So, we come to the conclusion of our short series on the silent devotion prayers of Shabbat. We saw that the Friday night Amida celebrates the Shabbat of Creation, Shabbat morning we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and Shabbat Mincha is about the Shabbat of the final Redemption still to come. But all three of these of very different prayers all conclude with the same paragraph, which we’ll turn our attention to in this piece.
The short prayer opens with a normal Rabbinic prayer beginning: ELOKEINU V’ELOKEI AVOTEINU, our God and God of our ancestors. This is the most popular way for our Sages to start prayers that they wrote for us to recite. It most famously begins the YA’ALE V’YAVO prayer, but it also begins many SLICHOT (penitential prayers) and PIYUTIM (liturgical poems recited on holidays). In our case, this phrase begins the paragraph of KEDUSHAT HAYOM, the sanctity of the day.
We then encounter the phrase, I believe, is the most important in the whole prayer: RETZE B’MUNOCHOTEINU, ‘may You find favor (or ‘be pleased’) in our rest’. One famous commentary on the Siddur, Eitz Yosef, quoted by the Art Scroll, suggests that this means God should be pleased with our behavior even though it appears to be self-serving, concentrating on rest, relaxation and good food, rather than specifically ‘spiritual activities’. Okay.
But I strongly believe that something much more significant is going on. The term RETZE is usually addressed to God as a plea to receive our offerings and prayers as acceptable spiritual efforts. So, too, here on Shabbat, we’re told to emulate God who SHAVAT V’YINAFASH, ‘rested and refreshed’ (Shmot 31:17) on that first Shabbat at the beginning of the world. Please, God, take this rest and relaxation as a religious service to fulfill Your wishes for the Shabbat. This rest isn’t based on our desires; it’s based on a sincere effort to emulate the model You established for us. Anything can be an AVODA (Divine service) if its purpose is to ‘please’ God, even the absence of action.
This R & R is to fulfill Your command. We then beg to be granted our portion in Torah and Mitzvot. Only then can ‘we be satisfied by Your goodness, and eventually be gladdened by Your GEULAH, salvation. All we desire is a ‘pure heart to serve You in EMET (truth and sincerity).
Now comes the most controversial phrase in the service: Yisrael, the sanctifiers of Your name, should rest on ‘it’. There are Siddurim that demand that the word ‘it’ should always be the feminine form VA, because grammatically Shabbat is a feminine noun. I grew up with the Birnbaum Siddur that had that version. But most of the Jewish world changes that word to reflect different aspects of the day, and should be VA (feminine) on Friday night, VO (masculine) Shabbat morning and VAM (plural) Shabbat afternoon.
The different grammatical forms reflect different aspects of the day. Friday night, which commemorates the birth of the Cosmos is feminine, reflecting the act of Creation and birth of the Cosmos. Shabbat morning celebrates the giving of the Torah and the BRIT (covenant of Sinai), and demands Torah study, which was historically a masculine domain. At Shabbat Mincha, we use the plural VAM (upon them), because the various aspects of Shabbat and human endeavor will be combined in the amazing future which awaits us. The mystics, also, sing of God having different names at the various meals of the day, representing differing aspects of God which will only be unified in the future era of the Redemption.
Finally, we have the CHATIMA or closing of the BERACHA. We intone: Blessed are You, O Lord, Who has sanctified the Shabbat. This differs from the CHATIMA on CHAGIM, when we chant Blessed are You O Lord, Who has sanctified Yisrael and the Z’MANIM (special times). The holiday version reflects the reality that Jews must sanctify the months and thereby define the date and advent of the CHAGIM. Shabbat, on the hand, was sanctified by God on that first Shabbat after the week of Creation, that primordial KEDUSHA continues to imbue every Seventh Day with Divine Sanctity.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik added another idea:
On Yom Tov, each Jew was commanded to come close to the Divine Presence, this is the Mitzva of ALIYA L’REGEL, the festival pilgrimage. He stepped out of his home in the Galil, and walked to Yerushalayim in search of the SHECHINA. Yom Tov, itself, is not the abode of the SHECHINA. The Torah did not tell a Jew to make a pilgrimage to Yerushalayim on Shabbat. There is no need. On Shabbat, the SHECHINA knocks on the door. All we have to do is let Her in…We revere the Beit HaMikdash, because that is where God found a place to reside. The same is true of Shabbat (Koren HaRav Siddur, p. 520).
These prayers of Shabbat were designed by our Sages to help us access all the deep meaning and nuance of this most holy and complex day in our ritual calendar. I hope my humble efforts to elucidate these prayers will enhance your Shabbat experience. It’s worth the effort.