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Thoughts on the Sabbath Song Yom Zeh L’Yisrael

I still have fond memories of younger years in college and Seminary joining in song around the Shabbat table. I’ve written about it before and what I have found as I’ve done this series of studies on the prayerbook is how, back then, these table songs, these zemirot, were mainly opportunities to join in song, to feel the warmth of the gathering of friends and fellow-students around the table. We sang our hearts out, we pounded the table, as we repeated these songs often with little awareness of their full content. As I have done a bit of research into these hymns to write these pieces, I find it fascinating to learn where they came from to the extent scholars are able to determine and to look a bit closer into the meaning of these poems. Each of the four or five songs we’ve examined so far have opened up new vistas to me and I hope are of interest to my readers as well.


The song I’m examining today I have always sung to a typical Ashkenazic melody with a repeating chorus. However, when one seeks out a melody for this song on YouTube, almost all of the cantors who sing it have utilized a popular Sephardic melody which I have heard one of the Israeli groups sing or, more accurately, a melody of the Middle East, often backed up with a variety of Middle Eastern drums and stringed instruments. In our prayerbook and in most songbooks, you will find this song generally with five stanzas and the chorus of its opening line: “Yom zeh l’Yisrael orah v’simcha, Shabbat menucha.” This day for Israel (i.e. the Jewish people) is [a day of] light and joy, a Sabbath of rest. Each of the five stanzas concludes with the words once again, “Shabbat menucha.” Checking on the song on the Hebrew “Vikipedia,” however, it turns out that there exist not just five stanzas, but fourteen! This expansion seems to be due to some confusion on the actual author of these lines who has inserted his name as an acrostic at the beginning of each stanza. 


At first, we find the name indicated as Yitzchak Salmah Chazan. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in “My People’s Prayer Book,” identifies him as “Isaac Handali, a fifteenth century Crimean poet about whom we know almost nothing.” However, at a later date, the song was attributed to a different Yitzchak, the famous 16th century Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, and thus additional verses appeared spelling out the name Yitzchak Luria, the rabbi best known as the Ari, Ashkenazic Rabbi Yitzchak. The poem, however, predates the Ari by about a century and adding a few more stanzas to the acrostic doesn’t make it so. The giveaway is that the original version of the song appears in a prayerbook published before the Ari was even born. Of course, in the Artscroll Siddur, bound by tradition, it is definitely attributed to Luria and noted that this is one of the few compositions we have written by him. Luria indeed saw Shabbat as a foretaste of the world to come and did write several other table songs spreading this notion, taking advantage of the newly developed printing press which had begun disseminating Jewish books around the world in this first century after Gutenberg. However, attributing this zemer to him is a bit of a stretch.


The various commentators assembled in “My People’s Prayer Book” all note how this poem emphasizes the joy and delight of the Sabbath day in contrast to the reality of everyday life in the diaspora of Medieval times. Shabbat is clearly seen as a respite, a day of menucha, of rest, of refuge, from the suffering of the outside world. Jews gathered around the Sabbath table sang these songs wholeheartedly and they lifted their spirits if only for a brief time each week.


Looking at the original five stanzas, following the opening line which as mentioned is the chorus, we read, “Tzivita pikudim b’maamad Har Sinai.” At the assembly at Mount Sinai You decreed the laws, You gave us the commandments. “Shabbat umoadim lishmor b’chol shanai.” Shabbat and the festivals to observe all my years. Lishmor is associated with the second version of the Ten Commandments which Moses teaches in Deuteronomy and refers to the laws restricting labor on the Sabbath day, the negative commandments. Yet the poet immediately emphasizes the positive elements of the day in the very next line, “La’aroch l’fanai maseit v’arucha.” Setting a table before me with courses of fine food. “Shabbat menucha.” A Sabbath of rest (or serenity, if you will.)


After the chorus, we continue, and one sees the sharp contrast between this exalted day and everyday reality. “Chemdat halevavot l’umah shevurah.” Heart’s delight to a shattered people. “L’nefashot nichavot neshamah y’teirah.” To souls in pain grant an extra soul. This is a reference to the idea that on Shabbat we are granted an extra soul, neshamah y’teirah, or greater spirituality which lifts us out of the suffering of everyday life. The author continues to hammer this home: “L’nefesh m’tzeirah yasir anachah.” For troubled souls may it banish sighs. “Shabbat menucha.”


Once again, we sing the chorus and then continue, “Kidashta berachta oto mikol yamim.” You sanctified it and blessed it above all other days. “B’sheishet kilita m’lechet olamim.” In six days you completed the work of  creating all the worlds. “Bo matzu agumim hashkeit uvitchah.” On it, sad souls, agumim, find quiet and safety. Once again, returning to this theme of Shabbat as a refuge. “Shabbat menucha.”


Following the chorus, we come to the fourth stanza and return to the observance of the laws against work on this sacred day. “L’isur melacha tzivitanu Nora.” The prohibition of labor the Awesome God commanded us. “Ezkeh hod meluchah im shabbat eshm’rah.” I will merit royal glory if I keep the Sabbath day. “Akriv shai l’Mora, mincha merkacha.” I will offer a gift to the Awesome One, sweetly scented gifts. “Shabbat menucha.” Rabbi Elliot Dorff reminds us that just as Shabbat is God’s gift to us, our observance of the sacred day is viewed as our gift back to the Almighty.


The final stanze sees Shabbat as a foretaste of the days of the Messiah. “Chadesh mikdasheinu, zachrah necherevet.” Renew our Temple, remember the destroyed city (Jerusalem), “Tuvcha, Moshieinu, t’na l’neetzevet.” Grant Your goodness, Our Savior, to the sad city. “B’Shabbat yoshevet b’zemer ushvacha.” Which sits on Shabbat in song and praise. At least for that one sacred day, the sadness of weekdays is forgotten as the inhabitants of the Holy City celebrate the Sabbath with song and praise. “Shabbat menucha.” Shabbat is a day of serenity. 


Ellen Frankel writes, “What bridges and reconciles these two realities is our observance of Sabbath rituals at home, through banquets, song, praise, and abstention from labor. Through a kind of alchemical process, the gloom of Jewish history is transmuted on this sacred day into orah v’simcha and Shabbat menucha, light and joy and a Shabbat of rest.” Frankel also however, presents a view of behind the scenes, the great effort exerted by women to create the delights of the Sabbath table in past ages and still today, and speaks of men increasingly sharing the burden to make Shabbat happen in our day, so that women can join in the songs at the table “no longer too exhausted to find the strength to sing.” She admits that we have not yet reached the messianic age, but she sees us making progress in that direction.


Yom zeh l’Yisrael orah v‘simcha. Indeed, this day is for Israel a time of light and joy. In spite of everything throughout our sad history, Shabbat provides a ray of light and a time of joy for our people.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman


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