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No Rest for the Weary? Ambiguity in Yehudah Halevi’s “Yom Shabbaton”

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Yaakov Jaffe

Each Shabbat, many Jews sit around their Shabbat tables and happily sing a short song, usually with a fast and graceful tune, that discusses the Shabbat, the giving of the Torah, and then culminates with Noah’s floodwaters and the story of the dove. Few Jews will ask why Noah’s floodwaters and the story of the dove are song-worthy or connected to the themes of Shabbat at all. To answer these questions, this essay will unpack the themes and allusions of that song, Yehudah Halevi’s “Yom Shabbaton,” and also consider how a debate about the true text of the song shapes the meaning of the song’s central theme, climax, and conclusion.

Few poets of the Hebrew Language match Yehudah Halevi’s artistry and his interweaving of complex religious themes with biblical allusions. Yehudah Halevi’s poems have formed a critical part of the liturgy for Shabbat and holidays, and are still sung and recited widely. The most widely sung of his poems is the song for Shabbat entitled “Yom Shabbaton,” printed in most siddurim and in virtually every birkon.

The song contains five stanzas of four eight-syllable lines each, for a total of twenty lines, with each stanza beginning with another letter of the poet’s first name, Yehudah: yud, hey, vav, daled, hey. It uses the poetic genre of Belt Song, or Shir Eizor, with the first three lines of each stanza rhyming with each other, and the last line rhyming with the refrain (as well as the last two lines of the first stanza).

There are two extant versions of the middle stanzas, and numerous prayer books and birkonim have begun printing the two versions of the middle stanza side by side, leaving to the reader to consider which reading he or she prefers. This brief essay will contrast the versions and consider the changes from three perspectives: content, poetic quality, and overall meaning. We will consider how the inclusion of one set of intervening stanzas over the other radically changes the tense, theme, and central message of the song as well, leaving two different songs, and two very different meanings.

Poetry

Before turning to the content of the poem, we will take a quick glance at some of the formal qualities of the poem, and in particular, of the two verses whose origin has come in to question. These two stanzas appear below in their standard form, translated into English, with a few of the Hebrew words that participate in the rhyme in parenthesis, transliterated:

            9] And they all came, in a covenant, together

            10] ”We will do and we will listen,” they said as one (ehad)

            11] And they opened and answered, “God is one” (ehad)

            12] Blessed is He Who gives strength to the weary (ko’ah)

            13] He spoke with His holiness from the Mountain of Myrrh,

            14] “The seventh day: remember and guard”

            15] And all of its rules, together they should be studied,

            16] Firm your loins, and strengthen your might! (ameitz ko’ah)

A hallmark of a superior poet is the care taken never to use the same word twice for the same rhyme in the same poem. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, himself, in his elegy “Tziyon Ha-Lo Tishali” uses 35 different rhymes for the ending “rayih” without repeating a single rhyme more than once. And indeed, in the unusual, newly printed version of this song, three different endings are used for the ending of the five stanzas (ru’ah, Noah, and ko’ah). Yet, as illustrated above, the rhyme “ko’ah” is overused in the standard version of the poem, acting as the final word of each of the first four stanzas, including these two.

Even more jarring and uncomfortable than the possible overuse of the single word ko’ah, is how the second and fourth stanzas end with the nearly identical two word phrase “amitz (adj.) ko’ah” and “ameitz (v.) ko’ah,” from Yeshayahu 40:26 and Nahum 2:2, whose similarity to, but small difference from each other create an unpleasant feeling for the reader of the song. Rhymes should be different, but end in the same sound, not virtually identical.

Furthermore, and in greater violation of poetic convention, is the rhyme endings for the first three lines of the middle stanza. The three line-rhymes all end with “had” but the poet rhymes the same word “ehad” twice with itself, in the span of three endings. This violation of poetic standards does not appear anywhere else in the song and is unheard of for a poet of Yehudah Halevi’s caliber.

There is one final poetic problem in the added two stanzas, although this problem is more nuanced. The word “yahad,” “together,” appears in both stanzas; the first time to indicate the unity of the Jewish people. Yet, the word is entirely extraneous and virtually without meaning the second time it appears “And all of its rules, together they should be studied.” A top tier poet would not include a seemingly unnecessary word, especially not after having used that same word so prominently and with so much meaning in just the previous stanza.

