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Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
“Zemirot” is the term for the table hymns sung during or immediately after Sabbath meals. These medieval songs represent a unique blend of the holy and the secular, the serious and the playful, and allow family and friends to enhance the Sabbath experience.
The most famous of the zemirot is “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace be upon you), which traditionally is sung as the family gathers around the table on Friday night to welcome the “angels of peace.” This hymn, and believed to have been written in the 17th century, was inspired by talmudic legend (Shab. 119b).
Rabbi Yosi ben Yehuda taught: “Two ministering angels–one good, one evil–accompany every Jew from the synagogue to his home on the Sabbath eve. If they find the candles burning, the table set, and the bed covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the evil angel is compelled to respond ‘amen.’ But if everything is disorderly and gloomy, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be God’s will that it also be so on the next Sabbath,’ and the good angel is forced to say ‘amen.'”
After extending our wishes for peace to the ministering angels “of the Most Exalted, the Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He,” in the final three verses we successively pray “May your coming be in peace,” “Bless me with peace,” and “May your departure be in peace.”
Yom Zeh l’Yisrael
Most zemirot were composed by the kabbalists, who considered it proper to chant table hymns in honor of the spiritual guests visiting the Jewish home on Sabbath eve. Among those authors whose zemirot are still sung in Jewish homes was Isaac Luria, the master kabbalist, who composed table hymns for each of the three Sabbath meals.
The most popular of these, Yom Zeh l’Yisrael (This day is for Israel), describes a mixture of spiritual and physical pleasure, a divine commandment coupled with bodily enjoyment that concludes with a vision of the messianic age when life will become one great Sabbath. The second verse refers to the additional soul that is given to each Jew on Friday evening and then taken away when the Sabbath ends (Taan. 27b).
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