Thoughts on Mah Yedidut
In earlier essays I’ve written about some of the joyous Shabbat songs, Zemirot, traditionally sung around the table at mealtimes. We already have examined songs like Yah Ribon Olam, D’ror Yikra, and Tzur Mishelo Achalnu, which seem to focus primarily on praises of God for the gift of the Sabbath Day, on thanksgiving for the bountiful Shabbat meals, or on our hopes for the future redemption of the Jewish people and the dawning of the Messianic era. Several table songs, however, seem to be more didactic in intention and serve to remind the singers of thevarious laws and traditions surrounding Shabbat. We saw something similar with regard to the symbols and practices of the holidays in the liturgical poetry written for Passover, Purim, and Sukkot. All of these songs have a variety of melodies to choose from and many have rousing choruses as the singers clap or pound the table in joyous celebration of this special day.
I wanted to look at one of these songs this week that is an old favorite of mine. Since it has six stanzas, it is my contention that if one does not know the melody for any of the Shabbat zemirot, that one should be able to sing along at least with the chorus by the time we reach the fourth or fifth stanza. This song is listed among the Friday night zemirot in many traditional siddurim,including our Lev Shalem Siddur, but it does not appear in all siddurim. Its origins are uncertain, however, it first appeared in a volume of songs and praises published in Constantinople in 1545, and it is assumed, based on the initial letters of its opening stanza, that its author’s name was Menachem. The song is known simply by its opening words,”Mah Yedidut.” It addresses Shabbat itself personified as a queen, as in L’cha Dodi. It opens with the words “mah yedidut menuchatech, How beloved is your rest, you, O Sabbath Queen.” It goes on to describe the excitement we feel as Shabbat arrives in our midst each week. ‘We run to greet you: Come O Royal bride.” That last phrase isalso reminiscent of L’cha Dodi which ends with the words, “Boi kalah” “Come O bride,” which itself is taken from the Talmud. We are reminded that, since Shabbat is such an honored guest, we are to dress in our best clothes: “Dressed in fine robes,”bigdei chamudot - the garments ‘borrowed’ by Jacob when he dressed as Esau to receive his father’s blessing were described as bigdei chamudot. The line continues, “we light the lamp with blessing, l’hadlik ner bivracha.” The lighting of the Shabbat candles prior to sunset marks the beginning of the day of rest, the acceptance of Shabbat upon the household. At that time, “All labors end, [as it says in the Torah] ‘Lo ta’asu m’lachah’ You shall do no labor.”
The last line of the stanza is the repeating chorus, “L’hitaneg b’ta’anugim: barburim uslav v’dagim.” The first two wordsboth contain the same root that we find in the word “oneg,” a term which in our day people generally use to refer to refreshments served after services. The term used biblicallyappears in the book of Isaiah where we are enjoined to make Shabbat an oneg, a day of delight. To do so, our poet brings us back to the table and suggests the menu: barburim, geese, s’lav, quail, v’dagim, and fish. The sidebar in Lev Shalem tells us that “In the Middle Ages, meat was eaten infrequently by common people. Fowl was more readily available; a fatted goose was a delicacy.” The quail mentioned was a divine gift in the wilderness mentioned in the book of Numbers. After the people complained of a lack of food, they were overwhelmed with quail arriving in great abundance. The custom in more recent times has been to serve a fish course first on Friday evening, herring or gefilte fish for many of us, or something else, purchased freshfrom the fish market. The melody I know for this poem adds a bunch of la-la-la-la-la-las after each phrase in the third and fourth line of every stanza to make it into a very lively tune.
Continuing, in the second stanza, we are told of some of the preparations for this sumptuous meal: “In advance, all kinds of tasty food have been prepared (mat’amim – you may know the root of this word used in Yiddish as well as Hebrew – ta’am, taste). The poet speaks of “fattened chickens, made ready while it was still day.” Since cooking is prohibited on Shabbat, the food has been cooked in advance. Along with the chicken, the poet is serving “kamah minim,” unspecified varied kinds of food. In the Talmud, we read of rabbis who made a point of saving special treats found in the market during the week for the Shabbat table. These side dishes are served along with spiced wine “yeinot m’vusamim.” Following this, are ‘tafnukei ma’adanim” which Lev Shalem renders as “indulgent desserts,”served for each of the three required Shabbat meals. Tafnukei has the same root that we use when we point out an indulgedchild, m’funak. On Shabbt, we indulge ourselves. We’re reminded that unlike on weekdays, we are to enjoy three mealsrather than the customary two, on Shabbat. These are the Friday night dinner, a hearty lunch after services, at midday, and before dark, the Shalosh Seudot or Seudah Shelishit, generally a lighterthird meal before the Sabbath ends. After mentioning all this food, the chorus follows: “L’hitaneg b’ta’anugim: barburim us’lav v’dagim, more geese, quail, and fish.
