Originally published in the Jewish Quarterly, 34.4 (128) (1987), pp. 63-4.
A JEWISH BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER: THE SABBATH EVENING SERVICE WITH COMMENTARY by Chaim Raphael (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986, £10.95).
Like Chaim Raphael’s widely-used A Feast of History, on the Passover Haggadah, this book is in two parts. First, the Hebrew text of the Friday evening service (Kabbalat Shabbat) with a detailed commentary and reading from right to left. And second, an English essay, reading from left to right, in which the history of the Prayer Book (the Siddur) is outlined in an illuminating comparison with the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church. Raphael here points to remarkable parallels in the two works despite the obvious doctrinal differences. The Hebrew section has been published separately by Behrman House in the United States, which accounts for the occasional Americanisms.
Only a scholar at home in both worlds like Chaim Raphael can have so successfully blended “Englishness” with an infectious enthusiasm for the joy in which Jews throughout the ages have welcomed the “Sabbath Bride”. Even those of us who have davened all our lives, imagining that we had nothing new to learn, will find inspiration (I use the word advisedly) from the many fresh insights the book provides.
Among the customs described is the recitation, by the husband on his return home from the synagogue, of Eshet Hayil in praise of his wife. Finding the usual translation “A woman of worth who can find?” too sceptical, Raphael renders this, in obedience to the proper meaning of the Hebrew “What a joy is a valiant woman!”. But lest ardent feminists take offence, Psalm 1 is added for the wife to recite in praise of her husband!
It might be noted in passing that while Raphael is very good on the Safed-Kabbalist background to Kabbalat Shabbat, he does not bring out sufficiently what the Kabbalists were really trying to do with their rituals. When a Kabbalist, say, Moshe Cohen, recited the Eshel Hayil, it was not primarily “Mrs Cohen” that he had in mind but the Shekhinah, a kind of female clement in the Deity. For the Kabbalists, it is the Shekhinah who is the “Sabbath Bride”. Similarly, the famous Lecho Dodi poem “Come my beloved to welcome the Sabbath”, refers to the male element in the Deity which goes out together with the human worshippers to meet His Spouse. All this is extremely mythological which is perhaps why Raphael is silent on the matter. He is undoubtedly correct in assuming that in normative Jewish life Kabbalat Shabbat has been understood in less esoteric and more down-to-earth terms and is none the worse for it. This book will increase oneg shabbat, “Sabbath delight”, for many a Jewish worshipper.
Rabbi Jacobs, rabbi at the New London Synagogue, has written several books on Jewish theology, mysticism and the Talmud. His autobiography Helping with Inquiries will be published shortly.