A similar scene has played out in my life hundreds of times. The people are different, but the roles they play are familiar. It is the middle of a beautiful Shabbat meal, most of the food is gone from the serving plates, everyone is full and, all of a sudden, someone shouts: “It’s time to sing.”
The highlight of Shabbat observance for centuries has been the singing of zemirot, the Shabbat songs that serve as table hymns (some of which are now incorporated into congregational Shabbat services). These traditional songs are profoundly spiritual, yet their mood is joyous.
The familiar tune starts softly. A few fleeting whispers of conversation continue until the self-appointed shushers do their job. Soon the whole room is singing. Some sing loudly, others softly. Some sing in tune, others are horrendously off. There is even some harmony mixed in. Sure, the overall quality of the singing might not win any talent competitions, but it is hard not to get caught up in it anyway.
I often find myself lost in the words of zemirot. During my years studying in Israel, I had the opportunity to visit many different neighbourhoods and cities for Shabbat. On Friday nights, after a fine meal with a welcoming host, my friends and I would walk the narrow streets in Jerusalem’s Old City, wander around the religious enclaves of Mea Shearim or Bnei Brak, or experience the spirituality of Safed. Everywhere I went, I heard zemirot. Sometimes the tunes would be unfamiliar, other times they were the exact same as the ones we had sung back home. We would stand under the window for a few minutes, taking in the atmosphere. We could feel the holiness of Shabbat.
The memories remain vivid. I will never forget the Shabbat I spent with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in Moshav Mevo Modi’im in the centre of Israel more than 25 years ago. Considered by many to be the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century, in a career that spanned 40 years, he composed thousands of melodies and recorded more than 25 albums. Rabbi Carlebach once noted, “All of God’s wisdom is encased in a garment: it is in the music. When we speak, you may say ‘yes’ and I may reply ‘no,’ and we are already opposed to each other. In music, what is absolutely unbelievable is that I can sing a melody, you can sing different notes, and it’s the deepest harmony. The greatest revelation of God’s oneness in the world is music.”
Sitting around the table that Friday night, everyone was in awe of Reb Shlomo. We sang zemirot and harmonized for hours. The next morning, he asked me to lead Shabbat services in his shul on the moshav.
Music is all around us. You don’t need to be a sophisticated musician, experienced concertgoer or professional performer to enjoy it. You just need to take the time to listen. The rewards are lavish: music gives us the opportunity to express ourselves in a language that is felt and understood (without necessarily even having words attached to it). It represents one’s culture, feelings and even passion.
Music is powerful, too, perhaps no more so to the benefit of humanity than in the emotional realm. It has the miraculous ability to help treat ailments such as anxiety, abnormal excitement, depression and insomnia – not to mention its excellent, exhilarating power. Music helps us connect with our deeper self and brings our emotions to the forefront. It contains a soothing and healing power that uplifts our spirits, makes the tensions in our body melt away. The melodious notes can be compared to a mother’s love: just as a child forgets its fears and feels joy in its mother’s lap, we forget all worries and anxieties in a musical environment.
And Shabbat is the perfect time to celebrate and embrace music. It gives us the opportunity to sing zemirot with our family and friends. We gather in our homes and create a closer relationship with our fellow Jews and with God. And as a tune begins to fill the air, we are reminded that each of us has a song to sing, and that each of us has the ability to hear the song that others are singing. Shiru l’Adonai Shir Chadash (Sing Unto the Eternal a New Song). Shiru l’Adonai Kol ha-Aretz (Sing Unto the Eternal all the Earth.)