Song and melodic festivity are synonymous with the Shabbat atmosphere that envelops our meals and tables on the holy day of rest. A question arises, was it always so? We have no record of what the Shabbat table of our ancestors in First and Second Temple times looked and sounded like. However, beginning with the time of the sealing of the Talmud and the rise of the Geonim in sixth and seventh century Babylonia special compositions, devotions and poems began to appear. These works were meant to be recited, studied and incorporated into the menu, so to speak, of the Shabbat meal.
With the rise of Islamic culture, which placed emphasis on works of poetry and song, the Jews living in Moslim countries also began to produce a vast literature of poetry and liturgy to be incorporated into the regular prayer service as well as Shabbat meals at home. The great poets of the Spanish Golden Age wrote hundreds of poems regarding the sanctity of the Sabbath, the holiness of tradition and the eternal grandeur of Torah. Since these poems were written with specific rhythm and meter, it became quite easy to transform the written poem into a melody and song, which would then be sung at the Shabbat table. This custom apparently had already begun in Babylonia but gained its main momentum in the exile of the Jews on the Iberian
Peninsula. The composition of poems and of translating them into song soon spread into the Ashkenazic Jewish society as well. Many of the same poems of the Sephardic world were incorporated into Ashkenazic use but the melody was no longer oriental in tone, but reflected the milieu of Central and Eastern Europe where the Ashkenazic Jews then lived.
The acceptance of such poetry and melody into Shabbat life thus became universal throughout the Jewish world. With the rise of the study of kabbalah and the spread of spiritual mysticism throughout the Jewish world from the sixteenth century onwards, the singing and or recitation of these poems –z’mirot – at and during the Shabbat meals became even more common and accepted. The z’mirot now took on a more mystic and otherworldly aspect. The early Hasidic masters developed new poems and new melodies for old poems and made their recitation or singing of them a mandatory part of the Shabbat meal and the Shabbat experience. To a great extent, the melodies reflected the music of the surrounding general culture where Jews found themselves living in. But the music also represented the longing for Jewish redemption, for
returning to the Land of Israel, for the messianic era and for the better and more peaceful world, which the day of Shabbat represents.
In our current age, the Shabbat zemirot have again renewed themselves with new and contemporary melodies but it is the beauty of the holy and traditional words that shines through all. It is the zemirot that help sanctify our food and table, that transforms an ordinary Saturday into a holy Shabbat and that lends the flavor of eternity to the seemingly mundane activity of eating a meal. The zemirot represent a song of praise to the Creator Who has given us the gift of the holy Shabbat and blessed the bounty of our traditional meals.