Q. Why is the Anim Z’mirot hymn usually recited publicly in the synagogue on Shabbat by a child?
A. Usually sung responsively at the end of Musaf (in some places at the end of Shacharit, and in some just before Baruch She’amar), Anim Z’mirot or the Hymn of Glory (Shir HaKavod), is attributed to Yehudah HeChassid of 13th cent. Regensburg. He was one of the Chassidei Ashkenaz, the medieval pietists of Germany, whose suffering brought out their saintly qualities.
Many colourful stories surrounded his name; he is said to have performed miracles, revived the dead and entertained Elijah to Seder. He was on good terms with the local duke and bishop and was even a good archer. The most famous work attributed to him is the Sefer Chassidim, a popular ethical work inclined to asceticism.
The first and last four lines of Anim Z’mirot provide a prologue and epilogue, with an alphabetical acrostic in between these two sections. Each line, with 16 syllables, has two sections. The whole poem is a liturgical meditation on the nature of God, skillfully utilising Biblical and rabbinic phraseology. The title comes from the opening line, “Sweet hymns and melodies shall I weave; for towards You does my heart yearn”. These phrases come, firstly, from the Biblical description of David as N’im Z’mirot Yisra’el, the Sweet Singer of Israel (II Sam. 23:1), and then various words and phrases from the Psalms, e.g. Psalm 42:2.
The overall message of the poem is that humans cannot describe God as He really is – they can only use metaphorical phrases. So intricate is the style of the poem and so sublime its content that some authorities, such as the Vilna Gaon, were against reciting it daily because on weekdays it would be said too hurriedly. They therefore limited it to Sabbaths and festivals, and in some places it was said only on Kol Nidrei night.
Our custom of inviting a child to lead the hymn is obviously based on the wish to encourage youth participation in the services and because the rhyme and rhythm are easy to handle. But the poem is too difficult for most children and indeed for many adults. At the very least, rabbis should occasionally use a sermon or shi’ur to expound it and the other popular synagogue hymns.