Dedicated in honor of my favorite song: Shira Yael Klein
The American historian Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) wrote, “Our contemporaries have split the atom, reached the moon, and brought color TV to the common man. The ancients… were not less talented than today’s population, but they often expressed their intelligence in different ways. They manipulated language so deftly that it often takes the modern scholars a long time to grasp the presence, let alone all the subtleties, of ancient riddles.” One poignant example of such ancient nuances in language is the existence of two Hebrew terms for “song”: shir/shirah and zemer/zimrah. In this essay we will explore the differences between this pair of synonyms, and, in doing so we too will become attuned to the intricacies of the Hebrew language.
The simplest way of differentiating between shirah and zimrah is that shirah denotes verbal song, while zimrah refers to instrumental music. This understanding is proffered by a bevy of authorities, including Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 105:2), Radak (to I Chron. 16:9), Sforno (to Ps. 105:2), the Vilna Gaon (cited in his son’s Be’er Avraham to Ps. 27:6), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (to Ps. 33:2), and Rabbi Shlomo Aharon Wertheimer. In fact, the Yiddish word klezmer (roughly, “Jewish Music”) is actually a portmanteau of klei (“instruments”) and zemer (“music”).
The Malbim explains that zimrah (plural: zmirot) is somehow a higher, more intense form of song than shirah. He writes that this is why whenever the two terms appear in tandem, shirah is always first and zemer is always second.
In what is possibly a separate explanation, the Malbim writes that shirah is a more general term which can refer to “song” both in a religious sense and in a secular sense, while zimrah refers specifically to a religious song which speaks of G-d’s praises. Similarly, Rabbi Yehuda Leib Edel (1760-1828) writes that shirah is simply an expression of one’s happiness without necessarily tying it back to the source of the happiness (i.e. G-d), while zimrah is always a means of acknowledging G-d’s role in bringing happiness and thanking Him for it.
Similarly, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) explains that shir refers to the lyrics of poetic verse sans the tune, while zimrah refers to the tune or melody sung in a song or played by a music instrument.
Chop ’em Down
The root ZAYIN-MEM-REISH, from which zemer and zimrah are derived, appears in the verb form as zomer (“cutting down”) and is actually the name of one of the 39 forbidden labors on Shabbat. What does this meaning have to do with “singing”?
Judaism’s concept of G-d is comprised of two almost paradoxically-opposed descriptions: On the one hand, He is transcendent and thus totally beyond our reach and comprehension; but on the other hand, He is immanent and thus ever-present for us to connect to. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (1906-1980) explains that the difference between shirah and zimrah reflects the tension between these two ways of approaching G-d. Both terms are expressions of “praise,” but shirah denotes praising G-d from a position of rapture and attachment to Him, while zimrah denotes praising G-d as an appreciation of G-d’s transcendence and how far away He is from man.
In explaining the latter assertion, Rabbi Hutner notes that zimrah not only means “song” but is also a verb for “cutting.” When a person recognizes G-d’s awesome transcendence and how He is so unapproachable, a person is essentially “cutting off” his own existence due to the recognition that his own existence pales in comparison to G-d’s infinite greatness.
Rabbi Yaccov Haber relates that he heard from a certain Hassidic Rebbe in the name of the Chasam Sofer that the word shirah is related to the word shirayim (“leftovers”), because “song” is the leftovers of the soul, meaning that it remains one of the only ways the soul can express itself in a world dominated by materialism. Interestingly, in many of the songs/poems recorded in the Bible, the speaker refers to himself in third person (for example, Gen. 49:2, Num. 24:3, Jud. 5:12), instead of in the expected first person. Rabbi Immanuel Frances (1618-1703) explains that this is because true song is like an out-of-body experience, such that the one singing sees himself as a separate entity.
Rabbi Frances further explains that the word shir denotes the singer’s ability to mesmerize his listeners and captivate their attention as if he rules over them. In this sense, he explains that shir is connected to other words which connote “strength,” like sharir (“strongly-established”), shur (“wall”), and sherarah (“authority”).
By contrast, Rabbi Frances explains that the word zemer highlights other aspects of song/poetry: When Yaakov sent his sons to Egypt to buy food during a famine, he sent with them the zimrah of the Land of Canaan (Gen. 43:11), which is taken to mean the best. Rashi connects the word zimrat with zemer by explaining that it refers to the choicest produce over which people would “sing.”
Alternatively, Rabbi Frances explains that the act of pruning a vineyard from unnecessary shoots is called zomer (Lev. 25:3), and this relates to the art of creating music — the artist must expunge any unnecessary elements from his song in order for it to be wholly good.
Rabbeinu Efrayaim ben Shimshon (to Gen. 43:11) explains that the zimrat ha’aretz that Yaakov’s sons brought to Egypt consisted of fine wine, which is called zimrat because drinking wine makes one happy (Ps. 104:15), and when people are happy they “sing” (zemer). Interestingly, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) writes that the zimrah of the Holy Land refers to a special niggun (“melody”) of Eretz Yisrael which Yaakov sent the Egyptian leader.
Rabbi Eliemelech of Lizhensk in Noam Elimelech (to Gen. 47:28, Ex. 19:1) explains that zimrah refers to “cutting” away those outer distractions which impede a person’s ability to properly serve G-d. Both he and the Chasam Sofer similarly explain that Pesukei d’Zimra (literally, “Verses of Hymns” recited daily in the beginning of the morning prayers) are meant to “cut down” the klipot (“husks” or “peels”) in preparation for our complete rapture with G-d.