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Thoughts on the Shabbat Table Song D’ror Yikra

I’ve written in earlier pieces about a number of the Zemirot, the Shabbat table songs, that customarily are sung during Shabbat meals.  I reminisced about the Jewish Residence House that we created at the University of Pennsylvania in my student days andof our spirited singing back then.  This week I wanted to focus on yet another of the many customary songs that are part of that tradition. It appears in many siddurim among the prayers said at lunch time on Shabbat, though as I mentioned in the past, nowadays we are not so particular as to which meal we sing which songs.  As with the other zemirot, this one too has numerous melodies to which it has been set. I can think of at least three that immediately come to mind.  One of them takes the opening stanza as a repeating chorus between verses as it concludes with the words, “sh’vu v’nuchu b’yom Shabbat, “Sit down and rest on the Sabbath day.”.


D’ror Yikra, Proclaim Liberty, is a poem apparently written by the 10th century commentator, grammarian, and poet, Dunashben Labrat. (We do not know this for sure, since some scholars suggest another Dunash, Dunash ibn Tamim, as a possibility.) Dunash ben Labrat, the better known of the two, was born in Fez, Morocco, in 920.  The unusual name “Dunash” is apparently of Berber origin.  Dunash was educated in Fez, but later traveled to Baghdad to study with Rabbi Saadia Gaon. After some time, he moved back to Morocco and there became a well-known poet and taught Hebrew grammar.  Because of his fame in those fields, he was invited to Cordoba, Spain, which had become a center of Jewish culture and learning in what became known as the Golden Age in Spain, by Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a businessman and statesman of the time, the leading patron of the arts in the 10th century.


Dunash met in Cordoba, the famous grammarian of that period, Menahem ben Saruq who was Hasdai’s chief of staff.  The two grammarians clashed over many areas of grammar, particularly Dunash’s creative use of elements from Arabic poetry in his Hebrew poems, a practice which eventually became standard in Medieval Jewish poems, but at the time was severely criticized by Menahem.  Some of his innovations appear in D’ror Yikrawhere he modifies some Hebrew words to fit the Arabic meter. Dunash wrote a number of books in which he expresses his side of arguments over grammatical points as well as the teachings of his mentor Saadiah. From what I’ve read, apparently some of those arguments are still not resolved a millennium later. Dunashdied some time after 985; the exact year is not known.


The poem, D’ror Yikra, includes acrostics of the name Dunashin the first three and in the final stanza of the six-stanza poem. Each of these stanzas are made up of four short lines, beginning respectively with the four Hebrew letters of his name, dalet, vav, nun, and shin.  The word “d’ror” which appears only a handful of times in the Bible is best known from the verse in Leviticus inscribed on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land, to all the inhabitants thereof.”  In its original context, it was talking about the Jubilee year which was to occur every fifty years, after seven sabbatical year cycles.  At that time, slaves were to be released and the land returned to its original owners.  It is not clear if this law was ever actually implemented.  However, the reference here to the proclaiming ofliberty links to that Jubilee which was indeed to be seen as a sabbath of sabbaths.  “D’ror yikra l’ven im bat, He [God]proclaims freedom to boy and girl.”  It is notable that the poet includes women with men in this opening line, reminding us that both men and women were released from labor specifically in the commandment of Shabbat. Women are definitely included in this mitzvah. “V’yintzorcgn k’mo vavat, And let Him guard you like the apple of his eye,” an expression used in Moses’s farewell hymn near the end of Deuteronomy where he speaks of God finding Jacob and watching over him like the apple of his eye.”  “N’im shimchem v’lo yushbat, Your name is pleasant; never will it cease.”  This is one place where Dunash was attacked for changing na’im (as in hinei ma tov umah naim) to n’im to fit the meter. “Sh’vu v’nuchu b’yom Shabbat, sit down and rest on the Sabbath day.”  On Shabbat everyone is to stay in his or her place, sh’vu to sit, can also mean to stay in one place.


