Friday, April 21, 2006

Songs of Ascent

Essay One: Songs of Ascent
The term “song” as used in the Holy Scriptures (Shir and/or Shirah) refers not only to mere singing, but also to a unique type of spiritual phenomenon. A song is the manifestation of feelings into vocalized words, which represent a spiritual connection to esoteric concepts; songs reflect a belief of the intellect fused with the subconscious righteousness of the soul. Songs are especially used to commemorate happy occasions or to express one’s emotion during a joyous occasion. The core focus of a song’s content usually speaks the praises of G-d[1], but the actual circumstances behind the cause of the thanksgiving are also mentioned within the song. According to Lurianic Kabbalah (from the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchack "Ari HaKadosh" Luria, 1534–1572), there are eleven expressions of song—admitting/acknowledging thanks, praising, lauding, glorifying, extolling, beautifying, blessing, eternalizing His victory, exulting, and exalting[2]. Conversely, song is included in the fifteen languages of praise: Song, laud, praise, music (hymns), strength, rulership, triumph, greatness, powerfulness, epitome of praise, splendor, holiness, kingship, blessings, and acknowledgments of thanksgiving[3]. Thus, song is an expression of praise, and praise is an expression of song; this is because the raison d’etre of song is to be used as a means of expressing praise to the Almighty.

Rabbi Chanoch (Enoch) Zundel ben Yosef Luria of Bialystock (d. 1867) writes[4] that the entire world is compared to a symphony with all its various elements acting as the instruments within the great orchestra of the world. Human song is only one part of this grand orchestra of music that gives praise to the Creator. The animals, plants, celestial bodies, demons, angels, and topographical entities all praise their Creator through song, as well. A Braisa is related[5] that when Dovid HaMelech finished writing Tehillim (Psalms), he grew proud of himself and rhetorically asked HaShem, “Is there anyone who recites more songs and praises than I do?” At that moment a frog appeared and told David that he “spoke three thousand aphorisms and his song was a thousand and five“[6]. The Mabit, Rabbi Moses ben Joseph di Trani the Elder (1505-1585) tells[7] that after King David finished his magnum opus, Psalms, the divine spirit fell upon him once again, and he merited writing Perek Shira (“Chapter of Song”). This treatise details the songs that each of G-d’s creations sings every day to honor and praise their Creator. There are Kabbalistic explanations in understanding why each verse was attributed to whomever or whatever it was attributed to (e.g. see footnote[8]). The Ohr HaChaim HaQadosh (Rabbi Chaim Ben-Attar of Morocco, 1696-1743) writes[9] that HaShem created speech in all creations in order for them to praise Him, for it says, “Everything works for HaShem for its own sake”[10].

Even the angels in heaven busy themselves by singing of G-d’s praises. Elijah the Prophet writes[11] that the ministering angels do not say their songs of praise above (i.e. in heaven) until the Jews below (on earth) begin saying their songs. Indeed, two later prophets testified to the fact that in heaven the angels (Cherubim and Chayos) spend their time praising the sovereignty of G-d’s rule[12]. When Jews repeat the proclamations of these angels in the Kedusha services at least three times a day, they stand with their feet together to mimic the angelic originators of those phrases. (Angels have only one leg). Furthermore, at the time that Jacob—who was soon-after to be renamed Israel—was engaged in a wrestling match against the ministering angel of the Nation of Esau, Samael, the latter had to leave their fight early in the morning[13] in order to return to heaven so that he may continue saying his praises of G-d[14]. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810) writes[15] that if one wants to sway the attitude of a nation in order for them to have a more favorable view of the Jews, he need only know the song of that nation’s angel when it sings, blesses, and praises HaShem. This is because an angel has to love the man who knows his song, and becomes compelled to do the will of such a man. Therefore, writes the Berditchever Rebbe, one who says Perek Shirah is great.

