Tuesday, May 17, 2011

3 Mitzvot, 2 Angels, 1 Shabbat Queen

The Talmud (Bava Batra 65a) states that when giving a gift one should be generous.  It goes on to give an example: if you’ve bestowed a well upon someone, you should also give them the path that leads to the well.  Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Alter of Ger draws a parallel to Shabbat.  The well is Shabbat, source of renewed life and blessing; the path leading to the well is Erev Shabbat.  What are the steps we take on this path that lead to the well?
The preparations for Shabbat are numerous and extensive.  There’s silver to be polished, food to be cooked and baked, rooms to be cleaned and cleared, shoes to be polished, shirts to be ironed – how will all this be done in time, and how do we prioritize?

All these to-dos are part of how we honor Shabbat.  There are many practical tips and strategies, which we’ll address tomorrow, but for now let’s explore priorities. 
“When a person leaves the synagogue on Shabbat he is accompanied home by one good angel and one bad angel.  If arriving home they find the candles lit, the table set and the beds made, the good angel prays that it should be this way next Shabbat - the bad angel must answer 'Amen' against his will.”  Shabbat 119b

There are some puzzling aspects to this Talmudic quote – do angels have “will?”  What is a “good angel” and a “bad angel?”  But I’d like to focus on the three points the angels look for: the lit candles, set table, and prepared beds. 

These three aspects of Shabbat-readiness are expressions of the three mitzvot incumbent upon women.  The lit candles are an expression of Hadlakat Neirot – lighting Shabbat and Yom Tov candles; the set table hints to Hafrashat Challah – separating a portion of dough; the prepared beds are symbolic of Family Purity. 
The main purpose of the Shabbat candles is to bring light and tranquility into the home.  In addition to their physical benefit , the candlelight brings spiritual light into the home.  This is akin to the spiritual light cast by the Temple’s menorah, lit by the High Priest.

In Temple times we gave a portion of our dough to a local Cohen.  While they can no longer eat this piece of dough, due to its holiness we continue to remove it every time we bake bread.   This represents our understanding that sustenance comes from G-d, and that we imitate Him by sustaining those around us.

The laws of ritual purity pertaining to the Temple are complex and comprehensive.  When the Temple stood, these laws applied to all those who sought to come within its gates.  Today, there are only two groups of Jews who still observe the laws of ritual purity to a meaningful extent: Cohanim and women.  Fulfilling the mitzvah of Family Purity actively invites G-d into the most personal aspect of your life and imbues your entire family and home with holiness.

Just as the Temple was the physical home for G-d’s Shechinah – Divine Presence – so too, is every Jewish home.  Shabbat is the realm of the feminine – the Shabbat Queen, the bride, the Shechinah, so it's appropriate that the most important preparations for her arrival are those performed by her counterpart -- the woman of the house. 
By preparing our homes and ourselves in these three ways we unfurl the red carpet in a royal welcome.

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