Shabbat: A Balance of the Feminine and Masculine
by Reisha Golden
Ahad Ha’am said, “More than Jews have kept the Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”
G-d plagued the Egyptians and set us free. With this freedom came the ability for us to live an ordinary life in an extraordinary way. According to Abraham Heschel, this is the meaning of Shabbat, a day in which we sanctify space and time. And when we sanctify space and time on Shabbat, we, in essence, are bringing together the divine masculine and divine feminine within each of us, space being an inherent masculine quality, time being an inherent feminine quality.
Space is the aspect in which men have predominated in our culture, such as, in the creation and use of tools with which to achieve mastery over their surroundings, such as for hunting or for protecting or conquering territory or space or in the creation and use of tools with which to build space or dwellings for their loved ones or to commune with god, such as the Temple.
Women inherently have always been at one with time. Women have inherent physiological cycles, for example, menses, pregnancy, and birthing, which can all be symbolized by the womb, a symbol of receptivity. In the agrarian culture, the women often were the ones who tended to the life cycle of plants, the harvest, the young.
Let us examine the various rituals and symbols of Shabbat, and how they are inherently masculine and feminine, how they inherently sanctify space and time. Then we will see how they, in turn, bring about a yichud, a bringing together of the divine feminine and the divine masculine within each of us.
We begin every Shabbat, or make it kadosh, or set it apart from the rest of the week, by lighting two candles. Kabbalists (mystics of the Jewish tradition) suggest that the two candle lights represent the light of the sun and the light of the moon. The sun representing the masculine divine — achievement, conquering, penetration and the moon representing the feminine divine — receptivity, intuition, flow.
The early rabbis imagined our foremother Sarah lit candles long before the Torah was given. In the temple, we had a Ner Tamid, an eternal light.
Light, in essence, links us eternally to the beginning of creation, when light was the first element god created, which in turn links us to what G-d did on the sixth day, when mankind was created in G-d’s image, feminine and masculine.
On the seventh day, on Shabbat, we stop working, we stop creating, or as Aryeh Kaplan explains, we stop, as God stopped, interfering with god’s world, we emulate God and we give up our Mastery over the world. To experience this, many homes turn off their televisions, computers, and telephones and put away their pens and pencils.
Then we bring in the Shabbat. We sing songs, we pray, we recite the kiddush, we wash hands, cut, salt and eat from two challot, sit at a table dressed in white and enjoy a festive meal.
Each of these rituals are symbolic of the feminine and masculine.
The songs, the act of praying, where and when did that begin? The act of praying comes from our foremother Hannah, who instead of sacrificing an animal in the holy Temple to ask g-d for a child, she prayed deeply from her heart to have a child. Her wish was granted. It was through prayer she communed with god.
We recite the Kiddush. We fill our kos or kiddish cup to the brim. This symbolizes how grateful we are for our overflowing plentitude, with wine representing our wealth. Traditionally, the man of the house holds the Kiddush cup in his right hand with his palm face up, supported with upturned fingers. According to Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary writer on Jewish mysticism, this resembles a rose of five petals, as well as the womb, symbolic of the feminine divine.
The wine also reminds us of the Sabbath wine sacrifices our priests performed in the space of the Temple, a masculine symbol.
Then we wash our hands. The washing of the hands is similar to what our priests did in Temple times before they entered a sacred space to commune with god.
Then we cut and salt the 2 Challot.
We have two braided breads or challot? In the Temple, there were 12. Some Chassidic homes have 12 challot every Shabbat. Most of us have two. This represents the extra portion of manna G-d gave us on Fridays while we wandered in the desert. God apportioned manna for each day but on Fridays the portion doubled so we wouldn’t have to collect manna or do work on Shabbat.
But why do we braid the bread? According to Tamar Frankiel in her book “The Voice of Sarah” braids are an archetypal feminine image, related to weaving, to the web, or net, as we may “do up” our hair into braids or circles, symbolic of our understanding of time or the the natural cycles within us and in nature.
