of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


If you refrain from travalling on the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day; if you call the sabbath "a delight," God's holy day "honourable"; and if you honour it and go not your ways nor strike bargains or talk about mundane things - then you will delight in God; I will set you astride the heights of the earth and let you enjoy the heritage of father Jacob - for God's mouth has said it.


Today's shiur follows a pattern that is different from that to which we have become accustomed. (We shall return to the previous format when we reach the next topic: Grace After Meals.) The text for today's shiur is not from a rabbinic text: it is a direct quote from scripture [Isaiah 58:13-14]. The reason for this is the fact that, strictly speaking, the subject of our discussion this time has no halakhic basis - no basis in any of the halakhic compendiums, major ot minor. In this shiur we are going to discuss a custom, a tradition - one that is uniquely associated with the celebratory Shabbat repast. Our subject is the special songs, zemirot, that accompany the Shabbat meal. This is one of the most delightful ways of celebrating Shabbat as a "delightful day", as the prophet would have it. Surely, nothing can express better the sheer delight of this holiest of days than the "togetherness" wrought by the singing together of familiar and meaningful songs.

At the very start of the repast comes kiddush; kiddush is followed by netilat yadayyim, which in turn precedes ha-motzi. After ha-motzi comes the meal itself, and it is a time-honoured convention that during the meal - between the various courses and before birkat ha-mazon [Grace] - we sing zemirot, Shabbat table songs. And they are songs, rather than hymns of "solemn uplift". Some of them are more than one thousand years old, which testifies to the fact that the singing of these songs is an ancient custom. Furthermore, while it is true that the various edot that make up the great Jewish world-wide family have preserved their own special and beloved zemirot and their accompanying melodies, many of these songs transcend the flimsy barriers of edah, each borrowing from the other both texts and tunes. (We have had occasion previously to mention the fact that the Jewish people is comprised of various edot. These groupings have a geographic origin, where Jews hailing from the same part of the diaspora maintain the customs and traditions that developed among them.)

In the framework of this shiur we cannot, of course, review all the multifarious zemirot that are part of the cultural treasures of the Jewish people. So we shall limit ourselves to a description of a few of the more prominent zemirot that seem to have found particular favour among Conservative Jews.

One song that is often one of the first to be sung starts with the Hebrew words Menuĥah ve-Simĥah. To the best of my knowledge no one knows who wrote the words of this song or when it was written. However, in the first three verses we do find a clue: the poet has indicated his name by an acrostic. This is a favourite artifice of most of the medieval Hebrew poets. In our present case the acrostic gives us the name Moshe - but which person of that name is a mystery. The first two verses of the song celebrate God's Shabbat, the commemoration of creation; the next verse refers to Israel's Shabbat - that God commanded us mortals to share His Shabbat. The last two verses refer to the delights of Shabbat - special delicacies to eat and drink. The song ends with a promise that those who delight in it should merit ultimate redemption.

Several of these zemirot are didactic. That is to say that they teach us (or remind us) of various Shabbat rules and regulations. For example, one such song starts with the Hebrew words Mah Yedidut; the acrostic attributes the song to one Menaĥem (again, we know nothing more about him). In the compass of six verses the author manages to encapsulate a host of Shabbat customs and regulations. He mentions Kabbalat Shabbat, the wearing of special "Shabbat best" clothes, lighting candles, cessation from work and the prohibtion of melakhah in just the first verse! (Incidentally, we have mentioned all these in previous shiurim.) The second verse celebrates the fact that we prepare for the Shabbat meals during the previous week so as to have on our table delicious foods and wines at all three Shabbat meals. The fourth verse introduces the prohibition against financial calculations, the fact that it is permitted to agree to marriage (even though in earlier times there were definite financial strings attached to 'engagement' [kiddushin]!), the fact that we may teach children to read scripture - and to think beautiful religious thoughts everywhere. The next verse reminds us that one of the greatest delights of Shabbat is sleep -

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, / The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath, / Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, / Chief nourisher in life's feast. [William Shakespeare, Macbeth, II, ii]

The last verse reminds us that the Shabbat in which we delight here and now is but a foretaste of the Great Shabbat of the next world.

Another popular song was written by Rabbi Israel Ibn-Najara, who died around 1625. He was a prolific poet, and his oeuvre consists of both secular and religious poems. A collection of his poems was published by the Kabbalists of Safed in 1587 and recently several of his original manuscripts have been found in Jerusalem. His most famous contribution is called Yah Ribbon and is not in Hebrew, but in Aramaic - which is probably what attracted the Kabbalists to it. There is nothing in this song which can be particularly associated with Shabbat: it praises God as the "Supreme King of Kings", who is so great that "even if a man could live a thousand years he would not be able to recount all Your greatness". The song ends with two requests: that God "snatch his flock from the lions' mouths" and redeem them from their exile; and that He restore His presence to a rebuilt Bet Mikdash in Jerusalem.

Another much beloved song among these zemirot bears the title Yom Zeh Mekhubad. According to the acrostic it was written by a man named Israel who was a convert to Judaism. This song too is didactic in spirit. The first verse reminds us that we labour for six days of the week, but the seventh day belongs to God: on it we may do no work "because He made everything in six days". The second verse mentions kiddush over wine and ha-motzi with two ĥallot. The third verse recalls good food and sweets, special clothes, and "meat and fish and tasty dishes". The fourth verse mentions Grace after Meals (which we have not yet reached in our halakhic survey), and the last verse returns us to a celebration of God the Creator.

To be continued.