There are many melodies to the traditional Shabbat song
. But the newest one out there is the last song written by acclaimed musician Debbie Friedman, who died about a year ago. Clergy across the country are pledging to sing Debbie’s version of “Shalom Aleichem” on Shabbat in a few weeks to honor her memory, and to teach this song to their congregations. (To watch Debbie’s version, click here, and to hear a few different versions, click here.)
What’s interesting about “Shalom Aleichem” is that it’s a song about angels. I never really think about angels as a Jewish concept (though as it turns out, they kind of are). The song is based on a story from a Talmudic legend.
Rabbi Yosi ben Yehuda taught: “Two ministering angels–one good, one evil–accompany every Jew from the synagogue to his home on the Sabbath eve. If they find the candles burning, the table set, and the bed covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the evil angel is compelled to respond ‘amen.’ But if everything is disorderly and gloomy, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the good angel is forced to say ‘amen.'”
Now, on most Friday nights, the angels visiting my house would be appalled at the disarray–toys everywhere, dishes in the sink, the beds unmade. The Shabbat candlesticks and kiddush cup that really need some silver polish, and the store-bought challah. But at the same time, I’d hope those angels would look through the mess to see the love underneath. And if they do, it would certainly be the good angel who wishes that it be so the next week, and the bad angel who says “amen.”
When Debbie Friedman wrote this new melody, she changed the meaning of the song a little bit. The traditional text of Shalom Aleichem is about welcoming angels to Shabbat, to make our Shabbat experience even holier and closer to God. The last verse asks the angels to leave in peace, but Debbie instead asks them to return in peace.
I like to think that the language shift is an adaptation of this ancient song to the complexities of today’s world. The idea of things being just black and white, good and bad, doesn’t seem to fit with our modern-day sensibilities. Life is filled with shades of gray. Accepting that–asking the angels to return and try again next week–when maybe I’ll have shined the kiddush cup and the candlesticks–gives me hope and a deeper sense of Shabbat peace, angels or not.
So maybe it’s not just good and bad angels. Maybe it’s angels of comfort, of love, of restfulness, of peace, of joy, or more. What angels are coming to your house this week–and which ones do you want to have come back again?