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Why We Sing on Shabbat
By Jonathan L. Friedmann
The most basic definition of the word "sacred" is that which is set apart from the ordinary. Religious communities throughout the world demarcate sacred space in otherwise unremarkable landscapes, revere sacred scriptures over worldly texts, and engage in sacred rituals removed from the activities of everyday life. And in almost every tradition, music helps draw attention to these holy things: houses of worship are filled with song, texts are chanted with melody, and ritual is accompanied by singing.
This close association of music and the sacred is not accidental. Singing marks a break from the normal mode of communication. Words set to music rise above the drone of everyday speech. Songs separate words of prayer from ordinary language. In short, music can inspire a sense of sacred time and place.
It is thus not surprising that Shabbat is a day brimming with song. Shabbat is, after all, set apart by God from the rest of the week. As it is written: "On the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He abstained on the seventh day from all the work which he had done. God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it He had abstained from all His work which God created to make" (Gen. 2:2-3).
Many prominent figures in Jewish history have noted the suitability of singing on Shabbat. The great Spanish poet Judah Halevi (c. 1080-1141) wrote, "I will sing, O Sabbath, songs of love unto thee. For it is Fitting, O day that art precious to me." Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1565-1630) suggested that the welcoming and departing of Shabbat be escorted by song. And Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) taught that singing on Shabbat "will give you a new life and send joy into your soul. Then you will be able to bind yourself to God."
Over the centuries, a vast library of Shabbat music has been amassed, from folk tunes and table songs (zemirot), to choral works and cantorial gems. In 1929, musicologist Abraham Z. Idelsohn noted that there were over 2,000 melodies for Lecha Dodi ("Come My Beloved") alone, and hundreds more have been composed since then. Cantors and rabbis often introduce different musical settings into Shabbat services, and there is a seemingly endless supply of new Shabbat recordings and sheet music. So, it can be said, Shabbat is not only a day of rest, peace, and joy, but also a day of song. Listen to the author as he sings the classic Lecho Dodi as composed by Max Helfman.
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 May 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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