Thoughts on Tzur Mishelo
A couple of months back we looked at one of the traditional zemirot, the table songs for Shabbat, Yah Ribon Olam by Rabbi Yisrael Najara. As I mentioned then, there are a number of these poems set to a variety of tunes that it is customary to sing during or after meals on Shabbat. I wrote there of my memories of singing these songs around the table during my college days. One zemer (singular of zemirot) that is very popular in most traditions is Tzur Mishelo Achalnu. This anonymous piece is customarily sung just before the Birkat Hamazon, the blessings after the meal. In fact, it does not mention anything about Shabbat, but focuses soley on the Grace after Meals, with three stanzas representing each of the three blessings ordained by Torah law, according to the rabbis. A fourth stanza relates to the Kos shel Bracha, the customary cup of wine, that is consecrated at the end of the series of blessings. The fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, instituted by the sages following the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century, is not represented at all in this song.
In spite of the fact that it does not mention Shabbat and there is no reference to the paragraph added to Birkat Hamazon on Shabbat, R’zei v’hachlitzeinu, Tzur Mishelo has become a standard Shabbat song throughout the Jewish world. Perhaps it was intended for other festive occasions such as weddings or bar mitzvah parties and it would be most appropriate in setting the joyous mood before the blessings after a seudat mizvah, a feast in honor of a mitzvah. Yet, it is so commonly sung on Shabbat, that it is thought of only in that connection. Professor Dov Sadan proposed that one might see a link to Shabbat in the phrase in the chorus of the song, “savanu v’hotarnu kidvar Adonay” “we have been sated and have left over, just as the Lord said.” When the Israelites were given manna in the wilderness, they were told by the Lord not to leave any over, but to collect it fresh each day. However, on Friday, for Shabbat, they received a double portion so that were sated and they had left over manna for the next day when none was available to gather.
While we do not know who wrote this poem, it apparently was written no later than the second half of the 14th century in Northern France. At least one modern scholar suggested a very early date for this poem, primarily based on the absence of a stanza for the fourth blessing of birkat hamazon which has been a part of the prayer since the second century. However, most liturgists see it as a later composition.
There is a little controversy around the permissibility of singing this song prior to Birkat HaMazon. No lesser an authority than Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin (1749 - 1821), a student of the Vilna Gaon, founder of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and a great-grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, customarily would not allow Tzur Mishelo to be sung at the table, because he felt that it technically fulfilled the mitzvah of Birkat HaMazon, thereby making the actual blessings extraneous, and thus they would become blessings uttered in vain, taking God’s name in vain. He understood that according to the Torah, there were no fixed blessings after meals, only a commandment to acknowledge God after eating and to thank Him for the food we eat and the “good land which He has given us.” Tzur Mishelo accomplishes that purpose. The prescribed text of the blessings after the meals are only rabbinic in origin. In spite of this, the custom in most communities is to sing Tzur Mishelo nonetheless. Of course, various authorities provide ample halachic justification for ignoring the qualms of Rav Hayyim. This dispute has been compared to the concern voiced over the addition of the 18 verses of Baruch Adonay L’olam in the weekday evening service just before the 18 blessings of the Amidah. Need one say the Amidah once this prayer has been said? A similar question is being asked here and one may derive the appropriate response from the discussion over the prayers at Maariv.
As with most zemirot, there are countless melodies utilized for this song. Just as with Yah Ribon, the melodies can be gentle and lyrical (It has been sung to the Sephardic Los Bibilicos, the nightingales) on one hand and on the other, the crowd around our table in the Jewish Residence House back in college days used to sing it like a sea chanty, pounding on the dinner table like a crew of pirates. At least another three or four melodies come to my mind immediately and there are no end to the tunes to which it has been set in different communities. What is unique about Tzur Mishelo is that it was discovered by Israeli musicologist, Israel Adler in an early 16thcentury manuscript along with musical notation from southern Ashkenaz. It is the earliest Jewish melody from Europe documented to date.
The opening lines which serve as a repeating chorus are similar to the traditional invitation to Birkat HaMazon where a group of three or more diners say the blessing together and one invites the other two or more to join in blessing the One from whose gifts we have eaten. Here we read, “Tzur mishelo achalnu, barchu emunai.” To the Rock (a traditional term for God who is dependable, solid like a rock) from whom we have eaten, offer blessing my faithful friends. Then comes the phrase that Dr. Sadan focused on, “Savanu v’hotarnu kid’var Adonay.” We have been satisfied and have food left over as the Lord has spoken. The mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon comes from Deuteronomy where it states, “V’achalta v’savata uveirachta et Adonay Elohecha” You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord, your God.
Continuing into the first stanza which is parallel to the opening blessing of the Grace after meals, we read: “HaZan et olamo, Roeinu, Avinu.” The One who feeds His world, our Shepherd, our Father. “Achalnu et lachmo v’yeino shatinu.” We have eaten of His bread and we have drunk His wine. “Al kein nodeh lishmo un’hal’lo b’finu.” Therefore let us give thanks to His name and offer praise with our mouths. “Amarnu v’aninu ein kadosh kadonay.” We say and proclaim that there is none as holy as the Lord. In Birkat HaMazon we praise God who is “HaZan et haolam kulo b’tuvo b’chein uv’chesed uv’rachamim” The One who feeds the entire world in His goodness, with grace, loving kindness, and compassion. That blessing concludes, Praised are You, Lord, haZan et hakol, who feeds everyone.
