Thursday, March 23, 2006

Se'udah Sh'lishit

Like so many Jewish occasions, Shabbat is celebrated by eating. The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) actually derives from Shemot 15 the obligation to eat three meals each Shabbat. I recall one of my teachers saying that eating the third meal on Shabbat is one of Judaism’s least onerous duties!

While the first two meals fit comfortably into normal life (Friday night and Shabbat lunch), Se’udah Sh’lishit (the third meal) is enjoyed towards the end of the day. During the summer, when Shabbat finishes late, this may be supper on Saturday evening; in midwinter, it may be just a light snack before dashing back to Shul.

Although ideally, one should eat a ‘meal’, technically, one need only eat a minimal volume of food to fulfil one’s obligation. Interestingly, the Tur reminds us that ‘the wise people have eyes in their heads and don’t stuff themselves at lunch, to leave room for Se’udah Sh’lishit!’ If possible, one should eat the third meal after the Minchah-afternoon service, although in practice, it often eaten beforehand. Unlike the first two Shabbat meals, this meal is not introduced with Kiddush, but simply with the two loaves that characterise each Shabbat meal. However, the texts record that one may use a single loaf if necessary and if one is not hungry, eat cake or, in extremis, fish, meat or fruit.

The atmosphere at Se’udah Sh’lishit echoes that fact that Shabbat is nearing its conclusion. Often quite mournful tunes are sung, capturing the waning majesty of Shabbat and the gradually encroaching reality of weekday life. Psalm 23 is a favourite, as is ‘Yedid Nefesh’ – a mystical poem by Rabbi El’azar Ezkiri, expressing the soul’s yearning for union with the Divine. This reflects what the sources consider the ‘third’ aspect of Shabbat. While Friday night connotes the creation of the world and Shabbat morning the giving of the Torah, the end of Shabbat focuses on the ‘Shabbat of the future’ – a time when the Jewish people will be at one with God in a harmonious Messianic age. Abudraham (a medieval halachist) explained that the weekly journey through Shabbat is akin to the celebration of a wedding, the groom being God with His bride the Jewish people. Friday night is the nuptials themselves, Shabbat morning the wedding festivities and the end of Shabbat the moment of first intimacy. It has taken the entire Shabbat to achieve this delicate state, but sadly, it will last only a short while and once Se’udah Sh’lishit is over, imperfection will reign once again.

The special ambience that pervades the closing moments of Shabbat is frequently captured at communal Se’udah Sh’lishit celebrations, which are particularly common in Chassidic circles, but also prevalent in other communities. The rabbi offers an inspirational discourse (many important Chassidic works are collections of them) and those gathered sing and imbibe the mood, sometimes in the darkening room, often until well after Shabbat has actually finished. Eventually, the weekday encroaches, the lights are switched on and another week has begun.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.

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