In a Tannaic preface to this work, three Tannaim (Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah) wrote of great blessings granted to one who busies his or her self with Perek Shirah. Rabbi Mordechai Gross (Chief Justice on the Rabbinical Court of Bnei Barak) writes that the recitation of Perek Shirah is heard in the highest places of Heaven and can have great influence in the Heavenly courts for a favorable judgment. Such songs can ascend and penetrate through all seven layers of heaven and reach directly to HaShem Himself. The power of song is so great that Rashi says[16] that after Deborah’s song, the entire Jewish Nation was forgiven from all their sins. The songs of the animals are so powerful they had the power to destroy the entire Assyrian Army of Sennecharib overnight (on the first night of Pesach), thereby saving Jerusalem from its besiegement[17]. However, despite all these favorable results of performing a song in HaShem’s honor, the converse is also true; the lack of song can sometimes produce unfavorable and even dangerous consequences. The Talmud says[18] that had Chizkiyahu HaMelech (King Hezekiah) sang thanks because of the destruction the Assyrian Army, he would have been anointed at the Messiah and the redemption would have occurred immediately. However, since he did not, the Messiah did not yet arrive and they Jews were subsequently exiled for over millennia. Rashi says[19] that the sun and moon only continued to exist after they were at a standstill and ceased their singing because Yehoshua carried out his singing on their behalf. Had Joshua not have continued the singing, the sun and the moon would have been destroyed. Rabbi Abraham Ben Meir Ibn Ezra (1092 -1167) explained that the sin of Moses[20] was that he did not sing to the rock, which he hit and for this, he was punishment by being banned from the Holy Land. Rabbi Boaz Goldman (from the Kollel Meshech Chochmah in Jerusalem) says it is imperative upon all of Jews to follow suit of the Jews[21] who recognized their divine miracle, realized the need for singing His praise, and actually went out and sang to Him.

Rabbi Yonason Ben Uziel, the top student of the Tanna Hillel, explains[22] that in the history of the world, ten songs were uttered by people as pure praises to their Creator, and were therefore given the title “Song” (in its proper sense). The first man, Adam, thanked G-d for establishing the Sabbath and dedicated a Psalm of thanksgiving to the Holy Sabbath Day (Psalm 92 begins with the words, Mizmor Shir L’Yom HaShabbos, “A psalm: A song for the Sabbath Day.”). Over two millennia later, when HaShem split the Red Sea for the Jewish Nation, thereby rescuing them from their watery graves, the saved nation sung His praises (Exodus 15:1-19, Az YaShir Moshe, “Then [sic] Moses shall sing”, an allusion to the Messianic Era in which Moses will arise from the dead and once again sing[23]). Later, when the Israelites were given water from a well, they sang the praises of G-d’s gift to them[24]. Before his death, Moses sang a fourth song, both rebuking his nation and describing G-d’s kindness to Israel (Deuteronomy 32:1-43, Haazinu HaShomayim, “Hearken O’ Heaven”). A fifth song was sung by Yehoshua, the student of Moses, when HaShem stopped the sun for him[25]. Deborah, the judge and prophetess, as well as her husband Barak, famously sang the praises of G-d who delivered Sisera, the Canaanite General, into their hands[26]. When Chanah was finally granted a son, Samuel, she too sang the exultation of G-d[27]; in doing so, she acknowledged that the vicissitudes of life are temporary conditions. When King David finally calmed all his problems and G-d saved him from all of his enemies, he sang a song of gratitude to HaShem[28]. A ninth song, steeped in imagery and allegory, was composed by Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) who described the love between Israel and its G-d (Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs). This Song of Solomon, sometimes referred to as Canticum Canticorum (Canticle of Canticles), is considered the most elevated of all ten songs. The tenth song itself will be sung by the Children of the Exile as they are being redeemed in the final redemption (speedily and in our days). According to the Prophet Yeshayah, it will be akin to the Hallel sung on the first night of Passover[29].

There are two types of Hallels and at any give juncture either one is said, or the other is said, or both are said, or neither are recited. One Hallel is called Hallel Mitzraim, “Egyptian Hallel”[30], and is recited on Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed (intermediate days), and Chanukka (and in some communities, it is said on the Day of Israeli Independence to commemorate the creation of the Zionist state of Israel, Yom Ha'atzmaut). The other Hallel, recited on Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and every Shabbat, is known as Hallel HaGadol, “The Great Hallel”[31]. Hallel HaGodol is called so because every stanza ends with the words, “for His kindness is everlasting,” especially the penultimate verse, which mentions G-d’s graciousness in sustaining all flesh[32]. In fact, the Gemara[33] initially thought that that verse alone is sufficient to say that one automatically merits a portion in the World To Come for saying Hallel HaGadol thrice a day. This is the greatest praise that one can use to describe for it describes both His abundant kindness and His eternalness that no other being has. Its twenty-six verses correspond to the numerical value of the name of HaShem; alternatively, they correspond to the twenty-six generations between the creation of the world (i.e. Adam) and Moses. The “Egyptian Hallel” is called such because at the time that the Jews were exiting Egypt after two centuries of servitude, they were praising G-d by singing the passage from Tehillim, which constitute this Hallel. The Talmud explains[34] that this Hallel discusses five elements, which makes it greater than the “Great Hallel”: the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the giving of the Torah, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the birth pangs of the Messianic Era. On Festivals (Pesach, Succos, and Shavuos) and on Shabbos-Chol HaMoed, both types of Hallel are sung, while on Purim neither Hallel is recited (because the Megillah itself, which is read, is considered Hallel[35]). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchack Zev Soloveitchik of Brisk (1886-1959), explained[36] that even within Hallel Mitzrayim, there are two classifications: a Hallel that is called “singing”, and a Hallel that is considered a “recitation.” On the first night of Passover – on the Seder Night—not only are both types of Hallel sung, but also, both types of Hallel Mitzrayim are recited; thus, there are three Hallels all together on that night which will be echoed by the songs at the coming of the Messiah.

