What's in a Word?

For the week ending 4 April 2020 / 10 Nisan 5780

PESACH: Sing and Song

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

Dedicated in honor of my favorite song: Shira Yael Klein

The American historian Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) wrote, “Our contemporaries have split the atom, reached the moon, and brought color TV to the common man. The ancients… were not less talented than today’s population, but they often expressed their intelligence in different ways. They manipulated language so deftly that it often takes the modern scholars a long time to grasp the presence, let alone all the subtleties, of ancient riddles.” One poignant example of such ancient nuances in language is the existence of two Hebrew terms for “song”: shir/shirah and zemer/zimrah. In this essay we will explore the differences between this pair of synonyms, and, in doing so we too will become attuned to the intricacies of the Hebrew language.

The simplest way of differentiating between shirah and zimrah is that shirah denotes verbal song, while zimrah refers to instrumental music. This understanding is proffered by a bevy of authorities, including Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 105:2), Radak (to I Chron. 16:9), Sforno (to Ps. 105:2), the Vilna Gaon (cited in his son’s Be’er Avraham to Ps. 27:6), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 33:2), and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer. In fact, the Yiddish word klezmer (roughly, “Jewish Music”) is actually a portmanteau of klei (“instruments”) and zemer (“music”).

The Malbim explains that zimrah (plural: zmirot) is somehow a higher, more intense form of song than shirah. He writes that this is why whenever the two terms appear in tandem, shirah is always first and zemer is always second.

In what is possibly a separate explanation, the Malbim writes that shirah is a more general term which can refer to “song” both in a religious sense and in a secular sense, while zimrah refers specifically to a religious song which speaks of G-d’s praises. Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) writes that shirah is simply an expression of one’s happiness without necessarily tying it back to the source of the happiness (i.e. G-d), while zimrah is always a means of acknowledging G-d’s role in bringing happiness and thanking Him for it.

Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that shir refers to the lyrics of poetic verse sans the tune, while zimrah refers to the tune or melody sung in a song or played by a music instrument.

Chop Them Down

The root ZAYIN-MEM-REISH, from which zemer and zimrah are derived, appears in the verb form as zomer (“cutting down”) and is actually the name of one of the 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat. What does this meaning have to do with “singing”?

Judaism’s concept of G-d is comprised of two almost paradoxically-opposed descriptions: On the one hand, He is transcendent and thus totally beyond our reach and comprehension; but on the other hand, He is immanent and thus ever-present for us to connect to. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explains that the difference between shirah and zimrah reflects the tension between these two ways of approaching G-d. Both terms are expressions of “praise,” but shirah denotes praising G-d from a position of rapture and attachment to Him, while zimrah denotes praising G-d as an appreciation of G-d’s transcendence and how far away He is from man.

In explaining the latter assertion, Rabbi Hutner notes that zimrah not only means “song” but is also a verb for “cutting.” When a person recognizes G-d’s awesome transcendence and how He is so unapproachable, a person is essentially “cutting off” his own existence due to the recognition that his own existence pales in comparison to G-d’s infinite greatness.

Rabbi Yaccov Haber relates that he heard from a certain Hassidic Rebbe in the name of the Chasam Sofer that the word shirah is related to the word shirayim (“leftovers”), because “song” is the leftovers of the soul, meaning that it remains one of the only ways the soul can express itself in a world dominated by materialism. Interestingly, in many of the songs/poems recorded in the Bible, the speaker refers to himself in third person (for example, Gen. 49:2, Num. 24:3, Jud. 5:12), instead of in the expected first person. Rabbi Immanuel Frances (1618-1703) explains that this is because true song is like an out-of-body experience, such that the one singing sees himself as a separate entity.

Rabbi Frances further explains that the word shir denotes the singer’s ability to mesmerize his listeners and captivate their attention as if he rules over them. In this sense, he explains that shir is connected to other words which connote “strength,” like sharir (“strongly-established”), shur (“wall”), and sherarah (“authority”).

By contrast, Rabbi Frances explains that the word zemer highlights other aspects of song/poetry: When Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy food during a famine, he sent with them the zimrah of the Land of Canaan (Gen. 43:11), which is taken to mean the best. Rashi connects the word zimrat with zemer by explaining that it refers to the choicest produce over which people would “sing.”

Alternatively, Rabbi Frances explains that the act of pruning a vineyard from unnecessary shoots is called zomer (Lev. 25:3), and this relates to the art of creating music — the artist must expunge any unnecessary elements from his song in order for it to be wholly good.

Rabbeinu Efrayaim ben Shimshon (to Gen. 43:11) explains that the zimrat ha’aretz that Yaakov’s sons brought to Egypt consisted of fine wine, which is called zimrat because drinking wine makes one happy (Ps. 104:15), and when people are happy they “sing” (zemer). Interestingly, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) writes that the zimrah of the Holy Land refers to a special niggun (“melody”) of Eretz Yisrael which Yaakov sent the Egyptian leader.

