Shabbos in song
RABBI STEVEN KRAWITZ
Tunes may change and over the millennia new songs have been added, but what has remained constant is the spiritual depths of our zemirot (songs) and the universal nature of Jewish practice though time and space.
So, whether you will be singing loudly in shul, at home or at a Dark Tish, take a few moments to ponder on some of the songs Jews around the world will be singing on this and every other Shabbos.
Lecha Dodi, a beautiful, stirring song, written in Safed in the 15th century, draws its inspiration from the Gemora (Shabbat 119A), which speaks of Rabbi Chanina who would wrap himself in a garment and stand at nightfall at the beginning of Shabbos and say: “Come, we will go out to greet the Shabbos Queen”.
Rabbi Yannai would get dressed on erev Shabbos and say: “Bo’i Kallah, Bo’i Kallah (Enter O bride, Enter O bride)”. The author of the song Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz was a brother-in-law and teacher of Rabbi Moshe Covdovero, and a leading figure in the Safed Kabbalistic circle of great rabbis that also included Rabbi Yosef Karo and the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria).
Covdovero, inspired by Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yannai who lived a millennium and a half before him, had established the custom of walking out into the hilltop fields around Safed, before twilight on erev Shabbos, to greet the incoming Shabbos bride and queen. The song “Lecha Dodi (Come My Dear One)”, which is an invitation extended either to Hashem or a close friend to welcome in the Shabbos, was composed to be sung for this outdoor greeting of Shabbos.
Nowadays the practice is to turn to the back of the shul when we say “Bo’i Kallah”, rather than walk outside at the moment Shabbos enters.
The author has also made the song an acrostic, with the first letter of the first eight stanzas spelling his name. This is a common practice in classical Hebrew poetry and appears in many Shabbos songs.
Lecha Dodi is a recent addition to Jewish liturgy, when viewed from the perspective of the epic sweep of 2 500 years since the Men of the Great Assembly formalised the Torah mitzvah of prayer, at the beginning of the Second Temple era, into the basic structure of the siddur.
Shalom Aleichem, the first song to be sung in a Jewish house on Shabbos, is also a fairly recent addition to Jewish liturgy, but is based on a Talmudic tradition that is at least 2 000 years old.
First appearing in print in 1641, Shalom Aleichem was also written by the Kabbalists of Safed in the late 16th or early 17th century. In the Gemora (Shabbos 119B), Rabbi Yosi bar Yehuda speaks of two ministering angels who accompany a person on Shabbos evening home from shul, one good, one evil.
If the person reaches his home and finds a lamp burning, the table set, and his bed made, the good angel would say: “May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbos.” The evil angel answers against his will “Amen”.
If the home is not prepared for Shabbos the evil angel says: “May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbos”, and the good angel against his will answers “Amen”.
Despite the criticism that as Jews we address our prayers and requests directly to Hashem and not via angels, Shalom Aleichem is now an almost universal practice.
Eishet Chayil is an ancient song, being the last 22 verses of the final chapter of Mishlei, the Book of Proverbs, written by King Solomon. Allegorical in nature, the praises in these verses are interpreted to refer to a number of subjects: the Shechinah (the Divine Presence), the Shabbos, the Torah, wisdom and the soul.
To connect Eishet Chayil to the praise of a specific woman, the Midrash Tanchuma offers a beautiful reading of Eishet Chayil as Abraham’s eulogy for Sarah, in Parshat Chayei Sarah.
Midrash Mishlei goes even further and finds praises for 20 great women from throughout the Tanach within Eishet Chayil, cementing it as the most beautiful, powerful and appropriate praise a husband can offer to his wife, before the Shabbat Kiddush.
Nobody knows who wrote one of the most popular Shabbat songs, Tzur Mishelo, or exactly when it was written. This four-stanza song basically follows the structure of the first three blessings of Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals), with the refrain calling on those partaking of the meal to give thanks to G-d, analogous to the Zimun (responsive introduction to Birkat Hamazon).
As with benching, we first praise Hashem for sustaining us with food (in the first stanza), then for giving us the Land of Israel (in the second) and then for Jerusalem and the kingship of the House of David (in the third stanza).
The fourth stanza speaks about the final redemption and Mashiach rather than reflecting the fourth brocha of benching, which was added many centuries after the first three had been formulated.
The fact that the last brocha is not reflected in Tzur MiShelo, has led to speculation that the song was written before the fourth bracha of benching was added, which would have been in the period between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the aftermath of the fall of the fortress city Betar in 142 CE, 72 years later.
Interestingly, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon, cautioned against singing Tzur Mishelo at the end of the Shabbas meal, maintaining that it might be a successful substitute for benching.
His opinion was not accepted, but serves to highlight the manner in which this beloved song reflects the praises of Birkat HaMazon.
A much overlooked Shabbos day song is Yom Shabbas Kodesh Hu, written by Rabbi Yahonatan Chazak whose name is also inserted acrostically into the poem.
The first eight stanzas reference many Torah verses, a number of Shabbos laws, stories from the Talmud about honouring Shabbas and the Sambatyon River. The latter is a mythical river that raged with rapids and could not be crossed for the six days of the week and rested on Shabbas.
The Ten Lost Tribes were said to have been exiled by the Assyrian King Sanchairiv to beyond the Sambatyon River. They could not cross the river on the only day it was crossable because of the laws of Shabbos. The ninth and final stanza of this song recounts an event involving the song itself.
The lyrics tell that the author had lost this poem, only to be at a Shabbos table when another person presented this song as their own. His protestations of the theft, the injustice and conclusive proof of Rabbi Yahonatan’s authorship, make up the ninth stanza.
Whether you are singing the words of King Solomon, a Kabbalist from Safed, an anonymous poet or an aggrieved wordsmith, you will be joining with Jews from around the world and across the ages.
In the words of Mordechai Ben David: “Just one Shabbas and we’ll all be free, just one shabbas come and join with me, we’ll sing and dance to the sky, with our spirits so high…”