Shabbos Zemiros and Angels
Bringing Angels to Our Shabbat Tables
The Pele Yoetz tells that Rav Yisrael Nijara, the famous paytan (poet) in Tzefat who is best known as the composer of י-ה רבון עלמא, once sat at his Shabbat table singing zemirot with his beautiful voice, and angels descended from the heavens to hear his magnificent songs of praise. It was a hot day, and so rolled up his sleeves, which was deemed disrespectful for a person of his stature. As a result, the angels all left. The Arizal, who was outside at the time, saw large crowds of angels leaving Rav Yisrael's home, and he rushed to the home to inform Rav Yisrael that the angels left because of the way he was dressed. Rav Yisrael quickly dressed himself properly and resumed his singing, whereupon all the angels returned.
When we sing zemirot at the Shabbat table, it is a very special time, when we are very close to Hashem to the point where the angels come to be with us and hear our singing.
It is well-known that angels come and join us around the seder table on Pesach. The Zohar teaches that when we sit at the seder and read the Haggadah, the angels descend to hear us. This is one of the reasons given for why the paragraph of הא לחמא עניא is written in Aramaic. Tradition teaches that angels do not understand Aramaic, and so we use this language to ensure that the angels will not understand and thus won't become jealous. Hacham Bentzion Abba Shaul zt"l once began crying as he spoke about this concept, noting how tragic it is that people speak nonsense and discuss vanity at the seder table, when we have the opportunity to be in the company of G-d's angels.
The truth is, however, that this is an opportunity we are given each and every Shabbat. In fact, י-ה רבון עלמא is written in Aramaic - perhaps for the same reason why הא לחמא עניא is written in Aramaic, so that the angels who are with us will not understand.
What is the significance of singing on Shabbat? Why is singing zemirot so impactful that it even causes the angels to descend and join us at out Shabbat tables?
The Torah says (Shemot 14:31-15:1) that after the miracle of קריעת ים סוף (the splitting of the sea), ויאמינו בה'...אז ישיר ישראל - the people rose to great heights of emunah - faith in Hashem - and this brought them to sing His praises. When we reinforce our emunah, we are moved and inspired to sing to Hashem. It has been suggested that this is the concept underlying the importance of zemirot on Shabbat. Shabbat is the day when we reinforce our emunah, when we heighten our awareness of Hashem's existence and that He governs the world. And thus on Shabbat we sing to express our renewed love for Him and our appreciation for all He does.
There is, however, a deeper explanation, as well.
The number seven features prominently not only in Jewish tradition, but also in other cultures, and even in nature. Nearly all cultures in the world arrange time according to seven-day weeks, an observation made by the Sefer Ha'Kuzari to prove the truth of the Torah. Likewise, just as G-d created the universe in seven days, the rainbow has seven colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet). So much of nature revolves around sets of seven.
This is true about music, as well. Most cultures use the octave system, which is built around seven basic notes (Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Si), sometimes represented by the first seven letters of the alphabet (A, B, C, D, E, F, G). This is how music is understood not only here in America, but also in Italy, Spain, France, Romania, most Latin American countries, Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia, and all Arabic and Persian-speaking countries. These seven notes form the backbone of every piece of music ever composed.
Rav Moshe Wolfson noted that there are seven "shepherds" - seven great tzadikim whom we invite into our sukkah over the course of the seven days of Sukkot: Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. The seventh, David, was the נעים זמירות ישראל - "singer of the sweet songs of Israel," the composer of Tehillim who would sing beautiful praises to G-d while playing his harp. Each "shepherd," Rav Wolfson explained, perfected each of the seven notes. David, then, completed the process by perfecting the seventh and final note, and so he was able to create beautiful and stirring music. As the seven days of the week correspond to these seven tzadikim, the final day - Shabbat - corresponds to David. And so Shabbat is a day of song. It is the day when music is perfected and thus used for the sake of praising and bringing glory to Hashem.
Likewise, the seven days of the week correspond to the seven openings in the human head - two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, and a mouth. Our Sages teach that the six days of the workweek are arranged in three pairs, but Shabbat stands on its own. As such, it corresponds to the mouth, the only opening of the head without a "partner." Shabbat is represented by the mouth because it is the day designated especially for singing Hashem's praises.
Hacham David Laniado, in his book Li'kdoshim Asher Ba'aretz, tells that Rav Efrayim Laniado was once walking with his father, Hacham Shlomo Laniado, the Chief Rabbi of Aleppo some 200 years ago, during a funeral procession. Normally, when a funeral procession passed by, Hacham Shlomo walked four amot in the procession, as halachah requires. In this particular instance, however, the Hacham walked all the way to cemetery, in the pouring rain, and did not leave until the burial was completed.
Rav Raphael asked his father why he had shown such honor for this particular individual, who was a simple water-carrier and was not known for any special piety or scholarship. Hacham Shlomo explained that as he began walking in the procession, he saw thousands of angels walking next to the coffin beautifully singing Tehillim. The face of one angel, he said, resembled the face of David Ha'melech. Upon seeing the great honor given to this man by the angels, the Hacham felt that he could not just turn around and leave. He remained until after the funeral.
Rav Raphael was astounded that a simple water-carrier would receive such special honor. That night, before he went to sleep, he prayed that the answer should be shown to him in a dream. Sure enough, the water-carrier came to him that night in a dream and explained that although he was a simple, quiet and unlearned man, when he was young he committed the entire first sefer of Tehillim to memory. Each day throughout his life, when he finished his work, he would find a quiet corner in the synagogue and recite that first book of Tehillim. And for this he was given the honor of being escorted by angels along his journey to the next world.
When we sing zemirot, we invoke the merits of the authors of these hymns. And when we recite Tehillim - which is appropriate on Shabbat - we invoke the great merit of David Ha'melech. But additionally, we bring down the angels, who eagerly come to hear our beautiful praises.
This is especially relevant on Shabbat Ha'gadol, the Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach. Our Rabbis teach us that this is a particularly significant Shabbat, as it impacts upon all the Shabbatot of the year. Let us, then, make a special effort to sing zemirot with concentration and emotion this Shabbat, and we will then be worthy of being in the company of angels and of drawing ever closer to Hashem Himself.