Zemirot

Jewish Hymns for the Sabbath Day.

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Yah Ribom Olam

Another major liturgic poet belonging to the Safed circle of mystics was Damascus-born Israel Najara, who wrote 650 hymns, the best known of which is Yah Ribon Olam (God, Master of the universe). This table hymn is written in Aramaic and has the author's first name as an acrostic formed by the opening letters of the verses. The song praises the glorious and powerful "King who reins over kings" whose "powerful and wonderful deeds it is beautiful to declare."

It continues by extolling God as the Creator of all life and a worker of wonders. Finally, it concludes with a request that God redeem the Jewish people from exile and allow them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, "the city of beauty." It is interesting that the song does not mention the Sabbath at all.

Yom Zeh Mechubad

Yom Zeh Mechubad (This day is honored) urges Jews to observe the Sabbath for God will provide those who do with everything they need to enjoy the day--the ceremonial wine for Kiddush; two loaves of hallah; meat and fish, rich foods, sweet drinks, and "all appetizing things"; and even proper clothes to wear.

It is based on the Talmudic statement promising that all Sabbath expenses would be restored: "The Holy One, Blessed be He, said unto Israel: 'My children, borrow on My account and celebrate the holiness of the day and trust in Me, and I will repay'" (Betz. 15b). The refrain to the six stanzas is a reminder that "This day is honored more than all other days, because on it the Eternal rested.

Tzur Mishelo

Tzur Mishelo (literally, "Rock from whose store [we have eaten]"), is an anonymous hymn that introduces the Birkat hamazon on the Sabbath. The refrain recalls the invitation to the Grace after meals, while the four stanzas summarize the contents of that prayer-praising God for providing food, giving thanks for the "good land" bequeathed to Israel, and asking God to have mercy on the Jewish people and restore the Temple and the kingdom of David.

By the 16th century, the singing of zemirot at Sabbath meals had become a widespread custom. In addition, special zemirot were sung in honor of the departing Sabbath Queen as the day grew to a close. These table hymns, whose melodies were usually borrowed from folk songs, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, have remained popular to this day. Many Jewish families sit around the dinner table for hours joyfully singing them.

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Ronald L. Eisenberg

Ronald L. Eisenberg, a radiologist and non-practicing attorney, is the author of numerous books, including The Jewish World in Stamps.