I am basing this column in large part on the book “Anim Zemiros” (2020) by Rabbi Elchanan Adler, a rosh yeshiva at RIETS. (This book is a revision of his previous book in Hebrew on the same topic.) It is a “must read” for anyone interested in this poem.
A well-known poem is Shir HaYichud. This lengthy poem was divided into seven parts, spread over the seven days of the week. (Now we limit our recital to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.) It is widely agreed that Shir HaYichud was composed by either R. Yehudah Hachasid (d. 1217) or his father R. Shmuel, or someone in their circle. (This is the circle of early chasidei Ashkenaz in Germany.)
Almost certainly Anim Zemiros (also known as Shir HaKavod) was authored in this same circle, and perhaps by R. Yehudah or his father.
(Toward the end of the poem we have the phrase “tikar shirat רש be-einecha” =may the song of the poor man be dear in Your eyes. The suggestion has been made that the word רש here alludes to the fact that R. Shmuel was its author. “Shirat Rash” is not a phrase in Tanach.)
R. Adler writes: “It is commonly assumed that Anim Zemiros was originally composed to serve as the conclusion for the Shir HaYichud and was intended to be recited together with it.” I.e., on each day of the week a section of Shir HaYichud would be recited, followed by Anim Zemirot.
But we have no sources that describe how long such a custom persisted and whether it expanded outside of chasidei Ashkenaz in Germany.
The earliest mention of Shir HaYichud and Shir HaKavod in halachic literature is found in a work that compiles the customs of Maharil= R. Yaakov Moelin (d. 1427, Germany). (Maharil is often cited by R. Moshe Isserles.) The context of the Anim Zemiros reference is the night of Yom Kippur. The compiler writes: “After they finished reciting Shir HaYichud, they recited the Mourners’ Kaddish, and afterward [the Maharil] began to intone Anim Zemiros in a sweet voice, followed by Adon Olam.”
R. Adler writes that “over time the custom developed to recite Anim Zemiros on its own, either every day or on Shabbos and festivals.” But we lack the sources to track its precise development.
The poem was first printed in a siddur in 1535 from Istanbul. (I suspect at the end of the daily Shacharit but I am not sure.)
B.S. Jacobson writes: “Since the publication of the Venice edition of the Siddur in 1549, it…appears in all siddurim of the German-Polish rite…” See his The Sabbath Service (1981), p. 327. (This siddur of 1549 follows the Ashkenazic rite. Anim Zemiros is located at the end of the daily Shacharit in this siddur. It never became part of the Sefardic rite.)
Since Anim Zemiros was continually printed in siddurim of the German-Polish rite at the end of the daily Shacharit, it would seem that there was a widespread practice to recite it daily. But based on the objections of certain major authorities (see below), the custom of daily recital slowly diminished, now almost entirely. Notably, it is absent from the daily section in The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (Ashkenaz edition).
Let us analyze some of its text. The first line is: “Anim zemiros ve-shirim e’erog, ki eilecha nafshi taarog.” The last phrase means: “Because for You my soul yearns.” The root ערג with the “yearn” meaning only appears two times in Tanach, at Ps. 42:2 (“nafshi taarog eilecha Elokim”) and Joel 1:20. (We also have this same root with the meaning “to make a garden or flower bed” four times. This root is probably not related.)
The poem ends with the similar phrase: “ki nafshi taarog eilecha.”
Going back to the first line, v’shirim e’erog means “weave songs.” When you realize how the author composed this poem, integrating and adapting verses and midrashim, you understand that “weave” is the perfect word here.
But what about the first two words? אנעים is from the root נעם, which means “pleasant.” The author chose to begin with these two words because he is adapting a phrase from 2 Sam. 23:1, where David is described as: “נעים zemirot Yisrael.” The precise interpretation of this phrase is subject to dispute. A common translation is “the sweet singer of Israel.” Rashi writes that the meaning is that in the Temple, Israel only sang David’s shirot and zemirot. For other interpretations, see the Soncino commentary and Daat Mikra. (The latter mentions the possibility that “zemirot Yisrael” could be a reference to God, as in Ex. 15:2: “ozi ve-zimrat.” The entire phrase would mean that David was “beloved of the God of Israel.”)
The third line begins “midei dabri bi-chevodecha” =when I speak about Your glory. The phrase “midei dabri” is from Jer. 31:19: “Is Ephraim my favorite son, a child of delights? As often as I speak of him (“midei dabri bo”), I remember him more and more…”
As to “homeh libi el dodecha,” “homeh” is an interesting word. To quote from S. Mandelkern, “its essence is a natural noise that living things emit at a time of activity and feeling.” (I no longer have a TV but I recall the sound of Homer Simpson when he anticipated his favorite meal: “HMMM! Rump roast!” This is our המה, which is clearly an onomatopoeia =a word that sounds like what it is.)
In Tanach, the root is sometimes used in connection with מעי (intestines, belly, etc.), which do emit noises. See, e.g., the continuation of Jer. 31:19: hamu mei’ai. Eventually the word seems to have expanded to reflect feelings of longing and arousal without any accompanying sound. In Anim Zemiros, it is used with the heart. (The phrase “homeh li libi” is found at Jer. 4:19 and elsewhere. In the Amidah, we have “yehemu rachamecha,” referring to the arousal of God’s mercy.) “Dodecha” means “your love.” See Shir HaShirim 1:1. So our entire phrase means “my heart longs for Your love.”
R. Adler writes that we do not know how the custom developed for Anim Zemiros’ recital to be by a young child.
Levush (d. 1612, OC 133) was against its daily recital, preferring to limit it to Shabbat and Yom Tov, as there is an idea that enormous praises of God should not be recited frequently. (See similarly Aruch HaShulchan 286:6.) Levush cites the Talmud’s criticism (at Shab. 118b) of one who recites Hallel daily. Vilna Gaon (d. 1797) wanted to limit the prayer to Yom Tov. (Maaseh Rav 53.)
There are two stanzas that begin with resh and two that begin with tav. The latter I understand, as sometimes a doubling is used at the end of a section and tav ends the acrostic section (even though there are additional stanzas). But no reason suggests itself for the doubling of the resh. R. Adler’s book mentions this issue but does not record any explanation.
God’s name (YKVK) only appears once in the poem, in the קשר stanza.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He recalls leading the Riverdale Jewish Center in Anim Zemiros at the young age of 6 in 1964, setting the shul age record at the time. He has not been following over the decades to see if this record still stands.