Throughout the millennia of our People’s existence, Shabbos has been a cornerstone of Yiddishkeit. So fundamental is it to our faith, that Shabbos observance has practically become the barometer by which we judge if one is considered religious or not. Yet, a complaint has been voiced a number of times too many that Shabbos is all about what we cannot do, and that Shabbos does not have sufficient positive ways in which we may serve the Creator. Such a conception is patently false. This column aims to describe the innumerable ways in which we can actively serve Hakadosh Baruch Hu on the Holy Day.
In previous weeks we discussed the spiritual growth one can actively achieve through Kabbalas Shabbos, Maariv, Shabbos clothing, and Shabbos candles.
Now let’s move on to another thing we can do on Shabbos – sing Shalom Aleichem. Shalom Aleichem is a very old song which we sing at the very beginning of the Friday night seudah. From where did this custom originate? Presumably, the source for this tradition is found in the Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (119b). The Gemara over there explains that there are two angels that accompany us home from shul Friday night. One is a ‘good’ angel and one is ‘bad.’ If they arrive at our home and find “the lamp lit, the table set, and the bed made” then the good angel says “May it be Hashem’s will that it be so next Shabbos,” and the bad angel is compelled to answer ‘Amen.’ If, however, the home is not set up properly then the bad angel says “May it be Hashem’s will that it be so next Shabbos,” and the good angel is compelled to answer ‘Amen.’
What is the meaning of this passage? What are other-worldly beings doing in our abode? Why are they analyzing our Shabbos? Let’s analyze this custom through the eyes of the great commentators, and see if we can gain a greater understanding of this matter.
There seems to be two distinct trains of thought, neither being any less true than the other. Let’s begin with the Maharsha on the aforementioned Gemara. The Maharsha explains that each mitzvah in the Torah has two angels appointed over it, one good and one bad. The good angel is the defense lawyer of the Heavenly Court. He brings forth the report of our mitzvos and testifies before Hashem about all the times we served Hashem properly in that regard. The bad angel is a prosecutor who incriminates us for all the times we failed in that particular mitzvah. So what is it that these Shabbos angels are seeking during their short stint to visit our Shabbos home? The answer is that they are looking to see if we cared enough to set up for Hashem’s holy day in advance. Once they see the lamp lit, the table set, and the bed made, they quickly bless us and fly off to report to the Holy One about how well His children are serving Him. It is a worthwhile activity to take a few minutes to welcome these guests into our home and exert effort to receive that blessed grade on our permanent report card.
The Prishah quotes the Akeidas Yitzchak as explaining the aforementioned Gemara differently. The Akeidas Yitzchak describes how the good and bad angels are in reality the two forces within every Jew – the good inclination and the bad inclination (i.e., the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hora). These two powers function somewhat like muscles; when exercised, they grow stronger. Following this line of reasoning we can understand that when a person exerts himself to create a Shabbos Home, the spiritual side of him will exclaim “This is awesome! Let’s do it again next week!” In this situation, one’s physical side – weakened by its adversary – will be forced to begrudgingly answer ‘Amen.’ But if we are too self-serving to properly prepare for the holy day, thick physicality will gain ascendance and, wishing only to continue down its selfish path, force the lofty soul to accede.
So here is a eighth way to grow on Shabbos: sing Shalom Aleichem. Welcome the angels into your house, make a good impression, and cause your holy side to preponderate.