Songs for the Sabbath

One of the interesting things about Israeli “popular” music is the way in which musicians – singers and composers – have been drawn to Hebrew literature in their search for lyrics. I doubt that you’ll see a song set to words by Shakespeare or Milton or Tennyson or even W.H. Auden starring in “Top of the Pops”. About the only exception I can think of is the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical “CATS”, based on T.S. Eliot’s collection of poems : “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”.

In Israel, however, the picture is different. Many songs based on poems or the Scriptures have made their way into the popular music charts and many librettists of popular music have been influenced,  in their own creations,  by the words of the great Hebrew poets – not to mention the Bible itself. So widespread has been the influence of “classical” Hebrew literature that many of the songs are now believed to be “folk-songs” and many people don’t even know who wrote the words.

Since a multitude of beautiful and poetic songs have been written in honour of the Sabbath, and since “Queen Shabbat” will be gracing us with her presence in a few short hours,  here is a selection of songs written in her honour. Those of you who are Jewish, who speak Hebrew or who have spent some time in Israel may recognise some of them. For those of you who don’t belong to any of the above categories – enjoy this short introduction to the wonderful world of Israeli music.

We’ll start with a poem by Israel’s “national poet”, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873 – 1934): “Shabbat the Queen” or, as it is better known: “The Sun has gone from the treetops” (Hachama merosh ha’ilanot nistalka – החמה מראש האילנות נסתלקה) – set to music by Pinchas Minkovsky:

The refrain begs the Sabbath Queen: “Come, come, Queen Sabbath. Come in peace, angels of peace”, with a slight change in the refrain of each verse. Verse 2 ends with the words: “Come in peace, angels of peace”, verse 3 finishes with the invocation: “Bless us with peace, angels of peace”, while the final refrain – and the song – conclude with: “Go in peace, angels of peace.” In writing the poem, Bialik was clearly influenced by the words of another song, one of  the traditional piyutim  sung at the start of the Sabbath evening meal: “Peace to you, O ministering angels…”    (Shalom aleichem, malachei hasharet –   שלום עליכם, מלאכי השרת).
This earlier song, written by an unknown 17th century paytan or poet, and set to music by various composers, has five repeating stanzas, which differ only in their opening lines: “Peace to you, ministering angels”, “Come in peace, ministering angels,” etc. The last stanza begins with the words: “Go in peace, ministering angels” and Bialik is clearly alluding to this piyut in his own poem.

Jumping to the 1970s and the immensely successful Israeli film “The Troupe” (Halehaka – הלהקה), the song “Serenity” (“Shalva” – שלווה) with words by Avi Koren and music by Yair Rosenblum, depicts a group of bored soldiers whiling away the Sabbath at their army base.

 

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The Sabbath is traditionally referred to in Jewish literary and religious sources, as a Queen or a Bride. In this beautiful Shabbat poem by the Hebrew poet Avraham Shlonsky (1900 – 1973), set to music by the prolific Yair Rosenblum, and performed by Motti Fleischer, the poet prays: “May G-d Almighty wrap my soul in the tallit (prayer shawl), Sing out loud: Come, O Bride. My lovely wife, light the candles, And prepare the Sabbath loaves for Kiddush“.

 

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One of the loveliest Shabbat songs I know featured in the 1971 Yehoram Gaon album “I am a Jerusalemite” – and in the film of the same name.

 

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With words by Haim Hefer and music by Dubi Zeltzer, the song describes the peaceful calm that descends on the city as the shadows lengthen and the sun sinks to rest, at the approach of the Sabbath: “The afternoon shadows already grow long, Grant us the Sabbath, grant peace to the City of Jerusalem…The towers all prostrate themselves… A great light is kindled in people’s eyes, Grant us the Sabbath, grant peace to the City of Jerusalem.”

Last, but by no means least, and on a slightly more upbeat note, a song written for the 1975 Mizrachi (Oriental or North African Jewish) Song Festival by Oded Levi and set to music by Avner Zadok.  Sung by the incomparable Ofra Haza, the song took second or third prize in the competition (if my memory serves me correctly), but is better remembered than the First Prize winner.

 

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“How pleasant thou art, Queen Sabbath. From the heavens on high, descend in splendour. And G-d will spread his blessing, Over the Chosen People.”

Shabbat Shalom.                         שבת שלום

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About Shimona from the Palace

Born in London, the UK, I came on Aliyah in my teens and now live in Jerusalem, where I practice law. I am a firm believer in the words of Albert Schweitzer: "There are two means of refuge from the sorrows of this world - Music and Cats." To that, you can add Literature. To curl up on the sofa with a good book, a cat at one's feet and another one on one's lap, with a classical symphony or concerto in the background - what more can a person ask for?
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15 Responses to Songs for the Sabbath

  1. David Essex turned John Betjeman’s poem Myfanwy into a song.

  2. Katie Isabella says:

    As always, I learned something that is a treasure to know.

  3. CATachresis says:

    These certainly brought some fond memories, especially of concerts I saw at The Sultan’s Pool!! Thanks 🙂

    • This summer, I believe they are planning on holding opera performances at the Sultan’s Pool – La Boheme, if I’m not mistaken. But I don’t think I’ll go, because the acoustics there are truly awful for opera. It’s fine for pop and rock music though – I remember going to a concert there with Julio Iglesias, way back when ;-).
      What concerts did you see/hear there?

      • CATachresis says:

        I can’t imagine La Boheme there lol. If I remember rightly there was a big concert in the summer 1991 that was attended by the great and the good, including Mayor Teddy Kollek! So it could have been celebration of the end of the Gulf war!! there was plenty music, singing and general merriment! Wish I could remember more detail 😦 Getting old! lol

      • I’m sure the Gulf War then ended round about Purim, not in the summer. But I might be wrong. My memory isn’t what it once was either 😉 .

      • CATachresis says:

        Yes it ended actually on Purim. It was quite symbolic 🙂

  4. I loved “Halehaka” (which I translate as “The Entertainment Troupe”) when I first saw it with a very nice American-Israeli girl called Ayala way back in the nineteen seventies. It had some great songs, of which “Shalva” was one. There was another about the Bilu’im which contained the line “Im zeh tov o im zeh ra, ein kvar derech hazara…” (“If this is good or if this is bad, there’s already no way back.”). I remember singing that line once at work after making a mistake 🙂

    • The thing about “Halehaka” was, none of the songs was actually written for the film. They just took songs (most of them, if not all, songs of the Nachal Entertainment Troupe) that were already popular, and wove them into the film. But they were lovely songs, nevertheless. Of course, the Seventies were really the last Golden Age of the Army Entertainment Troupes.

  5. Ellen May says:

    I love World Music and learning about the musical traditions of other countries/peoples so I found this really interesting – especially the influence of Jewish liturgical poetry on a modern, “secular” poet.

  6. jmsabbagh says:

    Absolutely charming .you have a beautiful post. Shaloom. Jalal Michael Sabbagh

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