Q. Why do many people sing z’mirot (special table songs) during the Shabbat meals?
A. It is an old custom to sing z’mirot at the Shabbat table. The z’mirot that are most widely known are full of liveliness and spirit, yet maybe, many centuries ago, they were livelier still, but their full-throated joy was deliberately toned down as a mark of mourning for the lost glories of ancient days.
The Midrash states that the singing of table songs originated because people were so full of Sabbath rejoicing that when they had eaten and drunk, they spontaneously sang praises to God.
The custom received its greatest impetus, however, from the Kabbalistic notion that heavenly guests came visiting on earth on Shabbat, hence the Friday evening welcome of the Sabbath queen and the Melaveh Malkah to farewell her as she took her departure on Saturday night.
Joy at the presence of the visitors from the realm above expressed itself in song. The subjects around which z’mirot were written ranged from the happiness of the day (e.g. Yom zeh leYisrael orah v’simchah, “This day for Israel is light and rejoicing”), phrases from the bensching (Tzur mishelo achalnu, barechu emunai, “The Rock from whose bounty we have eaten – bless Him, faithful companions!”), to religious themes in general (Yah ribbon alam ve’almaya, an’t hu malka melech malchaya, “Lord, the Master of space and time, supreme king of kings art Thou!”).
What about the melodies? There are of course some who simply daven through the z’mirot, without the remotest musical pretensions. But most people have their traditional family melodies. How these originated, one can usually not be sure; nor do we always know who wrote the words of the z’mirot. Some melodies, however, that have become almost sanctified by time, began as folk-tunes current in the lands of eastern and central Europe.
Other favourite Jewish songs whose melodies derive from very un-Jewish folk-song origins are Addir Hu and Ma’oz Tzur. (Some say that even Hatikvah was based on a motif by Smetana, adapted from a Moldavian folk melody, similar to a German song, “Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen”, but also reminiscent of a Sephardi tune for the Hallel.)
One of the best known and most moving z’mirot is Shalom Aleichem, which welcomes the ministering angels and bids them enter and leave in peace. It is based on the Talmudic story that two angels accompany a person home on Sabbath eve. One is a good angel, the other an evil one. If they see the house ready for Shabbat, the lamp burning and the table laid, the good angel says, “May it be so, next week!” and the evil angel answers, “Amen!”
Yaakov Emden, the eighteenth-century rabbinic scholar, objected to the verse that farewells the angels, the tzet’chem l’shalom verse. “Would that the angels stayed with us always!” he said. But perhaps his wish is utopian; messianic time has not yet come and the world is not yet ready for the age that will be an unending Sabbath. But that time will come…