Parasha Yitro: Love and marriage

When we move into the realm of liturgy and Sabbath ritual, the kabbalistic imagery and all of its ramifications become magnificently clear.

parsha yitro 88 (photo credit: )
parsha yitro 88
(photo credit: )
The entire world has become enraptured with the heretofore esoteric study of Kabbala (literally, that which was "received" from earlier generations), largely based upon the mystical interpretation of the Bible found in the Zohar (literally, splendorous light) and its commentaries. To provide a glimpse into this kabbalistic approach to biblical study, let us examine the more mystical interpretation of the atmosphere surrounding the Revelation at Sinai; you will immediately see that the mystical school of thought has transformed an overwhelming mystery of deep fear and trembling into a sacred marriage of love and commitment - with ramifications affecting our liturgy, our theology and our husband-wife relationships. When the Bible reports that the "whole nation... stood under the mountain," Rashi cites the talmudic commentary, "The Almighty held the mountain over them like a canopy," threatening them with death if they did not accept the Commandments (B.T. Shabbat 88a). The Zohar accepts the interpretation that the mountain was held over them like a canopy; however, it was not a canopy of coercion, but was rather a canopy of commitment, a nuptial canopy (huppa) of love and marriage. For the Zohar, there is only one great love in the Bible, the love-covenant between God and Israel; the Revelation at Sinai formalized and legalized that love relationship, providing the marriage contract in the form of the commandments, and the consent of the bride-Israel with the words, "We shall do [commit] and we shall obey [internalize]," (Exodus 24:7). Every human love relationship is merely a spark of that fiery passion at Sinai; hence, the bride and groom are escorted to the nuptial canopy amidst the fire of candles, and the bride walks around her groom seven times, reminiscent of the seven expressions of betrothal enunciated by the prophet Hosea: "I [God] shall betroth you (Israel) unto Me forever; I shall betroth you unto Me in righteousness, in justice, in lovingkindness and compassion; I shall betroth you unto Me in faithfulness and you shall know [love] the Lord" (2:21-22). You will notice that in this ritual of the seven expressions of Divine betrothal of Israel, it is the woman who encompasses the man, the bride who seems to be the more dominant, representing the Divine. You might also know that in the kabbalistic-hassidic tradition, the noun generally used for God is Shechina, literally the Divine Presence Dwelling-in-World, which is a feminine form. When we move into the realm of liturgy and Sabbath ritual, the kabbalistic imagery and all of its ramifications become magnificently clear. We recite three major and different Amidot (standing silent prayers) on the Sabbath: one in the evening, one the following morning, and the final one in the afternoon. The evening Amida evokes the Sabbath of Creation, citing the biblical verses, "And the heavens and the earth and all of their hosts were completed. And the Lord completed on the seventh day His creativity which He had made…" (Genesis 2:1). It is the woman/bride who is endowed with the major spark of the Divine creativity, since it is she who nurtures the fetus in her womb and gives birth. The Kabbalat Shabbat Friday evening prayer liturgy - created by the mystical interpreters of the Zohar in 16th-century Safed and introducing the Evening Service - features the Shechina, the feminine aspect of the Divine: the Eshet Hayil (literally, Woman of Valor) Sabbath evening song actually refers to the Shechina (so it is even to be recited or sung around the table if no woman is present), and in the Lecha Dodi chant we go out to greet the Sabbath Shechina Queen-bride. Moreover, in this Sabbath evening Amida we ask that "All of Israel who sanctify Your Name shall rest in Her," a feminine pronoun, and the leading participant at the Sabbath table first takes the lower of the two loaves (hallot), which likewise symbolizes the woman. No wonder the betrothal ceremony opens with the bride representing God and encompassing the groom! Indeed, the Hassidic Sages note that the opening words of the Friday evening Amida are "Ata kidashta," literally "You sanctified", or "You betrothed"; Friday evening likewise begins our sacred Marriage with God. The morning Amida evokes the Sabbath of Revelation, describing the glory of Moses as he descended from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of stone in his hands, on which were written the laws of the Sabbath. In the act of Revelation it was the masculine aspect of God which was dominant, the God groom who chose His bride Israel and gave her His contract of marriage. Therefore, in the Sabbath morning Amida we ask that "all of Israel who sanctify Your Name shall rest in Him," a male pronoun, and the leader of the Sabbath morning table first takes the upper of the two hallot, which symbolizes the male. And so it is traditionally the man who gives the ring - as well as the marriage contract - to his bride. Sabbath morning, explain the Hassidic Sages, evokes the gifts and feasts (sacrificial meats of the Additional service) of the betrothal meal. The concluding Sabbath afternoon Amida pictures the Sabbath of Redemption, when You (God) are one and Your Name is one, a God of peace accepted by the entire world. This can only come about when the masculine and feminine aspects of the Divine, when God and His bride Israel, act together to bring about the perfection of the world in peace and tranquility. In this Amida we ask that "all of Israel who sanctify your Name shall rest in them," a plural pronoun, and the leader of the Sabbath third-meal table slices both hallot together. The parallel to the wedding celebration is the yihud, or marital home, where bride and groom live together as one, in harmony and equality, with neither dominating the other. And so the religious mystics transformed a biblical passage of awesome and even fearful dimensions into a song of love and mutuality, which reverberates within our Sabbath liturgy and ritual as well as in the marriage ceremony and its message. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.