Let's face it, unless it's somebody's birthday, when do people sit around singing together?
Yet singing is fun, kids love it, and for everyone it's a real release. And when it's done on Shabbat, it can be another extension of the tremendous pleasure that Shabbat has to offer.
We can even understand the pleasure of singing from a look at the Hebrew language. Lezamer means "to sing," sharing the same root as the word lizmor which means "to prune." The fact that they come from the same word is no accident.
When we prune a bush we are removing old, dead growth that is inhibiting its growth; we're shaping the bush to bring out its own beauty. The same thing happens to us with song.
When we sing, we "prune" away the excess baggage that we carry around, revealing our essence. The harmony of music releases the disharmony within us.
Thus we fill Shabbat with song. We revel in the pleasure of getting rid of the excess, the disharmonious things that have accumulated during the past six days, leaving us, as "Shalom Aleichem," the first song of Shabbat says, with a feeling of shalom -- peace.
When I was single and first went to people's homes on Shabbat, I thought that the singing part of the meal was really beautiful. It was something I never really had in my home-the idea of song and the joy that it brings. In fact, it was so nice that it almost made me embarrassed and uncomfortable. I kept trying to picture my own family singing, and just couldn't imagine.
Today, my husband and I almost always sing, especially when we have guests. Everyone gets into it, even if the songs are new to them. We have NCSY bentchers (song books), which transliterate all the songs. The tunes continually repeat, so people catch on quite quickly.
My kids love it, and every Shabbat they say, "Daddy, sing us wild songs!" My husband will break out into a really lively one, and the kids will dance around, doing cartwheels and flips.
Once you have kids and they're old enough to join in, it's just incredible. I love that they know the songs, and that Shabbat for them is such a joyful experience.
I love a lot of the songs, but my favorite is "Eitz Chaim." The tune is very slow and moving, and sometimes makes me feel like crying.
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My favorite song? Kol Ha-Olam. It focuses your attention: Yes, there is difficulty in life, and six days a week we work and experience that. But the seventh day-that's when we're not afraid of anything, because that's the day we know what's important; that's the day God is really in your life.
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Everyone at the Shabbat table has a favorite song, and we all vie for the chance to sing ours first. Even the little ones have favorites and light up and clap their hands when they're sung.
I have a daughter who remembers which ones were her favorites as she was growing up. She says, "When I was a baby and Daddy was carrying me around, this was the song he sang to me," and she would sing one of the slow ones, and she would be right! Now she's three and loves the peppy tunes, because for her, Shabbat is dancing around the table. I can imagine her one day all grown up, sitting around her own Shabbat table, saying to her own children, "This is the one my father sang to me, when I was a baby."
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Sometimes, when I spend Shabbat at home with my parents -- who don't observe Shabbat -- singing the songs from my bentcher really helps me feel the Shabbat spirit, even when the TV is going in the background, and the phones are ringing. When I sing, no matter what's going on around me, it's Shabbat.
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Although I didn't come from an observant home, my husband did. Recently he told me a story that had a real impact on me and made me appreciate what singing at the Shabbat table can really mean.
Last year my father-in-law took ill and was dying. His four grown children went to his bedside to say good-bye and to try and offer him some comfort in his last hours. What did they do? Together they sang him Shabbat zemirot -- all the songs they had shared together as a family growing up.
It was so beautiful and gave him great joy, even at the end. Can you imagine? To me it said so much about their bond and what their family stood for.
That's what I want for my children. I want them to have sweet memories of sitting around the Shabbat table and singing. I want them to know the tremendous pleasure that it gives their parents.
And I think they will. After all, it's their Zaidy's legacy.