Sunday, April 08, 2007

Holy Songs

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 vocalized into 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 (whether overtly or not[1]), but the actual circumstances behind the cause for the thanksgiving can also be mentioned within the song. According to Nusach Sefard[2] there are eleven expressions of song—admitting/acknowledging thanks, praising, lauding, glorifying, extolling, beautifying, blessing, eternalizing His victory, exulting, and exalting. Conversely, song is included in the fifteen descriptions of His praise: Song, laud, praise, music (hymns), strength, rulership, triumph, greatness, powerfulness, and 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 Shimshon Dovid Pincus (1944-2001) explains[4] that a zemer, a hymn, is the highest form of song because the singer is so emotionally charged, that the words cannot be properly enunciated without being sung in the form of a melody.

Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef Luria of Bialystock (d. 1867) writes[5] 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. The Midrash relates[6] that when King David finished writing the Book of 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“[7]. The Mabit, Rabbi Moshe ben Yosef di Trani the Elder (1505-1585) tells[8] 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 deep Kabbalistic explanations in understanding why each verse was attributed to whomever or whatever creation it was attributed (e.g. see footnote[9]). Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar of Morocco, (1696-1743) writes[10] 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”[11].

Even the angels in heaven busy themselves by singing of G-d’s praises. Elijah the Prophet tells[12] that the ministering angels do not say their songs of praise above in heaven until the Jews below on earth begin saying their songs. Indeed, two later prophets, Isaiah and Ezekiel, testified to the fact that in heaven the angels spend their time praising the sovereignty of G-d’s rule[13]. When the 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, as 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[14] in order to return to heaven so that he may continue saying his praises of G-d[15]. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1810) writes[16] 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 specific 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 the entire Perek Shirah, especially daily, is great[17]. While fighting with Jacob, the ministering angel Samael asked to be released "for the morning has arrived"[18]. The Talmud explains[19] that every angel is given an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to appear in front of the King of Kings and sing praises to Him, and this angel had eagerly waited eternity for his chance to do so, but at his given time he was pre-occupied with fighting Israel. Even for angels, the privilege of singing HaShem's praises is not always granted, but is a much sought after task; this again proves the power of song.

Even though HaShem did not allow the angels to sing of His praises during the splitting of the Red Sea because the Egyptians were drowning; He did listen to the song sung by Moses and the Israelites[20]. The question arises as to why He rejected the praise of the angels, but accepted the song of the Israelites. Rabbi Aharon Kotler (1891-1962) explains[21] that there are two types of song. The first type of song is a religious experience in which one recognizes the goodwill of HaShem and through such song, one brings one's self closer to belief and recognition G-d by singing His praises. Such song also expels foreign ideas from within one's heart and soul. The second type of song merely sings of His praises and power. The Jews at the Red Sea were singing the first type of song, which is so powerful that HaShem disregarded the fact that his own creations—the Egyptians—were dying the sea. However, the angels were plainly singing His praises for not other purpose than to merely praise Him; HaShem refused to accept such a level of song because it was indeed not a completely joyous hour because his creations were drowning in the sea.

The metaphysical effects of song are quite clear in the Midrash. The Midrash says[22] that not everyone who wants to sing to G-d can sing, rather, one for whom a miracle occurs and sings a song in gratitude of the miracle should know that all his sins are forgiven and he is like a new creation. Similarly, the Midrash says that after the Jews sang following the splitting of the Red Sea, after Deborah sang following the defeat of Sisra[23], and after David sang following the downfall of all his enemies, they were all absolved of their sins[24]. This power of song is specifically in the first type of song, which has a metaphysical effect on its singer that can cause all his sins to be forgiven. Songs induce a special inner connection which one has with G-d. Rabbi Aharon Kotler explains[25] that this is why the Torah is called a "song"[26], because just as through song one recognizes the awesome power of HaShem and achieves a special spiritual connection which is impossible to attain through almost any other medium, so too one can build such a bond with Him through the study of Torah.

