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Alone Time

Alone Time

Why We Usher the Shabbat Angels Out

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Imagine that a person invites guests over for dinner. He introduces the guests to his family, sits down at the table, welcomes them—and then not three minutes later, before the first morsel of food is served, the guests are shown the door and asked to leave.

Our first reaction would be to assume that the guests did or said something so inappropriate or irreverent that they forfeited their seat at the table. But that was not the case. They even complimented the hosts. Hard to imagine!

What if I were to tell you that this happens in many thousands of homes every week of the year?

Why can't they stay?We all invite two angels – one good one and one "bad" one – into our home every Friday night. The Talmud (Shabbat 119a) relates that two angels escort us home from the synagogue on Friday night. When they find our homes brimming with light and that unique Shabbat aroma, and see us and our families wearing and looking our Shabbat best, the good angel declares that they should find the same on the following week, and the bad angel is forced to respond "Amen." If, G‑d forbid, our homes do not reflect the Shabbat atmosphere, the bad angel wishes the same for the next week and the good angel must respond "Amen."

It is in their honor that we sing the Shalom Aleichem hymn on Friday night (click here for the full text). In this hymn we wish these angels peace, we welcome them, we ask them to bless us, and then we bid them farewell:

Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High...

May your coming be in peace angels of peace, messengers of the Most High...

Bless me with peace, angels of peace...

May your departure be in peace, angels of peace...

Why can't they stay?

While different answers are given to this question,1 I would like to share a fascinating answer I heard, given by the Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom.

In the 32nd chapter of Genesis we read how Jacob, after running away from his father-in-law Laban to leave Haran, was confronted with the fact that his estranged brother Esau was approaching with an army of 400 men. Last Jacob heard, Esau wanted to kill him. This is not the Canaan welcome wagon. Jacob prepares for war and for peace. He crosses his family over the border and then for some inexplicable reason, he sneaks back across the river.2 There Jacob is confronted by a man. The consensus of the commentaries is that this man was an angel who represented Esau.

"Jacob remained by himself and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn"—Genesis 32:25.

Being alone is the highest level of congress with the AlmightyOur sages describe this confrontation as a battle for eternal moral superiority. But that is not my interest right now. I'm interested in the fact that Jacob was alone during this time. The Chizkuni, a medieval biblical commentator, even berates Jacob's children for allowing their father to enter such a precarious situation alone and opines that the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve, which resulted from this encounter, was intended as a punishment to the tribes for opting for a bed on a night when one of history's great conflicts was to take place.

But the Slonimer Rebbe takes a different approach. He teaches that being alone is the highest level of congress with the Almighty. Earlier in Genesis (28:12-15) we read about Jacob's greatest dream. He saw "a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of G‑d were ascending and descending upon it." G‑d spoke to Jacob during the time when there were no angels—after the angels ascended, before they descended again; the terrestrial angels had returned to the heavens and the celestial angels had not yet arrived on earth. That was the holiest moment. Ultimately, we are greater than the angels. The acme of sanctity can be found in private.

Similarly, Jacob was not with his sons or his entourage when his great struggle took place. He was alone.

On Yom Kippur (the holiest time of year), the high priest (the representation of the greatest holiness on earth) entered the Holy of Holies chamber of the Holy Temple (the most sacred space on earth). Regarding this entry the Torah tells us:

"No person would be in the Tent when [the high priest] came to offer atonement in the Holy, until his exit"—Leviticus 16:17.

At this most consecrated moment, the high priest found himself alone with the Almighty.

The verse uses the term kodesh to describe "the Holy." Another usage for the same root is kiddushin, or marriage. After a couple is married, they are required to go to a room to be alone—yichud. Yichud means secluded, singular. One can be alone by virtue of having no one else around; yet alone can also mean singular or special or unique.

A beautiful Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 77:1) makes this point to us.

"Regarding G‑d it states: 'And G‑d alone will be exalted on that day' (Isaiah 2:11). And we find similar language regarding Jacob: 'And Jacob remained alone.'"

"But please forgive us if we ask you to leave—right now we want to be alone with G‑d!"On Shabbat we want to be alone with the Almighty, and ask to be excused from the angels. "Holy Angels!" we exclaim. "We appreciate so much that you came to our homes, we cherish your presence and we treasure your blessings—come again. But please forgive us if we ask you to leave—right now we want to be alone with G‑d!"

