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Parashat Shofetim 5762

The Glorious Clothes of Jerusalem

Wake up! Wake up! Put on your strength Zion; put on your glorious clothes Yerushalayim, Holy City, for the uncircumcised and the defiled will not come into you any more (Isaiah 52:1)

The chanting of Lecha Dodi is a central feature of Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday night in synagogues around the world. This 450 year-old hymn was written by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevy Alkabetz, a scholar of note. Although he wrote a number of works of biblical commentary and Kabbalah, Rabbi Alkabetz is best known for this popular hymn, and an acrostic of his name "Shlomo HaLevy" is spelled out in the initial letters of its stanzas.

The poem commences by repeating the Talmudic tradition that the two versions of the fourth commandment ("Safeguard " and "Remember " [the Sabbath]) were pronounced simultaneously. This prepares the reader for the richly nuanced meanings of the poem itself. It should then not be surprising that layers of meaning can be discerned. At its esoteric level, the poem speaks of the union of the Holy One, blessed be He, and the Divine Presence. The exoteric meaning welcomes the Sabbath and refers to the redemption of Yerushalayim.

Even if translation is limited to the latter meaning only, we face a difficulty here. The most popular translators render the stanza hitna'ari me'afar kumi livshi bigdei tifarteich ami as follows:

"Shake thyself from the dust, arise, put on the garments of thy glory, O my people!" (Authorized Daily Prayer Book, trans. S. Singer, authorized by Rabbi Dr. N. Adler, Chief Rabbi of Britain, 1890. In the 3rd edition, which was the 36th print, 1990, E. Cashdan ed., authorized by Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, this passage remains unchanged.) or, as in a widely used American publication, "Shake off your dust, arise! Put on your glorious garments, my people." (Daily Prayer Book, trans. and annot. P. Birnbaum, 1977).

These have been followed by The Metsudah Siddur (trans. & comment. A. Davis, 1982): "Shake the dust off yourself, arise, dress up in your garments of glory my people."

Although the style is progressively more modern, each of these translations treats "my people" as the subject of the sentence and "shake", "arise", and "put on" as its verbs. Had the translators paid careful attention to the text they would have noticed that the Hebrew form of these verbs is feminine, whereas "my people" is masculine. This is unacceptable, as Hebrew grammar requires that the subject of a sentence and its verb must both be the same gender. Even allowing for poetic license it is most unlikely that a Biblical scholar of the stature of Rabbi Alkabetz would breach this basic rule of agreement by making a masculine noun the subject of feminine verbs.

Indeed the editors of Bialik's Sefer HaShabbat could not countenance the possibility of such linguistic deviance. Reproducing Lecha Dodi as the very first item in the prayer section of the book, they amended this stanza, parenthetically inserting the word bat ("daughter of") before "my people", thus making the supposed subject feminine. This rectified the problem of non-agreement.

The Artscroll Siddur provides for two possibilities: in the translation it treats "my people" as the subject: "Shake off the dust - arise! Don your splendid clothes, my people"; in the notes, an alternative reading is provided: "Jerusalem - your most splendid garment is Israel" (based on Iyun Tefillah, Rabbi A. L. Gordon in Siddur Otzar Hatefillot). The nusach Ashkenaz edition (though not nusach Sfarad) qualifies this comment as "novel" (The Complete Artscroll Siddur trans. & comment. N. Scherman, 1984, unchanged in linear edition, 2002).

Novel or otherwise, Rabbi Gordon has demonstrated the possibility that the poet intended to say that it is "My people" - the people of God - who are actually the city's garments. Interestingly the other commentary in Siddur Otzar Hatefillot, Etz Yosef, by Rabbi Chanoch Zundel (author of commentaries on Midrash) also explains "My people" as the city's clothes. (In the modern discipline of Urban Studies the idea that the populace gives a city its character is commonplace.)

The Lubavitch Siddur translates as follows: "Shake the dust off yourself, arise, don your glorious garments - my people" (Siddur Tehillat Hashem according to text of Shneur Zalman of Liadi, trans. N. Mangel, 1978/1996). By use of the dash, the translator ingeniously retains the possible ambiguity of the original.

The translation of Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, the great 19th century scholar and grammarian, renders the passage: "Shake off your dust, arise, clothe yourself with My people as with the garments of your glory." (The Hirsch Siddur trans. and comment. S.R.Hirsch Pub. Soc.,1969). Rabbi Hirsch endorses the opinions of the commentaries that appear in Siddur Otzar Hatefillot. So too does the 19th century Chassidic scholar, Rabbi Ch. Y. Halbersberg (author of "Misgeret" on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch). In his Siddur Yeshuot Yisrael he comments that the "garments" are "my people".

An examination of the context of our phrase supports the view that "my people" is a reference to the clothes of the city. The opening of the previous stanza of Lecha Dodi, "Sanctuary of the King, regal city", can be read as providing the subject of the following five stanzas. The city (Yerushalayim) would then be the subject of our verbs. As we have noted above, the verbs in these stanzas are feminine. In Hebrew the noun ir ("city") is feminine. Reading it this way, both the subject and its verbs are feminine, the rule of agreement is satisfied, and the amendment in Sefer HaShabbat unnecessary.

This hypothesis can be substantiated. The two stanzas paraphrase and interpret the first two verses of Isaiah, Chapter 52 (see above). This is noted in the Siddur Otzar HaTefillot; the parallel language is compelling. The passage forms part of the reading of the Haftara for Parashat Shofetim.

There, the prophet addresses Yerushalayim telling her to awake and put on her beautiful garments, and the uncircumcised and defiled will enter her no more. In the stanzas that we are looking at, Rabbi Alkabetz is interpreting those verses. He is saying that the prophet is addressing Yerushalayim and describing the people themselves as her garments! So in the synagogue the reader of Lecha Dodi too addresses Yerushalayim, and the worshippers join him, in the hope that the Holy City be clothed in the garments of her glory - none other than "my people".

Indeed the term "My people" may well be an allusion to Exodus 32:7 where Rashi comments that "your people" are the great mixture of people whom Moshe allowed to join the Children of Israel without permission from God. If this is so, then "My people" means God's people.

Be that as it may, Rabbi Hirsch and the Hebrew commentators, grammatical and contextual analysis, and comparison to the Biblical source, all point to the same meaning of the passage. This ought to be sufficient evidence to override the widespread popular translations. It is the people who give a city its character, it is the people who are the clothes of Yerushalayim.

In light of the above, we can better understand the image that the passage aims to evoke: Jews from all over the world settle in Yerushalayim, living as God's people, traversing its streets between home and work, between work and synagogue, guided by the Torah in their relationship with their fellows and with God, giving the Holy City its sublime character on workdays and its serene character on days of rest; it is "My people" who are the glorious clothes of Yerushalayim.

I will be pleased to have comments on these notes on the Parasha.
Good Shabbos, Meshullam Klarberg, 35/4 Meshech Chochma, Kiryat Sefer, Israel 71919
E-mail address: fredit@zahav.net.il

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