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Songs of Shabbat Rest
By Jonathan L. Friedmann
David's harp brought relief to the anguished King Saul (1 Sam. 16:23). The Talmud declares that music inspires tranquility (Ber. 57b). Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that distress could be alleviated through song. And in a medical treatise written for the Sultan Al Malik Al Afdal, Moses Maimonides recommended that the royal singer chant songs accompanied by lyre for one hour, then gradually lower his voice and soften his melody until the Sultan entered a deep sleep (The Causes of Symptoms).
In modern times, music's therapeutic potential is widely known. Music is used to ease anxiety in surgical patients, aid in physical rehabilitation, treat the elderly, put cancer patients more at ease, and so on. The ability of musical tones to promote wellness, relaxation and healing gave rise to the field of music therapy. And neuroscientists have shown that songs with repeated rhythms and motifs have a predictability that can be soothing to listeners.
All of this points to one reason why Shabbat is filled with song. Shabbat is a day of rest. While the workweek is characterized by rush and turmoil, Shabbat is a time of serenity and relaxation.
Fittingly, the topic of rest is mentioned in several Shabbat songs, including a number of zemirotsongs traditionally sung around the table during Shabbat meals. Most zemirot were written and came into popular usage between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. As scholar Israel Abrahams noted, during the Middle Ages, Jewish families "would remain for hours around the table singing these curious but beautiful hymns." Among the zemirot that speak of tranquility are "Menuchah V'simcha," meaning "rest and joy," and Isaac Luria's famous text, "Yom Ze L'Yisrael," which proclaims: "You bade us, standing assembled at Sinai, that all the year through we should keep Your behest: To set out a table full-laden to honor the Shabbat of Rest."
Such texts encourage the experience of a restful Shabbat, making clear that Shabbat is a day on which no work is to be done. But it can be argued that the music accompanying these words has greater power to inspire a sense of comfort and wellbeing than the words themselves. The melodies are simple, metrical, repetitious, and sung in unison. Their repeated sounds penetrate the psyche, calm the body, and delight the soul. Thus, beyond merely stating the theme of Shabbat rest, these songs help stimulate an emotional state of repose.
Author Bio: Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the editor of two books, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008) and The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009).
from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine