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.

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

A very well-known song among the zemirot is one whose refrain begins with the words Yom zeh leYisra'el. The first verse states that the origin of Shabbat rest is to be found in the divine command issued at Sinai. The second verse celebrates that Shabbat rest as the balm which soothes Israel's agonies caused by the long exile. The third verse combines both the previous themes together. The fourth verse mentions in particular the prohibition of melakhah on Shabbat with its concommitant promise of ultimate reward: rest on Shabbat is Israel's gift to God. The last verse is a plea that God restore Israel's fortunes once again. Originally this song had more verses. Although they have survived, the extra verses are almost never included in regular prayer books and collections of zemirot. This is probably because in the original version there were twelve verses, which would make it rather too long to be included comfortably among the regular Shabbat table songs. The author of this song was Rabbi Isaac Luria [1534-1572], who is probably better known by the sobriquet "Ari". It was Luria who attracted to the town of Safed in the Galilee all the despondent and displaced sages of the Jewish world who wished to immerse themselves in the study of Torah in general but of Kabbalah in particular. We must remember that this was the period immediately after the traumatic expulsion of the Jews from Spain (August 1492), and the sadness and pain of that dislocation haunts most of the verses of the song Yom zeh leYisra'el - with the assurance that the delights of Shabbat are the best antidote for that pain. Shabbat, "this day of light and happiness" makes the long exile endurable.

Another of the zemirot begins with the words Barukh El Elyon. The composition of this song seems to be more sophisticated. It consists of seven verses which correspond to the acrostic Barukh Ĥazzak. Apart from his name I do not think that we know anything more about the author. This song too celebrates Shabbat as the balm that soothes the agony of exile: special foods and special clothes make the occasion a family sacrifice. He who observes Shabbat properly is training his soul towards a true appreciation of the beauty of holiness. The recurring refrain is "Those who observe Shabbat - male and female - find divine favour like a cereal offering on a griddle [Leviticus 2:5]".

One of the greatest of Israel's poets during the so-called 'Golden Age of Spanish Jewry' was without doubt Rabbi Yehudah Halevi [1075-1141]. Only one of his poems has found its way into the collection of Shabbat table songs that are known to most Conservative Jews. It begins with the words Yom shabbaton eyn lishko'aĥ. This poem stands out because of the artifice used by the poet of ending each line with the Hebrew sound o'aĥ - a rather rare combination. The five verses of the song (which correspond to the five letters of the Hebrew acrostic Yehudah contain no ideas that we have not already found in previous zemirot; but the refrain which comes after each verse is, perhaps, rather original: "The dove finds rest on it and there the weary repose." The term 'dove' in this context is a double entendre: of course, it was Noah's dove that returned to him because "she did not find rest for her feet" [Genesis 8:9] since the waters of the flood had not yet abated. But the prophet Hoshea also describes Israel as "a silly dove" with no sense [Hosea 7:11]. The phrase "and there the weary find rest" is a direct quote from Job [3:17]; but in Job the place where the weary find repose is the grave! Thus by a clever association of biblical ideas the poet creates a refrain which means that the weary of Israel (the dove) find rest on Sabbat.

One of the earliest poems to be included in the usual collection of zemirot begins with the words Deror Yikra. The author is Dunash Ibn Labrat [920-980]. While the subject is ostensibly Shabbat repose the main burden of the song is a plea for God to rouse Himself to action against the wicked of the world.

The song Ki Eshmerah Shabbat is attributed to Abraham Ibn Ezra [1089-1164], and the acrostic certainly is the Hebrew for "Abraham". The recurrent refrain is the idea that if I (Israel) keep Shabbat God will keep me (from harm), for "it is an eternal sign between Him and me". Most of the verses are didactic, teaching one aspect or another of the laws of Shabbat. Among those mentioned (singled out more for their rhyme than anything else, apparently) we find the prohibition on travel, worrying about our mundane needs, business or politics; the use of two loaves at each meal; the prohibition against fasting on Shabbat; good wine, meat and fish together with the prohibition against outward mourning. Lastly come the regular Shabbat prayers.

The last song which I have chosen for this survey begins with the Hebrew words Tzur mishelo. This poem is not specific to Shabbat. Clearly it was intended as an introduction to Grace After Meals, because each one of its four verses corresponds to one of the four blessings which comprise birkat ha-mazon. Birkat ha-Mazon is the next subject of our study.


Jordan Wosnik writes:

Your discussion of zemirot is great so far. Thanks for this ... I wonder if you would be able to discuss how the zemer "Yedid Nefesh" became incorporated into the Friday night service in the synagogue. (I know that this doesn't strictly follow from the "Shabbat Eve in the Home" topic.) Related to this, I would be interested in hearing how the variant readings of this song (one seems to use masculine possessives, and the other feminine?) came to be.

I respond:

Well, I think we can discuss Yedid Nefesh here because many people sing it as a Shabbat table song, especially at the third Shabbat meal on Shabbat afternoon.

This poem was written by Rabbi Eli'ezer Azikri [1533-1600]. It was first published in 1584 and luckily a few decades ago a manuscript of the poem, signed by the author, was found in an attic in Safed. Thus we have been able to correct all the typographical errors that careless printers have introduced into the song over the past four centuries. (You can find an accurate renditon of the text on the siddur of the Masorti Movement, Va'ani Tefillati, page 281.)

Azikri was one of the group of kabbalah afficionados who gathered in Safed during the 16th century. You will recall that it was they who introduced the ceremony of Kabbalat Shabbat (see Shabbat 015). Azikri's poem has an acrostic, but it is not the author's name which is the acrostic but the four letters of God's name! The poet (Israel) is in love - in love with God, longing for union with the Beloved. Just as a lovelorn swain will carve the name of his beloved on a tree so the poet has enshrined the name of the Beloved as the acrostic. Israel is lovesick and only by revealing Himself can God cure the illness: "O God, delight of my heart, hurry, ignore me not". This yearning for God to appear has its roots in the belief of the kabbalists that the messianic age was at hand. (A similar message was included by Alkabetz in his song Lekha Dodi.) This thought is emphasized in the last stophe of the poem: "Hurry, Beloved, the time has come!".

There are no feminine readings in this song. I think that what Jordan is referring to are the line endings such as retzonakh (instead of retzonkha) or hadarakh (instead of hadarkha). These are not feminine endings any more than is the well-known phrase from the Amidah, modim anaĥnu lakh which refers to God. In rabbinic Hebrew this is a regular alternative masculine form, which derives from the biblical usage as a pausal form. If the question is 'why did Azikri use this form?' then answer is simple: it suited his metre. Each verse of the song consists of four lines and each line consists of two strophes. Each strophe consists of eight syllables (though here and there we find mild examples of 'poetic licence'). Another consideration is rhyme.