Lecha Dodi – (Baruch Levine)

August 28, 2020

Before it was released with English lyrics on Touched by a Niggun in 2009, this gorgeous Baruch Levine composition was set to Yiddish lyrics (with the same refrain) and was sung by Yisroel Werdyger on his 2008 debut album, “Bayis Neeman B’Yisroel.” The original version is really worth a listen even if you farshtey nisht the words, as it was arranged so well, with such beautiful orchestration. However, today’s Shabbos Notes will take a look at Levine’s English rendition, one that tells of the incredible true story that evolved from the Friday Night piyut, Lecha Dodi. (See? An Elul connection!) With the voices of Lev Tahor contributing to its catchy chorus, I found myself singing along the first time I heard the song, as I’m sure many of you did as well. True to the album’s title, this powerful tale shows you the power of a song and just what can happen when someone is Touched by a Niggun.

A worthwhile read for those unfamiliar – here’s the story in a nutshell…

After Maariv, Yisro made his way to the bookshelf to return his siddur before turning towards the shul’s exit. On his way out, a sudden impulse struck him and he turned around to watch the people filing out. His eyes slowly scanned the room. Was there anyone who needed a place to eat? Yisro approached the young man he had never seen before who was standing in the back. Dungarees, backpack, dark skin, curly black hair — looks Sephardi, maybe Moroccan. A moment more for consideration, and he was moving toward the boy with his hand extended in welcome. “Good Shabbos! My name is Yisroel Chaim Yitzchak, but people call me Yisro. Would you like to eat at my house tonight?”

The young man’s face broke in an instant from a worried look to a toothy smile. “Yeah, thanks. My name is Machi.” The young man picked up his backpack, and together they walked out of the shul. A few minutes later, they were all standing around Yisro’s Shabbos table. As soon as the family started singing Shalom Aleichem, Yisro noticed that his guest wasn’t singing along. “Maybe he’s shy, or can’t sing,” he figured. The guest gave another one of his toothy smiles and followed along, limping badly but obviously trying his best.

Even after the meal began and Machi had relaxed somewhat, he still seemed a bit fidgety and was mostly silent. After gefilte fish, Yisro noticed his guest leafing through his bentcher, apparently looking for something. Yisro asked with a smile, *”Is there a song you want to sing? I can help if you’re not sure about the tune.”* Machi’s face lit up, a startling change. “There is a song I’d like to sing, but I can’t find it in here. I really liked what we sang in shul tonight. What was it called? Something ‘dodi…'”

Yisro paused for a moment, on the verge of saying, “It’s not usually sung at the table,” but then he caught himself. “If that’s what the kid wants,” he thought, “what’s the harm?” Aloud he said, “You mean Lecha Dodi. Wait; let me get you a siddur.” Once they had sung Lecha Dodi, the young man resumed his silence until after the soup, when Yisro asked him, “Which song now?”
Machi looked embarrassed, but after a bit of encouragement said firmly, “I’d really like to sing Lecha Dodi again.” Yisro was not really all that surprised when, after the chicken, he again asked his guest what song to sing, and again the young man said, “Lecha Dodi, please.”
Finally, it got to be too much for Yisro. “Don’t you want to sing something else?” he suggested gently. Machi blushed and looked down. “I just really like that one,” he mumbled. “Just something about it — I really like it.” In all, they must have sung “The Song” eight or nine times. Yisro wasn’t sure — he lost count.

Later, when they had some quiet time to talk, Yisro said, “I was just wondering, we haven’t had more than a few moments to chat. Where are you from?”
The boy looked pained, then stared down at the floor and said softly, “Ramallah.”
Yisro’s heart skipped a beat. He was sure he’d heard the boy say “Ramallah,” a large Arab city on the West Bank. Quickly he caught himself, and then realized that he must have said Ramleh, an Israeli city. Yisro said, “Oh, I have a cousin there. Do you know Ephraim Warner? He lives on Herzl Street.”

The young man shook his head sadly. “There are no Jews in Ramallah.” Yisro gasped. He really had said Ramallah! His thoughts were racing. ‘Did I just have a Shabbos meal with an Arab? Wait a minute! Take a deep breath and let’s get this straightened out.’ Giving his head a quick shake he told the boy, “I’m sorry, I’m a bit confused. And, come to think of it, I haven’t even asked your full name. What is it, please?”
The boy looked terrified for a moment, then squared his shoulders and said quietly, “Machmud Ibn-esh-Sharif.”