The third stanza focuses some more on Shabbat as a special gift to us, an inheritance or legacy. “They shall inherit Jacob’s heritage, a heritage unbounded.” “B’li metzarim, without bounds” is a play on the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzraim, a narrow place. In bringing us forth from Mitzraim, God removed the bonds, meitzarim, that limited us and provided us with this gift of Shabbat. “Rich and poor will honor it and be worthy of redemption.” The Talmud claims that were all Israel to properly observe Shabbat two weeks in a row, the Messianic age of redemption would be upon us, a time described as “Yom shekulo Shabbat umenucha,” a day entirely of Shabbat and rest. “If you keep the Sabbath day you’ll be “am segulah” “My treasured people.” (Exodus 19:5) “Six days you shall work and on the seventh nagilah, let us rejoice.” We’ve all been to Jewish partiesand danced the Hora where the band’s only Hebrew song was“Hava Nagilah” Let us rejoice.
Following the chorus once again, we come to the fourth stanzawhich reminds us of some activities which are forbidden on Shabbat and of others that are encouraged. “Chafatzecha” are forbidden.” A chefetz, can be a desire, but in this context, it means concern for our secular pursuits and interests, business affairs primarily. “V’gam lachashov cheshbonot.” Alsoprohibited is to calculate our accounts. The modern word for a computer, we might note, utilizes this same root of chet-shin-bet; a machshev is a computer. This poet seems to foresee the need to unplug from our screens to enjoy Shabbat properly. On the other hand, hirhurim, thoughts, reflections – these are permitted, ul’shadech habanot, and also one is permitted toarrange matches for our daughters. “L’shadech” is the verb form of “shidduch,” a match. “V’tinok l’lamed sefer, teaching a child a book, lamnatzeach bin’ginot, and singing melodies, like this one, are both permissible activities. In addition, one may meditate on imrei shefer, fine words, wonderful teachings. L’shaper means to improve, thus these are words intended to improve our lives. We may meditate on them in every corner or encampment, b’chol pinot umachanot.
Of course, the essence of Shabbat is a time for relaxation. “Hiluchak t’hei b’nachat,” Let your walking be relaxed, unhurried. Once again, we recall the admonition of Isaiah, “Call Shabbat an oneg, a delight.” The poet recommends taking advantage of this day of rest, “Sleep is praiseworthy, restoring the soul,” he writes. Indeed, “my soul yearns for You and to rest in Your loving embrace.” Drawing on the image of an enclosed garden of lilies from Song of Songs, the poet sees us as God’s own children lying down in such a garden, in which sons and daughters will rest, ”bo yanucha ben uvat.”
In the final stanza, the theme of redemption and Shabbat as a foretaste of the world to come, is emphasized. “Mei-ein olam haba” Like the world that is coming, is the restful day of Shabbat. Everyone who delights in it will merit overwhelming joy. The poet assures those who keep Shabbat that this will spare them the birth pangs of the Messiah, chevlei hamashiach. The book of Daniel and other works imagine various wars and tragedies that will precede the coming of the Messiah. However, making Shabbat a delight will spare us that pain. “May our redemption blossom and may sadness and sorrow flee.”“P’duteinu tatzmiach v’nas yagon v’anacha.” The chorus repeats once more, “May we delight in the delights of our Shabbat table with geese, quail, and fish.”
At this point, after joyously singing these six stanzas, some folks abruptly switch to a more leisurely, dreamy tempo as we repeat the last two phrases of the sixth stanza: “mei-chevlei mashiach yutzalu lirvacha, p’duteinu tazmiach v’nas yagon va’anacha,” “From the birth pangs of the messiah, they will be saved in relief. May our redemption blossom and may sadness and sorrow flee.”
This then is portrait of the ideal Shabbat, a day filled with material delights, wonderful food, beautiful clothing, time to rest, to meditate, to sleep. It is also a day of spiritual delights, foreshadowing the time of the Messiah, a day entirely of Shabbat.