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Research Paper on Jewish History and Anti-Semitism

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    Jewish history is rich in tradition, containing centuries and centuries of cultural significance throughout the world. This religion research paper explains the Lekha Dodi, a song which both embodies and illustrates some longstanding Jewish ideals used to persevere through the Middle Ages. 

    Jewish culture, religion and history reflected in verse

    Before the Lekha Dodi became a liturgical song to welcome the Shabbat on Friday evenings, it was a piece of Safed poetry written by Solomon Alkabetz. The Lekha Dodi, though a particularly famous example, was just one part of a broader movement of Kaballah and Jewish spiritual revival in the 16th century. Messianic redemption, action by the Jewish people and Kabbalist explication of religious observance are themes that appear not only in the Lekha Dodi, but commonly throughout Jewish writing and teaching in Safed. These specific, recurring subjects reflect the turmoil of a people coming to terms with their expulsion from Spain and the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages.

    Lekha Dodi formed at the heels of Spanish expulsion

    The theme of messianic redemption in 16th-century Jewish thought was the result of Spanish expulsion of Jews in 1492. Alkabetz’s belief in this redemption is clear in multiple stanzas of the Lekha Dodi beginning with stanza three:

    “Too long hast though dwelt in the valley of weeping;/Now will God have compassion upon thee” (14-15).

    The recently emigrated were looking for some comfort in their exile and the Safed Kabbalists believed that the comfort would be their long-awaited messiah. Mentions of redemption at the hands of a messiah sent by God occur in five of the nine stanzas of the Lekha Dodi. The most prominent of these is the sixth and seventh stanza:

    My afflicted people in thee will take shelter,

    In the city rebuilt on its ancient site.

    Come, my friend, etc.

    Despoiled be all that would despoil thee, 

    and banished all that would destroy thee. (29-33) 

    These common messianic concepts of the King who will conquer all his enemies and rebuild the temple of Jerusalem echo the same relief the Jews desired from the pain of Spanish expulsion: banishing those that banished you, and rebuilding life in your old home.

    Lekha Dodi speaks to Jewish heart

    The Lekha Dodi is filled with numerous calls to action that speak to an oppressed, stagnant people waiting for reprieve from their struggles. The calls are directed pointedly at the reader and ask him to stay hopeful and rejoice: “Bestir thyself! Bestir thyself!” (22) and “Be not ashamed! Be not abashed!” (27). If the Messiah were close at hand, it would be easy to do nothing and simply wait around for him to come. Instead, Alkabetz wants the reader to take charge of his own religious mission and follow Jewish law. In the case of the Lekha Dodi, the reader’s mission is to keep Shabbat, connection to the Kabbalah is evident (43).

    Spanish expulsion did not just shift Sephardic Jews geographically; it also shifted the dynamics of the Jewish community at the time toward Kabbalah. In a turbulent period when people were uprooted from their homes and forced to settle in strange locales, the tendency of Kabbalah to look inward for spirituality instead of outward in the physical world would have connected to the Jews of the region. It is also appropriate that a town like Safed, inhabited by Sephardic Jewish emigrants, would turn to Kabbalah, which emerged from medieval southern France and Spain. Spiritual connection to the Kabbalah is evident: By the end of the 16th century, the Jewish population was around 10,000, and noted rabinnic and kabbalistic luminaries like Rabbi Joseph Caro, Rabbi Moses Cordovero and Rabbi Isaac Luria all settled in Safed.

    Jewish Kabbalah teachings found in Lekha Dodi

    This Kabbalist thread is present in the Lekha Dodi as well. Kabbalists would commonly use Jewish scripture to explain Kabbalah teachings, and those teachings often explained the importance of religious observances in the Jewish faith. Alkabetz writes this into the very beginning of his poem:

    “Observe’ and ‘Remember’ in a single commandment/God the Only One gave us to hear.” (2-3) and describes the Sabbath as “Poured forth of old, at the very beginning,/Last act in creation, first in God’s plan” (9-10).

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    Before his calls to action and expectation of messianic redemption, Alkabetz uses references to Jewish scripture to explain the importance of Shabbat, first invoking the commandments and then the significance of the Sabbath in the creation story.

    The idea of Kabbalah as an esoteric tool—as a discipline focusing inward to the self and the mystic—is more subtle, but still pervasive, in the Lekha Dodi. Everything in the poem is about the esoteric spirituality of the reader. The Lekha Dodi, with its themes of a conquering messiah and strict observance of Jewish law, could have been a poem filled with a detailed description of the divine conquests of the Messiah and concrete imagery of a rebuilt Jerusalem (one of the core roots destabilizing Israel and Palestine today.). But while the poem makes obvious mention of messianic redemption, it is not the purpose for keeping the Shabbat. Instead, the poem focuses on the Kabbalistic importance of Jewish observance for spiritual fulfillment. Alkabetz describes the Sabbath as “ever a fount of blessing” (8) and each stanza ends with a return to the personal, or inward: “Come, my friend.”

    Understanding Jewish history from a religious standpoint

    The expulsion of Jews from Spain prompted an intense spiritual revival that led to a mystical renaissance in the 16th century. The Lekha Dodi, by Solomon Alkabetz, became one of the latest regularly accepted inclusions to Jewish liturgy, and reflects the spiritual needs of the Jewish community at the time. Many Jews leaned on their faith during WWII and the Holocaust. For Sephardic emigrants, the thought of an impending messianic redemption eased the grief of exile, and the Kabbalah’s methodology of inner spirituality connected with a displaced people who could not worship in their old cities and towns.

    Works Cited

    Hallo, William W., David B. Ruderman, and Michael Stanislawski. "The Messianic Mood of Sixteenth-Century Safed. "Heritage: civilization and the Jews : source reader. New York, NY: Praeger, 1984. 180-181. 

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