The rabbis ascribe the tradition of reciting the Kiddush, a prayer proclaiming the sanctity of the Sabbath or festival, to the Men of the Great Assembly who lived between the sixth and fourth centuries BCE. [1] The exact wording of the prayer, however, comes from talmudic times.

In the early centuries of the Common Era, when every festive meal began with a cup of wine, the Kiddush was incorporated into the Friday evening meal. When the practice was no longer in vogue, the cup of wine before the Sabbath meal was retained as a religious rite. The Kiddush is essentially a blessing in which the Jews thank God for having "in love and favor given us the sacred Sabbath as an inheritance," and relates to the day of rest as a memorial of the creation of the world and of the exodus from Egypt.

The German Jewish scholar Ismar Elbogen (1874-1943) discusses how the Kiddush was introduced into the synagogue service in Babylonia, a custom which eventually spread to Ashkenazi Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

In the most ancient period, no public service was held at the beginning of the Sabbath any more than on other evenings, but religious "fraternities" (havurot) would celebrate the day by holding a common festival meal. These meals would begin while it was still daylight; they were interrupted at nightfall, when the leader of the fraternity would recite the "Sanctification of the Day" over a cup of wine. Otherwise, each individual would recite his own night prayer separately as on every day, with some adding special words in honor of the Sabbath.

[Entire text, translation and transliteration of Kiddush]

While the Kiddush originally belonged to a meal, it was later transferred to the synagogue, where we find it since the time of the first Babylonian amoraim.[2] Babylonia did not know the custom of common fraternal meals for religious purposes, nor were vineyards generally cultivated. Therefore, where no wine was available, Kiddush was transferred to the synagogue, where it remained as the conclusion of the service.

Knowing that the Kiddush belonged only in a private house at the family table, the amoraim [2] excused the practice of reciting it at the conclusion of the Friday evening on the grounds that the synagogue served also as a hostel for travelers, who took their meals there. In the course of time, when the synagogue ceased serving this purpose, doubts were expressed about the propriety of saying Kiddush there, but no one dared to act on those doubts. Here is a classic example of how religious rites, once they have taken root, cannot be removed by force of logic.

Kiddush remained an integral part of the Friday night service in Ashkenazic communities outside of the Land of Israel, and is, in fact, one of the high points of that service, a moment of extraordinary reverence and religious feeling. No community today, whether traditional or reform, would be prepared to give it up.

Resting on ancient tradition, the text of the Kiddush is identical in all communities.

[More on Kiddush customs and a traditional Indian recipe for Currant Wine]


[1] BT Berkahot 33a [back]

[2] The amoraim are sages either mentioned in the Gemara or active during the period that it was being compiled. (250-290 C.E) [back]

From: Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (translated by R.P. Scheindlin), Jewish Publication Society and Jewish Theological Seminary of America: 1993. [More about Friday traditions on the JTS site]
Hear Cantor Rebecca Garfein singing Kurt Weill's setting of the Kiddush.

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