The Shabbos Queen

My Bible class went to visit a synagogue Friday night. At a point during the services, we all turned to face the back of the synagogue while singing. I was told it was to welcome the Shabbat Queen. What is the notion of a Shabbat Queen?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

There is a notion that Shabbat is not merely a holy time but it is a personified entity, a queen, which the Children of Israel are wedded to every week. The Midrash states that at Creation, the day of Shabbat came before God to complain: “All the days of the week have a ‘mate’ (Sunday has Monday, Tuesday has Wednesday, and Thursday has Friday). But I have no mate!” God replied, “The Jewish nation will be your mate!” (Bereishit Rabbah 11:8).

The Talmud (Shabbat 119a) likewise records that Rabbi Chanina would wrap himself up in his cloak at the start of Shabbat, and announce, “Let us go out to greet the Shabbos Queen.” Similarly, Rabbi Yannai would dress up before Shabbat and say “Come bride, come bride.” In more recent times, the great Kabbalist R. Yitchak Luria (the “Arizal”, 1534-1572) would go out with his students on Shabbat eve to the fields around Safed, reciting the Friday night prayers and welcoming the Queen.

Many Jewish customs reflect this. During the special Friday night service to welcome Shabbat (“Kabbalat Shabbat”), the highlight is a stirring song praising the beauty of Shabbat and the Jewish people, authored by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz (16th century Kabbalist and poet). It is named “Lecha Dodi” after its main refrain, which goes: “Come, my beloved, to greet the bride, the face of Shabbat we will receive.” At the final stanza, we face backwards to welcome the queen of the day, and the stanza likewise concludes “come bride, come bride.”

In addition, at the start of the Friday night meal, we sing Eishet Chayil (“A woman of valor who can find?”), from the final chapter of Proverbs. One explanation is that it is a metaphor for the perfect woman – Shabbat – which we have just welcomed. Likewise, the meal we eat on Saturday night shortly after Shabbat is called “Melaveh Malkah” – “accompanying the queen” – as we are now escorting the Shabbat Queen back to her abode.

And finally, Jewish law requires us to clean the house for Shabbat – as well as examining our deeds spiritually. “And he should imagine that if a flesh-and-blood king were coming to him to find lodging at how well he would sweep the floor and make the beds, all the more so for the Shabbos Queen” (Chayei Adam Shabbat 1:5, Mishna Berurah 250:3).

Why is Shabbat personified as a queen? The reason is because Shabbat is not simply a mitzvah to perform. It is a holy time, an embodiment of holiness. We do not just keep Shabbat. We enter it. We enter a time period in which we become surrounded by and connected to holiness.

Shabbat is a divine presence, one in which we become especially close to God. The Talmud (Brachot 57b) states that Shabbat is one-sixtieth of the World to Come, a time when we will bask in God’s Presence. On Shabbat as well, a special representative of God on Earth, which some equate to the Shechinah, God’s Divine Presence, comes down to dwell among us, in our very homes.

Thus, as the Shechinah, Shabbat is a feminine concept, depicted as a queen. Kabbalistically, females are recipients, receiving from the male, absorbing it, and reflecting it outwards, just as the feminine moon (levanah) reflects the light of the sun (masculine). Likewise, Shabbat, God’s representative on earth, reflects the sanctity of Heaven, making it more perceptible to us and providing us with a taste of the World to Come.

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