Monday, 13 June 2011

Anim Zemirot

Today I want to draw your attention to one of our popular Tefillot.

Anim Zemirot-which is to be found on Page 458 in the Chief Rabbis Siddur.

The truth is that we recite this every Shabbat and Yom Tov and it comes at the end of our prayers. So, we’re waiting for the Kiddush or Shabbat Kodesh Programme, and we tend to say the words with haste without really cogitating on their meaning and true value.

We use many tunes for this hymn please listen to my video attachment above.

But in actuality this hymn is one of the most beautiful praises of G-d which defies a true explanation. Let me just place before you a few questions and I will hope that by the end of this little talk I will bring you a little bit closer to understanding what this song is about.

Firstly: what a strange thing that the song uses very deep mystical and anthropomorphic themes in relation to G-d. Something I better point out can be very dangerous.

Ziknah beyom Din uvacharut beyom kerav – keish milchama yadav lo rav- Appearing as aged on Judgement day, and as young at a time of battle, as a man of war His arm is all encompassing.

Another verse: Tzach veadom- He is pure white and crimson, His clothes red, He treads the wine press as He comes from Edom.

The Jewish comprehension of G-d is that He has no likeness or form. The Torah and our Neviim and Ketuvim are full of physical metaphors to describe G-d. Indeed our Sages say that Torah medaberet kelashon bnei adam- the Torah speaks in the language of man. Therefore as Rambam points out in his Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah; that the Torah employs these anthropomorphic descriptions in order that we are able to comprehend how G-d reveals Himself to us. However he warns these are only descriptions and that G-d is in no way physical. Yet, Anim Zemirot throughout uses these biblical physical metaphors to describe Him?

Second: If you look carefully there is an alphabetical acrostic (that means the beginning of each verse begins with a letter of the Aleph Beth in order) starting from the fourth verse; Asaprah kevodecha, this continues all the way to Tehilati. Then the last four verses are not in alphabetical order. This is quite strange. It was very usual for our songs and prayers to be written in Alphabetical order as a way by which it would be easier to remember- especially pre-Siddur days- but why was it necessary to break at the beginning and at the end?

Third: If you look at the number of verses there are 31 verses recited by reader and congregation in alternate verses. The two verses at the end Lecha Hashem Hagedulah and Mi Yemalel were added at a later date, we know that- because in earlier Siddurim they are not there. Indeed I have a Siddur at home from 1798 which leaves out the last two verses. So it’s very strange to have a song which is uneven 31 verses but not 32.

Fourth: The entire song is in the first person singular: Anim zemirot veshirim eerog- I will sing sweet psalms and I will weave songs to You for whom my soul longs. However, our Tefillot in general are normally in the plural not in the singular. Look at our prayers from the Amidah….Refaeinu Hashem veneraphe- Heal us our Lord and we shall be healed. Selach lanu avinu ki chatanu Forgive us father for we have sinned. The requests are all in the plural because we are supposed to always pray in the plural to include the Rabbim- the community in our Tefillot. Why here when we ask to comprehend G-d is this in the singular?

I’m not going to be able to answer all these questions now- and if anybody wants to help me and come up with some good suggestions please contact me later.

But I think we need to understand where this is coming from.

Anim Zemirot was composed by Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid from Regensburg in Germany in the late twelfth Century. He was the leader of a group of pietists called the Chassidei Ashkenaz. Not to be confused with the Chassidim of today whose roots come from the late 18th Century.

The Jews of his time were living in a very difficult situation. It was the post early crusade era- where Jews of Germany had been caught up in the aftermath of the first and second crusades. Entire communities had been destroyed. The Jews of Germany needed a spiritual movement to take them out of their physical quagmire. Comes along Rabbeinu Yehudah Hachassid and initiates a new movement called the Chassidei Ashkenaz which placed a strong emphasis on personal piety. He actually wrote a book called the Sefer Chassidim, which was a compendium of pietistic practices and behaviour.

He composed the Anim Zemirot which is also called Shir HaKavod- the song of glory- Indeed it is called in early Siddurim the Shir Hakavod lerabbeinu Yehudah hachassid meregensburg, and throughout there is the request to be shown the Kavod- Glory of Hashem.

But I think we’ve got a problem with that.

Look into the Torah in Sedra Ki Tissa, Moshe- our greatest leader is up the Mountain, praying on behalf of the Bnei Yisrael who have sinned with the Golden Calf.

Moshe says to G-d- Hareini na et kevodecha- “Please show me Your Glory!!”

G-d responds: “You can see My goodness- and my favour and my mercy but you will not be able to see my face. For no human can see my face and live”.

Ultimately we can never truly comprehend the Glory of G-d. Even Moshe Rabbenu who was up there on the Mountain was denied access to Hashem’s glory. So how can we expect to reach that level of spirituality to which even Moshe Rabbeinu was denied?

The answer is that this is exactly the message of Anim Zemirot the Song of Kavod. With all the great imagery and metaphors that the song uses, nevertheless our language is too finite to truly comprehend the infinitude of G-d.

That’s the reason why we have 31 verses and not 32. We cannot quite make it to reach Hashem’s Kavod. Kavod is gematria 32. Words, our language, fail us to truly reflect and understand His Glory.

That’s the reason why it’s in the singular because to experience His glory is a personal quest.

And that’s the reason why many communities have the tradition to get a child under Bar Mitzvah to chant Anim Zemirot. Usually a child under Bar Mitzvah is not allowed to lead the community in prayer.

Why is this, the exception? A suggestion is because the Shir Hakavod is such a high prayer of purity- that we need the innocence and purity of childhood to truly reflect the spiritual heights of Anim Zemirot.

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