While many occasions require us to think about the clothes we wear, I think the hardest about what I’m going to wear when it comes time to do laundry. It’s a very specific type of outfit since it needs to be something that I’m not choosing to wash in that moment. Wearing a favorite shirt means that I won’t be able to wear it until the next time I do laundry a week or two later. This reflect the challenge that cleaning is something that will not last long. Often, I did my most serious cleaning before I hosted a gathering or a party. Because of this, my apartment would be clean only to have a lot of people come to mess it all up, and even though I don’t have the discipline to keep my apartment at that level of cleanliness all the time (perhaps even some of the time), I do appreciate the ability to sit down in an immaculate apartment.
The challenge of cleaning was hardest when I was cooking Shabbat dinner. Finishing my work for the week along with cleaning and cooking seemed to lead me to always notice one more thing that I forgot to do. While I was able to get everything together, I usually left a large pile of dishes hidden in the kitchen or never had a chance to clear my room.
The song, Shalom Aleichem reflects a story from the Talmud (Bavli Shabbat 119b) about this moment: Rabbi Yosi son of Yehudah would say that two angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to his house: one good, and one evil. When they arrive at the house and find the candles lit, the table set, and the bed made, the good angels says, “May it be God’s will that it will be like this on other Shabbat evenings,” and the evil angel begrudgingly responds, “Amen.” If not, the evil angel says, “May it be God’s will that it will be like this on other Shabbat evenings,” and the good angel begrudgingly responds, “Amen.”
The song reminds us that the moment when we pause to welcome Shabbat is a snapshot of our lives. Sometimes the picture is well composed and every element is in its place. Sometimes it’s a little messy, and sometimes, the picture itself is immaculate while there is a giant pile of dishes right outside the frame. The snapshot, however, is not permanent. Ideally, the table cloth is covered in crumbs and stains by the end of the dinner. When we take stock of our accomplishments at the end of the week, it does not change the to-do list that we have to make for ourselves Sunday night or Monday morning.
The moment to pause invites us to shift our priority. Even as the focus is on whether the house if prepared, the person walking home can make the choice to welcome the guests no matter the state of the house. The setting we create of a dinner with family and friends is merely a backdrop to the conversations and chances to share our experiences of the past week. When it comes time to prepare for the next week, the memories of the table settings and clean dishes probably fade far faster than the memories of the conversations.
Shabbat is a time to pause and refocus our priorities. In one of the descriptions of Shabbat related to the double portion of the manna (Exodus 16:29-30), the Torah emphasizes that it is our obligation to stay in our own community and shift our focus from what we bring into our houses to feeling settled in our homes:
רְאוּ כִּי־יְה’ נָתַן לָכֶם הַשַּׁבָּת עַל־כֵּן הוּא נֹתֵן לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי לֶחֶם יוֹמָיִם שְׁבוּ אִישׁ תַּחְתָּיו אַל־יֵצֵא אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי׃ וַיִּשְׁבְּתוּ הָעָם בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי׃
See that God gave you Shabbat; therefore He gives you two days’ food on the sixth day. Let everyone remain where he is: let no one leave his place on the seventh day.” So the people remained on the seventh day.
We begin our service with a calm song to give us that moment to pause and separate ourselves from the rest of the week. Services and coming together for Shabbat dinner invites us to shift our focus towards the communities of our friends and family.
Our melody for Shalom Aleichem may sound like it carries the weight of centuries of tradition, but it is actually less than 100 years old. The common melody for Shalom Aleichem was written on the steps of the Columbia University Library in May 1918 by Rabbi Israel Goldfarb. Though other people have composed wonderful melodies since then, the immediate familiarity of Rabbi Goldfarb’s setting has remained the standard.