Rabbi Eliemelech of Lizhensk in Noam Elimelech (to Gen. 47:28, Ex. 19:1) explains that zimrah refers to “cutting” away those outer distractions which impede a person’s ability to properly serve G-d. Both he and the Chasam Sofer similarly explain that Pesukei d’Zimra (literally, “Verses of Hymns” recited daily in the beginning of the morning prayers) are meant to “cut down” the klipot (“husks” or “peels”) in preparation for our complete rapture with G-d.

The Circle of Song

The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) explains that the word shirah denotes something whose beginning is attached to its end. For example, the Bible uses the word sher to refer to a type of bracelet (Isa. 3:19), and the Mishnah (Shabbat 5:1) mentions a collar worn by animals around their neck called a sher. Similarly, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 25a) discusses if one found coins arranged like a sher (ring or bracelet), whether that formation is assumed to have been made deliberately or not. How does this connect to the word shirah as a “song”?

The Maharal explains that the idea behind shirah is that when one reaches the completion of a certain phase or task, then one offers a “song” of thanks to G-d for allowing it to happen. Song is best associated with happiness, because happiness comes through completion and fulfilment — such that when one reaches a stage of happiness, it is more appropriate for him to offer song. As Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains, when one reaches a stage of completion, he can look back and recognize how G-d had guided the situation the entire time and brought it to its conclusion. Only with such hindsight — where the beginning can be attached to the end — is song appropriate. Not beforehand.

Rabbi Shapiro further notes that the entire Torah is called a shirah (Deut. 31:19), because the song of Haazinu is a microcosm of the entire Torah and, by extension, a microcosm of the entire history of the world. In this way, the history of the world is a circle because at the end, Man will return to his former place of glory, as if Adam’s sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge never happened.

Interestingly, the word yashar seems to actually mean the opposite of shirah, because yashar denotes a line that continuously goes straight, while shirah represents a circle, a “curved line,” whose end leads into its beginning. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shapiro notes that in rabbinic literature there is clearly a connection between the two: When the Bible tells the story of the cows that returned the Ark captured by the Philistines, it says that the cows walked straight to Bet Shemesh (I Sam. 6:12) — using the word vayisharnah, a cognate of yashar. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 24b) exegetically explains that vayisharnah means that the cows sang while transporting the Ark.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) actually connects the word shir to the word yashar (“straight”), explaining that a song follows a straight path in focusing on a specific theme without deviating off-topic. In this way, the beginning of the song and the end of the song are linked, because they are just variations on the same theme. By contrast, he explains, the term zimrah refers to the best segment from an entire song. He understands that zomer, in terms of “cutting” or “pruning,” is a way of discarding the riffraff and leaving just the best. In that sense, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that zimrah refers to the choicest part of a song, as if the rest of the song was “cut out.”

Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that shirah is related to the word shur (“wall”), because just as a wall is comprised of multiple bricks carefully arranged together, so is a song or poem composed of multiple lines carefully arranged. Just as if one brick is removed, the entire edifice may fall, so is it true that if one line or verse of a song is misplaced, the entire structure loses its impact. He explains that this is also why a sher refers to a circular article of jewelry. Something round must also be fully intact in order complete the circle — otherwise it is not whole. On the other hand, the word zimrah does not imply the entire edifice, but one small part of it, and so zimrah can refer to one segment of an entire song as independent or cut off from the rest of the song.

Mizmor Shir vs. Shir Mizmor

With all of this information, we can now begin to understand why sometimes songs in Psalms begin with the words shir mizmor and sometimes they begin with mizmor shir. Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 48:1) writes that there is no difference between mizmor shir and shir mizmor. However, I have found two credible authorities who beg to differ.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim explains that when used side-by-side the terms mizmor and shir assume specific meanings: shir denotes the words/lyrics of a song, while mizmor denotes the tune/melody of the song. Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that within a specific song, sometimes the words begin before the tune, and sometimes the tune is played before the words start. In the former case the expression used for that song is shir mizmor, because the shir element precedes the mizmor element, while in the second case the converse is true.

Similarly, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001) in Shabbat Malketa explains that shir refers to the story told by a song, while mizmor refers to the tune within which that story is told. When one uses words to form a narrative that expresses his happiness and thanksgiving, this is called shir. But when one’s elation is so emotionally intense that it cannot be logically expressed in words and can only be expressed by a wordless melody, this is called mizmor. Accordingly, the recital of some chapters of Psalms begins with worded phrase (shir), and then, as the experience becomes more intense, can only be continued with a wordless melody (mizmor). Those chapters are introduced with the phrase shir mizmor. On the flip side, other chapters of Psalms begin with the intense experience of a mizmor, and only once that intensity subsides can the word of the shir begin. Such chapters open with the words mizmor shir.

  • For questions, comments, or to propose ideas for a future article, please contact the author at rcklein@ohr.edu

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