Psalms and Piyyutim (from Kabbalat Shabbat to Bakashot Shabbat)

There is something truly magical and otherworldly about Shabbat b’Yerushalayim … one can literally feel the presence of the extra souls and the vibration of profound peace, the gentle, full, restorative peace of our prayers – Oseh Shalom bimromav; Hu ya’aseh shalom aleynu … May the One who makes peace in the high places, the One will manifest peace upon all of us … In this city, so well known for the tensions between Peoples in the name of religion, as the sun descends toward the western horizon and throughout the night and morning, I am deeply moved by the layers of peace.

Jewish wisdom lore tells us that we receive an additional soul – neshama yetira – on Shabbat. Reb Zalman, z”l, in a collection of shiurim (teachings) published by ALEPH as “Renewal is Judaism Now,” talks about Shabbat as a place/time of expanded consciousness and transformation and our extra soul and observance of this day of rest as vessel and modality for mirroring the Divine’s rest.  As we recite on Friday night, “u’vayom hash’vi’i shavat vayinafash” ~ “and on the seventh day God rested and was refreshed,” we recite ancient words that call this state into being and we spend the following hours until the setting sun and appearance of three stars moves us back into the weekly rhythms. 

 I think my body, far more intuitive than any other part of me,  must have known that I would need an extra level of energy to match the neshama yetira that I would receive on Shabbat. I had planned to spend my first “free day” in Jerusalem touring the city – visiting the large shuk/market, Machane Yehuda, which dates back to the Ottoman Empire, but my body suggested more sleep was necessary in the morning and with Shabbat arriving so early in the winter, I deferred this experience for another day. Instead, I did some work at home and began preparing for Shabbat by 15:00. [A 24 hour clock makes so much more sense to me … why don’t we use this in the US?]

In keeping with my experience of charmed travels, I hit the Shabbes jackpot in that my first Shabbat in Jerusalem happens also to be the one Shabbat in January that Nava Tehila hosts their monthly musical Kabbalat Shabbat service. It is unfortunate that this extraordinary davenen opportunity is only once a month as it draws an overflowing roomful of people thirsty for the type of experience that Jewish Renewal provides … soul-nourishing, heart-opening, movement-inspiring, joy-enlivening, toe-tapping prayer. Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan and the uber-talented and engaging band of musicians led by musical enchantress and composer, Daphne Rosenberg, sit in the center of concentric circles of humanity of all ages and levels of observance – Jewish and otherwise (I spotted a nun in habit). The music rises and falls exactly the way Reb Zalman would encourage … I remember one Seudah Shlishit at the Ohalah Shabbaton when he lovingly coaxed just one more, even slower and sweeter, round of a chant from the beautifully shaped “landing” of one of R’ Aura Ahuvia’s offerings. 

We move through the poetry and Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat with perfectly timed hefsekot (pauses) for words of wisdom and inspiration from Reb Ruth. First in Hebrew (which I, delightfully, understand … she speaks slowly and deliberately to the gathered kehilla), then in English with a bit less explanation so as to deliberately minimize talking. She asks us to resist the urge to speak to one another … there will be plenty of time to speak when we leave … inviting us to fully immerse in the mostly musical prayer experience. As a participant rather than a prayer leader, I am reminded how very effective it is when one carefully selects minimal spoken word between the already lush and meaningful imagery of the liturgy. 

Reb Ruth draws on a teaching of the Bal Shem Tov (BeShT) about the parsha haShavua (the weekly Torah portion) which leads us into musical settings of the first few Psalms that emphasize the importance of praise from a place of challenge rather than only when we are feeling the gratitude that flows from joy and prosperity. Thanks to the internet, here is a good offering of the teaching so I do not need to reassemble it in my own words. I have emphasized phrases from this text borrowed from a blog entitled “Hasidism for the Rest of Us”:

A teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, as recorded by Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye in Toldos Yaakov Yosef and Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Parshat Vayigash.

And Judah drew near to him

I heard from my teacher (the Baal Shem Tov) an explanation of this verse: As our sages teach, you should always arrange your praise of the Omnipresent One and afterwards pray [that is, first praise God and then make your requests] (1). As the Ramban wrote, “The power of the Maker is in that which is made,” and the Midrash says the created world is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of the inner creature (2). So in every type of hardship there is a holy spark from God, albeit heavily disguised in its worldly garb…but when you strive to understand that here too God is with you, then the disguise is removed and revealed and the hardship ceases to be.