The next stanza begins again with the dalet of Dunash, “D’roshnavi v’ulami,” rendered as “Seek my pasture (n’vei) and hall” in one translation.  Rabbi Sacks notes that n’vei can be a reference to the Temple and thus translates, “Seek My Temple and My hall.“V’ot yesha asei imi. And grant a sign of salvation to my people.”  As in so many of these medieval hymns, we are reminded that Shabbat is not simply a day off, but it is a vision of a time of redemption when peace will reign and the Jewish people will no longer suffer persecution. He continues painting a picture reminiscent of prophetic visions, “N’ta sorek b’tochkarmi, plant a vine in my vineyard.” “Sh’ei shav’at b’nei ami. Hear the cry of my people.”  Moses is told that God has heard the cry of His people in Egypt and was going to free them.  Here the poet calls  upon God once again to hear the cries of His people in the lands of their exile and redeem them.


Continuing to draw on prophetic imagery, this third stanza recalls the prophecy in Isaiah 63, that one finds also in the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “D’roch purah b’tokh Botzrah, Tread  upon the winepress in Bozrah.”  Bozrah is seen as the capital of Edom, the appellation for Rome and its successors.  Here He is “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” “V’gam Bavel asher gavrah, And also Bavel which became powerful.” Bavel is Babylonia.  “N’totz tzarai b’afv’evrah, Crush my foes with raging fury.”  As the poet gets going, one wonders how appropriate this song is for a peaceful Sabbath meal.  “Sh’ma koli b’yom ekra, Hear my voice on the day I call.”


Things calm down a bit in the next stanza which again pictures a more pastoral scene of future bliss, a future day of Shabbat from all our enemies.  This stanza and the next do not include the Dunash acrostic.  We begin, “Elohim ten bamidbar har, God, let them be on a desert mountain.” It makes me think of the mountain where they received the Torah, Mount Sinai. “Hadas, shitah, b’rosh tidhar, Myrtle, wheat, cypress, and elm.” “Elm” is just a guess for translating “tidhar.” Sacks translates it as a box tree. “V’lamazhir v’lanizhar, And to the one who warns and the one who is warned.” “Sh’lomim ten k’mei nahar, Grant peace like the waters of a river.”  These images are part of a prophetic vision of the return from Exile.


In stanza five, we again find the poet calling for divine retribution upon our enemies.  “Hadof kamai El kana, stamp out my enemies, jealous God.”  In the Ten Commandments, God calls Himself jealous. “B’mog levav uvam-ginah, Melting their hearts with grief.” The people of Canaan are described as melting away before the approaching Israelites in the days of Joshua. “M’ginah,” appears only in the book of Lamentationswhere we read, “Give them anguish of heart (m’ginah); your curse be upon them.  O pursue them in wrath and destroy them.”“V’narchiv peh un’malenah, we will open wide our mouths and fill them.” I’m thinking at this point of filling it with the delicacies prepared for the Shabbat meal in front of me, but no, the poet has a different idea. “L’shoneinu l’cha rinah, our tongues offer  unto You joyful song.”  That line is pulled from the Shir Hamaalot, the 126th Psalm, traditionally sung to introduce the grace after meals on Shabbat (‘ulshoneinu rinah”).


The last stanza again utilizes the poet’s name in the acrostic, “D’ei chochmah l’nafshecha, know what is wisdom for your soul” a phrase from Proverbs, “V’hi keter l’roshecha, And it will be a crown for your head.” “N’tzor mitzvat k’doshecha,” “Guard the commandment of your Holy One. “ “Sh’mor Shabbat kodshecha,” “Keep your holy Sabbath day.”  This is certainly an appropriate ending for this hymn, bringing us back to the purpose of the holy day.


Rabbi Elliot Dorff senses the rather “bellicose and bloody theme” of this poem that I mentioned before seems rather out of place at the Shabbat table.  However, he writes, “If we recall how Jews have often lived in circumstances where their very lives were threatened.  That is, unfortunately, still the case in many parts of the world, including Israel.  So while most readers of this commentary have the luxury of associating Shabbat purely with freedom from work, the poem’s concern remains the historical reality of the threat of attack.  For Jews in that situation, Shabbat is not just rest, but peace.”


For us, who live in freedom and relative safety in this country, this poem or song is a call for us to utilize our freedom tocelebrate God’s creation and the holy Sabbath day.  We are free to make Shabbat a true day of joy and celebration.  Let us open our mouth wide and fill them with praise of the Almighty who has created this beautiful world and granted us the Sabbath day.



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