Jewish Table Singing

By Rabbi Jonathan Cohen

On Shabbat and holidays when Jews traditionally gather with family and friends around a festive table decked with their finest accessories and the best food and drink they can afford, it is traditional to add to the special atmosphere by interspersing the meal with table songs that praise the Almighty, recount details of the observance of the day, and generally introduce a note of sanctity and good cheer.

Table singing of this kind (as opposed to ribald beer hall singing and minstrelsy) is pretty much unique to the Jewish people. It is an important thread in the fabric of Jewish family life and a great way of engendering community identity in one's children.

Companion sites

London Sephardi MusicThe beautiful musical tradition of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of London is the subject of this website, which includes many MP3 recordings, and is still growing on a regular basis.
London Sephardi MinhagA companion website to the above, dealing with the customs of the London S&P.

I started writing up texts and translations of some of my favorite table songs, and making recordings of the melodies to which they are sung, as part of my website on the music of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardim of London. However I quickly found myself on territory that was neither Spanish and Portuguese, nor even remotely Sephardi, and came to the conclusion that I needed an additional site.

This site is therefore devoted to table songs from a variety of sources, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and - if the truth be told - non-Jewish sources too; because to pretend that the music in our various communities developed independently of the music of the surrounding culture would be patently dishonest. I post only tunes that I personally like, and so mostly the tunes here are what you might call "attuned to the Western musical ear", though there are a couple that belong on the Eastern edges of that category. Also I avoid very well known tunes you can find easily on other websites.

Unless otherwise indicated all recordings are of me alone or my children and me singing together.

The first song I worked on for this site was "Mah Yafit" which is in many ways the quintessential Ashkenazi table song; totally different in structure and feel from its counterparts in the Medieval Sephardi world. I was initially put off it by its length and the fact that it usually appears in books of Shabbat songs printed as a solid block of text not separated into verses. Even when you do split it up, the rhyming system is not obvious at first glance. When I finally got around to investigating its rhyming structure I became fascinated; and when I started to look at traditional tunes and chose a couple for our Shabbat table I became a devotee! Read about this unusual hymn on the Mah Yafit page.

The site is added to and updated fairly frequently. I hope it helps you add new music to your table repertoire!