Yedid Nefesh — Forever Happy or an Eternal Maidservant?

Posted by Ruth Gan Kagan on May 4, 2015
Topics: Jewish Prayer

יְדִיד נֶפֶשׁ אָב הָרַחֲמָן. מְשׁוֹךְ עַבְדְךָ אֶל רְצוֹנֶךָ.

יָרוּץ עַבְדְּךָ כְּמוֹ אַיָּל. יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל מוּל הֲדָרֶךָ.

יֶעֱרַב לוֹ יְדִידוֹתֶיךָ מִנּוֹפֶת צוּף וְכָל טָעַם:


הָדוּר נָאֶה זִיו הָעוֹלָם. נַפְשִׁי חוֹלַת אַהֲבָתֶךָ.

אָנָא אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ. בְּהַרְאוֹת לָהּ נוֹעַם זִיוֶךָ.

אָז תִּתְחַזֵק וְתִתְרַפֵּא. וְהָיְתָה לָהּ שִׂמְחַת עוֹלָם:

Yedid Nefesh – 19 Century Siddurim (first 2 stanzas)

Beloved of my soul, Merciful Father,

Draw your servant after your will

Your servant would run swift as a deer

To kneel before Your splendor

For Your love is sweeter to him

Than honey nectar and all pleasing savor.


Exalted Glorious Beautiful Light of the World

My soul is love-sick for You

Please My God, please heal her

By showing her the beauty of Your radiance

Then she will be strengthened and healed

And she shall have eternal joy.

Here is a tale of a proof-reader’s woes:

“Shlosberg, the publisher, had the idea of printing his siddur T’filat Yaacov (published 1861) according to the Sefarad nusach, that is used by the Hassidim in Poland… I was hired as the proof-reader of the siddur, and had the foolish idea to correct the Piyyut Yedid Nefesh according to an old manuscript I found… So I substituted ‘And she (the soul) will be your maidservant forever’ in place of ‘And she will have eternal joy’. The moment the Hasidim laid their hands on the siddur mayhem broke out, and they proclaimed: “This proof-reader came here to make fun of us; fancy turning the soul into a maidservant!”. (A pun in the quote references Potiphar’s wife on Genesis 39:14.) Then their rabbi, our teacher Rabbi Chaim of Sanz decided to disqualify the siddur! I might have suffered great financial damage because of this had not the rebbe forgiven me after I promised him that I did this innocently… and with his grace he canceled the ban under the condition that I change the nusach back to the regular, long standing one – which of course I did.”

(Naftali Ben Menachem, quoted by Yaacobson in Netiv Bina 2:367)

Yedid Nefesh, one of our most popular piyyutim (liturgical poems) has indeed suffered many copying and printing mistakes since it was written in 16th century Tzfat. The nuschaot (versions) found in Ashkenazi and Sefaradi siddurim vary considerably from each other, but all printed versions in the 19th and 20th centuries were in agreement: After the soul gets healed (in the second verse), she is granted eternal joy, simchat olam.

Where would such an idea come from to make the soul into a maid servant? In Hebrew the word joy and the word maidservant are written and pronounced almost identically – with a difference of just one letter of a similar shape: Joy – שמחה, Maidservant – שפחה.

Could the proof-reader have been right, could he have had a deeper understanding than the Rebbe of Sanz? Should the soul in the second verse of Yedid Nefesh be forever happy or an eternal maidservant?

Yedid Nefesh was authored by the Kabbalist Rabbi Elazar Azkari in 16th-centuryTzfat, a time and place that yielded an abundance of Kabbalistic and poetic material that has had a profound effect on Judaism. This poem spread quickly to all Jewish communities and has been sung at the “in between” times: just before daybreak, just before Shabbat comes in, just before she goes out.  It is a love, yearning and longing song for God, written in the genre of Shirey Yedidot, poems to the Beloved, that were very popular in the mystic chavurot (groups) in Tzfat at that time. These Piyytim were penned by mystics who were seeking and cultivating devotional love relationship with the Divine, inspired by themes occurring in the Song of Songs (By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but I didn’t find him. I will get up now, and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares, I will seek him whom my soul loves.’ I sought him, but I didn’t find him.3: 1-2); the Psalms (My soul longs, and even faints for the courts of God. My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God. 8:1-2, My soul thirsts for you, My flesh longs for you. 63:1); and Piyyutim of the Golden Age in Spain.

In his magnum opus, Sefer Charedim, Rabbi Elazar Azikri describes the desired depth of love of God this way: “A lover often calls his beloved nafshi, my soul, because he will not be able tolerate being apart from his beloved, it will feel as if his soul left his body, and without her he will surely die. In the same way the faithful lover of God also calls Him nafshi, my Soul.”

The mystics are consumed with their love for God, they speak in the language of desire, of the fever of love, of eternal longing. This is why the poem four stanzas each start with one letter of the four letter name of God. This is why the lover’s soul in the second verse of the poem is so love sick, nafshi cholat ahavatach, and her healing can only happen when shown the gentle light of God.

Is eternal joy then, the happy ending to this love story?

Apparently, that is not the way things work in the soul of the mystic. The coveted closeness to God is always touch and let go, ratzo vashov, running and returning. The mystic cannot live without the yearning. There is no settling down. There may be a happy union on Shabbat but then, on Saturday night, the closeness weakens – again, the Divine grace dims and the yearning returns. There are still two more verses to this poem and they are full of longing for Divine revelation and geula – redemption.

The Jewish mystic cannot be satisfied seeing himself as a lover of God.  He wishes to explore every possible relationship with the Divine  – “Beloved of my soul, Companionate father, draw Your servant after Your will.” The path of the mystic is threefold: Love, compassion and surrender. He needs God the lover, to practice and experience love; He needs God the parent, to dwell in Divine compassion; and he must envision God the master, himself as a slave and his soul as a maidservant, so he can practice complete surrender.

The mystic will never settle for simchat olam, eternal joy, for his soul, as long as he lives. While still in a body, he must keep running like a deer, surrender and bow before his Master, experience God in every possible taste. Eternal joy will be achieved on the day he dies, the day that he is united forever with his beloved, and every year following his death his students will celebrate with great joy his Hilula (joyful festivities celebrated at weddings and also at the yahrzeit of great kabbalists).

In the second half of the 20th century, Rabbi Azikri’s mystical diary was discovered in the JTS library in New York. Three of his poems were penned there in his own handwriting. Yedid Nefesh had this headline: בקשה על הייחוד וחשק האהבה – A poem about uniting with God and the desire of love.

Now what about the controversy of maidservant versus joy at the end of the second stanza? Guess what? The proof-reader was right. Rabbi Azikri’s soul was indeed yearning to be God’s shifchat olam, an eternal maidservant. And now many new siddurim go according to the original intention of the great mystics of Tzfat.

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