Shabbat Zemirot: A History of Jewish Timelessness

Symbolism, Shabbat and praise; a journey into the origins of Jewish identity through the words of the Jewish poets

By
Golda Gross

On Shabbat, we rest, we eat, and we sing. Shabbat services themselves are most often lengthened with Tehillim, and the singing spills over to the Shabbat meals in the form of Zemirot, or poems of praise. Most of these Zemirot were written between the 10th and the 15th centuries by a variety of authors dispersed across the diaspora, and are centered around the themes inherent to the Shabbat experience, both spiritual and physical: its laws, the pleasures it brings, and the beauty of rest, with many biblical and liturgical references. Ma Yedidut Menukhatech is one such poem.


As is frequent in Zemirot, the author signed his name, Menahem, as an acrostic comprising the first letters of each stanza, allowing historians to trace it back to Menahem Ibn Saruq, a Spanish-Jewish poet and philologist of the 10th century. At that time, Spain was under the Umayyad rule, a Muslim dynasty that encouraged the development of the arts, whether visual or literary. This artistic vision was coupled with a stable form of ruling, leading to what has been referred to as the Golden Age of Muslim rule in Spain. As long as they accepted their status as dhimmis, or second-class citizens, Jews and other non-Muslims lived in relative peace and prosperity, with the freedom to practice their religion and contribute to wider society. Menahem was born to a modest family but was able to gain access to the court of the Caliph through a patron, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, who was Minister of Trade at the time. He became a philologist specializing in the Hebrew language, and even though he was most likely a fluent Arabic speaker due to his court status, he wrote his poetry in Hebrew.


Perhaps this linguistic choice was a statement of resistance against the quranic models that were the norm at the time, or a desire to insert himself into Jewish liturgical tradition, or simply due to his unsophisticated command of Arabic. What is sure, however, is that it allowed his poem to enter the timeless dimension of Shabbat Zemirot, since it is still widely sung at Shabbat tables today.


Generally speaking, the poem describes a very lavish, if not royal, experience of Shabbat, and it is easy to make the connection between this and the author’s exposure to the court of the Caliph. During Menahem’s Shabbat, “decadent delicacies” are served at each meal, including “swans, quails, fish”, all manners of “fattened fowl”, and “spiced wines”. Everyone is wearing “fine clothes” and, overall, “mak[ing] merry”. Yet his own lifestyle was reportedly quite modest. And while they were lucky relative to other periods of time, 10th century Spanish Jews were most definitely not accustomed to such riches on a weekly basis.


In her paper “Food in Sabbath Table Hymns: A Taste of the World to Come”, Susan Weingarten argues that it is much more likely that the dish of choice for a Shabbat meal would have been a dfina, the Sephardi equivalent of the Askenazi cholent, a much more simple stew with meat and grain. And therefore, it seems that Ibn Saruq’s Shabbat meal is more symbolic than realistic, one that describes more what a Shabbat meal represents than what a Shabbat meal actually is.


"Mehanem’s poem stayed relevant, perhaps because it struck a chord of hope and transported this Rebbe and his followers to a place of peace and security"

His description relates to the timeless essence of Shabbat itself, one that has been held in the collective Jewish imagination for centuries. In fact, nine hundred years later the Plontscher Rebbe, Reb Chaim-Avraham, who officiated in a Polish chassidic community, was famous for his musical rendition of Ma Yedidut. Clearly, those were very different circumstances from the Spanish Golden Age, given the political instability and the frequency of pogroms throughout Eastern Europe. Reb Chaim-Avraham himself had to flee his home during the First World War, yet Mehanem’s poem stayed relevant, perhaps because it struck a chord of hope and transported this Rebbe and his followers to a place of peace and security.


 

This doesn’t only apply to Ma Yedidut: Zemirot that are sung at the Shabbat table will often contain imagery that refer to the origins of Jewish identity, the experience of paradise as described in Bereishit (Genesis), and to the future yearning for Messianic times (Olam Haba, the world to come) where, in the Rambam’s words, “the Good will be pervasive” and “all the delicacies will be as available as dust”. Analogies between Shabbat, Gan Eden and Olam Haba are in fact pervasive throughout Jewish literature. When Ibn Saruq describes Shabbat as “Me’en Olam Haba”, a taste of the world to come, he recognizes that his description of the Shabbat meal as an idealized banquet is entirely intentional. That very few Jews would have actually experienced such a meal is a given. Ibn Saruq is relying on the fact that the idealized Shabbat experience is disconnected from time and space. It belongs with imaginary renditions of a paradise lost and a world to come.


The experience of singing Zemirot, including Ma Yedidut, at the Shabbat table therefore becomes an experience of timelessness, where present, past, and future are merged into a single moment of joy and delight where we sing and eat among our loved ones.

About the author

Golda Gross

Golda was born in Paris to a family that sings a lot during Shabbat meals. She studied biology in Manchester, London and Tel Aviv where she now lives and works in a lab.