Content of the Middle Stanzas

The song’s conventional middle stanzas speak about the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The second stanza had already invoked the two tablets and the giving of the law, “it is engraved upon two tablets of stone/ from He who is of much power and great strength,” so it is fitting that the third and fourth stanzas might also speak of the Decalogue and the giving of the Torah. Yet, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is not a major motif for Shabbat in general, and the Shabbat is but one of Ten Commandments, so the decision to focus three stanzas, or 60% of the song, on the giving of the Torah seems quite curious.

At first glance, these stanzas tells the story of the giving of the Torah rather conventionally, beginning with the nation gathering together (“covenant together [9]” = Shemot 24:7 and Mekhilta to Shemot 19:2), moving to the acceptance of the law (“we will do and we will listen [10]” = Shemot 24:7) and the ten commandments (“Remember” and “Guard [14]” Shemot 20:8 & Devarim 5:12). Yet closer inspection reveals that aspects of these stanzas have been misapplied to the giving of the Torah, calling into question the intentions or designs of the author.

First, the song locates the giving of the Torah at the Mountain of Myrrh—literally a mountain of spices (Shir Ha-Shirim 4:6), sometimes taken as another name for Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount (II Divrei Ha-Yamim 3:1). Yet the Torah was given at Sinai, or Horeb, and not anywhere near Mount Moriah or any mountain of Myrrh! Only an obscure and far later comment in the Yalkut Reuveni (Shemot, page 93)[1] connects Mount Moriah to the giving of the Torah; the conventional view (Shabbat 89a) explicitly decouples the two from each other.[2]

Second, the people are said to have proclaimed that God is one at the moment of the giving of the Torah. Again, though some minor and later midrashim (such as Devarim Rabbah) connect Moshe’s later proclamation of the unity of God (Devarim 6:4) with the giving of the Torah, the bulk of the Midrashic and Talmudic tradition, and the simple reading of the texts, do not.

The stanza ends with the proclamation—“Blessed be he who gives strength to the weary,” borrowing from Yeshayahu 40:29, but echoing the blessing “He who gives strength to the weary”—a core part of the morning blessings in prayer books today. This blessing was a later addition to the Siddur that would not have become prevalent in Spain until after the time of Yehudah Halevi.[3] This too prompts us to consider alternatives for what the middle stanzas should be.

The alternative stanzas, printed in some birkonim, avoid all of the poetic and content problems found in the conventional stanzas. These original stanzas were likely removed because of their rather strong language against the enemies of the Jewish people:

            9] And from the thick cloud He lit the darkness

            10] And upon a cloud He raised those that dwell low

            11] And I will see the tower of my enemies fall

            12] Yet I have been filled with strength (ko’ah; Micah 3:8)

            13] Trample with a shoe[4] the enemies and tormentors

            14] And even make stumble the ankles of strangers

            15] And then my nation will answer you with songs

            16] God who travels on the wings of wind[5] (ru’ah; Tehilim 104:3)

These lines make allusion to the numerous biblical verses which speak of a redemptive era at the end of exile, when the people finally rest from persecution. Line 11 is based on Yeshayahu 30:25-26 “And it shall be on every high mountain and on every raised hill…on the day of much slaughter, when the towers fall…on the day when God heals his nation’s wounds.” Lines 9-10 are based on Yeshayahu 60:2-8 “For the darkness will cover the land, and the thick cloud the nations, but God will rise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you…. Who are these that float like clouds, and like doves to their dovecote?”

This version solidly focuses the song on the Jewish people and their present situation: their celebration of Shabbat, and their rest from the challenges of exile. Each verse addresses and speaks to the Jew of the present day, and of the Shabbat in particular. In contrast, the temporal setting of the song shifts abruptly in the conventionally published version. There, the first, second, and final stanzas focus the song on the Jewish people in the present, but the third and fourth focus on the nation in the past, at the giving of the Torah. Moreover, the conventional fourth stanza focuses on God and not the people, sticking out as the only stanza with this shifted focus!

In addition to resolving the problems of content, poetics, and song tense, the new version also uses beautiful poetic imagery. The vivid imagery of the thick cloud contrasting darkness and light; the detail of ankles and shoes, and the ironic contrast between the lowly now riding-on-the-cloud while the tall towers fall-to-the-Earth are evidence of elevated poetry, fitting for the poet and the occasion of the song.

What is the Song’s Central Message?