We salt and cut the bread with a knife. This represents the sacrifices performed by the priests in Temple times, again a masculine symbol.
Then we sit down at our table, representing the Temple alter. The meal representing the Sabbath sacrifice. Our table is dressed in white, as we would a bride, in our sacred space, our home, then the Temple, and we eat our Sabbath meal.
As you see many Shabbat symbols are both feminine and masculine. The feminine symbols being prayer, the kiddish cup, the braided bread, and the white tablecloth. The masculine symbols being space-related symbols, such as the Temple, our home, the wine as a Sabbath sacrifice, the cutting and salting of the 2 challot as we would a sacrifice, and the table representing the Temple alter.
It was in the giving of the Torah that it was realized that space, an inherent masculine quality, and that time, an inherent feminine quality, both needed to be sanctified.
When Moses was up on the mountain, and the people waited impatiently below, Midrash says that it was men who contributed their gold jewelry to the Golden Calf. The men needed what the Golden Calf represented: a means in space to commune with the divine. Men in turn were given the Tabernacle, and to sanctify that space, they had male representatives, Priests, who sacrificed on alters the various elements in nature: animals, grain, wine. This was done in order to come closer to G-d. A sacrifice or, in Hebrew, korban, comes from the root, karov, which means to approach or come near.
Women, on the other hand did not contribute jewelry, they had faith, that, in time, Moses would bring what he had promised.
For this faith in time at Mt. Sinai, women were given the celebration of the New Moon, a marking of time in a cycle.
Perhaps this is one reason, but not the only one, why Shabbat, as a marking of time, represents, in our kabbalistic or Jewish mystical tradition, the feminine divine or the Shechina. The song L’chah dodi that we sing every Friday night, a song composed by the sixteenth century kabbalist Rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz , is about welcoming the Sabbath bride, the shechina.
But also, for the mystic, the feminine is represented by the womb, or the receiver of the divine masculine, where the masculine is represented by the qualities of god that penetrate from above. In other words, the masculine signifies g-d’s transcendent qualities, or those qualities that exist beyond the material universe, or the manifestation of god outside time, space and finite beings, whereas the feminine aspect of god signifies god’s immanent qualities, or god’s presence throughout the universe, or the manifestation of God within time, space and finite beings. For the kabbalist, this is the experience of Shabbat, a Yichud, the bringing together, or the penetration of the transcendent, the masculine aspect of god into the feminine, the womb, the receiver, or the immanent aspect of God.
So what do we do every Shabbat?
With the lighting of the candles, singing, praying, reciting the kiddush, washing our hands, cutting and salting two challot, dressing the table in white, we, in essence, are creating an atmosphere in which to sanctify time and space. And when we sanctify time and space, we are in essence sanctifying the feminine and masculine qualities within each of us.
This process, in turn, brings that which is transcendent, that which dwells beyond time and space, such as our souls, into the immanent, that which dwells within time and space, such as our bodies. We remember on Shabbat who we are both in body and soul; we link ourselves back to our essences, to our deeper self, and in turn, with the divine.
It is as though on Shabbat, there is an exchange of you with your deeper self, you and a lover, you and God, of giver, receiver, receiver, giver.
We find that it is a day we can experience heaven on Earth, a day we experience ordinary life in an extraordinary way.
So that the rest of the week, when we, as Jews, are involved with Earthly matters, such as providing or caring for our loved ones, such as listening and watching the news and seeing devastation at home or around the world, such as in Asia, where people now can no longer experience a sense of freedom or rest, we give of our feminine and masculine qualities, our time and our resources to help them out of their environmental enslavement, and bring again to them the experience of heaven on Earth, what we experience as Shabbat. Or equally important, we continue to take the time and resources to keep our planet clean, and realize perhaps that our creative use of nature may at times pollute, more than preserve, this G-d given space called Earth, in which we are just transient beings.