“Okay kids, let’s sing zemiros. Yom zeh mechubad mikol yam- hey Yanky put that down! Ummm… oh yeh – mikol yomim, ki vo shavas tzur olamim.”
“Rishon hu limikrey kodesh–”
“Yom shaboson yom–”
“Yes Rivkaleh, what do you want – can’t you see that we’re trying to sing Shabbos zemiros?”
“But Abba, I’m thirsty!”
“Okay, here take a drink. Now, where were we up to?”
“You are up to the last stanza, Abba,” says Yanky trying to hide a mischievous smile…
Does this scene sound familiar to you? We all try to fulfill the age-old minhag of singing zemiros at the Shabbos table, but for some reason, many times it feels like an uphill battle. Perhaps this is a sign that these songs are really special and therefore the Satan is trying his hardest to stop us. And indeed the Zohar tells us that at the Shabbos seudah we must make sure to “arouse with singing and joy.” What is the secret of Shabbos zemiros? And why is it so important to sing specifically during the seudah? If we understand this minhag and how to fulfill it, we will discover an amazing new aspect of Shabbos.
The 7th Wing
In addition to the custom of Shabbos zemiros, we also say extra praises in davening, such as the additions in pesukei d’zimrah and birchas yotzer ohr. The Ohr Zaruah (Hilchos Shabbos 4) explains this based on a fascinating Midrash.
One group of angels, the Chayos Hakodesh, have six wings, and each day of the week they use a different one to sing praises to Hashem. The first time they reached Shabbos they asked Hashem for a seventh wing to use on that day to praise Him. “You don’t need a wing today,” answered Hashem. “There is a wing down on earth which sings for me today as it says (Yeshaya 24:16), ‘M’knaf ha’aretz zemiros shamanu – from the edge of the earth we have heard songs.’”
On Shabbos, Hashem tells the angels that He doesn’t need their songs and praises, as He has ours. Therefore, we add many more praises and songs on Shabbos, to fulfill our special job of being the 7th wing. Now we begin to understand the importance of Shabbos zemiros. When we sing, we are joining the myriads of holy angels in their sublime task of singing praises to Hashem! But why does Hashem prefer our songs over those of the Malachim specifically on Shabbos?
Perhaps we can explain it as follows. In the past we quoted the Sma’ag who writes that the human being consists of the body, which is animalistic in nature, and the soul which is angelic. Our job is to elevate materialism to a higher and holier plateau. Thus, both components are needed: the body, to perform materialistic acts, and the soul to elevate those acts. In this aspect we are superior to angels, who are solely spiritual.
During the week we are involved in mundane matters and worldly pursuits, and it is difficult to do our task. Therefore, Hashem desires shira from angels, who don’t have such difficulties. On Shabbos, however, when we are less connected to the physical world and are closer to Hashem, we are able to fulfill our mission properly. Everything mundane takes on a spiritual aspect: eating, sleeping and even just spending time with the family become mitzvos if they are done with the proper intentions. (See our previous article: “The Inauguration Festivities,” October 11.) This is why Hashem prefers our praises specifically on Shabbos, as this is the fulfillment of the world’s purpose.
Now we understand why zemiros are so important during the meal itself. First, singing praises to Hashem helps ensure that the meal will be one of holiness and not indulgence. However, it is much deeper than that. When we eat and drink with the correct intentions, we are soaring up to levels of kedushah, higher than the malachim. Since that is the moment Hashem has been waiting for, He now desires our praises.
With this we can understand the zemer of “Mah Yedidus,” in which we sing about all the different Shabbos delicacies and pleasures. We are not acting like drunkards in a pub who rejoice over the whiskey that intoxicated them. Rather, we are celebrating together with the foods that helped us reach these heights and elevating Olam Hazeh. We also sing about many of the different halachos of Shabbos, for that is what makes us greater than the malachim. The angels do not have the ability to go against Hashem’s command, but we have free will. Therefore, when we keep Shabbos and refrain from work or other prohibitions, we are showing that Hashem is the King of the Universe. This is something that the angels cannot do, and it makes our praise more desirable to Hashem.
Tips for Tunes
Now that we understand the importance of this minhag, you are probably wondering how to get past all the hurdles. Every family is different, but here are a few practical suggestions that may help (sometimes!).
1. Sing from your heart! This will not only help you to enjoy zemiros more, but will eventually have an effect on your whole household. The greatest influence is through example. When they see how much Shabbos means to you, it will leave a lasting impression on their neshamos.
2. Take a few moments to learn the meaning of the zemiros and share it with your family. Then you can all sing with true feelings of thanks and praise to Hashem.
3. Choose tunes that you and your family enjoy.
4. Don’t force your children to sing with you – it will just backfire. You can ask them to either join you or sit quietly without disturbing the singing. A little bribery may help get them into the practice of singing. And obviously, getting angry at interruptions only ruins everything. Just go with the flow!
5. Timing is of the essence, so pick the right time to sing. This is something that differs from family to family. However, it is generally a good idea to sing one song at the beginning to set the tone of the meal. On the other hand, a song sung after filling ourselves with a sample of Hashem’s kindness will be sung with more feeling! And if you ever see that they are really enjoying the singing, use the opportunity to sing another one right away.
Let us end with an amazing Midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (end of Chapter 8) just in case you ever get frustrated and wonder if it is really worth all these efforts: “When Klal Yisroel eat and drink, and then bless, praise and sing praises to Hashem, He listens to their voices and is appeased.”
R’ Yaakov Emden adds: “and those who say zemiros bring good to the world and Hashem attaches Himself to the person and hears his voice and is appeased and saves the world from destruction!” When you sing these songs, you have no idea what you may have just accomplished. Perhaps in your merit a childless couple received that long-awaited baby or that sick person was healed. And more importantly, you may have just saved the entire world. Now that’s something to sing about!Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus, raised and educated in Los Angeles and subsequently Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, is the Rosh Kollel of the Zichron Aron Yaakov Kollel in Kiryat Sefer , Israel. He lectures for the public and is the director of the Chasdei Rivka Free Loan Gemach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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