Singing zemiros at the Shabbos table is an old  minhag with deep roots in both Gemara and medrash.  Why is it important to sing on Shabbos? What drove  some of the greatest gedolei hador of the past thousand  years to compose the zemiros included in our weekly  Shabbos repertoire?

  Two Perspectives of Song 

  Chazal view the importance of singing on Shabbos from  two perspectives. The Gemara (Megillah 12b) speaks of it from  the perspective of Klal Yisroel, praising Jews for occupying  themselves with holy pursuits during their festive meals.  Commenting on the verse, On the seventh day when the heart of  the king was cheerful with wine (Esther 1:10), the Gemara says  that the seventh day was Shabbos when Yisroel eat and drink  and say divrei Torah and words of praise, unlike Achashverosh  and his cohorts who sat at their banquet speaking of idle,  disgusting matters.

Elsewhere, Chazal speak of the zemiros from Hashem’s  perspective, saying that He prefers their Shabbos praise more  than that of the ministering angels.

“On Shabbos, the Holy One did not choose the Shabbos  of the ministering angels but the Shabbos of Yisroel,” the  medrash says. “… The ministering angels [who have six wings]  sing all the days of the week, each wing [singing] one day, that  is, six wings for six days. On Shabbos, the angels said to the  Holy One, Ribono Shel Olam! We have no wing to sing before  You, give us a seventh wing and we will sing before You today.  The Holy One said to them, I have one wing upon the earth  that sings before Me as it says (Yeshayahu 24:16), From the  wing of the earth we heard zemiros, glory to the Righteous One.”  (Medrash cited by Tosfos, Sanhedrin 37b)

  Sefer Chassidim (409) finds two scriptural allusions to  singing zemiros on Shabbos. One is an explicit verse (Tehillim  92;1): A psalm, a song for the day of Shabbos – it is good to thank  Hashem and to sing to His exalted name. Elsewhere (1,147), he  mentions a less obvious reason for singing zemiros: Teshuvas  Rabeinu Meshulam writes that Hashem blessed Shabbos at the  creation and in the Asseres Hadibros. This indicated that “it is  a mitzvah to sing on Shabbos. For when Job cursed his day, he  said, Let no song enter it (Iyuv 3:7), teaching that it is fitting  for song to enter the blessed day of Shabbos.”

The zemiros act upon us in two ways. The Kuzari (maamar  sheini) says that singing is an oneg Shabbos no less than food  and drink.

“Your humility on days of fasting is no nearer to Hashem  than your joy on Shabbos and Yom Tov if your joy is with  [proper] intent and sincere,” he writes. “…And if your joy  turns into singing and dancing, this is avodah and cleaving to  Hashem.”

Song also expresses our love for Hashem. Sefer Chassidim  (400) writes: “[Love of Hashem] causes one to sing pleasantly  in order to fill one’s heart with joy in Hashem’s service.”

According to Sefer Hachareidim (89:6) and Reishis Chochmah  (Shaar Ahavas Hashem 10), singing is even a fulfillment of the  positive mitzvah to love Hashem. So it is not surprising that  the author of Sefer Hachareidim, Rav Elazar Azkari of Tzefas  who lived in the time of the Beis Yosef and Arizal is also author  of Yedid Nefesh, which the Mateh Ephrayim (581:57) wrote is  specially predisposed to “arouse one to cleave to the Creator.”

  Some of the Great Poets 

The Peleh Yoetz (erech Shir) writes that “the chachmei hadoros  of every generation wrote myriads of songs, praises, and  bakoshos in Hebrew and the vernacular.” Of course, only a few  made it to our Shabbos tables. Of this, the Yismach Berochoh  writes in his sefer Pri Berochoh that we have a tradition that  the zemiros that became widespread were composed with  ruach hakodesh. Rav Noach of Lechovitz said that even those  that were not composed on that lofty level became sanctified  by the mouths of bnei Yisroel (Toras Avos – Slonim).

Most of our zemiros were composed by famous Rishonim  and Acharonim. Others of unknown authorship include  Sholom Aleichem, Tzur Mishelo, Eliyahu Hanavi, and Omor  Hashem LYaakov. Yet others tell us their authors’ name  through acrostics, the initial letters of verses or words, but  tell us nothing of the authors’ lives. For example, nothing is  known about Rabeinu Chaim Yitzchok whose name appears  as the initial letters of Chai Hashem uBoruch Tzuri. 

Three of the Shabbos zemiros, one for each meal, were  composed by the Arizal (1534-1572). Yom Zeh leYisroel, the  fourth of his Shabbos zemiros in our repertoire, is unusual.  Although it seems to be composed by the Arizal — the initial  letters of its verses form an acrostic of his name Yitzchok ben  Luriah — part of the song already appears in the Machzor  Aram Tzora that was printed in Venice in 1527 seven years  before the Arizal was born.

