Lecha Dodi Take 2
The heyday of Spanish Jewry lasted around 600 years (from the 900s to 1492). When I think of Sefardic Judaism, the first things that come to my mind are its great leaders; its vaunted poets, Ibn Gabriel and Yehuda Halevi, and numerous Talmudic scholars: Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachamonides, Ritva, Rashba, and Don Isaac Abarbanel
Then I envision the two sides of the Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law. One side is written by the Sefardic rabbi, Rav Joseph Caro
and the other by the Ashkenazic rabbi, Rav Moshe Isserles. Together this work guides all of Israel.
Until recently, when I’d ponder our past in Europe, inevitably, I would recall Ashkenazic history: surviving the Crusades and undergoing expulsions, migrations, and endless pogroms ultimately culminating in the Holocaust.
Yet, when I recently read the book “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean,” I came to know and feel the suffering of the Jews of Spain from the 1300s to the 1800s.
As we learned in the superb class given by Moises Hassan from Spain on Wednesday night, Sefardic Jewry experienced continuous forced conversions, expulsions, and inquisitions.
These Inquisitions lasted for four hundred years. But let’s think about this, why did they last so long? The implication is something exceptional: it means that Jews who converted to Catholicism, whether willingly or forcibly, were still practicing Judaism covertly hundreds of years later. Despite all the cruel atrocities of the inquisition, these tormented Jews would not wholly abandon their faith.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, the city of Safed (Israel) witnessed an immigration of converso Jews, mainly from Portugal. Much of this immigration was the result of the forced conversion of Portugal’s Jews in 1497 by King Manuel (many of them Spanish refugees from 1492), the renewed threat of an inquisition against Judaizing conversos in Portugal in 1531, the tribunals of the Holy Office in 1536, and the autos-da-fe in 1540. These conversos immigrated to Safed as a place where they could shed their Christian identity and become reabsorbed into the Jewish community.
Professor Shaul Maggid writes: “Their choice of Safed had to do with its economic viability, but, for at least some conversos, it likely also had to do with their belief in the impending redemption. There was a popular tradition for many Jews in the Mediterranean lands, rooted in the Zohar, that the messiah will not come from Jerusalem but from the Galilee.
We actually know that the kabbalist and author of the Sabbath hymn “Lekha Dodi,” Shlomo Alkabetz, who lived in Safed, composed a prayer for the many new immigrants to Israel that included mention of the conversos in a positive light.”
If Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz was so concerned and invested in these Portuguese returnees, then perhaps his most famous work, Lecha Dodi, also has a message for them as well.
The composition begins with welcoming the Shabbat:
לְכָה דוֹדִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה, פְּנֵי שַׁבָּת נְקַבְּלָה:
Refrain: Come my Beloved Friend to greet the bride, let us welcome the Sabbath.
שָׁמוֹר וְזָכוֹר בְּדִבּוּר אֶחָד, הִשְׁמִיעָנוּ אֵל הַמְּיֻחָד, יְהֹוָה אֶחָד וּשְׁמוֹ אֶחָד, לְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאֶרֶת ולִתְהִלָּה:
“Preserve” and “Remember” (the references to Shabbat in The Ten Commandments) in a single utterance the One Almighty caused us to hear; Adonoy is One, and His Name is One; for fame, for glory, and praise.
This paragraph and a few others about the nature of Shabbat make sense, but the song switches strongly to a message of consolation:
הִתְנַעֲרִי מֵעָפָר קוּמִי, לִבְשִׁי בִּגְדֵי תִפְאַרְתֵּךְ עַמִּי, עַל יַד בֶּן יִשַּׁי בֵּית הַלַּחְמִי, קָרְבָה אֶל נַפְשִׁי גְּאָלָהּ:
Shake the dust off yourself, arise, dress up in your garments of glory, my people; through the son of Yishai the Bethlehemite, (The Messiah is a descendant of David, the son of Yishai of Bethlehem). Draw near to my soul and redeem it.
Why mention that Messiah will be coming soon? Could it not be to give hope to those refugees who fled specifically to the Galilee, where the Messiah is to appear?
הִתְעוֹרְרִי, הִתְעוֹרְרִי, כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ קוּמִי אוֹרִי, עוּרִי עוּרִי שִׁיר דַּבֵּרִי, כְּבוֹד יְהֹוָה עָלַיִךְ נִגְלָה:
Wake up! Wake up! For your light has come, arise and shine. Awaken! Awaken! Utter a song, The glory of Adonoy is revealed upon you.
לֹא תֵבוֹשִׁי וְלֹא תִכָּלְמִי, מַה תִּשְׁתּוֹחֲחִי וּמַה תֶּהֱמִי, בָּךְ יֶחֱסוּ עֲנִיֵּי עַמִּי, וְנִבְנְתָה עִיר עַל תִּלָּהּ
Feel not ashamed or humiliated: why are you bowed down, why do you moan? “The afflicted of my people will take refuge in you.” and the city will be rebuilt on its ancient site.
Considering all of the humiliation and persecution these Portuguese Jews had suffered, could not this verse be encouraging them?
Lastly, the desire for revenge cannot be silenced:
ּ וְהָיו לִמְשִׁסָּה שׁוֹסַיִךְ, וְרָחֲקוּ כָּל מְבַלְּעָיִךְ, יָשִׂישׂ עָלַיִךְ אֱלֹהָיִךְ, כִּמְשׂוֹשׂ חָתָן עַל כַּלָּה:
They will be ravaged, those who ravaged you, and they will be cast far off, all who devour you. Your God will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride.
We can now view Lecha Dodi as a song not just about Shabbat but about consolation. Directed at those lost and oppressed Portuguese (and Spanish) Jews who had freshly experienced forced conversions, inquisitions, and expulsions, it’s a song of acceptance and forgiveness as well. Is it any wonder why this song became immediately embraced by Sefardic and long-suffering Ashkenazic Jews? It’s a song of hope, healing, and a greater future.
The next time we come together for Shabbat and sing this five-hundred-year-old song, let’s have in mind not only the joy of Shabbat but the people who enabled us to get here. Those who suffered and persevered for so long made it possible for us to reach this time. And conditions arise that aren’t so pleasant for us, we can always turn to Lecha Dodi’s inspiring message and know that better times are ahead.
Thank you, Cantor Michael Kasper, and the Shabbat Around The World committee, Sharon Dashow, Robin Soberman, and Barry Amper, for making this such a special Shabbat.
Have a great week,
 Shaul Magid. From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbala (Kindle Location 1179). Kindle Edition.