I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost … in translation.
– Robert Frost <1>
When Hashem tells Moshe to “write this song (shirah) for yourselves” in Parashat Vayelekh (Devarim 31:19), the pshat is that it’s referring to the song that comes next – Haazinu. And yet, the halakhah says that it’s referring to the entire Torah, and that this is actually the last of the #613 mitzvot – write a sefer torah.<2>
In other words, the Torah refers to itself as a shirah. What are the implications?
For starters, we should clarify the meaning of shirah. In modern Hebrew, there’s a distinction between shir, which means a song, and shirah, which means a poem. Nevertheless, in Tanakh there is no such distinction.<3> This explains why some commentaries think the Torah is a poem, and some think it’s a song. Let’s explore these two metaphors.
THE TORAH IS A POEM
The first approach is that the Torah is a poem. The one who most famously discusses this is the Netziv (the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Volozhin), in the introduction to Haamek Davar, his commentary on the Chumash. The contemporary rabbi who translated this selection calls it “one of the most beautiful pieces on Torah, and on poetry, that I have ever read.” Here it is:
We still have to understand how the whole Torah could be called a poem! Surely it is not written in the language of poetry. Rather, the answer is that Torah has in it the nature and the richness of poetry.
A. (The Nature) – For the Torah speaks in a fragmented language. And it is well-known to anyone who has studied that this language of fragments is very different from the language of prose. In a poem, the idea is not fully explained, the way it is in prose. So one has to make notes on the margins, to say that one rhyme means this and another rhyme means that. And that is not just creative interpretation. That is simply the nature of poetry, even the most basic poetry. And it is further understood that one who deeply studies an idea expressed in this poetic form becomes connected to it. The illuminating language of the poem and its unique grammar is far sweeter to him than to one who simply comes to read it quickly and extract the main idea…
This is the nature of the whole Torah as well, whose stories are not fully explained. Rather, one has to make insights and explanations based on the intricacies of the language. And this is not just creative interpretation (drush). On the contrary, this is the most basic way (pshat) to understand the verses…
B. (The Richness) – In poetry, there is a richness that comes from its having been adorned with all kinds of hints, in a way that isn’t done with prose. [Examples are] the custom of using the first letter in each line to spell out the alphabet, or to write out the poet’s name. There is a richness that is [unique] to this fragmented language and not to prose. And it is well-known that in order to achieve this level of richness, the poet is often forced to bend the language so that the beginning letters end up being the ones he is seeking.
So it is exactly with the whole of the Torah, all of it. Aside from the most basic, simple reading, there are in every word many secrets and hidden ideas. Because of this, there are many instances when the language of the Torah is not to be read literally. And all this is not [just] true for the Holy [Chumash] alone, but with all [of Tanach].<4>
In other words, the Netziv thinks that what typifies poetry in general and the Torah in particular is its intricate language and complexity, both of which leave it open to many interpretations.
Rabbi Dr. Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections at the National Library of Israel, extends this idea:
[T]he laws and ordinances of the Holy One, blessed be He, were given to us deliberately in poetic style because the essence of the poetic approach, more so than any other style, made it possible to embed and conceal new and special ways of interpretation, which we can discover only by toiling over the Torah. Although today we hardly [ever] come up with new interpretations of Scripture, writing Torah novellae (chiddushim) on the Talmud is for us the principal way in which we perform the commandment to “write down this poem,” for it enables us to participate in the literary-interpretive dialogue of the Torah.<5>
According to this first approach, the Torah is misunderstood if it is read as prose – in fact, it is poetry.<6> In the words of Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the official rabbi of the Kotel: “Whoever tries to read poetry as prose will err and misconstrue the intent of the poet, and so it is with reading the Torah. The Torah cannot be read as though it were a dry narrative that stands on its own. Rather, one must . . . discern its style with the help of the Oral Torah and tradition. Only in this way can one comprehend and connect to the depth of its intent.”<7>
THE TORAH IS A SONG
The second approach is that the Torah is a song. We can say that Hashem composed the Torah as a musical score, and used it to sing the world into existence.<8> We already have metaphors describing Hashem’s role in creation as speaker,<9> architect,<10> and artist.<11> Singer can be added to this illustrious list as well.<12>
