Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
The Essence of Song
Although we usually refer to a given week by means of its Torah
reading, such as 'parshas Beshalach,' this week's Shabbos has a
special name - Shabbos Shirah; Shabbos of Song. This, of course, is
in reference to the special Shirah found in the this week's sidrah,
sung by the B'nei Yisrael at the shore of the Red Sea. The Song
'Az Yashir...,' - Then Moshe and the Children of Israel sang
the following Shirah, and they said, saying, 'I will sing to
Hashem, for He is exceedingly great; the horse with its
rider He tossed into the sea...' [15:1-18]
There is some discussion as to where the precise beginning of the
Shirah is: Does it begin with the words, "Then Moshe and the
Children of Israel sang..." or with, "I will sing to Hashem...?" It would
be reasonable to suppose that the first sentence is an introduction to
the Shirah, while the Shirah proper begins with the second sentence.
(Indeed, this seems to be the simple understanding of the Talmud,
Sotah 30b, which quotes Rabbi Akiva's description of the Shirah:
"How was the Shirah recited? Moshe would say, 'I will sing to
Hashem...' and [the nation] would repeat after him.") However, from
the laws regarding the writing of a sefer Torah, it appears that the
Shirah proper begins with "Then Moshe and the Children of Israel
sang." Normally a sefer Torah is written in parallel columns. The
Shirah, in contrast, is written, "Like bricklayers lay bricks," i.e. with
half of the preceding line supported by the script of the following line,
and half of it on top of blank space (Talmud, Megillah 16b). From
where does this unusual stylistic change begin? Masseches Sofrim
(Ch. 12) rules that we begin with the words 'Az Yashir,' which implies
that the Shirah begins with these words.
What is special about the words 'As Yashir' that makes them an
integral component of the Shirah? And why, as Rashi points out, is
the word Yashir in the future tense ("will sing")? Furthermore, it
should say, "Yashiru - They [Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael] will sing"
and not "Yashir - he will sing!"
In a more general sense: What is the concept of Shirah, song, in
Judaism? Chapter 149 of Tehillim, which is part of the daily liturgy,
begins, "Sing to Hashem - a new song!" We faithfully recite these
words, day after day, yet how many of us have actually ever, "Sang
a new song to Hashem?" Even those who are musically or poetically
inclined, how often do they compose something new and original? It
would indeed be admirable if we all had the skill, time, and inclination
to consistently compose new songs, yet there must be a more
practical way of "singing a new song."
It is written (Tehillim/Psalms 135:5), "For I know that Hashem is
great." King David said, "I know" - I alone. It is impossible to describe
G-d's greatness to another. One cannot even describe it to oneself
from one day to the next. One day, a person may be inspired with a
certain thought; yet on the next day, he may not even be able himself
to describe nor understand the thought that yesterday so inspired
him. It is this which King David describes, "I know" - I, as I am now.
It is the beauty of a moment - never before experienced, never again
to be had. [See The Light Beyond 1:1]
Shirah goes far beyond the recitation of words; it is an experience.
Shirah in its true sense is the expression of the soul, the melody of
the neshamah, as we experience it in a certain fleeting moment.
Perhaps it takes its form from the words we say, yet it reaches far
beyond verbs, nouns, and prepositions. The words are merely a
vehicle from which we are to awaken our deepest thoughts and
feelings, and allow our souls to sing out to Hashem. We sing
communally, yet each soul finds its own inner expression of the
moment. Indeed, each day, a new song is sung.
One whose mind is occupied with the details and fine-print of day-to-
day life can not hope to understand the depths of Shirah. One must,
if only for a brief moment, restrain one's thoughts from their endless
journey through life's small matters - from the arguments, from the
things-to-do, even from the people and things that presently surround
him - and focus completely on one thing and one thing only:
experiencing the Shirah.
It is said that the angels sing shirah with the flutter of their wings.
Perhaps, metaphorically, this is a lesson to us: To appreciate shirah,
we must use our spiritual wings to elevate ourselves momentarily
above the drone of the material world, and ascend to a plane upon
which the song of the soul can be heard. Perhaps this too is the
meaning of the verse (Yeshaya 24:16), "From the wings (i.e. ends
[Metzudos Tzion]) of the earth, we heard song."
Sefarim write that the physical world is represented by the number
seven, symbolized by the seven days of the week. The number eight,
therefore, represents a plane above and removed from physical
existence. The word Az, with which the Shirah begins, has the
numerical value of eight. It is as if to say that in order to appreciate
Shirah, we must be prepared to put aside the details of physical
existence, and ascend, for a moment, to a level upon which true
Shirah can be sung, heard, and experienced. [Rav Zilberstein shlita]
Although the Shirah was and is sung communally, it is in essence a
personal experience. Perhaps that is why Yashir ("will sing") is written
in the singular: it is impossible for anyone else to grasp the intimacy
of the song of another. Nor was this a one time experience; the
Torah is teaching us the true meaning of Shirah - it was experienced
then by Moshe and the B'nei Yisrael, and continues to be
experienced by those who refine themselves through sincere prayer;
therefore it is written in the future tense. And perhaps this is why the
introductory verse is included in the Shirah proper, for it teaches us
the essence of Shirah, without which we'd just be singing another
This week's publication has been dedicated anonymously in memory
of R' Zelig Wolkenstein z"l. Those who had the privilege of knowing
him would agree: he was one of the few individuals who understood
the essence of Shirah.
Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.