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The Song ‘Yah Ribon Olam’

This zemer, song, was authored by Yisrael ben Moshe Najara (c. 1555- 1625, biography is below). His name ישראל is spelled by the first letter of each of the five stanzas.

Surprisingly, the first three paragraphs of this zemer are based on a statement by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. At Dan. 3:32-33, after seeing a miracle that God performed, Nebuchadnezzar declares: “The signs and wonders that the Most High God has worked for me I am pleased to declare before me. Great are His signs; how mighty His wonders. His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation.” The miracle Nebuchadnezzar saw was Daniel’s three colleagues being saved from a fiery furnace.

The zemer does not mention Shabbat. Here is its text in English:

God, Master of this world and all worlds.

You are the Ruler, above all rulers.

It is beautiful to declare before You

Your mighty deeds and wonders.

I will sing Your praises

in the morning and the evenings.

To You Holy God

Who created every soul:

the holy angels and mortals,

the beasts of the field,

and the birds of the sky.

Your deeds are great and awesome.

You, who lowers the high ones

and raises the bent ones.

Even if a man lives a thousand years

he won’t be able to understand Your greatness.

God, to whom belongs honor and greatness,

Redeem your sheep

from the mouth of lions,

and take Your nation out of exile.

The nation that You choose from all the nations.

Return to Your temple

and to the Holy of Holies,

the place where spirits and souls will rejoice,

and will sing to You praises and רחשין (see below)

in Jerusalem the city of beauty.

 Second Stanza

צפרא: This word means “morning” in Aramaic. The root צפר appears only one time as a verb in Tanach. This is at Judges 7:3, where we have יצפר. It has been suggested that it means “leave in the early morning” here, but most scholars view this as unlikely. Jastrow, p. 1298, relates the “morning” meaning to a “bright” meaning of this same root.

רמשא: This word means “night” in Aramaic. Jastrow suggests a connection with the Hebrew אמש, which means “last night.”

עירין: The entire phrase is: “irin kadishin u-vnei enasha.” עירין means “angels.” It appears three times in Daniel chapter 4. See, e.g., 4:10: “ir ve-kadish min shemaya nachat, an עיר and a holy one came down from heaven; the meaning is “a holy עיר”). To better explain why this word means “angel,” there is a Hebrew word ציר that means “messenger.” It appears a few times in the Nach. Many times when a Hebrew word has a צ, the Aramaic form of the word will have an ע. For example, the Aramaic word for צאן (sheep) is עאן. See Jastrow, p. 1034.

(We even have the Aramaic word for sheep in this zemer. In the fourth stanza we have: ענך, your sheep. The aleph dropped as it does often in this word.)

 Third Stanza

רברבין means “great.” It is related to רב and רבב. It appears many times in the book of Daniel.

מכיך means “make low.” In biblical Hebrew we have roots מכך and מוך, which both have this meaning. The Hebrew word נמוך is the niphal of מוך, was made low.

 Fifth Stanza

תוב: Here I have to tell a story about my daughter Rachel. In reading rabbinic sources in her teen years, she noticed the word תו, which means “also.” The Baalei HaTosafot use it often for “another” answer: “ותו,” and also. She said to me that תו cannot be a word, as it does not have enough root letters. I looked it up in Jastrow and lo and behold she was right. All those תו words are really a shortened form of תוב, which means “return, again,” the Aramaic form of the Hebrew: שוב.

יחדון: This word means “will rejoice.” See Jastrow, p. 426. It is related to the Hebrew חדוה.

רחשין: This is a difficult one to translate. I have seen the translation “שבחה,” song of praise, but it has no basis. The root רחש appears in two contexts in Tanach: 1) a מרחשת, which is a cooking utensil, perhaps a pan, and at 2) Ps. 45:2 “rachash libi.” The original meaning of the root was probably “to move,” as the items being cooked move around. In the Psalms verse, perhaps something new and exciting is moving within the person’s heart. Or perhaps the heart is “whispering,” as רחש also has this related meaning. Therefore, in our zemer, the meaning might be an “emotional song” or a “whispered song.”

Milon Even-Shoshan (p. 1772) points me to another poem by our author where he uses a form of our word. He has: “rachashu shirot arevot,” songs that are sweet. Perhaps “rachashu” means “whispered” there and we can extrapolate to our poem.

(I looked at how the new RCA Siddur, Siddur Avodat Halev, translated our word but it has a non-literal rhyming translation. Rabbi Sacks also has a non-literal rhyming translation. Neither of these translations were useful on this word.)

קרתא: This word means “city.” (“Nitturei Karta” means “Guardians of the City.”) We do have similar words a few times in the Aramaic section of the book of Ezra, chap. 4.

The Hebrew form of this word is קריה. We all know this word from Isaiah 1:21 “kiryah ne’emanah.” It appears many times in Tanach. Its root is קרה. One of the meanings of this root is “meet.” Fundamentally, a city is a meeting place. See Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 900 and E. Klein’s etymological dictionary, p. 594.

In this context, I also have to mention the ancient city of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), founded by colonists from Tyre, Phoenicians, in the late ninth century BCE. The name in English, “Carthage,” derives from the Latin which ultimately derives from the Phoenician-Canaanite: kart + chadash, city + new. (I thank Leonard Berkowitz for this insight.)

Long ago, I discussed the etymology of מדינה, province or region. Its etymology is worth repeating. The root of the word is דין: law and jurisdiction. Fundamentally, what creates a region? The fact that people are united by a legal system that has authority and jurisdiction over them.


The Najara family was originally from Spain. It is believed that Reb Yisrael’s grandfather went to Constantinople following the 1492 expulsion. Reb Yisrael’s father lived in Damascus and Safed. Reb Yisrael Najara was born around 1555, perhaps in Damascus. He eventually served as a sofer and rabbi there. In his later years, he was a rabbi in Gaza, where he is buried. His father had been a disciple of Reb Isaac Luria. In 1587, Reb Israel published the “Yah Ribon” zemer in his volume of poems titled “Zemirot Yisrael.” The first edition of this work had 109 poems. The third edition had 346 poems. He published other works as well. See Encyclopaedia Judaica 12:798.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He has authored five books but no poems.

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