Our zemiros can slash through the wall that blocks us from Him
I have a complicated relationship with zemiros Shabbos. Growing up, we had a standard Friday night and Shabbos day zemiros repertoire that always seemed to directly precede dessert. Although I enjoy singing, there were many weeks when zemiros felt like a final Olympic hurdle before the chocolate cake.
Once I matured somewhat I began to appreciate the beauty of this minhag, especially after spending seminary Shabbosim with impossibly musical families who made Kah Echsof a symphonic experience. “When I get married, my family will definitely sing like that,” I vowed.
But here I am two decades later, and to my surprise, they don’t. And unless we hire a voice coach and conductor, they likely never will. Zemiros in our home are an organic affair, participation is voluntary, and we are definitely not getting invitations to Lincoln Center.
My experience is not unique. Many women, particularly those with young children, dream of philharmonic-style zemiros, when in reality, their husband is performing solo to an orchestral backup of bickering offspring. Considering the challenges, why do we invest so much significance in singing on Shabbos? What’s the minhag of zemiros all about?
Nation Saved by Song
Every hardworking person anticipates a day off from the daily grind. Rest and relaxation notwithstanding, the way we use our time off is a revealing indicator of our underlying essence. For some demographics, Saturday is a day to wash the car, tan on the beach, finish that novel, or shop the sales.
But Klal Yisrael is unique: “Mizmor shir l’yom haShabbos, tov l’hodos la’Hashem u’lezamer l’Shimcha elyon.” Specifically on this day, when we shake off the suffocating physicality that defines our weekdays, we devote our reprieve to praising Hashem (Radak). In a world where days off are frittered away on trivialities, our nation sings zemiros, transcending the overwhelming banality of the week to reach upward.
The Gemara (Megillah 12b) draws a sharp contrast between the way Jews and secular society celebrate, quoting Megillas Esther: “And it was on the seventh day, when the king’s heart was satisfied with wine.” This seventh day, the Gemara explains, was Shabbos, when Klal Yisrael eat and drink and initiate songs of praise to Hashem. “However, when the nations of the world eat and drink,” notes the Gemara, “they engage in foolishness, as it was at the feast of that evil man [Achashveirosh].”
Ksav Sofer (Orach Chayim 137) relates that the salvation of Purim is rooted in this feast, in the stark contrast between the way Klal Yisrael conducted themselves during their “time off” at their Shabbos meals and the way the nations of the world utilized the same opportunity. This was the tipping point that triggered the miracle of Purim. And it was specifically the “divrei tishbachos,” the songs of praise they offered on their day of rest, that effected their salvation. It was the power of zemer that saved our nation.
The Seventh Wing
Tosafos on Sanhedrin 37b describes the chayos malachim as six-winged creatures; each of their six wings is assigned to sing one day of Shirah to Hashem. On Shabbos the malachim say, “Ribbono shel Olam! We lack a seventh wing for today’s Shirah!” Hashem responds: “I have another wing on earth that will sing for Me, as it says: ‘From the earthly wing we have heard zemiros’ [Yeshayahu 24:16].”
Although the Shirah of malachim is suitable for a weekday, Hashem prefers Klal Yisrael’s zemiros on Shabbos. What are zemiros, and why are they more appropriate for Shabbos than the angels’ Shirah?
Zemirah shares a root with the word zemer, to excise or cut off. Generally zemer refers to the act of weeding a branch or vine from a tree, but it can also denote spiritual excision (Daas Shabbos 438). According to Shaarei Orah, when we sing Pesukei D’Zimra our tefillos achieve a dual objective: As we enthusiastically pay tribute to Hashem, our Zimra simultaneously hacks away at the prosecuting forces impeding our tefilla. Here, the zemer of our Pesukei D’zimra is a scythe, deliberately weeding out obstructive spiritual barriers.
What are we attempting to excise with the zemer of our Shabbos zemiros?
Deep at the core of every member of Klal Yisrael glows a radiant ember of spirituality: the neshamah. Our neshamah is a moral compass, an unforgiving conscience, an arbiter for integrity. But it is also “ner l’ragli,” a lamp tunneling through the ambiguity of darkness to illuminate a footpath that is solid and smooth as polished stone. Our task is simply to mind the trail, to heed the chasm where light concedes to darkness. In theory, it should be pretty straightforward. Yet frequently we find ourselves tumbling down a spiritual abyss.
Calls for Connection
Whether inflated ego or relentless self-doubt, corrosive jealousy or hollow materialism, there are an infinite number of impediments to faithfully trailing the footpath. All of them are capable of muting our neshamah’s plaintive calls for connection to Hashem.
What if we could simply slice through the impediments, weed out the contaminated urges that taint our sincere yearning for connection? What if with one swipe we could cut the leaden coils that restrain us from reaching our spiritual goals? What if we could slash through the wall of physicality that barricades us from our Creator?
This is the challenge of man in This World, the uniquely human struggle to cut through the obstacles of Olam Hazeh and sing to Hashem. And this is also the definition of a true zemer: A song of praise to Hashem for the spiritual triumphs born of struggle. All week long we contend with base physicality and mundane pursuits. But on Shabbos we turn to our zemiros, tools of excision, and prune away the physical barriers that obstruct our connection to Hashem.
It’s a struggle to abandon the mundane, to so suddenly reroute midstream. As Shabbos descends, a part of us is still fretting over the bills, wondering about the promotion or the evaluation or the phone call that still has not come.
But that is the beauty of our Shabbos zemer; it is our offering of song born of this precise struggle. And this is why the malachim lack a seventh wing for this form of song: They are not creatures who wrestle and grapple with themselves, struggling toward a relationship with the Borei. They are woefully unequipped to sing zemiros.
Perhaps when we find ourselves struggling to sing zemiros at a boisterous Shabbos seudah where two children are fighting over the “good” seat, another is bawling over a lost parshah sheet, and yet another is pouring a river of soda across the table, we are more authentically embodying the true import of zemiros: the epic struggle to cut through the mundane and sing to Hashem.
This Shabbos, when our zemiros are off-key or drowning in a sea of orange soda and tears, let’s remember that it’s the song of struggle that Hashem treasures. And on this “day off,” instead of sinking in a morass of triviality, we will pick up our scythe, stay the course, and prune ourselves to perfection.
Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 677)