Shabbat Hamalka

by Dr. Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

"Queen of the Sabbath." Among the goddesses representing either the female side of Yahweh or his consorts, such as Asherah, Shekhina, Anath, and Lilith, Shabbat Hamalka has a unique personality and origin. Her myth strongly influenced Jewish thought, and contributed to the strength of home and family that had improved the odds for physical and spiritual Jewish survival.

The name means Queen of the Sabbath, and the entity is the personification of the Jewish day of rest, Saturday. She still possesses a prominent position in Judaic mythology. For example, Israeli children, even in completely nonreligious surroundings, still sing songs to her every Friday afternoon (in Hebrew "Erev Shabatt" meaning the Sabbath Eve) before the Queen "descends" from Heaven to grace the world for twenty-four hours. When the Jews started their return to Palestine, long before the state of Israel was declared, new mythology had to be created or recreated. Shabbat Hamalka, prominent and romantic, was one of the first candidates. The great National Poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, who was an expert on folklore and mythology, had a lot to do with preserving the image of the Queen in the renewed home of the Jewish People. He invented "Oneg Shabbat," meaning "Sabbath Joy," and combined the customs of group study, festive dinner, lectures, and singing of both old and new songs. The custom spread to the United States and is still observed by many.

Her origin is extremely ancient, and as the centuries rolled, Shabbat Hamalka acquired magical qualities, combining the character of Queen, Bride, and Goddess. In addition, she took on strong erotic/romantic and cosmic/spiritual significance. The usual Judaic connections to Akkadian myths exist in her image, because the word Shabbat resembles the name of the Akkadian feast of the full moon, Shabbatu. The romantic character of the two holidays also had much in common. For example, marital intercourse on Friday night was considered a sacred duty, exactly like the sacred sexual activity during Shabbatu. However, the Akkadians never had a weekly day of rest - the idea seems to start in the second chapter of Genesis.

In the thundering, dramatic first chapter of Genesis, God spends six days engaged in the Creation of the world. In chapter 2, the story continues in a gentler fashion: "Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made" (King James Version). Interestingly, the Sabbath is the only holiday mentioned later in the Ten Commandments. In a way, the Sabbath was the first labor law known to exist.

Some Judaic ancient sects put a different interpretation on the Sabbath, but for traditional Judaism, it was a day of glowing joy from the very first. The general prohibition to work, mentioned in the Bible, was expanded in the Talmud, which listed all the forbidden activities with its usual thoroughness. It solidified the strong attachment between the Jews and the Sabbath by emphasizing that God forgave sinful, even wicked individuals if at least they loved and honored his Day of Rest. It described the need for beauty and order in the home on the Eve of the Sabbath in almost poetic terms — so different from the charmingly prosaic, matter-of-fact attitude the Talmud usually adopts. Most important, one passage in the Talmudic literature (describing events in the second and third centuries CE) already shows the early personification of Shabbat Hamalka: "Rabbi Hanina used to wrap himself in festive clothes towards evening on Friday and say: 'Come, let us go to receive Shabbat the Queen.' Rabbi Yannai used to put on festive clothes on the eve of the Sabbath and say: 'Come, O bride, come, O bride!' "

In a Midrashic passage the image develops: "Rabbi Shimeon Ben Yohai said: The Sabbath said before God: 'Master of the worlds! Each day has its mate, but I have none! Why?' The Holy One, Blessed be He, answered her: 'The Community of Israel is your mate.' And when Israel stood before Mount Sinai, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: 'Remember what I told the Sabbath: 'The Community of Israel is your mate.' Therefore, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy."

Up to this point, she already embodied both Bride and Queen. The Cabbalists, however, developed the myth to its full spiritual and romantic capacity and infused it with mystical, cosmic meaning. They started it as early as the twelfth century, with a landmark treatise by the Spanish poet Abraham ibn Ezra entitled "Epistle of the Sabbath," and developed the myth until the sixteenth century. The most famous poem on the subject is "Lekha Dodi," written by Shlomo ben Moshe Halevi Alqabetz in the Kabbalistic center of Safed in Israel.