In most prayer-books, there is a custom to recite two verses from the Book of Psalms immediately after the Shalom Aleichem:

"He will charge His angels for you, to protect you in all your ways"—Psalms 91:11.

"G‑d will guard your goings and comings from now and forever"—Psalms 121:8.

Why do we juxtapose these two verses? The first reminds us that G‑d sends us angels, but the goal is not the messenger, but alone-ness with the Almighty—ultimately, we rely on G‑d alone to guard our goings and comings.

Footnotes
1.

Some say that we are bidding farewell to our weekday angels only; we want the Shabbat angels to remain with us (Shem Mishmuel). Others argue that we know that the Shabbat angels will only stay for the duration of Shabbat, so they will leave at some point, i.e., when Shabbat ends. For this reason the Chida argues that the proper wording is "btzeitchem"—when you leave, you should leave in peace. Another answer I saw is that the angels will leave us to go up higher due to the abundance of mitzvot we fulfill on Shabbat. So we are not showing them the door to leave; we are showing them the portal of productivity, to go higher and higher based on our actions. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, suggests that due to how precious every moment of an angel's time is, we are actually demonstrating respect by telling them that we so appreciate the few moments they spent with us, and we understand that they now have other tasks to fulfill.
Some actually do not say the fourth stanza and only recite the first three (Rabbi Jacob Emden, Zichron Yehudah; Likutei Mahariach; Darchei Chaim v'Shalom).

2.

Rashi, based upon the Talmud, explains that he returned for small jugs, showing his diligence and integrity. Rashi's grandson the Rashbam (known as a biblical commentator who only tolerated the simple meaning of the text) writes that Jacob crossed back because he was running away from Esau. He assumed that Esau's beef was with Jacob and not his family, and he would go away if the source of his angst was not there. In any case, the same result occurs despite which interpretation you favor.

Rabbi Elly Krimsky is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Stamford, CT. Rabbi Krimsky also serves as Assistant Director of Jewish Career Development and Placement and the Director of RIETS Rabbinic Alumni, both at Yeshiva University under the auspices of the Center for the Jewish Future.
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peter sundwall sweden November 30, 2014

the blessings of shabbes May I object just a small moment on the subject of labor on a shabbat or drawing down angels.
the sages of the talmud says...listen and learn this.
As on the days of festivals....we take out the tablets with the laws..but we do not do any labor...as carrying...eruvin tractate....
As the kiddush cup invigorates the shabbes and the holy marriage takes place and we can truly say that G-d is one....it is a blessing that fills the whole home...the home we have made for our self..spouse and children....and occasional guests.
It is this blend that makes the shabbes such a holy day..for everybody..not just alone. Reply

Anonymous Boston USA November 10, 2013

I really appreciate this inspiring and beautiful article . For the second year I live in isolation, now I know why. Reply

DebNC Oregon, USA March 24, 2013

Shabbat visitor 'I've always been told that G-d Himself visits and His presence is what makes the day holy. And He stays all Shabbat but He leaves when the sun goes down but He lingers as long as we are willing to spend the time with Him. Reply

linda nicholson mt jacksoin v, va usa December 9, 2011

the shabbat angels i like the idea of being alone with God
but why does there have to be both good AND BAD why not just the good on Shabbat. Reply

Mandi van zyl Barberton, South Africa December 8, 2011

Alone time Wow! I've never heard this, and yet it is so fundamental to our Shabbat... thank you. Reply

Michael Torgoman Forests Hills, N.Y> December 7, 2011

B'al Tuva Tell me is it customary to sob, when learning this information for the first time? Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org November 19, 2010

To Anon in London Apparently, this addition serves to bridge our request for blessing (barchuni) and our abrupt-seeming invitation that they leave (tzeitchem). This extra stanza invites the angels to linger a bit and softens the subsequent stanza of where we bid the angels farewell. Reply

Reuven Katz Toronto, Canada via chabaddb.com November 18, 2010

Alone Time Thourghly enjoyed the article . Reply

Anonymous London, UK November 17, 2010

Bshivtachem b'shalom I have noticed that the Sephardim use different wording in the 4th verse, what is the reason and meaning of this? Reply

beloved lill sis April 28, 2010

awesome Reply