Machmud was looking even more terrified now; obviously, he could tell what Yisro was thinking. Hurriedly he said, “Wait! I’m Jewish! I’m just trying to find out where I belong.”
Yisro stood there speechless. What could he say?
Machmud broke the silence hesitantly: “I was born and grew up in Ramallah. I was taught to hate my Jewish oppressors, and to think that killing them was heroism. But I always had my doubts. So I questioned my father and his traditions, and he threw me out of the house. Just like that, with nothing but the clothes on my back. By now my mind was made up: I was going to run away and live with the Jews, until I could find out what they were really like.”

“I snuck back into the house that night, to get my backpack and some of my things. My mother caught me in the middle of packing. She looked pale and upset, but she was quiet. I told her that I wanted to go live with the Jews for a while and find out what they’re really like, and maybe I would even want to convert.

“She was turning more and more pale while I said all this, and I thought she was angry, but that wasn’t it. Something else was hurting her, and then she whispered, ‘You don’t have to convert. You’re already a Jew.’
“I was shocked. My head started spinning, and for a moment, I couldn’t speak. Then I stammered, ‘What do you mean?’
“‘I’m Jewish, so that means you’re Jewish.’
“I never had any idea my mother was Jewish! Then she quickly went and dug out some old documents, and handed them to me: things like my birth certificate and her old Israeli ID card, so I could prove I was a Jew. I’ve got them here, but I don’t know what to do with them.

“My mother hesitated about one piece of paper. Then she said, ‘You may as well take this. It is an old photograph of my grandparents, which was taken when they went looking for the grave of some great ancestor of ours. They went up north and found the grave, and that’s when this picture was taken.'”

Yisro gently put his hand on Machmud’s shoulder. Machmud looked up, scared and hopeful at the same time. Yisro asked, “Do you have the photo here?”
The boy’s face lit up. “Sure! I always carry it with me.” He reached in his backpack and pulled out an old, tattered envelope.
Yisro gingerly took the photo from the envelope and looked at it carefully. The first thing that stood out was the family group: an old-time Sephardi family from the turn of the century. Then he focused on the grave they were all standing around. When he read the gravestone inscription, he nearly dropped the photo. He rubbed his eyes to make sure. There was no doubt. This was a grave in the old cemetery in Tzfas, and the inscription identified it as the grave of the great Kabbalist and Tzaddik,Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz —- the author of “Lecha Dodi!”

Yisro’s voice quivered with excitement as he explained to Machmud who his ancestor was. “He was a friend of the Arizal, a great Torah scholar, a Tzaddik, a mystic. Your ancestor wrote that song we were singing all night – Lecha Dodi!”

This time it was Machmud’s turn to be struck speechless. Yisro slowly stood up from the chair, still in awe about what had happened. He extended his trembling hand and said, “Welcome home, Machmud. Now, how about we sing that song again…….this time for real.”

Postscript: Machmud changed his name and enrolled in yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he studied diligently to “catch up” on his Jewish education. He got married to a nice Jewish girl, and gained popularity as a lecturer, recounting his dramatic story. He eventually had to flee Israel, due to threats against his life by members of his Arab family.

Taken and revised with permission from “Monsey, Kiryat Sefer, and Beyond,” by Zev Roth (Targum Press, 2002). The story is true; the names have been changed.

Wishing you a mystical Shabbos!


It’s leil Shabbos Kodesh, he wanders on in
Stands in the back as the tefillos begin.
The mystical words of Lecha Dodi
There’s something about that sweet melody.

Invited for dinner, zemiros they sing,
Infusing his soul with the joy that they bring.
Closing his eyes, his heart starts to soar
Perhaps we can sing that sweet song once more?

,לְכָה דוֹדִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה
.פְּנֵי שַׁבָּת נְקַבְּלָה

They asked him, “Who are you,
And where were you born?”
“Ramallah’s my home but inside I feel torn
I was taught to hate Jews, to hurt and to maim,
But I felt a connection I could not explain.

“With anger and fury, thrown out of my home
Confused and forsaken, I left there alone.
But I feel something strange here,”
His voice fills the room.
And over and over he’s singing this tune.

,לְכָה דוֹדִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה
.פְּנֵי שַׁבָּת נְקַבְּלָה

Returned to my mother to say my goodbyes,
She told me the truth with tears in her eyes
“I was taken by force. We’re Jewish – Now run!
Here’s a picture to treasure;
It’s where you come from.”

They gathered and stared at the photo he held
An image of his grandfather’s grave it beheld.
R’ Shlomo Alkabetz, his kever in Tzfas
Who wrote Lecho Dodi, we sing leil Shabbos.

,לְכָה דוֹדִי לִקְרַאת כַּלָּה
.פְּנֵי שַׁבָּת נְקַבְּלָה

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