In the conventional version, the song serves as a historical description of the Shabbat and the giving of the Torah (ending with a hopeful plea for a better Shabbat in the future). Yet, replacing the conventional middle paragraphs serves to radically shift the focus and core of the song. Instead of being a simple song about the Shabbat, the poem now becomes a deeper song about the experiences of Diaspora Jewry and the role Shabbat plays as a vital respite for the nation in difficult times, the only resting time from the pain and agony that surround them.

The central message is reflected in the most critical word of the song, the “dove” of the repeated refrain, who found rest on the Shabbat day. A reader used to the conventional text of the middle stanzas would position the song as a retrospective on Shabbat of the biblical period or the more general past. In that view, the dove that rested on the Shabbat day is instantly identifiable as Noah’s dove, which found rest on the dry land after the flood (Bereishit 8:12) seven days after she was first sent.[6] In fact, the reader has almost no choice but to read this dove as referring to the dove of Noah because of the last two lines of the poem “That no bad occurrence should pass upon them/ As you swore upon the waters of Noah,” and the second line invoking the sweet smell of sacrifice (Bereishit 8:21). The reader would begin the song as it ends, with the story of the flood.

However, a reader used to the unusual text of the middle stanzas, which focuses the song on the present-day struggles of Diaspora Jewry, would be drawn towards a different understanding of the “dove” in the refrain. In this reading, the dove refers not to the historical dove, but to the present-day Jewish people, who are often symbolized by the dove (three times in Shir Ha-Shirim and once in Yeshayahu). Thus, the refrain’s true argument is not that the seven days of the the flood parallel the seven days of Shabbat; it is that the Shabbat day is a time that the Jewish people, the dove, find rest. The song speaks less about the historical Shabbat, and more about the experiences of weary, Diaspora, dove-like Jewry, wandering from place to place, facing cruelty and oppression, desperately waiting for the next Shabbat.

There are also three other, slightly more technical reasons to prefer this reading of the refrain and the central message of the song:

  1. Shabbat is never explicitly connected to the flood in the biblical text, and no major Midrashic source connects the Shabbat day to the story of the dove. It would be odd, then, to celebrate the dove finding rest on Shabbat if in reality it found rest on a different day of the week.
  2. The second half of the chorus, “And on this day, the weary may rest” is a quote from Iyov 3:17, which describes death as a final resting place for the weary. This allusion fits well with the darker tone of a song of weary Jewry finding a brief respite on the Shabbat; but is jarring and unpleasant when connected to the more upbeat historical moment of Noah’s dove.
  3. Moreover, as we shall see below, the flood covenant given to Noah (Bereishit 9:11-17), later called an oath by Yeshayahu (54:9) was a universalistic oath not to destroy the world, with no connection to either Shabbat or the Jewish people. Thus, we should be reluctant to see the great deluge as being central to the particularistic themes of Shabbat and the Jewish people.

Translating the Final Stanza

Typically, the final stanza is translated as follows:

17] The nation that moved around; like livestock she (the nation, Yeshayahu 53:2) strayed

            18] He will remember to count for them the Covenant and Oath (Tehilim 105:8-9)

            19] That no bad occurrence should pass upon them

            20] As you swore upon the waters of Noah

This stanza clearly fits as the climax of the song: Shabbat is the day of rest for the nation that wandered like livestock, and there is a further hope for a time when the oath to our ancestors is remembered and we are saved from any bad occurrence. It is the perfect conclusion for a song about the Jews in exile, while it is an unnatural climax were the song about the giving of the Torah.

Particularly apropos is the inclusion of the motif of remembrance or recollection in the second line, which fittingly parallels the start of the song “The day of rest cannot be forgotten/ recalling it is like the sweet smell (of a sacrifice).” If Israel remembers and recalls the Shabbat day, as they were commanded in the Decalogue, and does not forget it (much as they were instructed to remember and not forget Amalek or how they angered God in the desert)[7]—then God will in turn remember the covenant and oath.

What role does Noah play? As we have noted, the oath upon the waters of Noah seems oddly out of place; it was issued to all of humanity, not just to the Jewish people, the focus of the song. Also, the oath after the flood was specifically limited to the non-destruction of the world and never included a promise that nothing bad would affect the Jewish people.

Closer inspection of the final stanza, however, indicates that the poet likely had intended the final word “Noah” as a pun—secondarily as a proper noun, the name of the biblical figure, but primarily as a common noun, translated literally as “rest.” In general, the two verbs/nouns “lanu’ah” and “lanu’a`,” to rest and to move/shake, are taken as parallel opposites: evidenced both in grammatical terminology (the sheva nah and sheva na`) and liturgically (in U-netaneh Tokef, yanu’ah is contrasted with yanu’a`). Since the word “to move” has been invoked in the initial line of the stanza, bolded above, a better reading would take the final word as “to rest,” its parallel opposite.

