Given to the Burden and Given to the Song - The Difference between Shira and Zimrah

Ask author
July 30 1984
The Levites, including the Kohanim who originally derived from the tribe of Levi, have, since time immemorial, come to symbolize service to the Lord. We find an altogether remarkable and telling repetition, which bespeaks the nature of their service and, which, in the wider sense it was intended, reflects also the balance and quality of life for which we must strive. The Torah writes, Ki ndunim ndunim hemah li mitokh bene Yisrae1, "They are Given, Given unto Me from the midst of the children of Israel" (Numb. 8:16). Rashi explains: "Given to the burden, and Given to song." Plainly, Rashi refers to the two principal charges that were the Levites', 1) To dismantle and carry the Tabernacle when it was moved from place to place, and 2) to accompany the sacrifices and the general service of the Sanctuary with song. This symbiosis between work and song is expressed also in another striking redundancy of language regarding the Levites: "From thirty to fifty years of age, all who come {la'avod avodah va'avodat masa} to do the work of the service and work of carrying" (Numb. 4:47). Rashi understands the repetition here, "the work of the service" (work and service are the same word in Hebrew) meaning, the song that has to accompany the service; without song, there can be no service. Song itself is reckoned no less a work than any other service in the Temple, even as it is also an accompaniment to other service that is part of God's house.
The Torah Temimah understands it a little bit differently than Rashi. But, in matter of outlook, it may be a difference that can make all the difference. According to the Torah Temima, the message conveyed in this pasuk is that without service, there can be no song. Only while they were actually bringing the sacrifices, or doing whatever else had to be done in the Temple, could the Levites play their instruments and could music be heard in the Sacred Precincts of the Sanctuary. Where Rashi has it, you cannot have the service (the work) without music, the Torah Temima puts it the other way around-you cannot have the music without the service.
There is a distinct song in the life of each of us. In some it may be a dissonant cacophony, in others, muted, almost to the point where it is not at all heard. It is the view of Torah, embraced in the Levites' charge, that both are true. All we do must be accompanied by song, which eases what we do and makes lighter the burden of our labor. At the same time, strains of this song must also come from what we do, from the work itself. Together, they produce the music of our lives.
There is an interesting passage in the Talmud in Sota (35a) that tells us about Uza, a tragic Biblical figure and one of David's loyal followers. It is recounted in Samuel 11:6 how David, after routing the Philistines, assembled 30,000 of the choicest youth of Israel and marched out from Ba'alei Yehudah, taking with him the Sacred Ark, which had been ensconced there in the house of Avinadab for safekeeping during the wars with the Philistines.
They were bringing the Ark up to the city of David amidst much panoply and "frenzied" joy. It was placed on a carriage which was led by Avinadab's sons, Uza and Ahyo. It was during this triumphant journey, when the cattle which were pulling the carriage suddenly wrested loose from their harness, that Uza grasped the Ark of God, fearing that it would fall to the ground. This provoked the anger of the Lord against Uza, and He struck him down dead, whereupon David became greatly distraught with himself, feeling correctly, that he was himself in some real way, responsible for this breach and the deathof Uza.
The Rabbis explain that Uza's grabbing at the Ark signified a serious lapse of faith in its miraculous powers, "for if it carries others," as tradition has it, "how much more so could it be relied upon to carry itself."
Beyond this they wonder for what sin was David punished, that a young man of Uza's stature and loyalty should have been smitten, while serving David? They answer, because David called Torah Zemirot (songs), as it says, Zmirot hayu li hukekha beveit megurai "Your laws were to me as tunes in the house of my sojourning" (ps. 119:54). It was inexcusably audacious to call the Torah Zmerot of which it is said in the Proverbs (23:5), 'Will you set your eyes upon it? it is gone" (Hata'if einekha bo ve'einenu), which addresses the awesome difficulty of apprehending Torah. Just as you think you have it, "it is gone!" It is not the lark Zimra intimates!
At first glance this whole passage is absolutely incredible, for the fact of the matter is that the Torah denominates itself as Shira-song (Deut. 31:19), which is more or less a synonym of Zemira. Beyond that, the Talmud in Sanhedrin (94a) tells us that King Hizkiyahu could have been Messiah, but only because he failed to sing did he forfeit that once in a millennia opportunity and challenge. The answer it seems to me, and indeed finds its echo in the noted Talmudic ~ commentator the Meharsha, lies in the distinction between Shirah and Zimrah. Zimrah is incidental music, pleasant no doubt to listen to but in the end, outside what a person is and what he does. Shirah, on the other hand, is at once that melody which fashions our lives and is also fashioned by our lives. Shirah is what gives distinctive rhythm to who and what we are, even as it is in turn shaped by who and what we are.
Torah is Shirah and not Zimrah. For David to have confused the two, even with the noblest purpose and the best intentions, exacted a heavy price. It was midah keneged midah, a punishment that, in a sense, fit the crime. Uza's mistake, which cost him his life, was that he didn't sufficiently appreciate that even as the God-song in man defies the petty gravitational pulls of life that strain to keep him down, and instead uplifts him and can raise him to soaring heights, so too, in a literal sense, the Ark of God which is THE
SONG defies the natural law of gravity. And the Ark carries itself. The ultimate definition of Jewish music must be Shirah, even if we do not altogether gain say the place of Zimrah, Shira that accompanies our Service to God and at the same time is produced by that service.

Series: Belz School of Jewish Music

Venue: Belz School of Jewish Music Belz School of Jewish Music


References: Sanhedrin: 94a  


From the Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy Volume 7

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