Shalom Alechem is a liturgical poem traditionally sung on Shabbat eve prior to the recital of Kiddush. It consists of a welcome, a request for a blessing, and a farewell to the angels.This blog provides several mystical explanations as to the meaning of this enchanting interaction with celestial beings.
THE SHALOM ALECHEM LITURGICAL POEM:
Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
May your coming be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
Bless me with your peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
Just as the angels who escorted Jacob in Israel departed near the border and were replaced by those which escorted him outside of Israel, so too the angels who escort us on Shabbat replace those of the working week as Shabbat enters.
Ascending & Descending
The Torah tells us that as Jacob was leaving the land of Israel, he lay down to sleep and dreamt of angels ascending and descending a ladder. Our sages teach that the angels that ascended were a higher kind that escorted Jacob throughout his stay in the Holy land, while those that descended were an inferior kind, to accompany him outside the Holy land where sanctity is of a lesser degree.
This teaches us that there are angels specific to particular places. There are also angels specific to particular times. During the working week there is a lower kind of angel escorting a person, whereas a higher level of angel escorts him on the holy Shabbat.
|Image by Michoel Muchnik|
It is this switch that we refer to in the Shalom Alechem poem. In the first stanza, when we welcome angels, we are addressing the higher Shabbat angels that are arriving, while in the final stanza, when we farewell angels, we are addressing the weekday angels that are departing.
This explanation clarifies why we both greet and farewell the angels in such a short matter of time; for the greeting and farewell address two different groups of angels, one arriving and another departing, rather than the same group of angels. However, based on this explanation, the order of the arrival and departure of the angels in the Shalom Alechem liturgy appears to be inconsistent with the order experienced by Jacob. In Jacob’s vision, a set of angels first departed followed by the arrival of second set, while in Shalom Alechem, a set of angels first arrive followed by the departure of a second set.
The truth, however, is that the appearance and disappearance of the lower type of angel is always dependent upon the presence or absence of the higher type. When the higher angels descend (arrive), the lower angels are absorbed within their ‘light’ and thus ascend (depart), whereas when the higher angels ascend (depart), the lower angels reappear (arrive).
This idea can be understood from the analogy of candle light in relation to sunlight. During the night when there is an absence of sunlight the light of the candle flame is felt and utilized. During the day, however, when the overwhelming light of the sun appears, the light of the candle flame goes unnoticed. Thus, the appearance or disappearance of candle light is dependent on the presence or absence of a greater light such as sunlight.
Hence, since Jacob was leaving Israel, the higher angels departed, causing the appearance of the lower angels, as the verse states, “And the angels of G-d were ascending and descending the ladder”. Upon entering Shabbat, however, the higher angels appear, causing the lower weekday angels to disappear. Thus, in Shalom Alechem we first welcome the higher angels, and only then proceed to farewell the lower angels.
Based upon Sefat Emet Al HaTorah, Parshiat Vayetzei, p.70a