The power of song is so great that Rashi says[27] that after Deborah’s song, the entire Jewish Nation was forgiven from all of their sins. The songs of the animals were so powerful they had the power to destroy the entire Assyrian Army of Sennecharib overnight on the first night of Passover, thereby saving Jerusalem from its besiegement[28]. 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[29] that had King Hezekiah sang thanks because of the destruction the Assyrian Army, he would have been anointed as the Messiah and the redemption would have occurred immediately. However, since he did not, the Messiah did not yet arrive and they Jews have been subsequently exiled for over a millennium. Rashi says[30] that the sun and moon only continued to exist after they were at a standstill and ceased their singing because Joshua carried out his singing on their behalf. Had Joshua not have continued the singing, the sun, and the moon would have been destroyed. Rabbi Avrohom Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) explained that the sin of Moses[31] 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. It is imperative upon all Jews to follow suit of the Jews[32] who recognized their divine miracle, realized the need for singing His praise, and actually went out and sang to Him.

When the Torah refers to "atonement"[33] for the Israelites, the Talmud understands[34] that this "atonement" refers to the Levitical singing, which accompanied the sacrifices. On Rosh Chodesh Nissan, 2448, Aaron and his sons became the official priests of the Tabernacle. Upon the offering of the first sacrifice, a fire descended from heaven. When all the Israelites saw this fire, they sang a happy song[35]. The Midrash explains[36] that only once they saw the Heavenly fire descend and consume the sacrifices did they open their mouths to sing. Rabbi Aharon Kotler sees from here that for one to be on the spiritual level needed in order to awaken emotions powerful enough to stimulate song, one must be affected by a visual stimulus. Indeed the Torah says, immediately before detailing the song, which the Israelites sang at the Red Sea, "Israel saw the great hand which G-d used in Egypt and the nation were in awe of HaShem, and they believed in G-d and in Moses, His servant.[37]" This sight of the power of HaShem is a prelude to the song of Oz Yashir, which the Israelites sang as recognition of HaShem's miraculous salvation of the Jews from Egyptian forces. Rabbi Yaakov Reischer (1670-1733) explains[38] that since the Jews resolved to recognize the miracles of G-d, they merited having the privilege of singing His praises after they saw His Heavenly hand come and save them by means of supernatural phenomenon such as splitting the sea. Indeed this mystical vision was so powerful that the Midrash says[39] that a maidservant at the Splitting of the Red Sea saw more than Ezekiel, the seer of the vision of the chariots, and all the other prophets.

Rashi[40] explains that the manifestation of HaShem's presence was so apparent, that the Jews at the Red Sea could literally point their fingers and exclaim, "This is my G-d![41]" The Talmud says[42] those Jew who, as children, were saved by open miracles from HaShem in Egypt (during the infanticide decrees), later were the first to recognize His presence at the Sea. Nonetheless, all the Jews showed their appreciation to G-d for Him saving them by joining in the song. The Talmud says[43] that even fetuses inside their mothers sang His praises at the Red Sea. Since she watched her little brother for twenty minutes[44], Miriam was rewarded that the entire Jewish nation waited seven days for her to be healed before they continued their travels. This shows that HaShem rewards one five hundred times the amount of his good deed. Rabbi Aharon Kotler reasons that if one who says to an idol, "You are my god" is punished with execution by stoning[45], then surely one who said about HaShem "This is my G-d" should be exceedingly rewarded over five times the amount of his good deed.

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892) says[46] that while there were supernatural phenomena involved in the splitting of the sea to save the Jews, there was no such miracle used to drown the Egyptians. Rather, HaShem allowed to powers of nature to kill the Egyptians in the Sea, while He used His powers beyond nature to save the Jews. Nonetheless, one of the factors in the Jews' outpour of gratitude to their Creator was indeed the fact that He killed the Egyptians while sparing them. The Midrash explains[47] that from the creation of the world until the time that the Jews stood by the sea (2448 years), no one sang praise to HaShem except for the Israelites. The Midrash elaborates, He created Adam, and Adam did not sing; He saved Abraham from a fiery furnace and from powerful kings, and Abraham did not sing; He saved Issac, and Issac did not sing; He saved Jacob from Samael, Esau, and the inhabitants of Schem (Nablus), and Jacob did not sing. However, once Israel came to the sea and He tore it apart for them, they immediately began to sing His praises. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv explains[48] that since the main reason for thanks at the sea was that HaShem wrought revenge upon the wicked Egyptians, the Israelites were the first people in history to sing His praises because before them a need for such revenge never arose. He explains that this also explains the rationale behind the Jews' song at the well[49] and after Deborah's victory.