Under this alternative translation, the final lines would read

17] The nation that moved around; like livestock she strayed

18] He will remember to count for them the Covenant and Oath,

            19] that no bad occurrence should pass upon them,

            20] as you swore. [Allow them to reside] upon the waters of rest

now ending with the reversal for the nation that moved around (na`): living upon waters of rest (no’ah). Noah and his bird are entirely absent from the song; in their place is the new location of rest by which the weary the nation might live.

To demonstrate to the reader that he intended both referents, Yehudah Halevi deftly weaves together two biblical verses as the inspiration for the conclusion, indicating the twin sources for the line, the first from Noah, the biblical figure, the second, related to rest:

ישעיהו נד:ט: אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי מֵעֲבֹר מֵי נֹחַ עוֹד עַל הָאָרֶץ

שיר ריה”ל: לְבַל יַעֲבָר בּוֹ מִקְרֶה רָעָה/ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע עַל מֵי נֹחַ.

תהילים כג:ב: עַל-מֵי מְנֻחוֹת

Neither of the scriptural texts provide the inspiration for the line without the other. In the context of the wider song, the primary intended reference is to the waters of tranquility and rest, with the parallel to the flood waters a secondary turn of phrase, added merely for the enjoyment of the reader, and not to convey a greater message, idea, or theme.

After all, perhaps the best evidence that the poet intends to invoke rest with the final word, and not the biblical figure Noah, comes from the fact that the root “to rest” already appeared twice in the central refrain of the poem, each time clearly referring to rest and not the biblical figure. To be sure, Yehudah Halevi knows the reader will make note of the words “water,” “dove,” “Noah,” and “oath,” and associate them with the flood—but the flood narrative is a secondary pun. The song’s last word and climax should instead connect with this recurring theme of rest: if the weary Jew remembers and rests on the seventh day, God will remember and grant them the waters of rest from their trials of exile.

Amazingly, a song sung by myriads of Jews has likely been misunderstood for decades if not centuries, owing both to the complexity of the text of the song, but also to the different readings of the balance of the song suggested by the questionable text. A song about history and the Shabbat of the past, is perhaps more about the present and the Shabbat that provides rest for each weary generation as they proceed through exile and its travails.


[1] This view is also found as a second, non-favored, language cited by Pseudo-Rashi to Ta’anit 16a. See Keren Orah loc. cit., and Yalkut 988 as to whether this interpretation even relates to the giving of the Torah, to Moriah, or to Myrrh.

[2] Moreover, Psalm 68, which discusses the moving of the mountains upon the occasion of the giving of the Torah (which later became the inspiration of the story of mountains moving from place to place in order to participate in the honor of the giving of the Torah or to study Torah themselves), never mentions Mount Moriah, only Har Bashan. Also, Yirmiyahu 46:18 (which also provides some inspiration for the same tradition of the mountains moving at the giving of the Torah) mentions Tabor and Karmel only, not Moriah. See Bereshit Rabbah 99:1, Megillah 29a, and Sotah 5a.

[3] See Berakhot 60b, Rambam, Laws of Prayer 7:4. Though the blessing does appear in Mahzor Vitry; see Tur Orah Hayim 46 and Arukh Ha-Shulhan loc. cit.

[4] Shoe is the tool used for the verb “to trample or tread” and not the part of the enemy which is trampled, as others have translated this line. See also Yeshayahu 11:15, cited in Yehudah Halevi’s piyut for the seventh day of Pesah, “Yom Le-Yabashah.

[5] For more on this phrase, see Yaakov Jaffe, “‘Upon the Wings of Eagles’ and ‘Under the Wings of the Shekhinah’: Poetry, Conversion, and the Memorial Prayer,” Hakirah 17 (Summer 2014): 191-204.

[6] Although, the precise wording of the poem is based on a reversal of the phrase in Bereishit 8:9, which described the occasion two weeks earlier, when the dove had not yet found rest.

[7] For more on the connection of remembering and not forgetting, see Yaakov Jaffe, “Considering the Genre and Audience of Deuteronomy 9:7” Jewish Bible Quarterly 45 (2017): 173-78.