Sunday, April 03, 2011

The original Shlock Rock: R. Yisrael Najara's 16th century religious Hebrew poetry set to Middle Eastern rock music.

Everyone knows the Sabbath hymn יה רבון עלם ועלמיא, by Rabbi Yisrael Najara. My guess is that most people don't know that he published this, and many other, songs in Safet in 1586 in his book זמירות ישראל. At the start of each of his poems he gives a short instruction, telling the reader how to sing it. So, for example, in the beginning of Kah Ribbon, he writes "לחן ייא ראבי שאלים שאילמי ערעבי ראשע."

Here are the pages in the first two editions (second is more clear):

What he means to say is that the לחן, or melody, is to the tune of the Arabic ייא ראבי שאלים שאילמי in the mode of ראשט. So if you know how to sing ייא ראבי שאלים שאילמי you're good to go. In case this isn't clear, it would be like the instruction to sing אשר ברא to the לחן of לאנד דאוון אנדר only in this case it would אוסטריליאש rather than ערעבי.

Najara's hymn book is full of instructions of this sort. The melodies are not only Arabic, but also תורקי (Turkish), Spanish and Greek. Almost every song is written to be sung to some kind of non-Jewish tune. In the introduction he writes that his purpose is basically to provide Jewish, religious songs for the youth.

It should be noted that he didn't know dozens and dozens of gentile songs by accident. He spent a lot of time in environments where he learned these songs, which was not lost on contemporaries who did not consider it a particularly pure pastime to hang out in clubs all night, so to speak. R. Chaim Vital wrote that it's true that his songs are alright, but he was drunk all the time. He also accuses R. Yisrael Najara of homosexual behavior, and of sleeping with a married woman. And cooking on shabbos.

Whatever anyone thinks of this stratagem (and/ or the sincerity of the author) he was hardly the first to try his hand at writing religious Jewish songs meant to be sung to non-Jewish tunes. We generally know about the practices from its condemnation. So, for example, the great Masoretic scholar R. Menachem di Lonzano doesn't mind the idea of singing the Jewish liturgy in synagogues to non-Jewish songs, but he is bothered by the idea of specifically writing a Hebrew song with the words meant to correspond with a secular gentile tune in the form of sound alikes. The example he gives is how the words שם נורא sound just like the word signora (שתי ידות [Venice 1618], pg. 142a). It's unclear to me if he is talking about an actual song, or a potential one. In the next paragraph he goes off on R. Yisrael Najara.

Possibly the most notorious user of this technique was famed 18th century Sabbatian Trinitarian Kabbalist Nechemia Chiya Chayon, who seemed to have been particularly fond of the consonance between "La Bella Margherita," a popular Italian song about a beautiful woman named Margaret ("as white as a flower"), and the Aramaic phrase "לא באלהא מרגליתא." His ditty, to be sung after reading the Zohar and Idra, begins like this:

לא באלהא מרגליתא בפום דכל בר חי
כי אם בפום רבינו הוא שמעון בר יוחאי

Or at least that's what his opponents said. He himself did not deny it, but pointed out that this is something that Jews do all over the Ottoman lands where he was from. Here is the verse, at the end of his רזא דיחודא:

See these two posts (here and here) for some examples of Hebrew poetry that also work as Italian poetry. These are a little bit different, as they were original works in both languages.


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it was Piamenta who popularized and sang Asher Bara to Down Under. Not Schlock Rock.

  2. You are correct. I didn't mean to imply otherwise, but now I see how that impression arose. Asher Bara was my example, and the title of the post is just allusive to the fact that Najara claimed a kind of kiruv purpose for what he did.

  3. Wow. Does anyone know what this "ya rabi salim salimi" song is? It would be awesome to sing Kah Ribon with its original melody.

  4. Mar Gavriel (who else?)7:24 PM, April 03, 2011

    Joseph Yahalom has a book Ottoman Melodies, Hebrew Hymns, in which he identifies the tunes to Najara's poems.

  5. the syrian community has several (some relatively recent) "pizmonim" in their siddur with instructions as to tune / melody (including "god bless america".)

    (while on the subject of "god bless america", i was once at (the biggest synagogue in kgh) where they sang kdusha musaf (middle / end) to "god bless america". anyone know about it?)

  6. anywhere to find the tune online?

  7. mishenichnas adar,

  8. One of Najara's descendents, R. Jacob Najara, was a Sabbatian. Of course Vital's son also climbed aboard. :p

    1. I am curious, but what is your sources to this?


  9. Years ago I heard Velvel Pasternak tell a story on the radio about how some Chassidim (possibly Chabad) decided to "refurbish" some tunes, including "La Marseillaise." Subsequently, when someone heard this tune sung at a simcha (with words replaced by "Da die dee die die die die DIE dee-die") and observed that this was the French national anthem, he was told, "Don't you believe it!"

    A reverse process (moridin bakodesh?) is described in a recent Jewish Forward article about Lord Byron's collaboration with composer Isaac Nathan to produce "Original Hebrew Melodies" (1815). One of the pieces included, the famous poem "She Walks in Beauty," was set to a Sephardic tune for "Lekha Dodi."

  10. Great post!
    If only we had a link to an audio file with the original niggun!
    I know a great talmid hacham and scholar who sings Tzur Mishelo to the tune of bob dylan's Love Minus Zero.
    A further extension of the whole concept is taking the goyish niggun itself with the lyrics and being ma'ale the nitzutzos by changing just a few words, like the Kalever Rebbe's Szol a Kakash


  12. Anonymous,

    Thank you very much for that link. Fascinating!

  13. Kel Adon TTTO "For the Longest Time" (Joel) = classic.

  14. I remember hearing that that annoying "nussach" lazy chazzonim use when they don't want to think of a tune was actually a medieval song that was "niskadesh."

    I find it interesting that RCV didn't like RYN -according to wikipedia RYN "corresponded" with R. Bezalel Ashkenazi, the ARI's teacher.

    Also, ironically "Currybone" is the only zemer I like. How many times, and in how many ways, can you sing "Yay, it's Shabbos, let's get drunk and eat foie gras."

  15. IIRC the "reason" why Kah Ribbon is considered heilige at all is because the Ari said so. It seems like more people thought R. Yisrael Najara was a bum then the opposite.

  16. @Dan Klien: Chabad does sing the tune to La Marseillaise, but everyone there knows where the melody comes from.

    (More interesting to me is the source of the tune Chabad calls “Napoleon’s March”. Anyone know?)

  17. I probably should have mentioned that the annoying lazy medieval tune was for Kel Adon. Oops.

  18. You should know that it's a fairly well-established principle in sephardic litrugy (at least among the sephardim of Jerusalem and Syria) that על ערבים בתוכה תלינו כנורותינו (on the Arabs we hung or musical tradition). R' Ovadia says so in Yechave Da'at (I don't know where, exactly). See for an article by Ha'aretz discussing this.

  19. This may possibly be the tune in question for יה רבון עלם.

  20. A popular article on our topic by Yahalomi:

  21. kbloom, great find. Whether it's the tune in question or not, it certainly was beautiful to listen to.

  22. Yair Dalal, a leading maintainer of the Baghdadi musical tradition cites a melody close to this one as being the original because Najara's notations put it in the 'Rast' makam, which corresponds to the Indian 'Rast' raga which whence came the Arabic makam system.

  23. "R. Chaim Vital wrote that it's true that his songs are alright, but he was drunk all the time. He also accuses R. Yisrael Najara of homosexual behavior, and of sleeping with a married woman. And cooking on shabbos."

    What is your source?
    Thank you.




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