During the next few weeks leading up to Israel's 60th Anniversary, I am interrupting the pattern of examining the vocabulary of the siddur to highlight aspects of our liturgy that emphasize our connection to the land. With so much misrepresentation being made about us, most especially these days by the United Methodist Church, I thought it would be valuable to illustrate for you how Israel has remained central to our aspirations from Biblical times to the present. No document is better suited than the prayer book to make the point. The selections are not in chronological order, but presented to make the point.
Most of us think of the hymn L'kha Dodi as a poem in praise of Shabbat. Its origins go back to the days of the mystics in Safed (Tz'fat) who would dance and sing as they faced south across the Galilee toward Jerusalem, awaiting the arrival of Queen Shabbat. Solomon Halevi Alkabetz wrote this hymn – his name is formed by the acrostic of the first letter of each verse – in the sixteenth century.
The sixteenth century was not a great time for the Jews of the world. With the rise of Roman Catholic domination in formerly Muslim Europe, the Jews found themselves expelled from long-time homes including Spain in 1492 as the Inquisition reached its peak fervor. Our people were displaced and depressed. A golden age had come to a relatively abrupt end, and many sought comfort and solace in the mystical ideas and practices of Kabbalah. Drawing from the wells of tradition and innovating with imagery and ideas from creative teachers, mysticism brought a new vision of an age-old hope.
We like to represent L'kha Dodi as being primarily about Shabbat. In fact, it spends very little time on the day and most of the verses on the place from which Shabbat enters the world: Jerusalem. The third verse is translated in our siddur (Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals, page 21) in this way:
Holy city, majestic, banish your fears.
Arise, emerge from your desolate years.
Too long have you dwelled in the valley of tears.
God will restore you in mercy and grace.
Jerusalem was not the shining city of Biblical and Talmudic fame in the 1500s. Indeed, it was neglected and tattered. Its innate holiness and its centrality to the imagination and aspirations of our people, however, are seen in this verse (and in the five following verses). As Jerusalem is renewed, so are we the people renewed. As the beauty of Jerusalem re-emerges, so the inner beauty of the Jewish people re-emerges. As sovereignty is restored to Jerusalem, so are we drawn to the place of our redemption from exile and captivity.
Many such hymns welcoming Shabbat were composed during this period of time. L'kha Dodi, with its emphasis on Jerusalem, is the only one to find its way into virtually every prayer book – European, Mediterranean, North African, et. al. Even regional traditions that do not recite the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat recite L'kha Dodi. Why? Jerusalem.