Thus, “to arrange one’s praise of the Omnipresent One” means to recognize that God is in everything, for it is the praise of God that His glory fills all the earth. [This includes even the hardships of life], as in the verse “In all their troubles He was troubled” — which can also be read “all their troubles are no trouble,” for if God is truly in the hardship, then it is not a hardship at all! (3) So a wise and discerning person will understand that the suffering that befalls a person is actually the suffering of the Shekhinah, of God in the world (4). Then he is ready to pray…

This is how we should understand And Judah drew near — with thanks (hoda’ah) and praise for God — “and he said Bi Adonai,” God is in me, so there is no hardship (5)…


1) See Masechet Berachot 31a and Avodah Zarah 7b   2) Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman Girondi, aka Nahmanides (Gerona 1194 – Land of Israel 1270), was a philosopher, kabbalist, and Torah commentator. Here he is quoting a well-known mystical term, koach hapoel benifal. The strange image of the snail comes from Bereishit Rabbah 21:5, which raises the question of how the angel of Ezekiel 10:2 could be “clothed in linen,” since it is an entirely spritual being. The midrash answers that the angel is like a snail, in that its outer garb is part of its inner self. The Baal Shem Tov applies the same concept to the Omnipresent God, so that the universe is at once God’s clothes and God’s self.   3) Isaiah 63:9  In Sotah 31a, the rabbis point out that b’chol tzaratam lo tzar is written with a vav in the lo (meaning “He was troubled”), but it is read with an alef (meaning “it is no trouble”).  4) The Shekhinah, literally “in-dwelling,” or “presence” of God, is the immanent (and usually feminine) aspect of God. Tradition holds that when the Temple was destroyed and Israel exiled, the Shekhinah, which had until then dwelt with Israel in the Temple, chose to go into exile with the people rather than return to Her home with the transcendent aspect of G!d. This is one of the fundamental “breaks” in the world and, according to Jewish mystical tradition, it is the mission of every Jew to reunite the “wife” and “husband” through holy deeds.   5) The Baal Shem tov is reading YeHuDaH as a form of HoDa’aH, “thanks” (which it is — see Genesis 29:35)” and Adoni, “my lord,” as Adonai, “my LORD,” a reading that is supported by the unvocalized text, if not the context. The word, bi, literally “in me,” seems superfluous in the text, pointing to this deeper meaning.

There are moments of the service that are so gorgeous that my heart breaks open and my eyes overflow. There are little children happily crawling and engaging with their parents on the floor near me and in my line of sight and I am struck by how different my relationship is with my boys now vs. when they were small. In addition, this week’s Torah portion, like many of the parshiyot in Genesis and Exodus, speaks to the complexities of family relationships and the ways we hurt one another – intentionally and otherwise. I ride the emotional waves ~ sadness, tenderness, delight, gratitude, love, awe … 

Kabbalat Shabbat ends and a majority of the people in the room depart for Shabbat dinner while a healthy number of us remain for the evening service – Ma’ariv. We are lead by a young man with a lovely voice and a humble capability and the room of daveners follow along through the service in a quick and comfortable cadence. I am so grateful for the growing number of years of ALEPH davenen and my own study and dedication that allow me, now, to be truly at home and warmed by this liturgy which has become my p1040772friend ~ beginning with liturgical appreciation of the natural transitions of the evening sky ~ and has brought me closer to the Sacred and to the generations of Jews that have preceded me and those who presently pray these words all around the world.

As I write this, I vividly remember my first “non-Reform” (i.e. full service structure, primarily in Hebrew) evening service experience. It was late summer, 2010, the first night of DLTI-6 at Isabella Freedman. I was totally lost in my now-dogeared ArtScroll siddur, and dear Daniel Sheff, noticing my increasing anxiety, kept coming by to turn pages for me and point to where we were in the service as I splattered the pages of the prayerbook with tears of embarrassment and frustration at how foreign the liturgy of my own religion was to me.  These six and a half years have been very long ones, filled with growth and challenge and so much learning – both book-learning and self-exploration. I feel, here in Israel, so much of what I can only think to call the strengthening of my essence – my core singing her song with confidence.

When I rise for the Amidah, I feel an explosion of sheer delight. As I breath deeply into my belly, my heart-center rises, my shoulders are drawn back, and I am taller and lighter in that moment. I am aware of the energy that seems to emanate from the eastern wall of the room as we all stand and face the direction in which all Jews all over the world pray and have prayed for millenia —> East … toward Jerusalem, toward the Temple. I am facing east and I am barely 3 kilometers from HaKotel/the Wall, walking distance from the epicenter of my People’s prayer ritual. Now the tears flow freely mixing with the keva (the fixed structure) of the Amidah prayers which I am grateful to have passing through my lips even as my mind and soul are overwhelmed with emotion.

******Later on Shabbat evening/morning*****

One of the items high on my list of “must-do spiritual adventures” in Jerusalem is to visit the Ades Synagogue in the middle of the night – the wee hours of Shabbat morning – to experience their custom of singing Baqashot.  Now I know why my body suggested I sleep in on Friday morning …

My Renewal rabbinic and cantorial education has made me an enormous fan of Piyyutim (liturgical poetry set to music). My affinity for this style of singing prayer began in 2010 when I took my one of my very first ALEPH classes with Reb Elliot and learned Yah Eksof. My delight in piyyutim continued to grow as I learn new melodies and study the paytanim (the 6th – 16th Century composers of piyyutim who designed them to enhance the service and also “slip in” messages and teachings to the congregation (according to Hazzan Saul Wachs).  Ades Synagogue maintains the customs and maqamot (harmonic modalities) of Aleppo, Syria, a place very much in need of our fervent prayers and attention these days. The practice of singing Baqashot, however, arose out of pre-expulsion (before 1490) Spain, migrated to Tsfat, grew in significance, and was disseminated throughout the Mediterranean with Lurianic Kabbalah from the 16th to 20th Centuries.

