Oz Torah: Ask the rabbi. SHABBAT ZEMIROT


Q. Why do many people sing “z’mirot” (special table songs) during the Shabbat meals?

A. It is an old custom to sing z’mirot at the Shabbat table.

The z’mirot that are most widely known are full of liveliness and spirit, yet maybe, many centuries ago, they were livelier still, but their full-throated joy was deliberately toned down as a mark of mourning for the lost glories of ancient days.

The Midrash states that the singing of table songs originated because people were so full of Sabbath rejoicing that when they had eaten and drunk, they spontaneously sang praises to God.

The custom received its greatest impetus, however, from the Kabbalistic notion that heavenly guests came visiting on earth on Shabbat, hence the Friday evening welcome of the Sabbath queen and the “Melaveh Malkah” to farewell her as she took her departure on Saturday night.

Joy at the presence of the visitors from the realm above expressed itself in song. The subjects around which z’mirot were written ranged from the happiness of the day (e.g. “Yom zeh leYisrael orah v’simchah”, “This day for Israel is light and rejoicing”), phrases from the bensching (“Tzur mishelo achalnu, barechu emunai”, “The Rock from whose bounty we have eaten – bless Him, faithful companions!”), to religious themes in general (“Yah ribbon alam ve’almaya, an’t hu malka melech malchaya”, “Lord, the Master of space and time, supreme king of kings art Thou!”).

What about the melodies?  There are of course some who simply daven through the z’mirot, without the remotest musical pretensions.  But most people have their traditional family melodies. How these originated, one can usually not be sure; nor do we always know who wrote the words of the z’mirot.  Some melodies, however, that have become almost sanctified by time, began as folk-tunes current in the lands of eastern and central Europe.

Other favourite Jewish songs whose melodies derive from very un-Jewish folk-song origins are “Addir Hu” and “Ma’oz Tzur”.  (Some say that even Hatikvah was based on a motif by Smetana, adapted from a Moldavian folk melody, similar to a German song,  “Fuchs, du hast die Gans gestohlen”, but also reminiscent of a Sephardi tune for the Hallel.)

One of the best known and most moving z’mirot is Shalom Aleichem, which welcomes the ministering angels and bids them enter and leave in peace.  It is based on the Talmudic story that two angels accompany a person home on Sabbath eve. One is a good angel, the other an evil one. If they see the house ready for Shabbat, the lamp burning and the table laid, the good angel says, “May it be so, next week!” and the evil angel answers, “Amen!”

Yaakov Emden, the eighteenth-century rabbinic scholar, objected to the verse that farewells the angels, the “tzet’chem l’shalom” verse.  “Would that the angels stayed with us always!” he said.  But perhaps his wish is utopian;  messianic time has not yet come and the world is not yet ready for the age that will be an unending Sabbath. But that time will come…


Q. Is there a Jewish view on extradition?

A. In “Tradition” (vol. 13, no. 4/vol. 14 no. 1), Lord Jakobovits in 1973 addressed the issue of the clause in Israel’s Law of Return that automatically entitles any Jew to Israeli residence and citizenship.

He quoted Rabbi Yehudah Gershuni’s article in the Tevet, 5732, issue of “Or ha-Mizrach”, explaining that with the exception of idolaters and apostates, every Jew has an inalienable halachic right to live in Eretz Yisra’el.

In the Diaspora the monarch has the right to determine who may or may not live in his land, but in Israel “all the people of Israel are partners” and therefore, says Rabbi Gershuni, the Israeli government may not expel or deny residence to any Jew who wishes to live there.

In relation to extradition for purposes of criminal prosecution, Maimonides (Y’sodei ha-Torah 5:5) rules that a Jew cannot be turned over to a non-Jew for execution unless the person concerned has committed a capital crime.

The Taz (Yoreh De’ah 157:8), however, permits the denunciation of a person like a forger whose activities endanger the whole Jewish community. If such danger does not exist, the transgressor must be tried and punished by a Jewish court. Thus instead of extradition, Israeli courts must assume jurisdiction and bring the criminal to justice.

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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