Welcoming the Angels

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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Forward reader Gilad J. Gevaryahu has written to tell me that my discussion of the Sabbath greeting “shabbat shalom” in this column two weeks ago was scooped. A many-sided correspondence regarding this greeting, Mr. Gevaryahu informs me, can be found in “Mail.Jewish” (featured on www.ottmall.com, a site devoted to halachic issues). It appears in Volume 38, numbers 65-71, posted in February 2003.

I’ve taken a look at these numbers of “Mail.Jewish,” and am delighted to say that not only that Mr. Gevaryahu is right and that he himself is a main participant in this exchange, but also that it bears out, in further detail, the same point that I made in my column. “Shabbat shalom” is indeed an expression that originated in the 16th-century kabbalistic circle gathered around Rabbi Isaac Luria in the Galilean town of Safed, from where it spread to other parts of the Jewish world.

Thus, apart from the passage in the kabbalistic work “H.emdat Yamim” that I cited in my column, there are several other rabbinic sources from the same period that clearly point to a Lurianic provenance for the phrase. One of these is the book Sha’ar ha-Kavvanot, i.e., “The Gate of [Mystical] Intentions,” a collection of Luria’s teachings edited by his disciple, Hayyim Vital. In the section dealing with the welcoming of the Sabbath on Friday night, Vital quotes Luria as having taught, “When one enters his home, he should say in a loud voice and with great joy, ‘Shabbat shalom,’ since he is like a groom receiving the bride in great joy and with a cheerful face.”

A similar custom is recorded in the Shnei Luh.ot ha-B’rit (the two tablets of the covenant) of renowned rabbi and kabbalist Yeshayahu Horwitz (1565-1630). Horwitz left Poland for Palestine in 1621 and settled in Tiberias, a city close to Safed. In his book he writes: “A tradition has been handed down to me that when a man visits his friend on a Sabbath morning, he should not say, as he would on a weekday, tsafra taba, but rather Shabbat shalom or Shabbat tov.”

Apart from the reference to “shabbat shalom,” this passage is interesting for two other reasons. One is that its use of the Aramaic phrase tsafra taba, or “Good morning,” to represent the Yiddish gut morgn shows that this literary usage, which I attributed in my column to late-19th-century writers of Eastern European Hebrew fiction, in fact goes back much earlier. The other is that the Hebrew greeting shabbat tov (“Good Sabbath”) in which the adjective is in the masculine rather than feminine form (which would be tova), reminds us of something else that Mr. Gevaryahu has called to my attention: namely, that in both the Bible and rabbinic literature the noun Shabbat (“Sabbath”), which in modern Hebrew is always feminine, can be treated as masculine, too.

A number of you have suggested that the puzzling aspect of the masculine adjective u’mevorakh (“and blessed”) in the Lurianic greeting shabbat shalom u’mevorakh can be explained in this fashion — that is, that “blessed” refers to the Sabbath itself. But although this is theoretically possible, it seems unlikely to me, inasmuch as the personification of the Sabbath as a distinctly womanly figure, the Sabbath queen or bride who is an aspect of the Shekhinah (God’s femininely represented presence in the world), is a salient feature of Lurianic Kabbalah, as can be seen in the quote from Sha’ar ha-Kavvanot. Why, then, would the Safed circle have used a masculine adjective in this context?

More likely, I still think, is the opinion expressed in my original column: that u’mevorakh, which also can have the sense of “and welcome,” was meant to be addressed to one of the good angels who, in kabbalistic lore, descend from heaven to accompany every Jew throughout the Sabbath day. This suspicion is strengthened by Mr. Gevaryahu, who wrote in “Mail.Jewish”:

“As a child in Teheran, I remember chanting at the Sabbath table: ‘Shabbat shalom, shabbat shalom, aleykhem ha-shalom mal’akhey ha-shalom, mal’akhey elyonim, mal’akhey rah.amim….[‘Shabbat shalom, Shabbat shalom, peace be to you, O angels of peace, angels on high, angels of mercy….’].’ It was understood that we first had to greet the Sabbath twice by addressing her and saying ‘Shabbat shalom, Shabbat shalom,’ and then going on to greet the angels who accompanied her. These angels were the angels of shalom [peace], elyon [on high], sharet [service], and rah.amim [mercy].” (These four types of angels also correspond, of course, to the angels mentioned in the four stanzas of shalom aleykhem, mal’akhey ha-sharet, the Sabbath hymn that is sung before the Friday night meal at Sabbath tables everywhere.) And Mr. Gevaryahu adds: “I have checked with two elderly [Iranian] sources in Los Angeles, and they have both confirmed that in their households they greeted the Sabbath twice [in this manner].”

Shabbat shalom to all of you, too!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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