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.
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“.
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.
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.
“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