When I was in college, at the University of Pennsylvania, many years ago, a group of fellows who came regularly to the Hillel for Shabbat services, decided to create a Jewish Residence House, a place for traditional Jews to live together on campus. Someone had a connection with the University administration (the provost used to daven mincha with the guys at Hillel) and found out that there was a vacant sorority house scheduled for demolition in about a year when the University planned to put up some high rise apartments. During the intervening year, the redevelopment authority was willing to rent out the building to about a dozen of us for an extremely modest cost. Once we found out that this old ΦΣΣ Sorority house was available to us, a couple of us realized that we might be able to create our own dining club with kosher meals, somewhat more appealing than those offered by Hillel.
Three of us volunteered to cook and the rest were charged with either setting the table or cleaning up. During the week, it was generally just the twelve of us for dinner. I was one of the weekday cooks and did fairly well thanks to training by my mother who used to leave instructions for my sister and me when we were in high school, to put on dinner before she got home from teaching. Thursday, on the other hand, was a good night to take a date out for dinner unless you really liked Richie’s experimental meatloaf recipes. However, every Shabbat, both on Friday night and again on Saturday for lunch, we invited everyone from the Hillel services to join us to eat. This generally amounted to 25 or 30 of us around a long table. Friday night we served gefilte fish from a jar, soup, roasted chicken and vegetables prepared by Abe, who had served in the Israeli army, a fellow whose folks ran a resort hotel in New Jersey. He also put together a pot of cholent to simmer overnight to be served for lunch. At lunchtime, aside from the cholent, we served cold cuts and deli salads. There was always plenty to eat and room for more folks to join us.
I mention all of these memories as an introduction to what followed these meals for about an hour after every Friday night dinner and again after Shabbat lunch. We passed out booklets and began to sing traditional Shabbat zemirot, “table songs,” as well as a variety of biblical verses and other rabbinic sayings set to catchy melodies which were repeated numerous times. Often these zemirot had multiple verses and a variety of tunes. If you did not know the melody we were singing, we would suggest that you listen to a verse or two and by the end of the song, maybe you would pick up the melody and join in. It was always great when someone came back from a retreat or a family event with a new melody for an old song. While some zemirot were sung to slow, soulful tunes, many of them had faster tempos and were accompanied by clapping or pounding on the table. Let’s face it, we were a rather raucous crowd, but we loved singing our hearts out in these traditional songs before chanting the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals. I thought that some of these zemirot might be interesting to look into and the first one I want to write about is the Yah Ribon, an Aramaic poem written in the 16th century.
Yah Ribon has five verses and it is apparent from the first letter of each verse that the author’s name was Yisrael and he put it into an acrostic using those first letters. A quick check in several siddurim and other commentaries confirmed that indeed this poem was one of hundreds written by Rabbi Yisrael ben Moshe Najara, who was born around 1555 in Safed. His family was originally from Spain and lived in the city of Najera in the northern portion of the country. Various rabbinic Najaras were later found in various cities in North Africa and the Middle East. According to information online, it is believed that Rabbi Yisrael’s grandfather, Rabbi Levi Najara, was born in Spain and after the 1492 expulsion ended up in Damascus. Rabbi Yisrael’s father Moshe, must have been born en route, in Salonica, and later went to Safed and was part of the Kabbalistic community there. His son, Rabbi Yisrael spent his years in Safed, Damascus, and ultimately as the Rabbi of Gaza, a position his own son inherited after his death around 1625. For more details, feel free to Google him yourself.
Yisrael Najara wrote a number of rabbinic works, including biblical commentaries, sermons, halachic treatises, and various liturgical pieces. Some have been published, while others are known only in manuscript. However, he is best known for his poetry, both secular and religious, written in a variety of languages including Hebrew, Aramaic, and Ladino (the Spanish equivalent to Yiddish). It is said that some of his poems he set to Turkish or Greek melodies intentionally with the idea of “redeeming” these secular melodies for holy purposes. This is a tradition later followed by some Chasidic rabbis as well. One rebbe took the melody he heard from the carousel in the Tivoli Gardens and made it into a prayer melody.
Many of his piyyutim, these poems, were adopted into the liturgy of Sephardic, Italian, North African, and Middle Eastern congregations. His work that is familiar to Ashkenazic Jews though is primarily the song Yah Ribon which is one of the best known zemirot worldwide. As with most of the zemirot, Yah Ribon has been set to many different melodies. I know only four or five of them, but there are probably dozens, if not hundreds, of tunes. My friend “Richie” (of meatloaf fame, though he is now a distinguished emeritus professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at Yeshiva University) taught us a very slow and soulful version of this hymn. I do like that melody quite a bit. Personally, though, I get a kick out of singing a faster version, that includes a Yiddish exclamation in the middle of this Sephardic poem. We sing in Aramaic, “ant hu malka melech” you are the king, O King, and add in Yiddish, “Oy, Tate zisse Melech!” O, sweet Father, King! A few years later, when I was in Seminary, someone taught me another version that sounds a lot like an Italian opera solo as it starts off down the scale. This went well with a table-pounding version of Tzur Mishelo, another of the zemirot, that we’ll examine at another time, which we liked to sing to what sounded like an Irish sea chanty.
For a Sabbath table song, it is interesting that Yah Ribon does not mention Shabbat at all. However, it is similar to L’cha Dodi, in expressing our hope for Messianic redemption and, after all, we talk about the Messianic era, as being a time of eternal Shabbat and rest for all the world. So in that sense, it is always appropriate.
