Shabbat is special. There are many expressions of that reality in Jewish law and custom, but none so clear as in our liturgy. Days, in our tradition, are marked by a progression of services, Shacharit-Mincha-Ma’ariv. The core of these services is basically the same for all three times of the day, whether the eighteen-turned-nineteen blessing prayer of weekdays or the seven blessings of a Chag. There’s one exception to this standard rule, Shabbat. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to discuss the unique nature of each, the Arvit, Shacharit and Mincha silent devotion or AMIDA prayers. This week Arvit, the Friday night Amida.
After we recite the standard three opening blessings (AVOT, GEVUROT, KEDUSHA), we immediately encounter a historic problem. The present version of this prayer seems to be relatively new. The earliest source for this well-known prayer is the Machzor Vitry, written by R. Simcha ben Shmuel of Vitry, a student of Rashi who died in 1105. However, the earliest existent Sidur, by Reb Amram Gaon (d. 875), has the following opening paragraph:
And from Your love O Lord, our God, that You have loved Yisrael, Your nation, and from the beginning of Your Kingship over us, You have bestowed Your Covenant upon the Children of Yisrael. You have given us the Seventh Day, which is great and holy, for greatness, power, sanctity, rest, worship, and thanksgiving for the OT (sign), BRIT (covenant), and TIFERET (splendor). And You have given us blessing and SHALOM from You.
Apparently, this earlier version of this fourth blessing of the Friday night Amida is still recited but only in certain communities of Italy. The rest of the Jewish world has replaced this version with the following formula:
You sanctified the seventh day for Your Holy Name’s sake, as the culmination of the creation of heaven and earth. Of all days, You blessed it; of all seasons You sanctified it.
After this introduction, we recite the concluding three verses to the Creation story, which we’ll turn to in a bit. This makes sense, because our reference to Shabbat is as the ‘seventh day’. No one referred to this day of rest as Shabbat until after the Exodus from Egypt. Before that time, the major significance of this day was as the culmination of the Creation process, a very universal idea, indeed.
This idea that the Seventh Day is the ‘culmination’ or TACHLIT of Creation is very powerful. We then add that it is sanctified over all other times or seasons. This idea is echoed in the Friday night Kiddush when we state that Shabbat is the TECHILA or beginning of KEDUSHA, sanctity. The intent is that Shabbat is somehow holier than any other time frame. In HALACHA, the sanctity of a day is reflected in how many people are called up to the reading of the Torah, only Shabbat reaches the level of seven being called.
Then we quote the beginning of chapter of 2 of Breishit:
Then the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array (hosts?). With the seventh day, God completed the work He had done. He ceased on the seventh day from all the work He had done. God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it He ceased from all His work He had created to do.
We know that these verses are significant because Rav Hamenuna tells us that anyone who recites these verses on Friday evening is considered a SHUTAF, partner, in the very act of Creation. We take that quote so seriously that we recite these verses three times; once in the Amida, again with whole community after the Amida, and, finally as the introduction to Kiddush at home. In other words, we make this declaration privately, communally and intimately with our loved ones in our household.
As Rav Soloveitchik opined:
This Scriptural text…is both a profound expression of the soul of the People and the most fervent desire of the man of God…he testifies not only to the existence of the Creator, but of man’s obligation to become a partner with the Almighty in the continuation and perfection of the Creation. Just as the Almighty constantly refined and improved the realm of existence during the six days of Creation, so must man complete the Creation and transform the domain of chaos and void into a perfect and beautiful reality (Halachik Man).
The famous question about our paragraph is: What do we mean by ‘God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it’? What is the ‘blessing’ and what is the ‘sanctifying’? The famous answer, from the Midrash in Shmot, is that the Shabbat was blessed and sanctified by the MAN in the desert. The Sabbath day was blessed by extra amounts of this Divine food, the double portion which appeared on Fridays; the day was sanctified by the MAN not falling on Shabbat. Blessing is increase; sanctity is separation.
However, the Slonimer Rebbe in his great work the Netivot Shalom explains that the BRACHA which God bestowed upon Yom HaShvi’i was that it was given KEDUSHA. The ETZEM or essence of BRACHA was given to Shabbat. Shabbat becomes the YESOD, foundation of KEDUSHA; it becomes the MAYAN, fountain, and SHORESH, source, of all Kedusha. Without Shabbat there would be no KEDUSHA in this realm of ours. It’s Friday night when this happened; it’s Friday night when we discover and experience its power.
The conclusion of this middle or fourth BERACHA of the Friday night Amida begs God to ‘find favor’ or ‘accept’ our rest. This BERACHA is the same for all three services, except for one famous variation, but we will wait to discuss this paragraph in a separate article after elucidating the three services. So, stayed tuned.