Each week, we sing Shalom Aleichem, during our community Shabbos candlelighting. These words call forward the מלאכי עליון –malachei eloyon, Angels of the Most High. We call them forth with a blessing of peace; welcome them into our midst in peace, request from them a blessing of peace upon us, and then send them out once more, to depart in peace and return the following Shabbat.
This text is a 17th century Z’mira, or Shabbos table song, composed in Tzfat by a kabbalist. The Talmudic story below, a tale of the Shabbos angels, one good, one bad, likely serves as the inspiration for our song:
Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to home, one good angel and one evil angel. When they reach home and find a lamp burning and a Shabbos table set, the good angel says: May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat. The evil angel answers against his will: Amen. If the person’s home is not prepared for Shabbat in that manner, the evil angel says: May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat, and the good angel answers against his will: Amen.
The Rabbis write this story to teach us that we must always be prepared for Shabbat, lest we succumb to the evil angel’s decree. What seems like a lovely bedtime story is really a sinister prophecy should we fail to keep Shabbat.
This particular melody seems to contrast the stern message of the Rabbis. The composer uses a soothing, lilting vocalise to highlight the word “peace” abundantly woven throughout the Zemira. Small moments of slight cries and chromatics punctuate this otherwise lulling tune; these may allude to the evil angel’s sinister prophecy, or perhaps they illuminate the author’s yearning for the peaceful angels of whom he writes to surround him. Maybe these cries echo the conflict between the two angels!
How are this peaceful melody and text inspired by this seemingly conflicted tale of good and evil? Rav Abraham Isaac Kook explains that, “real, genuine, and lasting peace can come only…when all viewpoints are accorded a place at the table. Only then does peace with truth and justice emerge.” We can now understand the depth of peace and abundant blessing reflected in Shalom Aleichem. This is a deep peace that reflects the push and pull of the good and bad angel. This peace reflects the push and pull of the different directions we encounter each week; it reflects the peace we make with each step that we embrace through those directions. Finally, this peace reflects the peace we embody as we light the Shabbos candles and welcome sacred moments into our lives.
I look forward to joining you in Shalom Aleichem as we light our Shabbos candles together this Friday night!