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The Shekhinah is one of the most basic and deep-rooted concepts in the Jewish religion. The number of images by which this female figure is described has ancient roots, such as Shekhinah, Knesset Yisrae’el, Shabbat, and also Malkhut and the kingdom of heaven. These are all familiar terms to the reader of Midrash and all Jewish liturgy. Also key among these is: Hokhmah, the feminine figure of Wisdom, God’s plaything and delight as described already in Proverbs 8. One of the terms for this female hypostasis is also “the lower Wisdom” or “the Wisdom of Solomon”. She is known as the moon, sea and earth which create a feminine divine figure of tremendous mythic power of symbolic richness.
Most important, she is the divine female, the Bride, Spouse, and Lover of the Holy One. While Binah is the active Female, Shekhinah is mostly the passive female in that she receives and represents the divine completely but has no actual light of her own. However, to the worlds below she is mostly imaged as Mother of all Israel’s being, both Israel’s physical and spiritual existence. In fact each and every soul of Israel is said to issue forth from the holy union between Tiferet and the Shekhinah which takes place every Friday night.
The Encyclopaedia Judaica describes the Hebrew word Shekhinah as literally “dwelling” or “resting”, or “Divine Presence”. It refers most often in rabbinic literature to the numinous immanence of G-d in the world. The Shekhinah is G-d viewed in spatio-temporal terms as a presence, particularly in a this-worldly context: when He sanctifies a place, an object, an individual, or a whole people – a revelation of the holy in the midst of the profane. Sometimes, however, it is used simply as an alternative way of referring to G-d Himself, such as “The Holy One blessed be He,” or “The Merciful One.”
The Kabbalists cited 3 separate passages in the Talmud, which were brought together and presented: the first tells us that on the eve of the Sabbath certain rabbis used to wrap themselves in their cloaks and cry out: “Come let us go to meet Queen Sabbath. Others cried: “Come, O Bride, come, O Bride …” . The third passage tells us that Torah scholars used to perform marital intercourse precisely on Friday night. These unrelated reports are interested in the Kabbalistic books of ritual as indications that the Sabbath is indeed a marriage festival. The earthly union between man and woman, referred to in the third passage, was taken as a symbolic reference to the heavenly marriage. These themes were combined with the mystical symbolism identifying Bride, Sabbath and Shekhinah. Still another mystical notion that played a part in the Kabbalistic Sabbath ritual was the field of the holy apples trees, as the Shekhinah is frequently called in the Zohar. In this metaphor the ‘field’ is the feminine principle of the cosmos, while the apple trees define the Shekhinah as the expression of all the other sefiroth of holy orchards, which flow into her and exert their influence through her. During the night before the Sabbath the king is joined with the Sabbath-Bride; the holy field is fertilized, and from their sacred union the souls of the righteous are produced.
The myth of the Sacred Marriage is the holy union of the masculine and feminine aspects of G-d. The exile of the week is overcome as Tiferet/Yesod and Shekhinah enter into that relationship which the Zohar calls ‘ziwuga quaddisha’, which is the mystery of one. The Kabbalistic imagery of the Male and Female is very fluid and mentions various archetypal imagery ranging from the primordial androgyny to the two lovers in the Song of Songs, to Jacob and Rachel, to the Holy One and the mystical Community of Israel and to the various guises of the Groom and Bride. The re-imaging of Shabbat as a marriage festival is one of the most significant contributions of the classical Kabbalistic tradition to the later Jewish celebration of Shabbat. It laid the basis for the ritual innovations of the Safed mystics and has greatly influenced the popular celebration of Shabbat in recent centuries.
The Safed Kabbalists, beginning in the middle of the sixteenth century, developed a solemn and highly impressive ritual and its prevailing theme is the mystical marriage. They created a strange twilight atmosphere which identified the Shekhinah with both the Queen of the Sabbath, with each and every Jewish housewife who was busy preparing her home for the Sabbath, and this is what gave the Sabbath its massive appeal, even to this day.
On Friday afternoon, some time before the onset of the Sabbath, the Kabbalists of Safed and Jerusalem, mostly dressed in white, went out of the city into an open field, which the arrival of the Shekhinah transformed into the “holy apple orchard.” This ritual was performed in order to meet the Bride. The people sang special hymns and the most famous was “Lechah Dodi” which was composed by Solomon Alkabez who was a member of Moses Cordoveros group in Safed. The melodies of these songs were formed into a beautiful garland of white flowers which the Sabbath queen carried in her hand. The feminine imagery indicates the Kabbalistic identification of the Sabbath with the Shekhinah, or Malkhut, the last of the 10 sefirot. Thus, welcoming the Sabbath Bride became transformed into an act of ushering the female aspect of G-d into one’s midst.
In the hymn Lechah Dodi, which is still sung in the synagogues today, mystical symbolism is explicitly combined with Messianic hopes for the redemption of the Shekhinah from exile. It serves as a reminder of some future redemption: the restoration of Jerusalem, the coming of the Messiah and the redemption of the people of Israel. When the actual procession into the fields was dropped, the congregation ‘met the Bride’ in the court of the synagogue, and when this observance in turn fell into disuse, it became customary, as it is to this day, to turn westward at the last verse of the hymn and bow to the approaching Bride.
