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.
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 an additional site was needed.
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 confess that I post only tunes that I personally like, and so mostly the tunes here are what I would call "attuned to the Western musical ear", though there are a couple that belong on the Eastern or Western edges of that category.
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 remarkable hymn on the Mah Yafit page.
The site is still under development and is being updated fairly frequently. I hope it helps you add new music to your table repertoire!
Last update: 1 September 2016