Kab­bal­at Shab­bat: Wel­com­ing Shab­bat in the Synagogue

Lawrence A. Hoff­man, ed.
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Wide­ly con­sid­ered the most poet­ic and mag­i­cal of all Jew­ish litur­gy, the Kab­bal­at Shab­bat ser­vice reflects Jew­ish his­to­ry from bib­li­cal ori­gins to the mys­ti­cal age cen­tered in Safed in the 16th and 17th cen­turies. The litur­gy demar­cates sacred time from the ordi­nary week, wel­com­ing the Sab­bath using poet­ry, psalms, hid­den acros­tic, and oth­er prose that chal­lenge the intel­lect, spark the imag­i­na­tion, and bring the heart clos­er to God. 

The heart of this prayer book is struc­tured like a tra­di­tion­al Jew­ish text, framed by var­i­ous com­men­taries — a con­ver­sa­tion among sages across the ages. The edi­tor notes that the trans­la­tion strives to repro­duce not only the con­tent of the orig­i­nal Hebrew, but also its tone, reg­is­ter and style. 

The 13 com­men­ta­tors who con­tribute to the vol­ume rep­re­sent all denom­i­na­tions of Judaism and offer a wide vari­ety of per­spec­tives, includ­ing fem­i­nist, legal, bib­li­cal, his­tor­i­cal and mys­ti­cal. In addi­tion to the book’s edi­tor, a pro­fes­sor of litur­gy at Hebrew Union Col­lege-Jew­ish Insti­tute of Reli­gion in New York, oth­er com­men­ta­tors include Joel Hoff­man, Hebrew lan­guage schol­ar; Ellen Frankel, a schol­ar in Jew­ish folk­lore; Reuven Kimel­man, a pro­fes­sor of rab­binic lit­er­a­ture; and Nehemia Polen, direc­tor of the Hasidic Text Insti­tute at Hebrew Col­lege in Boston. 

For each part of the prayer ser­vice, a few lines from eight or nine com­men­taries appear around the Hebrew and its Eng­lish trans­la­tion. The com­men­taries then jump to the next or sub­se­quent pages. Unless you are used to this type of pre­sen­ta­tion, flip­ping between pages is awk­ward at first. One approach is to pick a favorite com­men­ta­tor and fol­low his or her threads through­out the book. 

The intro­duc­tion is com­prised of sev­er­al essays that col­lec­tive­ly take up more than 40 pages. If you read only one essay, make it the last — How to Look for Mean­ing in the Prayers,” which likens the rela­tion­ship between read­ers and litur­gy to deer in the for­est. Deer do not just inhab­it the for­est; they are part of the for­est; they change the forest’s con­tours as they live there, just as the for­est changes them by offer­ing shel­ter, food, and water,” the essay­ist writes. 

The book con­cludes with eight blank pages for notes, encour­ag­ing the read­er to add his or own tracks to the Kab­bal­at Shab­bat ecosystem. 

Oth­er vol­umes in My People’s Prayer Book series include Shab­bat at Home, Con­clud­ing Prayers, Morn­ing Bless­ings, Morn­ing Psalms, the Ami­dah, and the Sh’ma. Read­ing these books is like explor­ing the mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture of a dia­mond to dis­cov­er why the gem’s sur­face glit­ters with such brilliance.

Robin K. Levin­son is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and author of a dozen books, includ­ing the Gali Girls series of Jew­ish his­tor­i­cal fic­tion for chil­dren. She cur­rent­ly works as an assess­ment spe­cial­ist for a glob­al edu­ca­tion­al test­ing orga­ni­za­tion. She lives in Hamil­ton, NJ.

Discussion Questions