The American historian Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) wrote, “Our contemporaries have split the atom, reached the moon, and brought color TV to the common man. The ancients…were not less talented than today’s population, but they often expressed their intelligence in different ways. They manipulated language so deftly that it often takes the modern scholars a long time to grasp the presence, let alone all the subtleties, of ancient riddles.”
One poignant example of an ancient linguistic nuance lies in the difference between the two Hebrew words for song: “shir”/“shirah” and “zemer”/“zimrah.” What, indeed, is the difference between them?
Some suggest that “shirah” means verbal song while “zimrah” means instrumental music. This explanation is proffered by a bevy of authorities, including Ibn Ezra (to Psalms 105:2), Radak (to I Chronicles 16:9), Sforno (to Psalms 105:2), the Vilna Gaon (cited in his son’s Be’er Avraham to Psalms 27:6), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Psalms 33:2), and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer. In fact, the Yiddish word “klezmer” is actually a portmanteau of “klei” (instruments) and “zemer” (music).
The Malbim suggests that “zimrah” is a higher, more intense form of song than “shirah,” which explains why whenever the two terms appear together, “shirah” always precedes “shirah.”
In what is possibly a separate explanation, the Malbim writes that “shirah” is a more general term that can refer to song both in a religious sense and in a secular sense, while “zimrah” refers specifically to a religious song that speaks of G-d’s praises.
Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) writes that “shirah” is simply an expression of one’s happiness without necessarily any tie to the source of the happiness (i.e., G-d), while “zimrah” is always a means of acknowledging G-d’s role in bringing happiness and thanking Him for it.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) suggests that “shir” refers to the lyrics of poetic verse without a tune, while “zimrah” refers to the tune or melody of a song or played by a musical instrument.
The root zayin-mem-reish, from which “zemer” and “zimrah” are derived, appears also in the verb “zomer” (cutting down), which is actually one of the 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat. What does cutting have to do with singing?
Judaism’s conception of G-d comprises two almost paradoxically-opposed components. On the one hand, He is transcendent and thus totally beyond our reach and comprehension; on the other hand, He is immanent and thus ever-present for us to connect to. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explains that “shirah” denotes praising G-d from a position of rapture and attachment to Him while “zimrah” denotes praising G-d by appreciating His transcendence and great distance from man.
Hence the connection between song and cutting. When a person recognizes G-d’s awesome transcendence, a person is essentially cutting off his own existence as he realizes that his own existence pales in comparison to G-d’s infinite greatness.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber relates that he heard from a certain chassidic Rebbe in the name of the Chasam Sofer that “shirah” is related to “shirayim” (leftovers) because song is the leftovers of the soul. It remains one of the only ways the soul can express itself in a world dominated by materialism.
Interestingly, in many of the songs/poems recorded in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 49:2, Numbers 24:3, and Judges 5:12), the speaker refers to his or herself in third person instead of in the expected first person. Rabbi Immanuel Frances (1618-1703) explains that the speaker does so because true song is like an out-of-body experience such that the person singing looks at himself as a separate entity.
Rabbi Frances further explains that “shir” connotes a singer’s ability to mesmerize his listeners as if he were ruling over them, and it is related to other words connoting strength like “sharer” (strongly-established), “shur” (wall), and “sherarah” (authority).
“Zemer,” meanwhile, highlights other aspects of song/poetry. When Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy food during the famine, he sent with them the “zimrah” of Canaan (Genesis 43:11), which is taken to mean the best. Rashi connects “zimrat” with “zemer,” explaining that it refers to the choicest produce over which people would sing.
Alternatively, Rabbi Frances explains that just as pruning a vineyard from unnecessary shoots is called “zomer” (Leviticus 25:3), a song writer must expunge any unnecessary elements from his song in order for it to be wholly good.
Rabbeinu Efrayaim b. Shimshon (to Genesis 43:11) explains that the “zimrat ha’aretz” that Yaakov’s sons brought to Egypt consisted of fine wine; it’s called “zimrat” because drinking wine makes one happy and when people are happy, they sing. Interestingly, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) writes that the “zimrat ha’aretz” refers to a special melody of Eretz Yisrael that Yaakov sent the Egyptian leader.