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Toward Shabbat: Shelah Lekha

“Double your pleasure, double your fun…”

While many of us may know this expression as the catchy jingle from the old Doublemint Gum commercials, it could just as easily serve as the start to a jingle for Shabbat. Shabbat is full of doubles: we light two candles, say two psalms for the Shabbat (as opposed to one psalm on the other days of the week), sanctify the day with Kiddush over a glass of wine both on Friday night and Shabbat afternoon, make the Hamotzei blessing over two challot (to remember the double portion of manna that fell for the Israelites before Shabbat in the desert), read from the Torah twice (once in the morning and once in the afternoon), and, it is even believed, we have an additional soul on Shabbat.

This intriguing concept of having an additional soul, a נְשָׁמָה יְתֵרָה (neshamah yeterah), on Shabbat is not only found in the mystical tradition but is widely accepted by generations of rabbis. In a conversation in the Talmud about the various gifts of Shabbat, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, also known as Reish Lakish, teaches that God gives each person an extra soul for Shabbat and that, when Shabbat ends, God takes this added soul back. Where did Reish Lakish learn this? From a verse we say each week in the prayer Veshameru, which originates in the book of Shemot: “וּבַיּוֹם֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י שָׁבַ֖ת וַיִּנָּפַֽש—God ceased from work and was vayinafash.” This strange verb, “vayinafash,” often translated as “refreshed,” holds within it the Hebrew word for soul, “נפש” (nefesh). Reish Lakish plays with the language here, separating the two parts of the word. In his playful translation, he reads the verse as saying, “when God finished working and Shabbat was over, the additional soul left and God said ‘Vai, nefesh—Oy, for the extra soul that is lost!’”

Our neshamah yeterah is taken pretty seriously by the tradition and is shared as one of the reasons we say the Nishmat Kol Hai (Let Every Soul Praise You God) prayer in our Shabbat morning services. It is also one of the reasons we smell spices as a part of Havdalah, savoring a sweet smell to help comfort the remaining soul when our extra soul departs. The Sages even teach that our extra soul allows us to eat and drink more food on Shabbat without getting too full, bringing us even more joy and delight.

So, how do we get this additional soul each Shabbat? Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer, the Kaf Ha’hayim, teaches that we accept this extra soul in stages and layers each Friday night as we go deeper into the Shabbat evening prayers. The first part of our soul comes to us when we say Bo-i Kallah (Come, O bride) at the end of Lekha Dodi, the second layer joins us when we respond to the call of the Barekhu prayer at the beginning of Arvit, and, finally, our extra soul is complete when we say “U’fros aleinu sukkat shlomekha” (“Spread your canopy of peace over us”) right before we begin the Amidah.

Yet, some believe that this additional soul never really leaves us, that it is always with us and that it just takes the beauty and peacefulness of Shabbat for us to realize that it has been with us all along. The 13th-century Spanish Biblical commentator Rabbeinu Bahya compares this soul to a guest searching for a home. For six days this soul wanders within us, unsettled until Shabbat, when it finally finds a host. The calm nature of Shabbat allows us to settle down, inviting the extra soul to do the same. My teacher, Rabbi Art Green, expands on the idea that this extra soul is always with us:

I do not believe, you see, that the “extra soul” we have on Shabbat comes floating down from heaven at 3:42 in the winter season…I believe that the soul, the most intimate, and therefore most vulnerable parts of ourselves, is there within us all week long. But it is afraid to come out. It fears being trampled by the pace at which we live, shouted down by the loudness of our encounters with the hustle-and-bustle of ordinary life….But, on Erev Shabbat we promise it, “It’s all right, you can come out now. I promise, for the next 24 hours, to live at a slower pace.…I promise not to get depressed by watching politicians on television. It’s safe in my Shabbat world; you can come out now.” 

Shabbat is the time when we make space for the parts of ourselves that are hiding and scared. When we clear our minds and hearts to make room for the entirety of our soul and, perhaps, maybe even an extra soul. When we nourish the needs of that which lies deep within us. As we move into Shabbat, our time to temporarily unplug from this week’s layers of stress, despair, and chaos, I imagine our neshamot yeterot patiently waiting to settle down in our bodies, eager to remind us that amidst the despair and brokenness that surround us, it is necessary to carve out a time each week to double our pleasure and double our fun.