I love the moments between eagerly arriving at dinner Friday night and finally delighting in that first bite of challah. I love walking into the warm embrace of a home frozen in Shabbes time. Each home is different; there are those with tables elegantly set while others require a few tweaks and final touches. Some tables remain blank, with room to accommodate as many guests as find their way. All of these settings are beautifully filled with love. All are ready to receive the holy Sabbath bride. All uphold my favorite of Watkins’s Haikus:
Intentional and therefore
Beautiful and right
Yet, no matter the set up, all beginnings hold within them a degree of uncertainty – a level of nervous rigidity. In this tension, we commence the short pageant I love so much.
With an air of awkward excitement, people make their way to seats. The room’s threads of conversation wind into a single cord, eventually finding a silent end. Then it all begins, and we start with a song – the perfect breaker of social barriers. Any previously held unease seems to float away with the rising voices of strangers uniting as one voice. More than just the music, Friday night’s inaugural lyrics help welcome to ease the room’s tensions.
“שלום עליכם, מלאכי השרת, מלאכי עליון – ממלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא”
“Peace (welcome) onto you, angels of peace, ministering angels, angels of the Most High – from the King of kings, the Holy One Blessed be He”
The song continues with three more verses. Each introduces a new supplication of the angels described in the repeating refrain: Come in peace, Bless us for peace, Go in peace. The song finds its roots in a midrash of two angels – one holds blessings and the other curses. We are told that every Shabbat eve two angels follow us home from synagogue. If the Sabbath candles are lit, the table is set, and beds are made, the good angel blesses us that the next shabbat should be the same. Then the bad angel is forced to reply, ‘amen.’ If, however, these things are not done, the opposite occurs and we are left with the good angel affirming a curse. In singing this song, we take a moment before dining to address these angels saying, ‘Welcome, come in, bless us, and go in peace.’
With music filling the room, a tune on everyone’s lips, and the barriers to talking cleared away, we move forward towards dinner. Our meal, however, is one thing the song we just sang leaves out. We welcomed the angels, asked them to come in, requested a blessing, and then wished them a farewell. Never did we invite them to join us!
The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, gives one of many explanations. He teaches that it is ill mannered to eat in the presence of others who are not eating – or in this case, cannot eat. Therefore we send the angels on their way in peace so we can eat in peace. I see the final verse as an addition to the first three rather than an omission. I.e. I am singing to my guests, ‘although we are just beginning, please feel free to leave whenever you see fit, and whenever that may be, I bless you that you should go in peace.’ Other traditions add a fifth verse to our song. In these versions, the fourth verse begins בשבתכם לשלום sit in peace. Only after joining us do we then bid the angels goodnight.
The Sefat Emet (1847-1905 Poland) finds his answer to our song’s puzzle contemplating another common question, one born in parashat Va-yatse. The passuk says, “He [Jacob] dreamt; a ladder was planted on Earth and its top reached towards the heavens – and there were angels of God ascending and descending it” (Breshit 28:12). Rashi raises the classic question, ‘first going up and then coming down?!’ He answers with rudimentary angelology. Each angel is only permitted to do their one job. There are those who minister within the land of Israel and those for outside the land. Therefore, Jacob, about to leave the land of Israel, first sees the angels who have accompanied him in the land ascending followed by the descent of those angels who minister outside the land.
The Sefat Emet picks up where Rashi’s leaves off saying; upon entering Israel the opposite is true. First the angels who look over us in the land of Israel descend and only after do those that minister outside the land go up. So too, he says, is it with Shabbat. When the Sabbath arrives, first the special angels that look over us on Shabbat descend. After a moment of ‘double angel protection,’ the angels who have guarded us all week ascend. Therefore, when singing Shalom Aleichem, we eagerly greet and welcome the angels of Shabbat. Once they have received their proper welcome, we turn to the weekly angles and sing them the last stanza of our song, wishing them a peace filled goodbye.
No matter the circumstances, new beginnings are always hard. So the next time you find yourself around an unfamiliar Shabbes table, remember you have ‘double angel power!’ May we all sing with a little extra vigor this Friday, and let the angels bless us that next Shabbes should be the same.