Reuven Chaim Klein
What's in a Word? Synonyms in the Hebrew Language

The Circle of Song


In last week’s essay, we began discussing the difference between the Hebrew word shirah and zimrah, which both mean “song.” This essay continues that theme and sheds new light on the topic.

The Maharal of Prague (1520-1609) explains that the word shirah denotes something whose beginning is attached to its end. For example, the Bible uses the word sher to refer to a type of bracelet (Isa. 3:19), and the Mishnah (Shabbat 5:1) mentions a collar worn by animals around their neck called a sher. Similarly, the Talmud (Bava Metzia 25a) discusses if one found coins arranged like a sher (ring or bracelet), whether that formation is assumed to have been made deliberately or not. How does this connect to the word shirah as a “song”?

The Maharal explains that the idea behind shirah is that when one reaches the completion of a certain phase or task, then one offers a “song” of thanks to G-d for allowing it to happen. Song is best associated with happiness, because happiness comes through completion and fulfilment — such that when one reaches a stage of happiness, it is more appropriate for him to offer song. As Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains, when one reaches a stage of completion, he can look back and recognize how G-d had guided the situation the entire time and brought it to its conclusion. Only with such hindsight — where the beginning can be attached to the end — is song appropriate. Not beforehand.

Rabbi Shapiro further notes that the entire Torah is called a shirah (Deut. 31:19), because the song of Haazinu is a microcosm of the entire Torah and, by extension, a microcosm of the entire history of the world. In this way, the history of the world is a circle because at the end, Man will return to his former place of glory, as if Adam’s sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge never happened.

Interestingly, the word yashar seems to actually mean the opposite of shirah, because yashar denotes a line that continuously goes straight, while shirah represents a circle, a “curved line,” whose end leads into its beginning. Nonetheless, Rabbi Shapiro notes that in rabbinic literature there is clearly a connection between the two: When the Bible tells the story of the cows that returned the Ark captured by the Philistines, it says that the cows walked straight to Bet Shemesh (I Sam. 6:12) — using the word vayisharnah, a cognate of yashar. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 24b) exegetically explains that vayisharnah means that the cows sang while transporting the Ark.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim (1740-1814) actually connects the word shir to the word yashar (“straight”), explaining that a song follows a straight path in focusing on a specific theme without deviating off-topic. In this way, the beginning of the song and the end of the song are linked, because they are just variations on the same theme. By contrast, he explains, the term zimrah refers to the best segment from an entire song. He understands that zomer, in terms of “cutting” or “pruning,” is a way of discarding the riffraff and leaving just the best. In that sense, Rabbi Pappenheim argues that zimrah refers to the choicest part of a song, as if the rest of the song was “cut out.”

Similarly, Rabbi Shimon Dov Ber Analak of Siedlce (1848-1907) explains that shirah is related to the word shur (“wall”), because just as a wall is comprised of multiple bricks carefully arranged together, so is a song or poem composed of multiple lines carefully arranged. Just as if one brick is removed, the entire edifice may fall, so is it true that if one line or verse of a song is misplaced, the entire structure loses its impact. He explains that this is also why a sher refers to a circular article of jewelry. Something round must also be fully intact in order complete the circle — otherwise it is not whole. On the other hand, the word zimrah does not imply the entire edifice, but one small part of it, and so zimrah can refer to one segment of an entire song as independent or cut off from the rest of the song.

Shir Mizmor vs. Mizmor Shir

With all of this information, we can now begin to understand why sometimes songs in Psalms begin with the words shir mizmor and sometimes they begin with mizmor shir. Ibn Ezra (to Ps. 48:1) writes that there is no difference between mizmor shir and shir mizmor. However, I have found two credible authorities who beg to differ.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim explains that when used side-by-side the terms mizmor and shir assume specific meanings: shir denotes the words/lyrics of a song, while mizmor denotes the tune/melody of the song. Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that within a specific song, sometimes the words begin before the tune, and sometimes the tune is played before the words start. In the former case the expression used for that song is shir mizmor, because the shir element precedes the mizmor element, while in the second case the converse is true.

Similarly, Rabbi Shimshon Pincus (1944-2001) in Shabbat Malketa explains that shir refers to the story told by a song, while mizmor refers to the tune within which that story is told. When one uses words to form a narrative that expresses his happiness and thanksgiving, this is called shir. But when one’s elation is so emotionally intense that it cannot be logically expressed in words and can only be expressed by a wordless melody, this is called mizmor. Accordingly, the recital of some chapters of Psalms begins with worded phrase (shir), and then, as the experience becomes more intense, can only be continued with a wordless melody (mizmor). Those chapters are introduced with the phrase shir mizmor. On the flip side, other chapters of Psalms begin with the intense experience of a mizmor, and only once that intensity subsides can the word of the shir begin. Such chapters open with the words mizmor shir.

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein’s classical work, Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosiaca Press), is back in print and can be purchased at your local Jewish bookstore or online.

About the Author
RABBI REUVEN CHAIM KLEIN is a researcher and editor at the Veromemanu Foundation in Israel. His weekly articles about synonyms in the Hebrew Language appear in the OhrNet and are syndicated by the Jewish Press and Times of Israel. For over a decade, he studied at preimer Haredi Yeshivot, including Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles, Yeshivat Mir in Jerusalem, Beth Medrash Govoha of America. He received rabbinic ordination from multiple rabbinic authorities and holds an MA in Jewish Education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex Univeristy. Rabbi Klein authored two popular books that were published by Mosaica Press, as well as countless articles and papers published in various journals. He and his wife made Aliyah in 2011 and currently live in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit. Rabbi Klein is a celebrated speaker and is available for hire in research, writing, and translation projects, as well as speaking engagements.
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