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Solomon ben Moses Alkabetz

(1505 - 1580)

We know very little about the childhood of Solomon ben Moses HaLevi Alkabetz. He was born around 1505. He began traveling to the Land of Israel in 1529. Along the way, he gave numerous classes and sermons. He was a charismatic speaker and inspired his audiences with his knowledge of Kabbalah.

He met Joseph Caro, and their talks might have inspired Caro in his mystical aspirations. It was from one of their shared experiences that Joseph Caro established the custom of staying awake on the night of Shavuot to study the Torah. Called Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the custom caught on.

Alkabez probably arrived in Tzfat in 1535. Very little is known of his life there. A prolific author, he wrote some works on the Bible, and others of a Kabbalistic nature. Many of his manuscripts were stolen when he died. It is not clear whether this was done during persecutions, or by other authors. None of his purely Kabbalistic works was printed or preserved in manuscript.

There were two kinds of Kabbalistic leaders. There were those who wrote Kabbalistic secrets about how the universe worked, and there were those who created rituals/prayers which assumed the Kabbalistic secrets. Alkabetz was primarily the second kind. He developed the habit of going with his students to pray and meditate on the graves of known righteous leaders, tzaddikim. This practice was called gerushin, "banishment." During these gerushin-meditations, they concentrated on rousing their contemplative powers spontaneously and without any previous preparation.

Alkabetz is credited with initiating the ritual of going into the fields just prior to sundown on Friday to physically welcome either the Shechinah, the special Shabbat soul all Jews receive on Shabbat, or the Sabbath bride.

He had a powerful gift for stimulating spiritual revivals and mystical life. His best-known disciple was Moses Cordovero (who married Alkabetz's sister).

More than any other scholar in Tzfat and in Turkey, Alkabetz made extensive use of the kabbalistic writings of Eleazar b. Judah of Worms in his biblical commentaries. He was against secular science.

Despite his prolific writings on both the Bible and Kabbalah, Alkabetz is best-known for his writing of Lecha Dodi, which is now sung in every Kabbalat Shabbat service around the world. He based the theme, "Come my beloved to meet the bride; let us welcome Shabbat" on the description in Shabbat 119a that "R. Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed, ‘Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Sabbath.'

R. Yannai donned his robes on Sabbath eve and exclaimed, ‘Come, O bride, Come, O bride!'

Few poems gained popularity as quickly as "Lecha Dodi," and Alkabetz's contribution to Jewish Shabbat worship has always been appreciated.

Sources: Gates to Jewish Heritage