The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht —  the founder of Chasidism — 
met the soul of the Messiah during an ascent to heaven. 
The Besht asked him, "When will the Master come?" 
The Messiah answered, "When your wellsprings break forth to the outside!" 
(from a letter written by the Besht to his brother-in-law about one of his soul ascents) 

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Yedid Nefesh — text and structure

The structure of Yedid Nefesh teaches a very precise lesson about coming closer to God, but that lesson has been obfuscated by changes made in the commonly printed Ashkenazi version. In that version the second stanza ends with: והיתה לה שמחת עולם "v'haytah lah simchat olam" – "Majestic soul is lovesick for You...Heal her, and that will be her eternal joy." But the original (known from a copy of the song written by the author Elazar Azikri himself) reads והיתה לך שפחת עולם "v'haytah lakh shifchat olam" – "Majestic soul is lovesick for You...Heal her, and then she will become Your eternal maidservant."

I once thought the modified version was better – isn't joy better than servitude? But the change undoes the structure of Elazar Azikri's poem and the point of the song. With each verse of Yedid Nefesh, we enter into a different relationship with the divine, describing ourselves first as a male servant/עבד, then as a female servant/שפחה, then as God’s child/בן, and then as God's lover/אהוב חביב. In fact, the difference between a male or female servant would be that a male servant works in the field, while a female servant works in the house. So the transition from first to second verse is about drawing nearer to the place of divinity. With each verse, we are imagining ourselves coming closer to God and becoming more intimate with God.

To go one step deeper, the first letters of the poem spell out God's name, YHVH. So the process of moving towards the source in this way is also our way of "spelling" – meaning both invoking in and for the world, and evoking within ourselves – the Holiness of the One.

This pattern is a fantastic example of the way the Siddur and all liturgy works: we take a series of emotional pictures and arrange them in a particular order (that is, seder, from which we get the name Siddur), so that the way we experience those pictures moves us in a trajectory toward a goal. Similarly, in the Passover haggadah, we take all the symbolic meanings of matzah and arrange them to carry us from avdut/slavery to cherut/freedom.

Yedid Nefesh

Most siddurim include Yedid Nefesh, but you can open and print this one page PDF with transliteration and a linear and accurate translation, based on Siddur Chaverim Kol Yisrael. Listen also to Emilia Cataldo's lovely two-part harmony of the well-known waltz tune for Yedid Nefesh here.



Design in progress © Rabbi David Mevorach Seidenberg 2006