The opening line, which begins with the Yud of Yisrael, is usually repeated as a chorus. Yah Ribon alam v’almaya. Yah is one of God’s sacred names, as in Hallelu-Yah, Praise God. However, the name Yah seems to indicate that we are talking about God in His role as Creator.The rabbis derive that characterization from a verse in Isaiah (26:4) cited in a different zemer (singular of zemirot), “ki b’Yah Adonay tzur olam” for in Yah Adonay you have an everlasting rock (tzur). The rabbis take “tzur” and read it as “tzayar” the one who forms or creates like a potter, yotzer, while olamim has both a temporal and a spatial meaning, so that it is literally “worlds”. Thus in Yah Adonay you have the creator of worlds or the eternal creator. Inserting this understanding of Yah into our poem we now have, Yah, the Creator, master of the world and all worlds or all eternity. Ant hu malka, melech malchaya. You are the Sovereign, king of kings or king over kings. Ovad g’vurteich v’timhaya, Your powerful and wondrous deeds. Gevurah is might and timhaya, is something that inspires wonder or astonishment. Sh’far kodamach l’hachavaya. It is beautiful to declare before You. The root of sh’far appear in the verb l’hishtaper to improve, to make beautiful. Kodamach, kodem, before, and the suffix -ach is You. L’hachavayah, makes me think of the chavayot of Rava and Abaye, the discussions of two Talmudic sages in the 4th century.
The second stanza begins with the shin/sin of Yisrael. Sh’vachin asader tzafra v’ramsha, Your praises I will arrange morning and night. Sh’vachin from shevach, praise. Asader, from seder, to put in order. Tzafra v’ramsha are day and night, we wish a person good morning in Aramaic by saying “tzafra d’mari tav.” Lach elaha kadisha di v’ra kol nafsha. Unto You, Holy God, who created every soul. Elaha kadisha, Elohim hakadosh is the holy God. Di v’ra, you might recognize from the Kaddish where we say di v’ra chirutei, that he created according to His will. Here it is who creates, kol nafsha, kol nefesh, every soul. Irin kadishin uv’nei enasha, Irin is a term for angels found in the book of Daniel (part of which is written in Aramaic instead of Hebrew) parallel to the term kadishin, holy ones. Here we have irin kadishin, holy irin, holy angels. Uv’nei enasha, b’nai enosh in Hebrew is humankind, sons of mortals. Cheivat bara, are animals of the field, cheivat is chayot, animals, bar means fields or outdoors, v’ofei shemaya, ofot are birds and shemaya is shamayim, heavens, birds of the heavens. Put it all together and we are offering praise day and night to the holy God who created every soul: holy angels and humankind, beasts of the field and birds of the heavens.
Moving on to the third stanza, beginning with the reish of Yisrael, is rav’revin ovdeich v’takifin, great and mighty are Your deeds. Rav is great, takif, is mighty, while ovdeich are things that one does, from the word oveid. Machich r’maya v’zakif k’fifin. Machich is to lower or humilate, ramaya, from ram, are those who are high, exalted, or haughty, while zakif k’fifin, is the same as the Hebrew zokeif k’fufim, He straightens up those who are bent over. Lu yichyeh g’var sh’nin alfin, if a man – g’var, gever in Hebrew, were to live a thousand years, sh’nin from shanah, year, alfin, from elef, one thousand. La yeiol g’vurteich b’chushb’nayah. He would be unable to calculate the extent of Your mighty deeds. G’vurteich from gevurot, mighty acts. Chushb’nayah from cheshbonot, accounts.
The second to the last stanza, number four, begins with the alef of Yisrael. Elaha di lei y’kar urvuta, God unto whom are honor and greatness. Y’kar is something that is dear or honored and revuta from rav, great. P’rok yat anach mi pum ary’vata. Remove Your sheep from the mouth of the lions. P’rok means to remove, to separate, to extricate. Anach is Your sheep, ayin in Aramaic often replaces tzadi, in this case from tzon, sheep. Mi pum, mi pi, from the mouth of ary’vata, ariyot, lions, referring, of course, to the enemies of the Jews who persecute them. Rescue us from the lions’ den, as you did for Daniel. V’apeik yat ameich migo galuta, bring out Your people from the Exile. Apeik is to bring out. Yat ameich, et amcha, Your people, migo galuta, mitokh ha-galut, from the midst of the Exile. Ameich di v’chart mikol umaya, Your people whom You chose from all the nations. Amcha shebacharta, the people You chose, mikol umaya, mikol ha-umot, from all the nations.
In the final stanza, the one beginning with the lamed of Yisrael, we find the destination of this people who we pray will be liberated from exile. L’mikdashach tuv ul’kodesh kudshin, return to Your sanctuary, bet hamikdash is the Temple. Tuv, in Aramaic is shuv, return, the letter tav substitutes for shin. Kodesh kudshin is the Holy of Holies. Atar di vei yechedun ruchin v’nafshin, the place where spirits and souls rejoice. Atar is a place. Yechedun has the same root as chedvah, rejoicing, while ruchin v’nafshin are ruchot u’n’fashot, spirits and souls. Vizamrun lach shirin v’rachashin, they will sing to You songs and praises. Zamrun has the same root as zemirot, songs, singing. Shirin is the same as shirim, songs. Rachashin, comes from a word that means to move, to vibrate, and can refer to moving the lips in words of praise. Birushalaym karta dishufraya. In Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, karta, the city, dishufraya of beauty. Shufraya is from the same root as sh’far in the first stanza, beauty.
Thus the poet give us a panoramic view of history from the beginning of creation to the final redemption when God’s people will be brought forth from Exile and returned to the Temple where we will rejoice and sing God’s praises in the Holy City of Jerusalem. As is customary in all of our prayers, we recognize here in song, God’s sovereignty as Malka, the king, melech malchaya, ruler over all earthly kings. Indeed, Oy Tate zisse, O sweet Father, Malka, You indeed are the King.