Off the Pulpit

A Tradition of Song

In synagogue we do something that people in society rarely do – we sing together. Our greatest heroes composed shirim – the Hebrew word for Psalm and also for song. Moses sang, Miriam sang, and King David was the “sweet singer of Israel (2 Sam 23:1).” When the children of Israel cross the sea, they cry out “The Lord is my strength and my song (ex. 15:2).” The spirit of song runs deep in the Jewish people.

There is a small midrash called Perek Shirah, the chapter of song. It depicts the entire world singing to God, beginning with the heavens and earth, moving to the animals, birds and fish and even plant life. Everything has its song. So central is song to redemption that the Talmud says the reason Hezekiah did not become the Messiah was that despite the miracles God performed for him, he did not sing to God (San. 94a).

Judaism is a tradition of study and ritual, but also of song. “Your laws are songs for me wherever I may dwell,” says the Psalmist (119:54). No Sabbath is complete without Shabbat songs; the Torah is chanted, not merely read, and the tradition of chazzanut, the melodies of prayer, is ancient. As Rabbi Yehuda HeChasid put it many centuries ago, “I sing hymns and weave songs because my soul yearns for You.”