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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on Anim Zemirot

Toward the end of our Shabbat and Festival services, it is customary to open the ark and rise to sing what is designated as “Shir HaKavod” (the Song of Glory or, more accurately, the Song of the Glory). This medieval hymn is sung responsively to a variety of melodies and in many Orthodox congregations, it is the youngest children, under bar mitzvah age, who come up to lead it with great energy and enthusiasm each week. Though in our congregation, it usually falls to the rabbi or other prayer leader to chant it, we have been delighted on a few occasions to have the great-grandchildren of one of our oldest members, Buddy Whisler, join us for services and show us how it's done. Several years ago, when great-grandson Zack was about three, he had already memorized the reader's part, even before he was able to read Hebrew himself and sang the prayer for us, accurately pronouncing all the words.

It may seem rather strange to call on little children to lead such a lengthy and esoteric prayer that draws upon mystical themes and allusions and speaks of our desire to stand in the divine presence and see the Face of God. Of course, we want to encourage our children to feel at home in the synagogue and to take part in our worship. But why this prayer? Some have suggested that like the custom of beginning students' biblical studies with Leviticus and its laws of sacrifices and purity, that here too, we connect pure, unblemished children with teachings of holiness and purity..

This prayer is attributed to Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid, one of the leading figures of the Chasidei Ashkenaz, the12th century pietistic movement in Germany. Rabbi Yehudah died in 1217. These Chasidim of Ashkenaz are not to be confused with the later 18th century movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe. The “Kavod” or “Glory” spoken of in this prayer has a specific, technical meaning in the mystical tradition of that group and that period.

Rabbi Ivan Marcus gives a brief explanation of this complex concept in his comments on this prayer in “My People's Prayer Book,” volume 10. As I understand it, the problem is how do we distinguish between God's unqualified and unknowable Oneness and all the humanlike attributes that we find in the Bible and rabbinic literature. The 10th century philosopher, Rabbi Saadiah Gaon, argued that God revealed these humanlike, or anthropomorphic, images to the prophets by creating a separate angelic being who is not God but a created being that the Bible sometimes refers to as the Glory or divine presence, (kavod). Rabbi Yehudah HeChasid, while appreciating this idea, was not entirely satisfied with it. He was dealing with the practical problem of to what does a Jew pray when thinking of God? We can't really pray to an abstraction of the divine Oneness that cannot be seen or imagined. But we can't pray either to Saadiah's idea of the kavod, since in Saadiah's conception the kavod is a separate, created being and praying to it would be a form of idolatry.

Judah's solution, according to Marcus, depended on making a distinction within God. On the one hand, God, the pure Oneness, is Borei, the creator. The Borei has no particular location. On the other hand there is the kavod, but that is not a created entity separate from God according to Yehudah. It is a part of God and it has two aspects facing in different directions. The part turned away from humanity is God's face, the upper kavod. It is inaccessible and humans cannot comprehend it. The lower kavod, is called “God's back”. It is like a screen onto which God projects various images for the benefit of the prophets and other mortals. When we pray, it is either to the creator, the Borei, or to the upper kavod, both part of the Divine Oneness.

The quest to know God goes back to the Torah when Moses asks God, “Let me behold your presence (k'vodecha)”. God refuses. “You cannot see My face” says God, “for man may not see Me and live... You will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” If you recall that passage in Exodus, Moses is stationed in a crevice in the mountainside covered over by “God's hand” and as God passes, God removes His hand and Moses briefly sees His back. We have no idea what that really meant. What does it mean to see God's back? But this notion forms the basis for part of this song which claims, as the rabbis explain, what Moses saw was the knot of the tefillin on the back of God's head. God wears tefillin, according to the Talmud and instead of proclaiming the unity of God through the Sh'ma, it includes verses that speak of the unique relationship of God to His people Israel. Thus this song reflects the overwhelming desire to know God better, to catch a glimpse of the divine presence, God's face as it were and to engage in a mutual connection on a spiritual plane. The only way to do this is by engaging with the visible kavod. So this hymn mentions the kavod numerous times, hence its name Shir HaKavod, the Song of the Kavod.

The opening four verses are an introduction, written in the second person, addressed directly to God. Anim zemirot v'shirim e'erog. “I will chant melodies and weave together verses for my soul thirsts for You.” The idea of weaving verses recurs toward the end of the poem once more. The poet continues expressing the desire to experience the Divine: “My soul longs to live in the shadow of Your hand” (a reference perhaps to Moses's encounter on Mount Sinai that I mentioned), “that I might learn the secrets of Your mysterious being.” He goes on, “Even before speaking any words describing Your glory (Your Kavod), already my heart speaks of Your love.” (dodecha, as love, recalls Song of Songs whose imagery is seen as an early description of God). “I would, therefore, ever glorify you (the root of glorify is kavod), and honor (again, the root is the same) Your name with songs of love.”

