of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali



Upon arriving home one should make haste to dine immediately.


No, I have not made a mistake. The text (above) for today's shiur, which is the last on Section 271, is the very first paragraph of the section, one which we already covered many weeks ago. The reason for the repetition will become apparent, I hope, during the course of this shiur.

The first paragraph of section 271 lays down a simple rule: that upon arriving home from the synagogue on Friday evening one should proceed immediately to one's meal; and the meal is, of course, to be preceded by kiddush. And yet, we find over recent centuries that in many parts of the Jewish world the immediate and obvious intention of this regulation is ignored if not flouted. When I was a child I grew up in an orthodox household where this rule was followed according to the letter: my father and I arrived home from synagogue; with alacrity the family sat down round the dinner table; and my father immediately proceeded to recite kiddush - that is to say, he began to recite the quotation from the book of Genesis which is prefaced to the actual text of the kiddush. (See Shabbat 029 for the full text.) Indeed, that is how the regular orthodox prayer book that was used in our congregation presented kiddush.

But that is not how most families today recite kiddush. Indeed, it is not how my own family recites kiddush today! In most households the familiar text of kiddush is prolonged by a series of additions which come before it - and this in spite of the urgent requirement of the Shulĥan Arukh, given in paragraph 1 of section 271, above. In most households three passages precede the actual kiddush:

  • A melodious invocation to the Shabbat angels, Shalom Aleykhem;
  • A quotation from Proverbs, chapter 31, Eshet Ĥayil;
  • The blessing of the children.

These additions are comparative newcomers: they are not really much more than 250 years old. They are yet another example of how kabbalistic custom has permeated our general tradition; they are also yet another example of how kabbalistic custom was not particularly concerned when it permitted itself to override established halakhah. We shal now examine each of these three items seriatim.

The song Shalom Aleykhem is based on two passages in the Talmud [Shabbat 119b]. Both are a piece of aggadah - passages intended for spiritual uplift rather than halakhic exactitude. This is what the first passage says:

Rav Ĥisda quotes Mar Ukba as saying that when someone prays on Erev Shabbat and recites Vayekhulu [Genesis 2:1-3] two angels that accompany a person lay their hands on his head and tell him: "Your guilt shall depart and your sin shall be purged away." [Isaiah 6:7]

We note that this passage suggests that two angels accompany a person on his way home on Friday night. This beautiful concept is explained in the second aggadah in the same source:

Rabbi Yosé bar-Yehudah says: on Erev Shabbat two angels accompany a person home from the synagogue: one is good and the other is bad. If he arrives home and finds candles burning, the table laid and the couch arranged [around the table] the good angel says "May it be this way next Shabbat too," and the bad angel has to respond "Amen." But if the opposite is the case it is the bad angel who says "May it be this way next Shabbat too," and the good angel has to respond "Amen."

This text is the basis for a song which was composed during the 17th century. The song apostrophizes the two angels, welcoming them as having been sent by God, invoking their blessing and, their task performed, sending them on their way in peace. The text of the song is not uniform in all the traditions of our many places of dispersion; nor has it been uncontested from the halakhic and philosophic point of view. For instance: Rabbi Eliahu, the great Ga'on of Vilna [1720-1797], refused to sing the third of the four verses because he thought that it was most inappropriate for Jews to ask angels for a blessing.

After Shalom Aleykhem has been sung it is customary to sing a passage [Proverbs 31:10-31] which is, in fact, a paean of praise to the virtuous Jewish women, the industrious woman who creates and runs her home. I am reasonably sure that most people who sing this passage at the dinner table on Friday night think that they are doing so as a tribute to the housewife who prepared for the Shabbat celebration so meticulously and so painstakingly. However, that was not at all the intention of the kabbalists who originally introduced the custom of singing Eshet Ĥayil at the dinner table on Friday evening. The virtuous female that these kabbalists chose to celebrate is the Shekhinah, the female manifestation of the divine presence. For them it was the Shekhinah which was the "woman of worth" who was being welcomed into their homes and into their hearts as Shabbat began.

The passage, Eshet Ĥayil is an alphabetic accrostic: that is to say that each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In modern times the misunderstanding concerning the original intention of Eshet Ĥayil in this context has been further compounded. Under the impression that the passage is intended to praise the industrious Jewish housewife some moderns, impelled by considerations of egalitarianism, have taken to adding after the passage from Proberbs the recitation of Psalm 112. This psalm describes the virtuous man and is also an alphabetic accrostic. Of course, despite what I have written here concerning the philosophic etiology of Eshet Ĥayil, there is no reason why people should not recite it as a gesture of praise for the Jewish housewife. And, I suppose, that those who feel really uncomfortable about praising the woman of the house without having the man praised as well can add Psalm 112 even though its recitation postpones the meal even more, and we are required "upon arriving home to make haste to dine immediately".

One further addition to the kiddush is the blessing of the children. In some traditions this takes place in the synagogue after the service where either the father of the rabbi invokes a blessing on the children. But nowadays in almost all traditions this custom has been firmly implanted in the Jewish home. Some parents bless their children as soon as they arrive home; others do so upon sitting down at the table and before singing Shalom Aleykhem; but I believe that the almost universal custom nowadays is to do so immediately after the recitation of kiddush and before everyone proceeds to wash their hands before the meal.

Parents invoke God's blessing on their children by placing a hand (or both) on their head and reciting words prompted by the biblical text. In the case of male children the chosen text is Genesis 48:20: "May God make you like Ephraim and Menasheh" - which is how Jacob blessed his grandchildren before he died. In the case of female children the text is "May God make you like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah", which may have been suggested by the text in Ruth 4:11 where the womenfolk of Bethlehem bless Naomi and her daughter-in-law. In both cases, male and female children, the parent also adds the Aaronic blessing [Numbers 6:24-26].

In the context of this parental blessing the term "children" is usually understood in its widest connotation: as long as the parents are alive they invoke God's blessing on their children in this manner. Thus, in many households we have the beautiful situation in which parents may be blessing their children who are, in their turn, parents who bless their own children. Families who omit this custom are missing a moment of great joy, emotion and holiness. After this blessing of the children everyone proceeds to wash their hands before the meal: this will be the subject of our next shiur, God willing.