Ozi ve-Zimrat Yah

Ozi Ve Zimrat Yah lyrics

Ozi ve-Zimrat Yah is the very first chant which I performed as a Kirtan. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that it be the final track on a  Kirtan RabbiCD. I had a harmonium and had been playing it by myself, when, in 2005, I tentatively brought it out to close the healing service at a tai ch’i retreat in Sedona. No one knew quite what to expect when this Rabbi-martial artist sat down at a  harmonium; most of the crowd wasn’t Jewish and certainly didn’t know from Hebrew. Much to my surprise, within moments, the whole room was swaying; people from all over the country, from many traditions were … singing Hebrew! That night I got one of my first, and still favorite, testimonials: “I never thought I’d go to a Jewish hootenanny!” I hope that continues to describe  Kirtan Rabbi events long into the future.

Ozi ve-Zimrat Yah, va-ye-hi li lishuah is a fascinating, if grammatically difficult phrase. It bears the distinction of being the only verse in the the Hebrew Bible which occurs in all three of its parts: in the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. In some ways, the phrase makes no sense. It’s not really clear where the verb is, and what the subject would be, if such a verb could be found. It literally translates as: “My strength and the chant of Yah…and He has been my deliverance.” The problem is solved, however, if one looks at the phrase’s appearance in Isaiah (12:2) which is a variation from the other two occurrences. There, the ineffable Name of God, lacking in the other two versions, appears along with the name Yah. This is probably the grammatically correct version. It makes for the following translation (which itself is not without difficulties): “My strength and the song of Yah is Adonai, and he has become my deliverance.” In any case, as someone who loves singing in synagogue and banging on a Shabbat table, I have always fixated on the construct,  zimrat-Yah, song of Yah. If I see Hebrew Kirtan as anything, it is as an attempt to be a “Chant of Yah.” So, it is with exacting intentionality that I let the CD end with a repetition of that phrase.

I learned  Ozi ve-Zimrat Yah – as so much else – at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. I had no idea who was its author. Nor did anyone else. It was simply one of those tunes which we designated as  mi-Sinai, as having been given along with the Torah at Mount Sinai. I later discovered that it was by Rabbi Shefa Gold. (That discovery in itself is a funny story which I am sure there will be occasion to tell.) Apparently, as the song made its way through the Jewish musical world, it become a bit altered. When I wrote Reb Shefa to ask if was ok for me to record it, she not only generously gave me permission to do so, but she even encouraged me to go ahead and be creative with it. (I told her I was going to add more words. More on that just below.) She had only one request: that I listen to her recording of it, and that I digestthat before I made any decisions to do it differently.

Reb Shefa also offered to share with me the  kavannah (intention) which she uses whenever she sings her chant. I would like to share this beautiful teaching with you.

My Strength (balanced) with the Song of God will be my salvation.

In this practice I find and express my strength, my will, my effort and desire when I chant “Ozi”. When I chant “v’zimrat Yah,” I open and surrender to the God-song and let it be sung through me. Then in the last phrase, “Vayahi li lishuah,” I balance those two aspects of my practice.

Finally, the listener will notice that I have placed additional words into Reb Shefa’s original. This is a relatively recent development in my singing of the chant. Clued in by my friend, the liturgist Rabbi Jill Hammer, Proverbs 31:25 jumped out at me. It was the fact that the word  Oz(strength) appeared there that made me add it to  Ozi ve-Zimrat Yah. And I loved the sentiment: “Strength and beauty are her vestments; and she has laughed (or played) to the last day.” This final phrase,  va-tischak l’yom acharon, is a wonderful statement. It is perfect for Kirtan because the verb there means laugh and play – which is so much what Kirtan is about. But, that said, it didn’t really work poetically. Then my eyes ran down to the next verse (31:26). I saw the phrase,  ve-Torat Chesed al leshonah (“…and a teaching of love is on her tongue”). The -ah of  leshonah rhymed perfectly with the -ah of  lishuah, and I knew I had it: I combined the first half of verse 25 with the second half of 26.

What resulted was a most beautiful sentiment: “Strength and beauty are her vestments,… and a Torah (teaching) of love is on her tongue.” In short order, I knew that this phrase was about Rabbi Shefa Gold herself. There is no one who has done more for Hebrew chant than Reb Shefa; we are all but a pale shadow of her strength and beauty in song. With that in mind, I dedicate this additional verse to my teacher from afar, Rabbi Shefa Gold.