For most of the rest of the poem, we follow an alphabetical acrostic with two exceptions, the letter reish is given two verses as is the concluding verse of tav, otherwise there is a single verse for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The verses for alef through vav continue addressing God in the second person, after which the poet switches to the more distant third person.

The poet admits, “Though I have never seen You, I would tell of Your glory (kavod). I imagine You, I describe You, but I know You not.” Throughout the poem there are allusions to biblical verses and occasionally rabbinic teachings. It is hard to keep up with all of them and I will only mention a few as we look at the rest of the poem. The poet himself calls attention to these allusions, as he continues, “In the words of Your prophets and mysteries revealed to the faithful, You provided images of glorious majesty (k'vod hodecha).” As the philosophers tell us, we really know God only through His deeds in this world, “Your greatness and Your power were pictured in accord with Your deeds. They portrayed You not as You truly are, but imagined You from what You had created. In endless visions and countless metaphors they described You, but through it all, You are the singular one.”

Biblical commentators point out that though God sometimes appears as a youthful warrior as at the crossing of the Red Sea, and other times, as in the book of Daniel, as a hoary headed elder sitting in judgment, these are all manifestations of the one God. The next few verses elaborate on these different appearances of the divine. “They represented You as old and as young, with graying hair and in the prime of youth; as an elder on the Day of Judgment, and as a youth in time of war, as a soldier who was fully armed, and with victory helmet on Your head, having won battles with Your right hand and holy arm – Your curls are full of drops of light, Your locks wet with the dew of the night.” (The curls are another reminder of the lover in Song of Songs.) The last two verses, though the translator in Lev Shalem keeps them in second person, are actually in third person in the Hebrew as are the lines which follow.

As we come into the core of the poem, the author emphasizes the special relationship of love between God and His people, again using language found in Psalms and Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Song of Songs. “God will have pride in me, for God delights in me, and will be for me a crown of glory. (The sages speak of the angels taking the prayers of various groups of Jews around the world and weaving them into a crown to place on God's head.) The image of God's face is pure shining gold, the forehead inscribed with the divine holy name. (Reminiscent, perhaps of the High Priests headdress with the words, Holy unto God, inscribed on it.) in love, in honor, to express the height of glory, the people fashioned God's kingly crown (out of their prayers). The locks of God's head are a youth's long black curls. May the abode of righteousness, the height of God's glory, be God's greatest delight (a reference to Psalm 137, in which we are urged to set Jerusalem above our greatest delight). God's treasured people shall be held as a garland in God's hand, a royal wreath of beauty and glory, carried on high, adorned with a crown, honored with what is most precious in Divinity's eyes. God's splendor (pe'ero) shall be mine and mine (pe'eri) shall be God's (the rabbis link pe'er to the tefillin). The poet continues, “For God is near to me when I cry (a phrase from the Ashrei). God is radiant and ruddy, dressed in red, having come from Edom, treading the winepress.” (A reference to Isaiah 63, of God's retribution against the Edomites, which are later identified with Rome and its heirs in Christian Europe, most recently in Yehudah's day in the form of the marauding Crusaders).”

Here we come to the image mentioned earlier of Moses's viewing God's back as represented by the knot of His tefillin. “Humble Moses viewed the knot of God's tefillin as he beheld God's very image.” This section ends with a summary of this special relationship: “God delights in this humble people and will raise them up in glory; God shall dwell amidst their praises, glorified through them.” (Yoshev tehilot Yisrael appears in our High Holiday liturgy.)

With the second reish verse, we return to the direct discourse of the second person, as the poet places his personal prayer before the Lord: “As You called the world into being, You uttered truth from the first; in each generation You seek the people who seek You. Place my many songs before You and let my prayers reach You. May my songs be a crown on Your head, and accept my prayers as a savory offering.” (i.e. as if I had brought an actual sacrifice.) “May the song of one without merit be to You like those sung over the sacrifices You received.” (Shirat rash, a song of poverty, is one with just words and no offering). “Take account of my praise, Sustainer, Creator, Life-giver, Supremely Righteous One. Nod agreement to my blessings; receive them as choice perfume upon Your head. May my words please You, for my soul thirsts for you.”.

The song ends there, but we add two verses, one from Chronicles that we recognize from the Torah service, “L'cha Adonay hagedulah... Unto You Lord is the greatness and the power and the glory...” and the other from Psalms. That latter verse, Mi y'malel, has been taken and reworked into a Chanukah song which instead of praising God's power as in the original now extols that of the Maccabees. The original reads, “Who can tell of God's power? Who can proclaim all of God's praise?” Some add this same verse to the Shir HaMaalot before Birkat Hamazon.

Reciting this hymn with great fervor as we come to the end of the morning prayers, is a fitting expression of our hopes that the Shabbat or festival service may bring us closer to God's presence and imbue the coming days with the holy spirit of the divine. It is tempting to rush through this song, as we reach the last pages of a lengthy service, but we are urged to take the time to reflect on the deep meaning within its words. In weaving these verses together, the author strives to weave a web of connection between us and the Lord, celebrating this special relationship that links us to our Heavenly Lover.

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