Following the end of the evening prayers, the men would return home to be received by their wives – the wife in this instance became for the husband the earthly representative of the Shekhinah, with whom he was about to perform that night the sacred act of co-habitation in imitation of, and in mystical sympathy with the supernal union between G-d the King and His wife the Matronit/Shekhinah/Sabbath. The return from the synagogue to the home on the Sabbath eve was also the occasion on which it was proper to show due reverence to the woman of the household. The husband would approach the table and pick up two bunches of myrtles, each consisting of three twigs, prepared for the bride and groom, circle the table and sing welcoming songs to the two angels of peace who were believed to accompany him home from the synagogue. The chanting of chapter 31, verses 10-31 of the Book of Proverbs, which followed, had a double significance. On the one hand, it was meant as a song of praise to the “woman of valour,” the good wife and mother whose very presence in the house, quite apart from all the care she lavished on her family, made it possible for the husband to live a complete Jewish life, in accordance with the demanding teaching of the Kabbalah about the blessed state of male-and-female togetherness. Beyond that, however, there was a deeper meaning: the “woman of valour” whose excellence is described in the 22 alphabetically arranged verses, was interpreted as being none other than the Shekhinah herself, the divine Matronit, whose image thus mystically merged with that of the man’s own wife.
Next came the recitation of an Aramaic poem containing an invitation addressed to G-d the King to take part in the festive Sabbath meal. At some time during that meal or following it, the husband chanted another mystical Aramaic poem written by Isaac Luria and describing the union of G-d the King and His bride the Sabbath. The several courses of the meal, the drinking of wine, the numerous songs, the “words of Torah”, and the after-meal grace, took so long that by the time the family rose from the table it would be near midnight. And this was as it should be, because it had to be midnight when husband and wife retired to bed in order not to contravene the inflexible Kabbalistic rule prohibiting the erotic rituals prior to midnight. The traditional emphasis on having marital intercourse on the night of the Sabbath took on heightened significance. The earthly love between wife and husband was held to represent the supernal union between the Shekhinah and Tif’eret. Even more it served to facilitate such unification within the sefirotic world. In such terms, the Sabbath experience as a whole assumed the character of a sacred marriage celebration.
It is no exaggeration to call the Sabbath the day of the Kabbalah. On the Sabbath the light of the upper world bursts into the profane world in which human beings live during the six days of the week. The light of the Sabbath endures into the ensuing week, growing gradually dimmer, to be relieved in the middle of the week by the rising light of the next Sabbath. It is the day on which a special Sabbath soul enters into the Kabbalist and shares with him/her the secrets of the universe.
Prior to the Zohar the wedding motif consisted of a few guarded allusions. Now it has become a major theme with scores of references that articulate and deeply colour Sabbath celebration. The Zohar transforms a rather static nuptial image into a nuanced drama with a kind of mythic plot, a sense of development, whereby the bridal motif is no longer static but rather a dynamic process. These celestial events are comprehensively absorbed into and associated with the stream of Sabbath rituals: e.g., into Sabbath preparation, prayers, the sacramental meals, and marital intercourse. This greatly aided the integration of the Bridal and Marital imagery into Sabbath celebration. Moreover, on a phenomenological level, these rituals afford the devotee living contact with the unfolding other-worldly drama.
This process may be briefly illustrated: As the devotee prepares his/her home for Shabbat, his/her abode, like the celestial world it reflects, becomes a Marriage Canopy ready to receive the Bride who is at once Shabbat and Shekhinah. In so doing the Bride is welcomed into the devotee’s hearth and home, and Her numinous presence felt. The opening Friday night prayer, the Barekhu, marks the completion of the Bride/Queen’s nuptial preparations and Her early union with Her partner. As the Sabbath begins, Shekhinah enters the divine Palace. She is escorted both by Her angels on high and by Israel below. As the people break forth into prayer, they crown Her and so, adorn Her for the royal wedding.
The Qiddush and Friday night meal are seen as sacramental acts, enabling the devotee to contribute in the coronation of Shekhinah and the Holy One and in the mystery of their union. The Qiddush serves as the marriage ceremony, the moment “when the Bride enters the canopy.” The Sabbath Bride draws attention to the mystery of the hieros gamos as the mystical love descends from the Ancient Holy One unto Tif’eret and thereafter unto Shekhinah, the fertile “Orchard of Holy Apples.” She is crowned by the prayers of the holy people, and they are in turn adorned with new souls so that they are united above and below. Annointed by the forces of Gevurah on high and by Israel below, spiritual love kindled, Shekhinah is ready to unite with Her Beloved. The deepest union of Bride and Groom is attained at midnight as the Talmudic mizvah to engage in marital sex on Friday night (TB Ket. 62b and BQ 82a) is linked with hierogamy. The devotee and his wife symbolically become Tif’eret and Shekhinah and mirror this divine mystery. Consequently, heaven turns to earth and earth to heaven in this very extraordinary union of complete peace which is the Sabbath.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. By F. Seckbach., Ed. By Cecil Roth, Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Ltd., 1972.
On the Kabbalah And Its Symbolism by Gershom Scholem. New York: Schocken Books, 1949.
The Sabbath in the Classical Kabbalah by Elliot K. Ginsburg. New York: State University of New York Press, 1989.