The Magic of Zemirot
A similar scene has played out in my life hundreds of times. The setting is sometimes my camp’s dining room, a high school retreat, a seminary Shabbaton, or, more recently, Koch auditorium in Stern. The people are different, yet the roles that they play are similar. It is the middle of one of the three Shabbat meals. Most of the food is gone from the serving plates, and the rate at which forks are being shoved into their respective owner’s mouths has dwindled. “We are going to sing zemiros now,” shout the singing counselors over the din in the camp dining room. “Girls, let’s sing some zemiros,” says the teacher in charge of the high school retreat. “How about some zemiros?” shouts one table of girls at the seminary Shabbaton. “Zemirot time,” the message is passed along Koch auditorium.
The familiar tune starts off softly. There are still whispers of conversation ringing throughout the room. Some people become self-appointed shushers. Soon the whole room is singing. Some sing loudly, others softly. Some sing in tune, others sing horrendously off tune. There is even some harmony mixed in. The quality of the singing may not be able to win any talent competitions, yet it is hard not to get caught up in it.
And as I look around the room, I start to notice some interesting things. The girl who I know would never be caught listening to Jewish music is singing with her eyes closed, pounding unconsciously on the table as she belts out the tune. The girl who is not the so called “mushy type,” and who rolls her eyes at the “fluff” she proclaims her teachers teach, is putting her arm around the girl who sits next to her as she gets caught up in the melody. Even the shy girl whose voice is rarely heard is sitting with her finger pointing to each word in her bentcher as she softly sings along. Soon some of the more outgoing people are standing up and proudly doing hand motions as they sing. They try to get others to join them. If the atmosphere is particularly intense, soon the whole room will be on its feet, completely caught up in the zemirot’s ancient words and tunes.
Yet it is not only when I am actively involved in the singing that I find myself lost in the words of zemirot. During my year in Israel I had the opportunity to visit many different neighborhoods and cities for Shabbat. Frequently my friends and I would take a Friday night walk after we finished our meal at our hosts. Some weeks I would find myself walking the narrow streets of Mei’ah She’arim, while others I would be wandering around Ma’ale Adumim or the ancient city of Tsfat. The roads may have been different, but there was always one thing that bonded all of these walks together—the Shabbat zemirot. As we passed next to the residents’ houses, we would hear them singing the same zemirot our families sing back home. Sometimes the tunes would be unfamiliar, other times they were the exact tunes our fathers knew so well. Yet, whether or not we knew the tunes, we would often find ourselves caught up in the spirit of the singing. We would stand under the window for a few minutes, taking in the atmosphere and telling each other that we could feel the kedushah of Shabbat.
What is it about zemirot that enables these ancient words to elicit such a response from us? How has it come to be that Jews from all different walks of life can connect through the singing of zemirot? True, the melodies are beautiful and singing together with other people frequently produces a sense of comrade. However, to me, zemirot seem to have a power that goes beyond merely singing a good song with a bunch of other people. An analysis of the underpinnings behind the words of zemirot can help us understand the source of the power of zemirot.
In the zemer “Yedid Nefesh” we tell Hashem “Your love is sweeter than honey from the comb (mi’nofet tsuf), than any taste.”[i] The words “mi’nofet tsuf” correlate to the words in Tehilim “The command of Hashem . . . [is] more desirable than gold, than even fine gold in abundance, and sweeter than honey and drippings from cones (nofet tsufim).” [ii] This pasuk in Tehilim uses the same words to describe the mitsvot as the verse in “Yedid Nefesh” uses to describe love of God. Interestingly, the kabbalists, many of whom were authors of zemirot themselves, viewed mitsvot as tools to be utilized in order to connect to God. Thus, the value of mitsvot is not in the actions themselves, but rather in the connection that is created between man and the Omnipotent through doing the mitsvot. Additionally, as Rabbi Alan Haber explains in a shiur on Yedid Nefesh[iii], the kabbalists also taught that there exists a higher level of connecting with God, and that is without the use of mitsvot as intermediaries. Rabbi Haber explains that this direct connection to God is what the author of “Yedid Nefesh” is hinting at in the words “mi’nofet tzuf.”[iv]
According to Rabbi Haber, “Yedid Nefesh” speaks about a close relationship between Hashem and us akin to the passionate intensity that exists between Hashem and the Jewish people as is expressed in Shir Hashirim[v]. However, while in Shir Hashirim Hashem is always referred to as Bnei Yisrael’s lover, “Yedid Nefesh” uses multiple comparisons in describing the relationship between Hashem and His chosen nation. In the first sentence of this zemer, Hashem is called our “friend“ and “father,” while Bnei Yisrael is called Hashem’s “servant,” implying that Hashem is our master. These three descriptions run the gamut of possible relationships two beings can have with one another.[vi]
