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Anim Zemirot: A Higher Level Meaning of a Metaphoric Piyut

Reviewing “Tzvi Tifarah: Biurim V’haarot L’piyut Anim Zemirot” (Hebrew) by Rabbi Elchanan Adler. Self-published, 2018.

It’s said that familiarity breeds contempt. While many people may be familiar with the Shir HaKavod, also known as Anim Zemirot, its depth and extensive use of metaphor and symbolism make it a difficult, and perhaps impossible, piyut to truly understand.

In “Tzvi Tifarah”: Biurim V’haarot L’piyut Anim Zemirot” (Hebrew), Rabbi Elchanan Adler (rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University) has a new monograph that provides a detailed understanding of this mystical tune.

Anim Zemirot is often recited weekly at the end of Shabbat services. In some congregations it’s said in the middle, in some only recited on holidays, and in others only on Yom Kippur. And in some congregations it’s not said due to its inherent holiness.

Irrespective of the frequency, it’s imperative that those who recite it have an understanding of what they are saying. Adler quotes the Shelah Hakadosh, who writes that someone who says praises of the Almighty and does not understand the depth of what they are saying is a mecharef u’megadef, a blasphemer. This is especially true here, given the extensive use of anthropomorphic imagery within the piyut.

As to the previous point, Adler notes that there is a limit to that caveat. Things that have been established by the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah (and obviously, by extension, in Tanach) can be recited even without an understanding of what the words mean.

After a brief introduction to the history of the piyut, the rest of the book is a detailed verse-by-verse explanation. Each chapter lists the sources for the verse, which are primarily from Tehillim and Neviim.

For each verse Adler explains the high-level meaning of the verse, then goes into detail as to the context and deeper meaning behind the words. For many verses the exact wording is not always obvious, given different manuscripts, to which Adler also clarifies. There are recurrent themes in the piyut, which Adler addresses.

Anim Zemirot is replete with kabbalistic overtones, complex metaphors and more. It’s an almost impenetrable piyut, which is why some congregations never recite it. For those that do, and want to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the words they are chanting, those explanations are woven together beautifully in a most comprehensible manner in “Tzvi Tifarah.”

By Ben Rothke

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