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 Yo’etz (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 ru’ach 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 L’Yaakov. 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 Ma’oz 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 le’Edom in the morning meal and be’vo’o mei’Edom 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 Nafshi’s 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 ru’ach hakodesh rested upon the writer when he composed this song.”
D’ror 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.
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 ’s 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