Because of this contradiction people claim that the  original poem only included the verses whose acrostic forms  “Yitzchok,” as well as the letters lamed and ches. These original  verses, they say, were composed by Rav Yitzchok ben Yehuda  Ibn Ghiyyat (1038–1089), who composed Hamavdil and  hundreds of zemiros besides during his life as a rosh yeshiva  in Lucena, Italy, and his later years in Cordoba, Spain. Later,  more verses were added to Yom Zeh creating new acrostics.  Lamed became part of “Luriah,” while ches became the first  letter of chazak. Some Siddurim still only include the original  verses printed in 1527.

Having discussed how one zemer is composed of two parts,  we will now examine a zemer originally written as one poem  but often divided into two. This is Boruch Hashem Yom Yom  composed by Rashi’s uncle, Rabeinu Shimon Hagodol ben  Rav Yitzchok of Mainz whose son, Elchonon, was allegedly  kidnapped and went on to become a pope. Like Maoz Tzur, it  describes the exiles of the past and pleads for deliverance from  the present exile of Edom. Why do people divide this zemer  into two? One reason was said by Rav Tzvi Hirsh of Zidichoiv  when he heard that Rav Naftoli of Ropshitz customarily  divided Boruch Hashem into two parts.

“The Ropshitzer is a chochom,” he exclaimed. “He has cut  the power of golus Edom into two by saying nisgarti leEdom  in the morning meal and bevoo meiEdom in the third meal.”  Some Zemiros were not merely split in half but completely  moved from their original place in the Siddur. It is well known  that the poem Yom Layaboshoh said during benching after a  bris was originally part of the seventh day of Pesach prayers

Similarly, Tzomoh Nafshi composed by the Ibn Ezra (1089 —  1164) originally appeared in a Machzor for Shemini Atzeres as  an introduction to Nishmas Kol Chai and only made its way  into the zemiros at some later stage. Because of its original  place, it’s last verse concludes with the words Nishmas kol chai.  The Ibn Ezra’s name appears here in an acrostic formed  by the initial words of Tzomoh Nafshis verses. The sefer Chut  Hameshulash writes that the Chasam Sofer praised this song  immensely, saying that it was deep in kabala concepts and  that “there is no doubt that ruach hakodesh rested upon the  writer when he composed this song.”

  Dror Yikroh is perhaps unique among the zemiros in that it  has a story behind it. It was composed by Rav Dunash Halevi  ben Labrat (920-990), a grandson of Rav Saadia Gaon  and the father-in-law of Rav Nissim Gaon. Rav Dunash  participated in the Golden Age of Jewish poetry in Cordoba,  Spain after moving there from North Africa and his poems  are based on Arab styles of poetry closely studied by Jewish  poets of the time. At one time in his life he suffered sorrow  and joy in close proximity when his son died shortly before  the marriage of his daughter to Rav Nissim Gaon, inspiring  him to compose Deror yikroh laben im bas in honor of his son  and daughter. His name Dunash appears at the beginning of  the first three verses and in the initial letters of the three  phrases comprising the last verse.

Another zemer of Rav Dunash connected with this incident  is Ish Chossid Hoyoh that we sing on Motzoei Shabbos. The  story of how Eliyahu Hanavi miraculously constructed a  building for a chossid in desperate need of funds is based on an  incident in the book of stories Yefeih meiHeyeshuah that Rav  Nissim Gaon sent to Rav Dunash to comfort him after his  son’s passing.

  Motzoei Shabbos 

  Hamavdil was written by Rav Yitzchok Hakoton, the Italian  godol, Rav Yitzchok b’R. Yehuda Ibn Ghiyyat mentioned  earlier. His name is hinted in the acrostic of its first six verses.

Noting that the main topic of Hamavdil is atonement of sins,  the Chasam Sofer (Teshuvos 1:67) points out that although  he recited this zemer every week, the Mordechai (Yuma end of  siman 727) clearly writes that it was originally composed to be  said on Motzoei Yom Kippur. As to why we say it every week, the  Pnei Menachem of Gur explained that this is based on Chazal statement that if someone observes Shabbos according to its  halachos all his sins are forgiven (Shabbos 118b). Accordingly,  he said, Motzoei Shabbos is similar to Motzoei Yom Kippur. 

The anonymous Eliyohu Hanovi is so old that it even has  a commentary on it written by the 14th century Rishon, Rav  David Abudraham, in his Sefer Abudraham – a Commentary  on Blessings and Prayers. Explaining why it is customary  to sing zemiros that mention Eliyohu Hanovi on Motzoei  Shabbos, Rav Pinchos of Koritz said that Eliyahu who entered  Gan Eden with his physical body is a suitable intermediary to  bridge between Shabbos, the taste of the world to come, and  the earthly week that follows it.

  Sources: Rav Shlomo Yosef Ovitz, Seder Halichos Zemiros Shabbos,  5764 

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