Lecha Dodi Medley

Lecha Dodi Medley lyrics

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On this composition
Lecha Dodi was a bear. It took more than three, steady months of studio work to finish this composition. It is not without its weaknesses. But, on the whole, I am very proud of the result: A complete version of  Lecha Dodi performed with mixed styles of singing – call-and-response, antiphonal, in-unison – which  musically takes detailed account of the poetry – and which is also designed to work within the choreography of a Friday evening service. I also believe that the opening melody, in particular, beautifully expresses what is the central theme of the hymn: that of yearning and longing.

I set out with a few goals. I was determined to record all of the stanzas of  Lecha Dodi in a manner which would be true to Kirtan and Jewish antiphonal tradition. I also wanted to see if I could create a  Lecha Dodi based almost entirely on traditional Indian Bhajans (age-old melodies). Some of the tunes which I have used have been made famous by Krishna Das (www.Krishnadas.com); others I have culled from listening to music from India; and yet others are truly of my own invention. The arrangements are completely my own.

Before recording it in the studio, we had “performed” a full  Lecha Dodi all the way through only twice in an actual synagogue service. It is my hope that our version here will find its way into the repertoire of many synagogues. Try it. It works!

One more note on the composition itself. Above I just dropped the phrase, “Jewish antiphonal tradition.” This deserves some explanation. (To learn more, you’ll have to take a Kirtan Rabbi workshop or bring us to your community.;) We know with certitude that ancient Jewish music included some call-and-response singing. Whether this was done in true Kirtan fashion – “I sing a line, you sing it back” – is not clear. More probably there were certain liturgies which were meant to be recited  antiphonally; that is, where one half of a choir (or a leader) sang one phrase, and the other choir (or the people) sang the next phrase. The psalms in particular are full of examples of this. Those of us who grew up with services laced with “responsive reading” might experience an “Ah-hah moment” just about now. What do you know? The original Reformers (and the Protestant service which they were imitating) had more basis in tradition than we might have expected.

On the grammar, history and theology of  Lecha Dodi
One can argue that  Lecha Dodi is the hymn  par excellence of Kabbalah. The poem was composed in the 16th century by Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, a Safed Kabbalist. (HIs first name is coded acrostically into the first four stanzas of the hymn.) It probably has had more melodies written or adapted to it than any other example of Jewish poetry. Literally thousands of melodies. And, because there are so many, and since each community possesses its own treasury of favorites, it is common to change melodies along the way – especially after the fifth stanza, as I have done. In some very musical synagogues, each stanza is sung to a different melody! The singing of  Lecha Dodi can go on for quite a long time – which certainly makes it suitable to a Kirtan environment; in many an enthusiastic synagogue,  Lecha Dodi will take up to 20 minutes.

Lecha Dodi has nine stanzas, each of which is preceded and followed by the refrain shown above. This means that the refrain is repeated ten times – once for each of the inner aspects (hypostases) of the godhead, known as  sefirot in Kabbalah. More on the refrain below.

The stanzas
At first blush, the body of  Lecha Dodi would appear to have very little to do with Shabbat; only three of the nine stanzas make any mention of Shabbat, and two of these – the first and last – are very oblique. Moreover, most of the stanzas do not seem to express the joyousness one would expect of a Sabbath hymn. Full of expressions such as “Stand up, emerge from a world all in turmoil;” “Long enough have you dwelt in the valley of tears”; “Rise up from the dust!” –  Lecha Dodi is clearly written from the point of view of a degraded condition. Even when the mood begins to pick up in the sixth stanza, the poet exclaims, “don’t be ashamed, don’t be embarrassed!” It is clearly addressing a listener who, at least most of the time, experiences oppression and hardship.

The poet addresses himself to someone in the second-person, singular,  feminine. On the literal level, she is a stand-in for  ir-Yerushalayim, the city of Jerusalem, itself a metonymy for the whole of the Jewish people. More abstractly this feminine addressee is the Shechinah: the feminine in-dwelling presence of God which goes into exile with Israel. She is also the bride toward which the entire hymn “goes out” so relentlessly.