On Friday night we sing about our desire to connect to Hashem. “Tsamah nafshi le’lokim”—“my soul thirsts for God”[vii], we say. This is a direct quote from a pasuk in Tehilim, which finishes off by saying, “When shall I come and see God’s face?” God answers, “No one shall see me and live.”[viii] Since we cannot connect physically to God, Ibn Ezra, the author of this zemer, tells us about how God taught us “decrees, which if one performs them, thereby he shall live.”[ix] Rabbi Haber points out that through doing God’s commandments, we can create a closer bond between God and us. And even if we stray from what God wants of us, we can always do teshuvah. This concept is discussed in the words of this zemer, “Those who have gone astray, if they wished, could turn from their way.”[x][xi]
In “Mah Yedidut,” we laude the sanctity of Shabbat. “Mah yedidut menuhatekh at Shabbat ha-malka”—“how beloved is your rest, Sabbath Queen.”[xii] The words “mah yedidut” are taken from Tehilim where we tell God, “mah yedidut mishkenotekha,” “how beloved are your dwelling places.”[xiii] Rabbi Haber explains that “dwelling places” is a reference to the Beit ha-Mikdash.[xiv] The Beit ha-Mikdash was the place where Bnei Yisrael went to form a connection with God through worshipping Him with korbanot. By comparing Shabbat to the Beit ha-Mikdash, we are saying that Shabbat and the Beit ha-Mikdash can be used to achieve the same goals; both can be utilized to cultivate a closer relationship with the Creator of the World.
Perhaps it is the pure yearning for a relationship with Hashem expressed in the zemirot which makes them so unique. It is well known that Shabbat is a time to disconnect from the busy world around us and reconnect to our spirituality. Although we do not always feel as if we have a close relationship with Hashem, deep inside us our neshamah yearns for that feeling of closeness, “As the deer longs for brooks of water, so my soul longs for you, O God”[xv]. The zemirot were written as an expression of this desire. When we sing these words, we are able to bring out these feelings that are within us.
The last stanza of “Mah Yedidut” proclaims “me’ein Olam ha-Ba yom shabbat menuha”—“a foretaste of the World to Come is the Shabbat day of rest.”[xvi] The traditional explanation given to this phrase is that Shabbat is one sixtieth of Olam ha-Ba[xvii]. The Gemara describes Olam ha-Ba as “there is no eating and no drinking and no relations, only righteous ones sitting with crowns on their heads and taking pleasure from the radiance of the shehina.”[xviii] Although this statement is esoteric, it is clear that the main activity in the World to Come will be cultivating a connection to Hashem that is unlike any connection that can be created in this world. On Shabbat we get a tiny preview of what this relationship will be.
What can we practically gain from the intensity that we often feel while singing zemirot? Surely the singing of zemirot is not a magic formula for creating a closer relationship with God. After all, relationships between mere human beings take time and effort to build. However, the memory of the feelings and desires that we experience while singing zemirot can serve as a reminder for us. If we reach a point in our lives when we are feeling uninspired in our yiddeshkeit, thinking about the inspiration that singing zemirot has brought forth in us in the past can help us remember the desires that are harbored in the soul of every single Jew.
Sima Grossman is a junior at SCW majoring in biology, and is a Copy Editor and Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 688.
[ii] Tehilim 19:9-11. Translation from The Book of Psalms With an Interlinear Translation (New York, NY: Meosrah Publication Ltd., 2001), 44.
[iii] Rabbi Alan Haber, “Zemirot Shabbat: Yedid Nefesh,” YUTorah, available at: www.yutorah.org.
[v] Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 689.
[vi] Rabbi Alan Haber, “Zemirot Shabbat: Yedid Nefesh,” YUTorah, available at: www.yutorah.org.
[vii] Tehilim 42:3. Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 394.
[viii] Shemos 33:20.
[ix] Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 394.
[x] Rabbi Alan Haber, “Zemirot Shabbat: Tzoma Nafshi Le’lokim,” YUTorah, available at: www.yutorah.org.
[xi] Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 394.
[xii] From the zemer “Mah Yedidut.”Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 388.
[xiii] Tehilim 84:2.Translation from The Book of Psalms With an Interlinear Translation (New York, NY: Meosrah Publication Ltd., 2001), 235.
[xv] Tehilim 42:2. Translation from The Book of Psalms With an Interlinear Translation (New York, NY: Meosrah Publication Ltd., 2001), 112.
[xvi] Translation from Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Koren Siddur (Jerusalem, Israel: Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009), 388.
[xvii] Brakhot 57b.
[xviii] Brakhot 17a. Translation is mine.