It’s difficult for us to imagine Friday evening without Kabbalat Shabbat, yet Kabbalat Shabbat as we know it is a relatively recent innovation. It was introduced in the 16th century in Tzefat’s kabbalistic circles, and quickly spread throughout the Jewish world and became one of the most popular parts of the liturgy.
Before the 16th century, the most anyone recited prior to Shabbat Maariv were the two paragraphs of Mizmor Shir leYom haShabbat and Hashem Malach Ge’ut Lavesh (psalms 92-93). In many communities, the chazzan actually chanted Barchu immediately following Minchah.
Although a formal Kabbalat Shabbat service is of recent provenance, the idea of greeting Shabbat goes back to the times of Chazal. The Talmud records that late on Friday afternoon, R. Hanina and R. Yannai used to get dressed and exclaim, “Come, let us go out to greet Sabbath the Queen!” or “Come, O bride!” (Shabbat 119a, Bava Kamma 32).
The Rambam explains that this practice constitutes an example of kevod Shabbat: “What is ‘honoring [Shabbat]’? … [O]ne wraps oneself in tzitzit and sits solemnly, longing to greet Shabbat, as if one were going out to greet the king. The early sages used to gather their students on erev Shabbat, enwrap themselves, and say, ‘Come, let us go out to greet Sabbath the King!’” (Hilchot Shabbat 30:2 – note that the Rambam’s text of the Gemara apparently had the word “king” instead of “queen”).
Our Kabbalat Shabbat service – and especially its centerpiece, Lecha Dodi – is evidently an attempt to channel the spontaneous expressions of longing for Shabbat uttered by the Talmudic Sages into a concrete liturgical institution for all Jews. Poskim also note that the final stanza of Lecha Dodi (which contains the phrase “Come, O bride”), as well as Mizmor Shir leYom haShabbat, constitute a formal acceptance of tosefet Shabbat – the extra period that halacha requires us to tag on to the beginning of Shabbat before it officially begins (see Mishnah Berurah 261:31).
Considering these functions of Kabbalat Shabbat – greeting Shabbat and formally recognizing the beginning of tosefet Shabbat – it obviously should be recited before sunset, Shabbat’s official commencement (see Ben Ish Chai, 2nd year, Vayera 6). And that is precisely what many people do in the summer; they “make early Shabbat” and thus daven well before sunset. In the winter, however, most synagogues pray Minchah quite late and end up reciting most, if not all, of Kabbalat Shabbat after sunset. This practice seems quite difficult: How can one “go out to greet” Shabbat after it has already arrived?
Thus, during the winter it would seem preferable to say an abridged Kabbalat Shabbat so that the end of Lecha Dodi and Mizmor Shir leYom haShabbat are said before sunset.
Saying a shorter version of Kabbalat Shabbat would hardly be unprecedented or a scandalous reform. The Arizal – the preeminent kabbalist of the school that created the Kabbalat Shabbat service – did not say psalms 95-99 (Lechu Nerannena, etc.) as part of Kabbalat Shabbat; he began with Mizmor leDavid (psalm 29; see Sha’ar haKavvanot, Inyan Kabbalat Shabbat Drush 1). Many Sefardic congregations act similarly to this day, reciting only psalm 29, Lecha Dodi, and psalms 92-93 for Kabbalat Shabbat.
Ashkenazim, too, sometimes say a shortened Kabbalat Shabbat. When Shabbat coincides with Yom Tov or Chol HaMo’ed, most Ashkenazim only say psalms 92-93. (Many authorities, however, encourage reciting at least part of Lecha Dodi as well [see Hilchot Chag beChag, Yom Tov, ch. 2 n. 20]). Clearly, then, there is some flexibility surrounding Kabbalat Shabbat – which makes sense since its recitation is neither a halachic duty nor an ancient minhag.
As such, there should be no impediment to an Ashkenazic congregation skipping straight to psalm 29 or Lecha Dodi during the winter so that the crucial portions of Kabbalat Shabbat can be said before sunset.
One can argue that, despite the above-mentioned problem, reciting the full Kabbalat Shabbat is advisable since it has an ancillary benefit: It may lead to the congregation reciting Maariv after tzeit ha’kochavim. Although most opinions permit davening Maariv early, especially on Friday evening, there are halachic advantages to doing so after nightfall (see the comments of the Raavad on Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 3:7; Rashba, Berachot 27a; Maaseh Rav 65 and 115). That said, unless Kabbalat Shabbat is very drawn-out (or there is a speech following its conclusion), many synagogues wind up saying Kabbalat Shabbat after sunset but Maariv before nightfall – which is neither here nor there.
Of course, the suggestion to abridge Kabbalat Shabbat will not appeal to everyone. Many people find the full version of Kabbalat Shabbat spiritually uplifting – indeed, the fact that it puts them in the proper mindset for Shabbat is enough of a reason to recite it even at a time that is not halachically meaningful. Those who don’t find the full Kabbalat Shabbat particularly inspirational, however, might in any event prefer a shorter version so that they can begin their se’udah earlier, giving them more time to relax, learn Torah, or spend time with family and friends.
The latter attitude is not indicative of religious laziness; rather, it has ample halachic and historical backing.
- Even if one does not manage to say them before sunset, reciting them as early as possible is advisable since some Talmudic opinions and poskim maintain that Shabbat actually begins shortly after sunset (cf. Shabbat 34b). But the longer one delays, the less likely reciting them will be halachically significant according to any opinion.
- The Steipler suggests that those who wish to recite the full Kabbalat Shabbat with their congregation should recite psalm 92 privately before sunset (Karyana deIggarta 340). Alternatively, of course, one can pray Minchah early in the afternoon, recite Kabbalat Shabbat alone before sunset, and then join the congregation for Barchu (cf. Ma’aseh Rav 116).