Intrigued by my spiritual curiosity and a very adventurous soul herself, my delightful and hearty new friend and host, Dvora, chooses to accompany me on the 3.5 km. walk from Mkor Chayim to the Synagogue, just off of Betzalel in Nachla’ot, and we headed out a bit before 2 a.m. We walked through quiet img_0733and beautiful residential neighborhoods and barely encountered a soul … the calm of the streets and the brightness from the streetlights on the Jerusalem stone buildings reminded me of walking in the snow late at night when all is quiet and bright and beautiful.

We arrived at Ades Synagogue early (2:40) and surprised the rebbitzin (Rachel), reading in the women’s section. She was a bit unsure what to make of us, but Dvora warmed her up and within 5 minutes she was running to get us hot tea and sugar from downstairs. The men continued to arrive until, by 3:30, the men’s section was full and the baqashot were being volleyed from the left to the right side of the gorgeously restored synagogue. Different men took turns singing and often they all sang together, all of us following in a white book of Shabbat Baqashot from 3 to 7 a.m. The do this each Shabbat ades-3from the end of Sukkot until Pesach (the winter half of the Jewish yearly cycle). 

It was pleasant, if quite cramped, in the women’s section; the wooden padded benches were comfortable, especially in comparison to the plastic chairs in Tsfat. The wooden mechitzah was easy to see through and standing up to see over it wasn’t frowned upon. The walls all around us were stunning as they are throughout the recently restored synagogue. However, there was no question where the fun was going on and it was NOT in the tiny women’s section.

I was again hit by the difference in experience that one of my male colleagues would have if he followed his spiritual curiosity to spend four early morning hours here. He would be sitting in style and comfort, with plenty of leg room, where the tea was flowing and the candies were being showered on young boys who raised their voices with a solo in the throaty Syrian style of singing praises to God, appreciation of Shabbat, and noting the mystical unity of the divine masculine and the indwelling feminine on yom hashvi’i (the seventh day). He would be welcomed to sit and bathe directly in the midst of this symphonic sea of strong and sweet and joyous voices and feel the waves of musical energy up close.  

As more women arrive, after 5 a.m., they do what women must have learned to do over generations of being relegated to balconies ~ they talked to one another about non-spiritual matters and make it increasingly difficult to fully appreciate the baqashot or follow the liturgy, which often doubles back or skips a section.  This truly unique and delightful experience continues to be diminished by the chatter mixed with my own fatigue, and by the time I leave, the spiritual saturation I felt several hours ago has been pretty much wrung from the sacred poetry of the little white book.

The chill of the morning air is refreshing as I walk home. The streets are still quiet (nearly devoid of cars as so many do not drive on Shabbat) and there are a growing number of men and boys walking to synagogue for morning prayers.  I am moved by how many of the men walking alone have their tallitot over their heads, already, deep in morning tefillah/prayer or meditation, or so it appears. The only women I encounter are a single religious mother walking with a gaggle of children, and several secular joggers. At this hour, it appears no women are headed to pray. I can see why so many Israeli women whom I know and respect have turned away from the religious practices that I find so meaningful. What they have experienced is not what I have been offered.

Today, after a morning nap, Dvora and I sit on the back patio in the sunshine and talk at length about liturgy.  I share many of the ideas that I have img_0697absorbed through my studies and experiences as a service leader, student, and member of the Renewal movement. She is delighted by the egalitarian language of the siddur I have brought … merely the inclusion of the ima’hot (the mothers, Sarah, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel) is novel to her. Rabbi Laura Geller, the third woman ordained in the US, wrote an article published this week about her 40 years in the rabbinate. I realize how very far we have come and how very far we have to go to make Judaism accessible and meaningful to more Jews, especially women who have been sidelined or marginalized by practices that do not really have much of anything to do with the words of Torah. I am reminded, once again, what a blessing it is that I had the courage to hear and listen to the calling to pursue this path to my rabbinate, and I allow the peace of Shabbat to banish all thoughts of inadequacy. 


2 thoughts on “Psalms and Piyyutim (from Kabbalat Shabbat to Bakashot Shabbat)

  1. This morning in our meditation group, one of the members said he went to Nava Tehila (like you!) last night in Jerusalem, then took a midnight flight back to New York, and due to the time difference arrived in time to come to shul! Imagine starting Shabbat in Jerusalem and finishing in Westchester, New York. Not halachic but very amazing indeed. I love your descriptions, your beautiful writing and perceptive spirituality. You describe the wonder and beauty of religious life in Israel, while fully acknowledging the way that women are marginalized in so much of Orthodox synagogue life. I’m sure you will visit other synagogues though and will find the ones that are pushing the envelope and involving women more.


    1. Thank you so much, Reb Julie! Your kind feedback is so meaningful to me.
      What a trip – literally and figuratively, for your congregant! Also, love that you have Shabbat morning meditation before davenen!


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