most Jews do not realize the true nature of this composition and think it was composed to praise the Sabbath. As a result, paradoxically, the custom arose not to chant Lecha Dodi during holiday services that do not occur on the Sabbath, thinking that the chant is not relevant to these days.

[1] Readers will find a fuller discussion in books such as Lecha Dodi by R. Kimelman; Mystic Brides by Y.Y. Schneersohn and A, Sollish; and Lecha Dodi with explanations by Al Cheftzei Hachayim.

[2] The wording is based on words in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119a. However, the mystics took rabbinical ideas and translated them into mystical notions, as they did here. Another instance is that the rabbis suggested enjoying the Sabbath with sexual intercourse on Friday night. The mystics also stressed this, but as Sympathetic Magic: if male and female join together on earth, they will cause the masculine and feminine aspects of God to join.

[3] The term “name” is Scripture frequently means “essence.”

[4] The root of the word is h-ph-kh, “reverse.”

[5] This and much else make no sense if it were applied to the Sabbath.

[6] Ateret ba’alah, say the mystics, makes no sense if applied to the Sabbath.