During this time, the gender of the Sabbath was debated, based on two verbs used in two versions of the Fourth Commandment. In Exodus, the Commandment declares "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." In Deuteronomy, the Commandment declares "Observe (or Keep, in some versions) the Sabbath day to keep it holy." The Zohar equates "Observe" with the female side of the Sabbath, and "Remember" with the male side, thus giving the Sabbath both genders. This is not as paradoxical as it sounds, if one compares it to the description of Shekhina, who is at the same time the female aspect of Yahweh Himself — and his wife. Duplicate divine personas happen often in Judaism, because it combines a strong patriarchal outlook with an equally powerful presence of the Goddess. So the male side of the Sabbath came to be associated with "Yesod," the male principle of God in the Kabbalah, and the female side associated with Shekhina, who is Queen, representative of the Community of Israel, and Bride of God. This allowed Shabbat Hamalka to become the Bride of Yesod, or simply put, the Bride of God. It also intensified the distinctiveness of a glorious female entity, ready to be worshiped.

She must be received in style. A paragraph in the Zohar starts: "One must prepare a comfortable seat with several cushions and embroidered covers, from all that is found in the house, like one who prepares a canopy for a bride. For the Sabbath is a queen and a bride. This is why the masters of the Mishnah used to go out on the eve of Sabbath to receive her on the road, and used to say: 'Come, O bride, come, O bride!' And one must sing and rejoice at the table in her honor... one must receive the Lady with many lighted candles, many enjoyments, beautiful clothes, and a house embellished with many fine appointments..." Naturally, there were times in the long history of the Jews when not only they did not have embellishments and enjoyments, but barely managed to avoid starvation. Often the poor had to deny themselves simple necessities all week to be able to afford the festive Friday night dinner. The literature is full of stories relating to the efforts to celebrate the Sabbath. One Talmudic story tells about a poor Jew who outbid a wealthy Roman for the last fish in the market. Shabbat Hamalka rewarded him amply - inside the fish he found a precious jewel. Very touching stories were written about how the woman of the house, who was always responsible for lighting the candles, contrived to find the money for buying them - sometimes at the expense of getting bread.

On Friday night, all the men, representing Yesod, went to receive the Bride in the open fields around town. The poetry they recited for the ritualistic greeting included many allusions to the "Sacred Apple Orchard," a mystical place where God and his consort Shekhina celebrated their union and conceived the Souls of the Just. The connection to Ashera, who was always worshiped in glades and groves, is obvious.

Each man returned home to be received by his wife, who represented the Shekhina/Shabbat. All other females of the household were also honored on Friday evening. The husband picked up branches of myrtle, the symbol of marriage which was always prepared for weddings as well. He then recited Chapter 31, Verses 10-31 of the Book of Proverbs, describing the "Woman of Valor," and relating the verse mystically to both his wife and Shabbat Hamalka, thus merging their images for the evening in a cosmic/spiritual context. The ritual and festive meal continued well into the night, leading to the hour of midnight, when it was considered a spiritual duty to retire and have a sacred sexual union between husband and wife. Midnight was chosen because according to Kabbalistic tradition, this was the exact time when the highest aspects of the male and the female sides of the godhead performed their own union.

Judaism never considered sexual activity to be sinful or distasteful. Nor did it assume it was a pleasure only for the man and a mere duty for the woman, as some other religions or customs did. There is even a biblical law that orders a man never to diminish the "food, raiment, and conjugal rights" of his wife. The Talmud allowed a woman to divorce if she felt she did not like having sexual relations with her husband (claim of ma'us alai) and explained that the woman "is not like a captive," thus allowing divorce on demand by either spouse. However, sex was sanctified only within marriage, all other relations looked upon as mortal sin. Therefore, the mutual feeling of sanctity and love between husband and wife, mirrored in the mystical union between God and Shabbat Hamalka, was essential in establishing the strong Jewish home mentioned above.

At the end of the day, the men assembled again, usually at the rabbi's house, for the "Melaveh Malka" ritual, meaning "Farewell to the Queen." The ceremony included singing songs in her honor, eating and drinking, and a lecture or discussion. The Queen then departed and the work week, full of hardship and sometimes suffering, was about to begin again. The entire community, however, was always keenly aware that Shabbat Hamalka would never be away from them for more than six days.



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