Of the two types of Hallel, one implements usage of the statement “Hallelujah” and one does not. Hallel Mitzrayim contains the phrase “Hallelukah” five times, and repeats the opening stanza from “The Great Hallel” six times; it therefore contains the gist of “The Great Hallel”[37]. The portmanteau “Halleluqah” is the ultimate expression of thanks and happiness combined. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church bans its members from saying “Alleluia” during Passiontide (the time between Lent and Easter) because that time is supposed to be a sad time and the phrase is too joyous, so even the gentiles agree to the joyous power of the phrase. Rabbi Shimon Ben Pazi says[38] that King David did not use the phrase until the 104th chapter of Psalms because that phrase is only appropriate in complete bliss and such bliss is not achieved until all sinners cease to exist. He only used the phrase “Halleluyah” in conjunction with the disappearance of sins from the world and the resulting lack of sinners. Halleluyah is a combination of the Hebrew word “Hallelu” meaning to praise, and “Kah”, a two-letter name of G-d (spelled Yud-Hay). The usage of this particular name of HaShem is somewhat portent because its numerical value is fifteen, which is represented by the fifteen expressions of praise (mentioned above), the fifteen “Songs of Ascent”[39], and the fifteen steps upon which the Levites will once again sing those songs in the Holy Temple. May it be the will of HaShem that He shall build the Bais HaMikdash (Holy Temple) speedily and in our days: Amen.


[1] All the songs mentioned below explicitly mention His praise, except for a few in Perek Shirah that make no sense on the surface but in a deeper meaning (see below) are great praises and the entire Shir HaShirim, which is an allegory. If a song like Shir HaShirim was written with holy intentions, as Solomon had when he wrote it, it can achieve high spiritual potential. However, it is not for people nowadays to write love stories and try to pass it off as a song praising G-d. In order for a song to be called a proper song, it should praise G-d. In contemporary times, there are musicians who call their music "songs" but those song are usually devoid of any spiritual content and most of the time have disgusting content (e.g. songs about rape, murder, drinking, etc...). It is best to stick the songs that were written through divine inspiration as a means of praising G-d.
[2] These eleven expressions are mentioned in the Passover Haggadah, at the end of the Psukei D’Zimrah “Chapters of Hymns” services on Shabbos and Yom Tov, and at the concluding benediction of Hallel. Those who disagree with the Ari HaQodosh omit “eternalizing His victory”.
[3] These fifteen expressions are mentioned daily in the Yishtabach prayer.
[4] Kenaf Rananim, printed in 1842
[5] Yalkut Shimoni, end of Psalms, §150
[6] Kings 1 5:12
[7] Beis Elokim
[8] According to the Arizal, every kosher animal (as defined by Leviticus Chapter 11) gets its lifeline from the first letters of the Tetragrammaton, while the lives of non-Kosher animals are sustained through the latter two letters of HaShem's name. The last verse in Psalms (Psalms 150:6) states, "All souls praise G-d, praise G-d”. According to Kabbalah, this passage means that all soul-bearing creatures praise G-d using His name containing the letters “Yud-Hey.” According to the Arizal that only kosher animals have a connection to that two-letter name, how can every animal praise HaShem with that name? One can answer that every type of animal has a kosher counterpart because the Talmud says (Chullin 127a) every animal that exists on the dry land exists on the sea, and the Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 39a) explains that one is kosher, and the other is not. So for every animal there is a type (whether it is the sea version or land version) which is kosher and has a connection to the first half of the four-letter name. However, the Talmud in Chullin explicitly excluded the weasel, Chuldah from this sea-land rule, and the weasel is decidedly a non-Kosher animal (Leviticus 11:29), which uses the latter half of G-d’s name, so how can the verse in Psalms say every soul praises G-d through the name of “Yud-Hay”? (This assumes contrary to the words of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), who wrote in Nefesh HaChaim that animals do not have souls.) The Ben Ish Chai (Chacham Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1832-1909) answers (Ben Yehoyada to Chullin 127a) that indeed the weasel does not praise G-d with that name, rather the weasel is the one who recited Psalms 150:6, as he testifies that the rest of the world praises HaShem so. This is why King David ascribed that verse to weasel in Perek Shirah. Perhaps this is the intent of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) in his cryptic citation of Chullin 127a in his commentary Zimras Ha’Aretz (printed with his famous siddur) to Perek Shira.
[9] Ohr HaChaim to Genesis 3:1
[10] Proverbs 16:4
[11] Tana Devei Eliyahu HaNavi, Seder Eliyahu Zuta, §25
[12] See Isaiah 6:3, Ezekiel 3:12
[13] Genesis 32:27
[14] Chullin 93b
[15] Kedushas Levi, 2:2
[16] Judges 6:1
[17] Sanhedrin 95b
[18] Sanhedrin 94a
[19] Avodah Zarah 25a and Joshua 10:13
[20] Numbers 20:8
[21] As explained by of Rashi in Exodus 15:1
[22] Targum Yonason (a divinely inspired translation of the Torah into Aramaic), Shir HaShirim 1:1
[23] See Sanhedrin 91a
[24] Numbers 21:17-20
[25] See Joshua 10:12-14
[26] Judges, Chapter 5
[27] Samuel 1 2:1-10
[28] Samuel 2, Chapter 22
[29] See Isaiah 30:29
[30] Psalms 113-118
[31] Psalms 136
[32] Pesachim 119a
[33] Brachos 4b
[34] Pesachim 119a
[35] Megillah 14a
[36] Chiddushei HaGriz Al HaRambam, Laws of Chanukka
[37] Although, the Introductory Psalm to Hallel HaGadol, Psalm 135, uses the phrase three times.
[38] Brachos 9b
[39] Shir HaMa’alos, Psalms 120-134

