Before sunset on Friday, usually after the lighting of the Shabbos lamps or candles, we begin a special service known as Kabalas Shabbos – Welcoming the Shabbos. This service is based on the ancient tradition of welcoming the Shabbos Queen. This tradition is cited in the Talmud, which describes how the sages would don their finest clothing, and say to one another, “Come, let us go out and greet the Shabbos Queen,” or “Enter O bride” (Shabbos 119a). About a thousand years later, there was a community of great Kabbalists in Tsfas (Safed) – a city in the northern region of the Land of Israel. Based on the tradition cited in the Talmud, they began to walk out into the fields to welcome the incoming Shabbos. It was there in Tsfas that the Kabalas Shabbos service was first formulated and from where it spread to Jewish communities throughout the world. This service begins with six psalms from our Sacred Scriptures (Psalms 95-99, 29), and one of the themes of this service is shir chadash – the new song. A reference to shir chadash appears in the opening verses of Psalm 96 and Psalm 98. Our sages cite the tradition that this particular term refers to the future and final redemption which will not be followed by any more suffering (Mechilta on Exodus 15:1). In this letter, we shall discuss the deeper significance of this new song:
When we welcome the arrival of the Shabbos Queen, we chant Psalm 96, which opens with the following proclamation:
“Sing to Hashem a new song; sing to Hashem, everyone on earth.”
We are all to sing a new song to Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One. In what way is this a “new song”? In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the newness of this song lies in the universal call to “everyone on earth” to sing to Hashem. And he adds:
“This union of all humankind in the praise of Hashem is the ‘new’ phenomenon which, as a result of the development of the ages, will one day bring about the renewal and regeneration of all the world – ‘the new heaven and the new earth,’ as Isaiah calls it (66:22).”
According to Rabbi Hirsch, we do not have to wait for the arrival of this new age before we can sing the shir chadash – new song. He writes: “Any song that stems from the contemplation of this state of the future is called a shir chadash.”
Within this psalm of the new song, we find a related universal message:
“For all the gods of the peoples are idols, whereas Hashem made the heavens.” (Verse 5)
There were pagan peoples that viewed the world as an arena of competing gods, and each of these peoples had its own national god that it worshiped (see Isaiah 37:10-20). In response to this view, the psalmist proclaims that Hashem is the One God Who made the heavens which serve as a canopy over all the peoples. Through meditating on the heavens, we become more aware of the One Creator of all life on earth.
The psalmist therefore calls out to all the peoples to dedicate their national honor and strength to the service of the Compassionate and Life-Giving One:
“Give to Hashem, O families of the peoples, give to Hashem honor and strength. Give to Hashem honor worthy of His Name, take an offering and come to His courts.” (Verses 7,8)
The following additional call goes out to the peoples:
“Bow before Hashem in the reflected glory of the Sanctuary, go before Him in the travail of rebirth, you upon all the earth.” (V.9 – translation of Rabbi Hirsch)
In the second part of the above verse, there appears the Hebrew word chilu. This word can mean “to tremble”; however, as Rabbi Hirsch points out, it can refer to the experience of birth pangs. (The classical biblical commentator, Rashi, makes a similar observation in his comments to Psalm 29:8.) According to Rabbi Hirsch, the psalmist is revealing to us that in order for the world to experience a moral and spiritual rebirth, it must first experience the travail of birth pangs.
The psalmist also reveals that these birth pangs will not lead to the end of the world. On the contrary, the sovereignty of Hashem will save the world; thus, people will say:
“Declare among the nations, ‘Hashem has reigned’; indeed, the world is fixed so that it cannot falter; He will judge the peoples with fairness.” (verse 10)
Ibn Ezra, one of the classical biblical commentators, explains that although the world will be in a state of chaos and decay just before the dawn of the messianic age, the world will be “fixed” after the arrival of the messianic age, and it will not falter. The Ibn Ezra states that Divine intervention will save the world, for “Hashem is a righteous Sovereign.” In our own age, we have witnessed how human greed and arrogance has caused the earth’s environment to experience chaos and decay; however, the above interpretation conveys the hopeful message that the Compassionate and Life-Giving Creator will not abandon the creation.
Another classical biblical commentator, Radak, explains that through the universal recognition of the Divine sovereignty, the world will be fixed through peace. It will not falter, for “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and they will no longer study warfare” (Isaiah 2:4). In our own age, we have witnessed the terrible destruction that war brings; moreover, the danger is even greater in our age due to the spread of nuclear weapons and the attempts by terrorists to gain access to these weapons. We can therefore understand how the universal peace of the messianic age will be a major factor in causing people to proclaim the comforting message that the world is fixed and will not falter.
Who are the people that will be proclaiming this hopeful message? According to both Ibn Ezra and Radak, this message of hope will be proclaimed by the pilgrims from “the families of the peoples” who will come to serve Hashem in the Temple in Jerusalem. Upon their return to their own countries, they will spread this message of hope. The psalm then concludes with the following vision:
“The heavens will be glad and the earth will rejoice, the sea and its fullness will roar; the field and everything in it will exult; then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy – before Hashem, for He will have arrived, He will have arrived to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and peoples with His truth.” (verses 11-13)
All of creation will rejoice; the trees of the forest will sing for joy – for Hashem will judge the earth. I once read an essay by a contemporary Torah educator, Rabbi Moshe Eisemann, who pointed out that the Hebrew term for “to judge” – lishpot – can also mean, “to dispense justice to the oppressed” (see Psalm 82:3). This interpretation leads me to the following idea:
All of nature – including the sea, the fields, and the trees of the forest – will rejoice in the messianic age, for Hashem will dispense justice to the earth which has been oppressed by human beings who imagined that they were the sovereigns of the earth. Through the universal recognition of the Divine sovereignty, the earth will no longer be exploited for the selfish gratification of human beings. Instead, all human beings will rededicate themselves to the original Divine mandate regarding the earth: “to serve it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). In such an age, “the earth will rejoice, the sea and its fullness will roar; the field and everything in it will exult; then all the trees of the forest will sing with joy.”
Have a Good and Joyous Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen