Poem of the Week

Hebrew Kids Greet the Sabbath Without God

It was easy for the early Zionists, like Hayyim Nahman Bialik, to write about nature. Religion was another matter entirely.

WikiArt

The Sabbath Queen

Hayyim Nahman Bialik

The sun has withdrawn from the tall tops of trees.
Let’s go out to welcome the Sabbath Queen.
Behold her descending, she’s holy and blessed
In a company of angels of peace and of rest.
Come, come, come O queen,
Come, come, come O queen,
Peace be unto you, O angels of peace.

We’ve greeted the Sabbath with song and with prayer,
We shall go back home with our hearts full of cheer.
The table is set there, the candles will gleam.
Every part of the house is sparkling and clean.
A peaceful Sabbath to you, be blessed!
A peaceful Sabbath to you, be blessed!
Be welcome in peace, O angels of peace!

Sit with us, pure one, shine light in your glory,
For a night and a day, and then ends the story
And we’ll do you honor with clothes fine and neat,
With hymns, with prayers, with three big feasts.
And also with perfect rest,
And also with pleasant rest,
Bless us with peace, O angels of peace.

Hayyim Nahman Bialik
Zvi Oron

The sun has withdrawn from the tall tops of trees.
Let us go out and escort the Sabbath Queen.
Depart now in peace, Queen holy and pure –
Know, six days from now we’ll greet you once more –
Yes, for the Sabbath next week!
Yes, for the Sabbath next week!
Depart now in peace, O angels of peace.

From Shirim U-Fizmonot Li-Yeladim (“Poems and Songs for Children”), Dvir, 1933. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, with thanks to Dov Faust for ensuring that the translation can be sung to the melody below

High on the Zionist agenda in early 20th century was the conscious creation of a Hebrew children’s literary culture to instill the values and reflect the life of the new society in the Land of Israel. This challenge was taken seriously by educators and major writers for adults.

Nature was no problem -- a poem for children about a hyacinth or a butterfly doesn’t present huge difficulties. And rhyming about a big, green truck taking produce from the kibbutz in the morning and coming back in the evening from what used to be the central marketing cooperative, Tnuva, with eggs and milk  was a piece of cake, relative to the relentlessly complicated issue of defining the relationship between a modern, free and productive new culture in the land of Israel and the old, restrictive and pious culture of European Judaism http://www.haaretz.com/news/features/.premium-1.634959.

Bialik’s 'Poems and Songs for Children,' with illustrations by Nahum Gutman
Wikimedia Commons

Though to the best of anyone’s knowledge http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/in-search-of-bialik-the-ashkenazi-father.premium-1.517755, he was himself childless, as a leader of the Hebrew cultural revolution[http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/week-s-end/more-than-a-national-poet-on-the-140th-anniversary-of-haim-nahman-bialik-s-birth.premium-1.491883 Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) threw himself into writing for children. He was not religiously observant and he felt strongly about how the connection between tradition and modernity should be maintained http://www.haaretz.com/life/books/spending-shabbat-with-bialik-1.63996.

This poem/song for the Sabbath treads the tightrope of a Judaism that is more cultural than doctrinal.

Any Jew with even the most mildly traditional upbringing will immediately recognize that “The Sabbath Queen” (1903) corresponds with the hymn “Shalom Aleichem” sung on Friday evening at the family table http://www.haaretz.com/secrets-of-the-sabbath-1.185596 or in some non-Orthodox synagogues at the end of the service. It begins: “Peace upon you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, / of the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He” (translator unknown).

In both the hymn and Bialik’s poem, every week the angels come, stay a while and then they leave.

The first striking difference is that in the hymn the angels are secondary to the main character, God, who is named in three different ways, whereas in the poem God does not figure at all. The second difference is that the hymn is entirely a song of praise, while the poem talks about the Sabbath in practice: lit candles, a clean home, nice clothes, lots of food, lots of rest.  

*Musing: If God isn’t in the poem, what are the angels?

*Bonus: The Sabbath Queen” has been set to music by several composers but the best-loved melody is by Pinchas Minkowski (1859–1924). Secular and Orthodox Israelis alike will happily sing along with Hadassah Sigalov.