Rav Charlop, one of the main students of Rav Kook, all but says this. In his opinion, the world is one big song, and every part of the world is a note in it. Since God “looked into the Torah and then created the world,”<10> the Torah is a song as well. When the halakhah says that a sefer torah is pasul (invalid) if it’s missing even one letter,<13> that’s because it is like a song with a note missing (even though only someone who knows the song really well would notice). When we keep the mitzvot, we are playing the notes of the song. That’s why it’s vital to get every last detail right in mitzvah fulfillment – so the song is played right.<14>
Torah is compared to a song in other ways as well. For example, Rav Herzog, the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, says that just as everyone at any age can appreciate a good piece of music, so too everyone at any age can have an appreciation for Torah.<15> The Arukh HaShulchan uses the song metaphor to present a Torah pluralism:
In every [Torah] debate – whether between Tannaim, Amoraim, Geonim, or Poskim – in truth, one who properly understands [will see] that they are the words of the Living God, and all of them reflect some aspect of halakhah. On the contrary, this is the glory of our holy and pure Torah. The entire Torah is called “shirah,” and the glory of a song is expressed when the kolot (voices or sounds) are different from each other – the beauty of it is in [the harmony]. A swimmer in the sea of Talmud will appreciate the beauty of all the different kolot – each and every one of them.<16>
Rabbi Rabinowitz cites the Arukh HaShulchan and concludes: “When a person writes a Torah for himself, he studies it again and again, delving into it, examining and comparing, and then he can add his understanding to the same symphony of different notes, notes that unite to create that amazing creation – the Song of the Torah.”<17>
Finally, the Torah is a song in the sense that emotion is (or should be) a vital part of it. Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook gave a sichah (talk) in which he said:
The whole Torah is a song. The whole Gemara and the whole Shulchan Arukh are a song, which reveals their flow of Godly life. My father [Rav Kook], of blessed memory, came up with a proverb: “Just as yesh chukim le-shirah (there are rules for composing a poem), so too yesh shirah be-chukim (there is singing in the rules).” Since the Torah is a song, [it’s appropriate that] we learn Torah with a niggun (tune). [In the words of Tehillim 35:10:] “My whole being will exclaim, ‘Who is like you, God?’” [Furthermore, the machzor includes the words:] “Hachayot yeshoreru (the angels sing)” – and we sing with them.<18>
According to this second approach, the Torah is misunderstood if it is read as plain lyrics (or poetry) – in fact, it is a song with its own music. In the words of Rav Kook, “Many of the deep aspects [of the Torah] cannot be understood unless one is properly prepared emotionally. This is why the Torah is called a song.”<19>
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks elaborates beautifully:
And why call the Torah a song? Because if we are to hand on our faith and way of life to the next generation, it must sing. Torah must be affective, not just cognitive. It must speak to our emotions. As Antonio Damasio showed empirically in Descartes’ Error, though the reasoning part of the brain is central to what makes us human, it is the limbic system, the seat of the emotions, that leads us to choose this way, not that. If our Torah lacks passion, we will not succeed in passing it on to the future. Music is the affective dimension of communication, the medium through which we express, evoke and share emotion. Precisely because we are creatures of emotion, music is an essential part of the vocabulary of mankind.. . .
Song is central to the Judaic experience. We do not pray; we daven, meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah. Instead we chant it, each word with its own cantillation. Even rabbinical texts are never merely studies; we chant them with the particular sing-song known to all students of Talmud. Each time and text has its specific melodies. The same prayer may be sung to half-a-dozen different tunes, depending on whether it is part of the morning, afternoon or evening service, and whether the day is a weekday, a Sabbath, a festival, or one of the High Holy Days. There are different cantillations for biblical readings, depending on whether the text comes from Torah, the Prophets, or the Ketuvim (“the Writings”). Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic landscape.
Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it modulates into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. Music speaks to something deeper than the mind. If we are to make Torah new in every generation, we have to find ways of singing its song a new way. The words never change, but the music does.<20>
In conclusion, when we refer to the Torah as a shirah, we mean that it is both poem and song. Its texts are intricate and demand interpretation, and at the same time they are uplifting and inspiring. In this way, the Torah lets us teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.<21>
1. Robert Frost, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry (1959). The complete quote is: “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.”
2. Rambam, Hilkhot Tefillin, Mezuzah, VeSefer Torah 7:1.
3. Rabbi Dr. Ron S. Kleinman, “Al HaTorah Ke’Shirah’,” Bar Ilan’s Daf Parashat Hashavua, Simchat Torah (undated). http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/simchat1.html It was also published in MiPeirot HaIlan: Al Parashat HaShavua (Bar Ilan Press, 1998), pp. 597-599.
4. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv), Haamek Davar, Kidmat HaEmek (introduction), #3. Translated in Rabbi David Kasher, “The Poetry of Torah – Parshat Ha’azinu.” http://parshanut.com/post/98312914296/the-poetry-of-torah-parshat-haazinu (I modified the translation slightly, using parenthesis and brackets.)
5. Rabbi Dr. Aviad Stollman, “‘Your Laws are Songs for Me’ (Ps. 119:54),” Bar Ilan’s Daf Parashat Hashavua, Haazinu 2006. http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/haazinu/sto.html
6. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Shmonah Kvatzim 3:308.
7. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, “Parashat Vayelech: The Song of the Torah,” The Jerusalem Post Magazine, October 7, 2016, p. 42. http://www.jpost.com/Not-Just-News/Parashat-Vayelech-The-Song-of-the-Torah-469560
8. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (1977), the first section: “Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur.” http://www.ae-lib.org.ua/texts-c/tolkien__the_silmarillion__en.htm#ainulindale
9. “With ten statements, the world was created” (Pirkei Avot 5:1).
10. “When the Holy One, blessed be He created the world, He looked into the Torah and then created the world” (Zohar, Terumah 168a).
11. “There’s no artist (tzayar) like our God” (Megillah 14a). See my Vayakhel 5771 article, “Hashem is the Ultimate Artist.” http://harova.org/torah/view.asp?id=1438
12. This is how Ezra Klinghoffer phrased it in his Bar Mitzvah speech, September 21, 2014 (http://www.michaelmedved.com/column/guest-blog-ezra-klinghoffer/): “The Midrash says that God in creating the world looked in the Torah – as an architect in building a house would look in his blueprints. God is an architect. But I think He’s also a singer. A beautiful image is suggested by my favorite fantasy author, J.R.R. Tolkien. In his book The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells the history of his mythical world, Middle Earth, before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, going back to a creation story. In the beginning, writes Tolkien, the One God taught song to his angelic beings, the Ainur, who sang before him just as we know angels do before the God of Israel. In this way, as Tolkien tells it, God used song to create his world. Is it going too far to say our God, Hashem, not only spoke but, using the Torah as His instrument and His song, sang the world into existence?”
13. Rambam, Ibid. 7:11.
14. Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, Mei Marom, Vol. 13: Al Siddur HaTefillah (Jerusalem: Beit Zvul, 5758), p. 178. Based on this, one contemporary author argues that we should look at Judaism less as a religion and more as a song. See Rabbi Yonatan Milo, “HaTorah – Shirah VeTavim,” M’at Min HaOr #565 (Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5770), p. 12. http://www.tora.co.il/parasha/meat/nizavim_vayelech_70.doc
15. Rabbi Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, as cited by Rabbi Yissocher Frand, “Rav Herzog on the Comparison of Torah to a Song,” June 7, 2002. http://torah.org/torah-portion/ravfrand-5760-haazinu/
16. Rabbi Yechiel Mikhel Epstein, Arukh HaShulchan, introduction (published at the beginning of Vol. 1 of Choshen Mishpat). Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (see below) paraphrases this elegantly: “Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein in the introduction to the Arukh ha-Shulchan, Choshen Mishpat, writes that the Torah is compared to a song because, to those who appreciate music, the most beautiful choral sound is a complex harmony with many different voices singing different notes. So, he says, it is with the Torah and its myriad commentaries, its ‘seventy faces.’ Judaism is a choral symphony scored for many voices, the written text its melody, the oral tradition its polyphony.”
17. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, “Parshat Vayelech: Singing the Torah,” The Jerusalem Post, September 18, 2015, p. 23. http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Parshat-Vayelech-Singing-the-Torah-416485
18. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook, Sichot HaRav Zvi Yehudah – Devarim (Jerusalem, 5765), p. 522.
19. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Igrot HaRaYah 1:89 (p. 94). Compare the formulation of Rabbi Sacks: “The Torah is God’s libretto, and we, the Jewish people, are His choir. Collectively we have sung God’s song. We are the performers of His choral symphony.”
20. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “Torah as Song (Vayelech 5775),” September 16, 2015. http://www.rabbisacks.org/torah-as-song-vayelech-5775/
21. The reference is not to the jingle in the 1971 Coca-Cola commercial, but to the subsequent full-length single by The New Seekers entitled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).”