9 comments:

Irina Tsukerman said...

Several questions: What does "Kah" actually translate to? (i.e. how is it different from other names? That would make a great post!)

Secondly: does it mean that songs are only supposed to be about praising G-d, or does it mean that songs, no matter what they, are in themselves a praise for G-d?

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

Why do names have to mean something? As far as I know, Kah is just a name, it doesn't have any meaning. From my understanding, it is an abbreviated form of HaShem's name YHVH and probably contains all the implications carried by that name.

Secondly, as I started off in the essay, the term "song" as used in the Holy writings refers exclusively to songs of praise to G-d. All the songs mentioned explicitly mention His praise, except for a few in Perek Shirah which make no sense on the surface but in a deeper meaning are great praises and the entire Shir HaShirim which is an allegory. If a song like Shir HaShirim was written with holy intentions as Solomon had when he wrote it, it can acheive high spiritual potential, but it is not for people nowadays to write love story and try to pass it off as a song praising G-d.

In order for a song to really be called a proper song, it should be a praise for G-d. In contemporary times, there are musicians who call their music "songs" but those song are usually devoid of any spiritual content and most of the time have disgusting content (e.g. songs about rape, murder, drinking, etc...). It is best to stick the songs which were written through divine inspiration as a means of praising G-d, I don't recommend writing your own lyrics.

Ilan Mordechai Nefesh said...

dude, wheres all that stuff about everything in the sea having a twin and the devine names and the weasels? That was the best part of the whole thing. Put that back in.

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

According to the Arizal, every kosher animal (as defined by Leviticus Chapter 11) gets its lifeline from the first letters of the Tetragrammaton, while the lives of non-Kosher animals are sustained through the latter two letters of HaShem's name. The last verse in Psalms (Psalms 150:6) states, "All souls praise G-d, praise G-d”. According to Kabbalah, this passage means that all soul-bearing creatures praise G-d using His name containing the letters “Yud-Hey.” According to the Arizal that only kosher animals have a connection to that two-letter name, how can every animal praise HaShem with that name? One can answer that every type of animal has a kosher counterpart because the Talmud says (Chullin 127a) every animal that exists on the dry land exists on the sea, and the Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 39a) explains that one is kosher, and the other is not. So for every animal there is a type (whether it is the sea version or land version) which is kosher and has a connection to the first half of the four-letter name. However, the Gemara in Chullin explicitly excluded the weasel, Chuldah from this sea-land rule, and the weasel is decidedly a non-Kosher animal (Leviticus 11:29), which uses the latter half of G-d’s name, so how can the verse in Psalms say every soul praises G-d through the name of “Yud-Hay”? (Assuming, unlike Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749-1821), that animals also have a soul.) The Ben Ish Chai (Chacham Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, 1832-1909) answers (Ben Yehoyada to Chullin 127a) that indeed the weasel does not praise G-d with that name, rather the weasel is the one who recited Psalms 150:6, as he testifies that the rest of the world praises HaShem so. This is why King David ascribed that verse to weasel in Perek Shirah. Perhaps this is the intent of Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (1697-1776) in his cryptic citation of Chullin 127a in his commentary Zimras Ha’Aretz (printed with his famous siddur) to Perek Shira.