The second stanza is linked with the second blessing of Birkat HaMazon, the blessing for the land of Israel and its produce. “B’shir v’kol todah n’vareich Eloheinu.” With song and the sound of thanks we will bless our God. “Al eretz chemdah tovah shehinchil lavoteinu.” For the good and beautiful land which He gave to our ancestors. Once again, we find very similar language in the opening words of the second blessing of Birkat HaMazon. “Nodeh l’cha, Adonay Eloheinu, al sheninchalta lavoteinu, eretz chemdah tovah ur’chavah.” We give thanks to You, Lord Our God for the good, beautiful, and spacious land which You gave to our ancestors. “Mazon v’tzeidah hisbia l’nafsheinu.” With food and nourishment He has satisfied us. While nefesh(nafsheinu) can refer to our physical being, we usually think of it primarily as our spiritual being and, of course, God provides both physical and spiritual nourishment. “Chasdo gavar aleinu ve’emet Adonay.” His kindness overwhelms us and the Lord is faithful. This last line may sound familiar from our recent study of the Hallel Psalms. It is almost a direct quote from Psalm 117: “Ki gavar aleinu chasdo v’emet Adonay l’olam, Hal’luyah.” For His loving kindness overwhelms us and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever, Halleluyah.
Going on to the third stanza, we parallel the third blessing of Birkat HaMazon which speaks of our hope for the restoration of the holy city of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple. Here we read, “Rachem b’chasdecha al amcha, Tzureinu.” Have compassion in Your love for Your people, our Rock. “Al Tziyon mishkan k’vodecha.” And upon Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory. This echoes the opening of blessing number three of Birkat HaMazon, where we read, “Rachem, Adonay Eloheinu, al Yisrael amecha, v’al Yerushalayim ir kodshecha, v’al Tziyon mishkan k’vodecha.” Have compassion, Lord our God, upon Israel Your people, upon Jerusalem Your holy city, and upon Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory. The song goes on to speak of the hope for the messianic redemption, “Ben David avdecha yavo v’yigaleinu.” The son of David, Your servant, may he come and redeem us. “Ruach apeinu m’shiach Adonay.” The breath of our life, the anointed of the Lord. The blessing is not as emphatic in calling for the redemption, but does indeed call for compassion also upon, “Malchut beit David m’shichecha.” The Kingdom of the House of David, Your anointed one. This third blessing also does call upon God to send relief from all our troubles and not make us dependent on others but only upon God’s generosity and ends with a prayer for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The Rabbis attribute the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon to Moses who received the commandment to acknowledge the gift of food, the second to Joshua who brought the people into the land, and the third to David and Solomon, who made Jerusalem both the political and spiritual capital of Israel.
The last stanza of Tzur Mishelo reflects the tradition that some follow, particularly at a festive meal as on Shabbat or Yom Tov, or at a celebration like a wedding, to conclude Birkat HaMazon over a cup of wine. At a wedding reception we usually have two cups, one for the blessing over the food and the other for the seven wedding blessings which are repeated in the presence of the bride and groom. The custom is to pour the wine from both cups after the last blessing, into a large cup and hand it to the bride and groom to share. This stanza picks up with the conclusion of the third blessing which calls for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. “Yibaneh hamikdash ir Tziyon t’malei.” May the Temple be rebuilt and the city of Zion filled (with people) once again. “V’sham nashir shir chadash uvirnanah na’aleh.” And there we shall sing a new song as we ascend in joy. One always “goes up” to Israel and even moreso to Jerusalem which is, in fact, on a hill. “HaRachaman hanikdash yitbarach v’yitaleh.” To the holy Compassionate One, may He be blessed and raised on high.” The term “HaRachaman” is used multiple times in the additional prayers added on to Birkat HaMazon before the conclusion. “Al kos yayin malei k’virkat Adonay.” With a full cup of wine, a sign of the Lord’s blessing. It is customary to fill the wine cup to the very top, even overflowing, as we say in the 23rd Psalm, “Kosi r’vaya,” my cup overflows. You may notice that some Kiddush cups purposely provide a little tray underneath to catch the overflow.
So one may pick the melody which best reflects your mood and introduce the grace after meals with this lovely poem. Be warned, however, if you happen to be a disciple of the Volozhiner Rov, that you may well have fulfilled your obligation to “bench” simply by singing this joyful melody. That reminds me of our youthful sins of disrespect for the father of one of our friends w ho happened to be a Reform Rabbi. He was visiting in Israel and joined me and my roommates for Shabbos lunch, along with his daughter who was dating one of us, at the time. As we passed out the booklets for the grace after meals, he pointed out that there is a statement in the Talmud that one may substitute for the opening blessing of Birkat HaMazon a single line in Aramaic which basically says, “Blessed be the Compassionate One, Master of this bread.” We nodded and then, with the arrogance of youth, plunged into the entire Birkat HaMazon, singing every word with great gusto. (In fact, the Talmud may permit this shortened version for the first blessing, but still requires the recital of the other two.) There are indeed times when one is in a hurry and may wish to substitute a shorter or livelier prayer, but as we have seen in these many studies in Jewish liturgy, the longer versions, if one has the time and interest, can provide fascinating insights into the teachings and beliefs of our tradition. With Shabbat zemirot, one may add as well the great joy of singing together with friends and family around the table, that is truly oneg Shabbat, Shabbat delight.