Despite its apparent melancholy outlook (or starting point),  Lecha Dodi is an uplifting hymn. Its purpose is to remove us from the hardships of life – the toils and oppression of the work-a-day week – and get us ready to receive the bride and queen which is the Sabbath. The hymn, from beginning to end, traces a definite arc of improvement and redemption. Each of the inner stanzas poses a problem or tough condition; but, by the end of the stanza, a  nechemta (a consolation) is promised. And, as the hymn goes along, the promise of redemption grows stronger and more certain. By the time we get to the eighth stanza, we are in the Messianic era. The final stanza is meant to offer a taste of  Olam ha-ba, the World-to-Come (or which is constantly  coming), a world beyond and outside of this world of history. By the end of the hymn, we are greeting the bride, bowing and receiving,  bo-i chala, bo-i chala: Come bride, come bride!

The Refrain
As mentioned above,  Lecha Dodi contains many hidden kabbalistic references. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to find a piece of poetry more kabbalistically encoded than this one. Every word can be interpreted on many different levels; even those of us who have studied it deeply can only guess at what some of these might be. Owing to limited space, I will limit myself to writing about a few of the kabbalistic aspects of just the refrain:  Lecha dodi likrat kala, pnei shabbat n-kabela, “Come, beloved, toward the Bride; Let us welcome the Shabbat!”

Who is this bride? On one level, revealed in the A-B-B-A structure so typical of Hebrew verse, it is the Sabbath itself, the Queen Shabbat. But she is also the earthly bride – one’s real, living bride. [Please forgive the heterosexual language used here. It is the language of the hymn. However, we should understand that this language can be applied to all kinds of partnership.]

It is a well-known belief that, whereas it is  mitzvah (good deed) to have conjugal relations with one’s partner at any time, it is a  double-mitzvah to do so on Shabbat. What is the meaning of this “double” mitzvah? It is not simply, as many think, that sex is twice as good on the Sabbath as at other times. Rather, it means that, when you make love with your earthly bride on  Shabbat, you are also making love to your other bride: the Shechinah. This must take place in the here and now, with the real bride, but the meaning is divine. In fact, the Kabbalists go on to infer that, by uniting here on earth, we also cause the male and feminine aspects of God to unite and join. According to my teacher, Moshe Idel, this is the outrageous conceit of mysticism: that our actions here on earth cause changes within the inner workings of God! Ponder no further than the second half of the seventh stanza:  May your God take joy upon you [even] as a groom takes pleasure upon a bride.

In essence, when we sing this hymn, we are seeking to unite the Godhead with Itself, by seeking to meet and embrace our earthly partner.

I will use two aspects of the refrain to illustrate this: (a) the numerology (gematria) of the letters with in it, and (b) the kabbalistic reading of the word  pnei.

  1. The refrain itself has two halves. The first – “come, beloved, toward the Bride” – has 15 letters in the Hebrew; the second half – “let us welcome the Shabbat!” – has 11. Now, the ineffable Name of God has four letters. If you add up the numerical value of the first two letters you get the number 15; add up the second two letters of the Name and you get the number 11. In other words, the point of singing the refrain again and again is to bring  Yod-Heh together with  Vav-Heh, if such a thing could be said, to (re-)unite God.
  2. The second half of the refrain uses distinctly idiomatic language to speak of “greeting” the Shabbat. The expression –  l’kabeil pnei – is interesting on many levels. First, the word for ‘welcome’ or ‘greet’ contains the same root as the word  Kabbalah; this is no accident. Secondly, the expression literally translates, “let us receive (greet/welcome/accept) the ‘faces’ of Shabbat.” The kabbalists (as do most Jewish midrashists and exegetes) delight in taking something idiomatic  literally. It is clear, for them, then that there are multiple faces of Shabbat; in other words: multiple brides that one is going forward to receive.

Final remark on the music (if you made it this far)
With all this under your belt, I would want to say just two more things about the musical choices. First of all, the first movement of the medley (track 7) may be a bit of a slog. But don’t fast forward through it, because I think that the most exquisite moment on the entire CD is at the end of this track (thanks to the inimitable Aliza Hava). Secondly, given what we now know about  Lecha Dodi, be sure not to miss the emergence of the Shechinah at the beginning of the the third movement (track 9) and her gradual self-assertion throughout that track.

[Much of the above analysis was taken from a careful study of Reuven Kimelman’s book,  The Mystical Meaning of Lekha Dodi and  Kabbalat Shabbat (in Hebrew).]