The word "Song" in Hebrew is unique because it is a noun that appears in a male form and a female form. The male tense for the word "song" is Shir, while the corresponding term in the female tense is Shirah. Tosafos quotes a Midrash that says[50] that the female form, Shirah, is used in reference to all songs, except for the songs which will be sung after the heralding of the Messiah, which are referred to as Shir. Tosafos explain that since women bear the pain of child-birthing, then Shirah, the female tense of "song" refers to all songs afterwhich there will remain a pain. This means all songs which only reflect a temporary lax in the extreme suffering of the Jews in exile are referred to in the female tense because the affliction is due to return, so the happiness is fleeting. However, songs of the Messianic Era reveal a complete and eternal bliss and thus can be referred to as Shir, which does not connote any pain associated with the happiness. This discussion of the nature of song is within the context of the Mishnah[51] which says that one is obligated to praise HaShem who performed many miracles in redeeming His nation from servitude in Egypt and who shall take us out from slavery to freedom, from sadness to gladness, from mourning to celebrating, and from servitude to redemption. 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] This is based on Lurianic Kabbalah from the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchok Luria (1534–1572). 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. Nusach Ashkenaz omits “eternalizing His victory” from the list. Rabbi Yehudah Low, The Maharal of Prague (1525-1609) writes (Gevuras HaShem, Chapter 61) that the Ashkenazic tradition is very much more accurate.
[3] These fifteen expressions are mentioned daily in the Yishtabach prayer.
[4] Shabbos Malkasa
[5] Kenaf Rananim, printed in 1842
[6] Yalkut Shimoni, end of Psalms, §150
[7] Kings 1 5:12
[8] Beis Elokim
[9] 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 the weasel in Perek Shirah. Perhaps this is the intent of Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) in his cryptic citation of Chullin 127a in his commentary Zimras Ha’Aretz (printed with his famous siddur) to Perek Shira.
[10] Ohr HaChaim to Genesis 3:1
[11] Proverbs 16:4
[12] Tana Devei Eliyahu HaNavi, Seder Eliyahu Zuta, §25
[13] See Isaiah 6:3, Ezekiel 3:12
[14] Genesis 32:27
[15] Chullin 93b
[16] Kedushas Levi, 2:2
[17] 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.
[18] Genesis 32:26
[19] Chullin 91b
[20] See Megillah 10a and Exodus 15:1-21
[21] Mishnas Rabbi Aharon, Volume 3, Pesach §1
[22] Yalkut Shimoni, Torah, §254
[23] Judges, Chapter 5
[24] Samuel 2, Chapter 22
[25] Mishnas Rabbi Aharon, Volume 3, Pesach §1-2
[26] Deuteronomy 31:19 commands one to write "this song" and Nedarim 38a understands that "this song" refers to the entire Pentateuch.
[27] To Judges 6:1
[28] Sanhedrin 95b
[29] Sanhedrin 94a
[30] Avodah Zarah 25a and Joshua 10:13
[31] Numbers 20:8
[32] As explained by Rashi to Exodus 15:1
[33] Numbers 8:19
[34] Jerusalem Pesachim 4:1
[35] Leviticus 9:24
[36] Yalkut Shimoni, Torah §523
[37] Exodus 14:31
[38] Iyun Yaakov and elaborated upon in the name of his responsa work as cited in Eitz Yosef.
[39] Yalkut Shimoni, Torah §244
[40] To Exodus 15:2
[41] Exodus 15:2
[42] Sotah 11b
[43] Sotah 31b
[44] See Tosafos to Sotah 11a and the Maharsha there
[45] Sanhedrin 60b
[46] Beis HaLevi to Parshas BeShalach
[47] Exodus Rabbah, §23:4
[48] Divrei Aggadah to Parshas BeShalach
[49] Numbers 21:17-20, see Rashi there who explains (using Brachos 54a-b) that the Jews saw that HaShem avenged the Amorites.
[50] To Pesachim 116b
[51] Pesachim 116b

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