By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, March 6, 2009

When strolling through the Jerusalem streets on a Shabbat evening, one often hears pouring out of windows the sound of people singing zemirot, traditional songs sung during festive meals.

Zemirot comes from zemer, meaning to sing or make music. According to the Midrash (Song of Songs Rabbah 8) the custom of Israel is that when they eat and drink and are joyful, they occupy themselves with songs and praise [of God]. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) describes Shabbat as a day for discussing the Torah and words of praise.

Most Shabbat zemirot come from the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, when Hebrew poetry flourished under the sway of Arabic poetry. The 11th-century Adon Olam is probably the most famous zemirah, sung to hundreds of melodies. One reason for its popularity is its metrical nature, which lends itself to being set to music. Arabic poetry had strict rules about rhyme and metre and Hebrew poets adopted its standards.

The subject matter of zemirot is praise of God and of Shabbat, from its cosmic meaning to its earthly delights. The words of zemirot may alternately celebrate the wonders of creation and the menu of Shabbat delicacies.

    Last updated: 12:32pm, March 6 2009