Bamidbar: Canopy of Peace on Jerusalem

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Jerusalem at Sunset
26 May 2011

On weekdays, we close the last blessing of Shema at night with the words, “Who watches over His people Israel forever”. But on Shabbat, we close, “Who spreads a canopy of peace (sukkat shalom) on us and on all His people Israel, and on Yerushalayim”. (SA OC 267:3.)

Actually, this pattern was not always universal. According to Rambam (Order of Prayers), “Who watches” is said even on Shabbat; according to our text of the Yerushalmi, the “canopy of peace” closing is said even on weekdays. (Yerushalmi Brachot 4:5. The Tur’s text of the Yerushalmi did distinguish between Shabbat and weekdays.)

What is the basis of the distinction, which is now virtually universal? The Tur cites a Midrash stating that on Shabbat we are not in need of watching, but this explanation needs some elaboration. After all, “watching” and “spreading a canopy of peace” seem just to be two different ways of describing Hashem’s protection.

The Zohar explains the difference as follows: On weekdays conflict and hence danger are present, but Hashem protects us from them. But on Shabbat there is encompassing peace, and no protection is needed.

“When the day is sanctified at the entrance of Shabbat, a canopy of peace prevails and spreads in the world. What is the canopy of peace? This is Shabbat [itself]. And all the [hostile] spirits and winds and demons, and the entire aspect of defilement, all hide them- selves… For since sanctity is awakened in the world, the spirit of defilement cannot arouse itself beside it and the one flees before the other. Then the world has a supernal supervision and there is no need to pray for watching” (Zohar Bereshit, I 48a). When there is an awakening of holiness, then the power of defilement is not merely held at bay, it is actually driven away.

What is the significance of mentioning Yerushalayim? The Zohar continues: “Why ‘on Yerushalayim’? Because this is the dwelling place of that canopy. And we need to summon this canopy so that it should spread over us and dwell with us and be unto us like a mother who hovers over her children”.

Yerushalayim is the “dwelling place” of true peace. At first we need to make it into a place where all Israel come together in peace, as it was in the time of the Sanctuary when Jews from all over the world met together on the holidays. All enjoyed each other’s company rather than resented their crowding presence, as we learn in the Mishna (Avot 5:5), “No one ever said, It is too crowded for me to lodge in Yerushalayim”. Ultimately it will be the place where all mankind come together in peace, as we learn in the prophets: “And the remnant of all the nations will come to Yerushalayim, and they will come each year to bow down to the King, Hashem of Hosts, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot (canopies)” (Zechariah 14:16).

The basis of Yerushalayim’s status as the “dwelling place of peace” is that it is the place where all subdue themselves before Hashem and acknowledge His authority and providence. When this happens, then a spirit of holiness will be present at all times and all forces of defilement will flee, leaving only an encompassing canopy of peace.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.