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 -