MoshePotomac said...

In Perek Shira is there a song for humans, perhaps different ones for men and women? I'd think we rate at least as much as the hen and rooster. My 9 year old daughter asked, after first establishing the one for kittens. It's a good incentive for her to learn Hebrew to get a better understanding of the song of her pet or of the angel accompanying it. Nu, so what shall I tell her is the one for people?

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

There is no specific one for people, but we have many ways of singing our prayers to HaShem including the entire book of Tehillim, and other things which we say, like Kedusha, and Shema, etc...

David said...

Hello Reb Chaim HaQoton,

Thanks for all your postings about Perek Shira.

I was wondering if you have read the entirety of Kenaf Renanim by Chanoch Zundel Luria. For a time, I was attempting to translate pieces of Kenaf Renanim - particularly the introduction - and discovered many remarkable teachings. Unfortunately, my Hebrew is not really up to the task so I required plenty of help from others and additionally for the past 3 year I have been in graduate school so I haven't had any time to really dive back in to studying the text.

My questions for you concern your thoughts about what he says in the introduction. It seems that Kenaf Renanim is trying to communicate that we are less the whole as humans if we are not engaged with the other-than-human world. In some ways Luria sounds like many modern ecopsychologists, but with a Jewish and G-d oriented viewpoint - that the way to the divine is understand the song or vibrational teachings of all creatures. An ecopsychologist would say that the way to understand the world is to absorb oneself in the natural world and come to understand how profoundly embedded and connected we are to everything. I particularly love his teaching from Pirkie Avot that warns us against diverting our eyes and thought from study of Torah when seeing a tree or a field. Luria seems to be saying that this is not a bad thing – to divert one’s eyes and thought - if we are engaged in Perek Shira and can see the connection to G-d in everything. For me this is a different way to be an “observant” Jew and a rather satisfying one in an age when the Earth is in peril because we have largely denied our deep connection to the vast congregation on life on this planet.

What do you think about Chanoch Zundel Luria’s perspective? I have tried to find out more about his life but have only come up with scant information. Is there anything you know about his life and work that you can share with me? Also, are people studying Kenaf Renanim in Israel or elsewhere? Has anyone translated any part of Kenaf Renanim into English?

Thanks for you response.

B’Shalom,

Dave Cohen
Brattleboro, Vermont USA

David said...

Dear Reb Chaim HaQoton,

Thanks for all your postings about Perek Shira.

I was wondering if you have read the entirety of Kenaf Renanim by Chanoch Zundel Luria. For a time, I was attempting to translate pieces of Kenaf Renanim - particularly the introduction - and discovered many remarkable teachings. Unfortunately, my Hebrew is not really up to the task so I required plenty of help from others and additionally for the past 3 year I have been in graduate school so I haven't had any time to really dive back in to studying the text.

My questions for you concern your thoughts about what he says in the introduction. It seems that Kenaf Renanim is trying to communicate that we are less the whole as humans if we are not engaged with the other-than-human world. In some ways Luria sounds like many modern ecopsychologists, but with a Jewish and G-d oriented viewpoint - that the way to the divine is understand the song or vibrational teachings of all creatures. An ecopsychologist would say that the way to understand the world is to absorb oneself in the natural world and come to understand how profoundly embedded and connected we are to everything. I particularly love his teaching from Pirkie Avot that warns us against diverting our eyes and thought from study of Torah when seeing a tree or a field. Luria seems to be saying that this is not a bad thing – to divert one’s eyes and thought - if we are engaged in Perek Shira and can see the connection to G-d in everything. For me this is a different way to be an “observant” Jew and a rather satisfying one in an age when the Earth is in peril because we have largely denied our deep connection to the vast congregation on life on this planet.

What do you think about Chanoch Zundel Luria’s perspective? I have tried to find out more about his life but have only come up with scant information. Is there anything you know about his life and work that you can share with me? Also, are people studying Kenaf Renanim in Israel or elsewhere? Has anyone translated any part of Kenaf Renanim into English?

Thanks for you response.

B’Shalom,

Dave Cohen
Brattleboro, Vermont USA

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

I have not studied Knfar Rennanim in its entirety. Rabbi Chanoch Zundel also authored other works, including Anaf Yosef and Etz Yosef which are commentaries to Ein Yaakov and Medrash Rabbah. I'm sure he has other works as well, but these are his most famous.

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