Is this Shabbat prayer non-binary?
The liturgical poem (piyyut) Yedid Nefesh, sung as part of the Friday night kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the sabbath) service, is incredibly powerful. The melodies are beautiful. The memories of so many Friday nights – at camp; in ad-hoc minyanim (prayer quorums) in people’s houses; in synagogues around the world — are resonant. The cue to transition to shabbat is immediately relaxing. But it is the words that are truly transcendent. The words! Lush. Erotic. Stirring. Emotional. Passionate. Unafraid. Yedid Nefesh is one of the great love stories, narrating the desire of body and soul of the Jewish people to be enveloped by the Divine.
Yedid Nefesh. From the text: Friend of my soul. My heart’s beloved. My kindred spirit. I – your servant – am pulled, drawn, toward your every need. My soul is sick for your love. Please! Heal her and show her the grace of your light. Then she shall be healed, and be yours for all time. Come, my beloved, the time is now. And we shall be comforted all the days of our lives.
Even this brief redaction of just a few lines takes me to another time, another place, another way of being in the world. These are words. And they work on their own. They do. But they work so, so much better with others. Community works. Being surrounded by others singing the same verses in the same tune, with beautiful melodies and harmonies and voices, is powerful both in its own right and as a way to echo the hundreds of years and millions of voices that have witnessed these same rituals, these same tunes, even as ritual and tunes and words change.
Words change. Even the codified words of prayer can, and do, change. Yedid Nefesh was published in 1601, likely by Sephardi Kabbalist (mystic) Elazar Ben Moshe Azikiri, though other authors have been suggested. To this day, there are various versions with slight linguistic and grammatical differences. Most synagogue communities chose a given siddur (prayerbook) with one chosen version, but others, like those ad-hoc minyanim, operate byos. But even when only one siddur is used in a congregation, people sing what they know. They sing their own traditions. These variations are not only tolerated but encourage, making audible the vibrant living growing history of our religion.
In the case of Yedid Nefesh, the multiple versions are especially moving to hear. There are some minor differences in the words – some render the line “vehiyta la simchat olam,” meaning “and eternal joy shall be hers,” while others have “vehiyta la shifchat olam,” “and she shall be your eternal servant.” That’s a significant change across a few different letters, but the overall implications of the poem remain the same. The more impactful change has to do with grammar. Hebrew is a gendered language. Pronouns have a gender. Verbs take on the gender of those doing the action. Adjectives take on the gender of the object or being they describe. And Yedid Nefesh has variations across them all when addressing the Divine. The singer is sometimes masculine. Sometimes feminine. So too is the One to which the song is sung.
To the Divine: “Yarutz avdach/avedecha kemo ayal, yishtachaveh el mul hadarach/hadrecha.” “Your servant shall run toward you like doe and shall bow before your glory.” And your servant can be masculine and feminine.
And so can your glory. And so can you.
There’s a technical history to some of these grammatical variants related to the Biblical use of the hefsek, the stoppage, which renders certain words feminine at the end of sentences. A well-known example from the daily prayer service is “modim anachnu lach,” (we offer our thanks to you) with the “you” in the feminine form. The “you” in question is God; the “we” are those praying. And the “you,” God, is feminine, because of the grammatical structures of Biblical Hebrew.
The feminine “you,” God, did not emerge as a radical proposition about the genders of the Divine. Which makes it no less important and valuable for those trying to see themselves and their experience in the liturgy. Which makes it no less powerful an experience for those hearing the possibility of a multiply-gendered tradition. Which it makes it no less radical.
I love Yedid Nefesh. I love the words. I love the promise of devotion and the vision of transcendence and the experience of transformation. I love the eroticism and the arousal and the abandonment of the self in pursuit of the other. I love reading it. I love singing it in my house on Friday nights during the pandemic. I so much more love singing it with others. I love hearing the different versions and iterations and – yes – genders intermingling and forming a visions, new versions, new traditions, new meanings. New possibilities. Regardless of the grammatical history, singing Yedid Nefesh amongst others is always radical. Being present for, and participating in, a love song that is most alive in the intermingling of genders is itself an act of love. To the God that bears witness, and to the community – in all its genders and forms of love – that offers it. In the communal space, God is all genders at once. And so are we who are formed in their image.
Yedid Nefesh, like most (but not all) of the Jewish prayers, can be recited alone. It can be read. It can – and often is – sung alone, in all its stirring glory. But not all. One person cannot simultaneously sing two versions of the same word. One person cannot alone create the merging of two genders in grammar, in words, in song. One person cannot be community.
Much of the poem is singular: between one lover and one beloved; one offering worship to one whose glory invites it; one who is yearning to be enveloped by the possibility of being loved in return. But the closing line is otherwise. “Come and show your love,” it beseeches, “the time is now.” But then, the shift, the subtle stirring shift: “and we shall be shown grace as in the times of old.” One lover has become all the lovers. Love has become a communal act. Reciprocal love is a grace for us all. Radical love is a grace for us all.
Sharrona Pearl and is an Associate Professor of Medical Ethics at Drexel University and a freelance writer.