Yah Ribon Olam

Yah Ribon Olam lyrics
Many consider this, with the exception of Kaddish perhaps, to be Kirtan Rabbi’s biggest “hit.” It certainly is a beautiful chant which possesses a wonderful combination of the slow contemplative with the rocking ecstatic.

This chant is oh-so-loosely based on a melody I heard while driving across the country and listening to some music of the followers of Sai Baba. I heard a word in the song which sounded to me like the Aramaic word, Almaya (world; also found in Kaddish). “Almaya, almaya,almaya,” I said to myself. “Yah Ribon Olam!” The rest was history.

During my teaching on this chant, I pointed out that I have received complaints about the utterly masculine nature of this chant. Especially, in that God is referred to here as the “King of kings.” I would like to see this chant become more inclusive some day, but, for the time being, I have decided not only to let “King of kings” remain, but to emphasize it. I purposefully did not translate the phrase in a PC way, for instance as, “Sovereign of sovereigns.”

In its day, the phrase “King of kings” was itself a most radical statement. For, in antiquity, earthly kings were often seen as possessing divine investiture. In other words, they were practically gods on earth. The vassal or the citizen of the kingdom had to acknowledge the king to be God incarnate. In Israelite religion, a different idea appeared. Only God could be King; only God fully ruled the created order. Thus, by calling God the King of kings, scripture served to remind mortals, including the sovereign, that no one was God but God – an idea also emphasized by our Muslim cousins.

Originally, this chant was my version of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony. I would draw the community into the slow, gorgeous melody and then – suddenly – shout out the second motif at full blast and full speed. This was a lot of fun (and could still happen to you!). But, I am quite glad that I took the advice of Rabbi David and Ariel Rosen Ingber which they offered me over a meal. They convinced me that the change was too sudden and that it destroyed all the beauty of the opening melody. I resisted but then realized the virtue of their words and inserted a slow, building section between the slow beginning and the full-on second motif. Hence the “Ingber-Rosen Bridge” was born.

As you can hear on the CD, I mess around with the final word of the chant – and the CD by changing Almaya into AlmaYah! I don’t remember why or how I did that, but it does occur to me that, with this twist, the first word of the CD is Shema, listen! … and the last is Yah!