The Flaming Cherubim of Shabbat (October 2007)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read of the visit of three “angels” to Abraham. The occasion is viewed as being one which demonstrates the virtues of hakhnasat orchim (hospitality) and bikkur cholim (visiting the sick). Abraham’s hospitality is one of his “hallmark” characteristics and the three men are seen as visiting him as he recovers from his recent circumcision. In “New Studies in Bereshit”, Nehama Leibowitz points out that there are no less than five descriptors of Abraham’s haste in Genesis Ch.18 vs2-7 as he rushes around, sparing no effort in his attempt to make the guests feel welcome. 

Tonight, the idea of welcoming guests and welcoming them in haste is reminding me of Shabbos.

Abraham did not know that his angelic guests were about to arrive. I know that Shabbos comes every week, yet tomorrow I will no doubt be racing to the post to be ready “on time” as usual. Even when I think I am well prepared there is somehow always that last minute rush. 

It does not fall to everyone of us to “welcome the stranger” to our Sabbath dining table. Nor do we always have human messengers/family/friends for company. But all of us, whether we are alone or in company, will welcome the Sabbath “herself”.

 That moment of welcome is represented by the ceremony of lighting the two Sabbath candles. 

In many homes it will have been preceded by another ceremony: that of welcoming the Sabbath angels by singing the song “Shalom Aleichem”.  

The “folk custom” of welcoming the Sabbath angels is perhaps the development of a Talmudic story of the two angels (one good and one “bad” ) who enter the house on a Friday evening to check on the inhabitant’s level of observance. If all has been well prepared for Shabbos the “good” angel expresses the wish that it may be the same on the following week’s Sabbath. The “bad” angel is compelled to answer “Amen” to this. If all has not been well prepared, the “bad” angel expresses his wish that the following weeks’ Sabbath be the same. The “good” angel is then compelled to answer “Amen” to that. (Shabbos 119b)

I am not at ease with that Talmudic story and never have been. The implied dualist theology doesn't make sense to me, but I have a simpler objection: Some people no doubt find the notion of spying angels to be a valuable spur to encourage timely accuracy and precise care in greeting the Sabbath with alacrity. Being predisposed to anxiety, the last thing I need on a Friday is the idea of an angelic competition going on at my heels or over my shoulder. My hope as I charge about with the mop and crash through the saucepan and plate barrier is that my Abrahamic haste will be appreciated in the heavenly court by the Judge Himself. If I don’t quite make the deadlines, then I rely on His mercy.

Having thus declared my position on the Sabbath Angels as they appear in the Talmud… I will now share the way in which I do make their presence felt at my Sabbath table.

 I cannot remember where I first read the idea that the two Sabbath candles are reminiscent of the two keruvim (angelic cherubim) of the Ark of the Covenant (Num. 7:89)…or of the idea that the Divine Presence somehow “rests between” their flames…. but for me, that is a concept which makes the Friday night meal of Shabbos glow with a special light .

 In my own little 1994 prayer book I made a pictorial statement about this link in the illustrations I used for the song “Shalom Aleichem” (a 17th century kabbalistic hymn welcoming the angels) and for the candle blessing. The gate which marks the entrance to Shabbos is guarded by two angels, shown here with the outstretched wings of the keruvim of the Ark:

(click on graphic to enlarge)

The pillars of this gate are in flame as they are the two Sabbath candle-sticks. On the base of the candlesticks are the two Hebrew letters representing “Shamor” (Observe) and "Zachor” (Remember).

The connection between the angels/keruvim/candle-flames is echoed in the following pages which show the candle-blessing:

(click on graphic to enlarge)

It is the “Gate of Shabbos” seen from the other side. The candles on the table are like the keruvim. The “Name of God” is written between the flames and highlighted as if it were shining.

There are traditional meditation practices which recommend focussing on the space between the two flames of the Sabbath candles: a space believed to be pregnant with a memory of the presence of the Shekinah resting over the Ark.

The guest we have been hurriedly preparing for is the “Sabbath Peace”. For me, that is a sort of reflection of God’s Presence.

I spend almost all my Sabbath evening dinners alone, but I have only once experienced the despair or lonely anguish which I know many other single and isolated Jews feel regularly at that time. I have never felt like giving the candle lighting and the laying of the special table a miss. I know there are those who find the idea of lighting the Sabbath candles alone at home just too much to bear. It is as though it were underlining their feelings of isolation.

For fourteen years, I have sat at the Sabbath table every Friday and have gazed into that warm space between the two candles in front of me. Maybe ten times I have made it a formal meditation session…..but more usually I have just rested in the light….. warmed by a special meal and sweet wine, and by a wordless companionship with HaShem: The One who is Present. He was/is always there but on a Friday evening, He  rests between the flaming keruvim again.

If you are ever alone for that Friday meal, and especially if you are usually alone for it,…..don’t be afraid of lighting those candles. You have a very special Divine Guest. Make it a candle-lit dinner for two. Shabbat Shalom.

© Nachman Davies
(Granada 2007)