According to tradition there are ten archetypal songs sung throughout history. These songs stand out among all the other countless songs in Jewish tradition in that each one was written in a state of Divine inspiration or prophesy and came at a climatic moment of transition, transformation or revelation for an individual or all the people. They reflect in general some or all of the following attributes – a high level of awareness of God’s Providence, a sense of mission and purpose, and a sense of completion and wholeness. It is like those rare and unique moments in life when everything seems to fall into place, when everything feels perfect, just as it should be; a moment when everything about life makes sense and we feel an immediate urge to thank and praise God.

As we will see, these songs accompany history from Adam, the first human, to the Messiah, who will lead Israel and all the world to the consummate and final redemption. These songs are sung by both men and women, kings and judges, individuals and the entire people. They are enumerated by the Targum Yonaton as a commentary on the first verse of the Song of Songs, composed be King Solomon.

The first song was sung by Adam after his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. According to the Midrash, Adam came to Cain after he killed Abel and asked how God had judged him (Bereishit Rabbah 22:28). He said that he had repented and God made a “compromise” with him. After God had decreed upon Cain that he would be a fugitive and wander the earth, Cain cried out that his punishment was greater than he could bear and at that point he repented for what he had done. God then said: “therefore whoever slays Cain vengeance will be taken on him seven fold. And God set a mark upon Cain in order that none who found him should smite him” (Genesis 4:10-15).

In the commentary of the Slonimer Rebbe (Netivot Shalom; Genesis, page 29) he quotes an explanation of the “compromise” between God and Cain by the Rebbe of Milkovitz, who explains that the word for the “mark” God set upon Cain is in Hebrew the same word as “sign.” Shabbat is also called a “sign,” as in the verse: “Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Shabbat, to observe the Shabbat throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever” (Exodus 31:16-17). The “compromise,” according to the Rebbe of Milkovitz, was that since his killing Abel could not be totally wiped away, during the week his punishment was to wander as a fugitive, but in reward for repenting he would find rest and peace of mind on Shabbat. (The Slonimer adds that this figuratively applies to each of us as well. During the six days of the week we wander about trying to navigate the obstacles and challenges of the world, but every Shabbat we find rest and peace of mind in the holiness of Shabbat.)

The above Midrash continues by saying that Adam, when he heard this, hit himself on the head and said: “‘This is the power of repentance and I didn’t know it!’ Immediately he stood up and exclaimed: “A Psalm, a Song for the day of Shabbat. It is good to thank God and to sing praise to Your name” (Psalms 92:1).This psalm of individual revelation has been incorporated into our evening and morning Shabbat prayers.

The second song was sung by Moses and the all of Israel after crossing the Reed sea and seeing the Egyptians drowned in the sea. This marks the final act of leaving Egypt and the culmination of generations of slavery and oppression ( Exodus 15:1-19). We are taught that the revelation of God at the sea was so great that what the simplest handmaiden witnessed was greater than even the revelations of Ezekiel the prophet (Mechilta 15:2). The revelation all the people experienced was transformed into spontaneous joy and song. After all Israel sang the song the Torah states: “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her with timbrels and dances.” The song of the sea is included in our prayers every morning.

The third song was song by all of Israel upon receiving water in the desert: “Then Israel sang this song: ‘Spring up Oh well; sing to it; the well the princes dug out, that the nobles of the people delved, with the scepter, with their staves'” (Numbers 21:17). Water is life, especially in the desert. We are taught in addition, that whenever water is mentioned in the Bible it is an allusion to Torah, which is also called a “Torah of life”(Baba Kama 17a; Proverbs 4:2). There are many times water is mentioned in the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, especially in the life of Moses and during the forty years Israel journeyed in the desert. Here, the joy of receiving water on all its various levels of meaning produced a song by all the nation.

The fourth song, HaAzinu, was sung by Moses at the end of his life as a culminating review of the history of the world and the Jewish people, replete with predictions and prophesies for the future. (Deuteronomy 32:1-43). Within this song, according to Ramban, is hidden not only past, present and future history, but all secular knowledge, all the commandments in the Torah, as well as the secrets of each individual and generation until the time of the Messiah.

The fifth song was sung by Joshua after the miraculous and climatic event when he stopped the sun and the moon: “Then Joshua spoke to God on the day when God had delivered up the Emori before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: Sun, stand still in Givon and moon in the valley of Ayalon. And the sun stood still and the moon stayed until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies… So the sun stood still in the middle of the sky and hastened not to go down about a whole day. And there was no day before this or after it, that God hearkened to the voice of a man…” (Joshua 10:12-14). Joshua, according to tradition, was able to stop the sun and moon by actually singing their song.

The sixth song was sung by Deborah and Barak after God delivered Sisera into their hands and they inflicted a decisive victory over Yavin, the king of Canaan. Deborah was both a prophetess and judge in Israel, who “dwelt under the palm tree of Deborah between Rama and Bet-Al in Mount Efrayim, and the children of Israel came to her for judgement” (Judges 4:5). The date palm is always associated with the righteous, as it says: “A righteous one will flourish like a palm tree” (Psalms 92:13). The victory was so great that it was followed by forty years of peace in the land.

The seventh song was sung by Hannah after giving birth to Samuel ( Samuel I; 2:1-10). She suffered terribly for years from being barren and after a heartfelt prayer to God to give her a son, whom she promised she would dedicate to God, her prayers were answered. Her son Samuel became one of the greatest prophets and merited to anoint David as king. From what the text tells us regarding her heartrending prayer, the Sages learned a number of important principles, which became part of the laws of prayer to this day.

The eighth song was sung by David as a culminating expression of thanks: “And David spoke to God the words of this song in the day that God delivered him out of the hand of all his enemies, and out of the hand of Saul” (Samuel II 22:1-51). The closing line of the song has been incorporated into the grace after meals: “He is the tower of salvation for his king and shows mercy to his anointed, David, and to his seed for ever.” Although David wrote many songs as recorded in the Psalms, only this one is written in the unique form of a song, similar to the way the song of the sea and HaAzinu are written in a Torah scroll.

The ninth song, the Song of Songs, was written by king Solomon, who according to the Zohar was inspired to compose it on the day he inaugurated the first Temple in Jerusalem. Due to its great depths of meaning and its allegorical nature being couched in the guise of a passionate love story, the Sages considered leaving it out of the Bible when it was canonized. Rabbi Akiva, the greatest sage of his generation, disagreed and stated that all the books of scripture are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies. This great love story can be understood on many different levels especially as the consummate description of the love between God and the Jewish people. Its verses have profoundly influenced Jewish art, music, poetry and literature, and by extension the Western and Islamic world as well. In this sense it can truly be called the “Song of Songs.’

The tenth song is waiting the Messiah and the final redemption, when the exiles returning home will “sing a new song to God.” This final song represents a time when the purpose of human history will be revealed and all peoples of the earth will worship God as one. This joyous song will express a totally new understanding of life and represents the ultimate sense of completion, purpose and wholeness, the very definition of song.

In summarizing the above ideas about music we see that its appearance and importance accompany mankind from its inception till the awaited Messianic era. It emanates from the mind and heart as a pure expression of the soul and has been faithfully recorded and made an integral part of Jewish tradition and ritual.

Throughout the generations, and especially during the nearly two millennium of exile, song has accompanied the Jewish people. The great poets of the golden ages of Babylon and Spain bequeathed to us piyutim, special poetry and songs integrated into our holiday prayers, as well as kinot, sad historical eulogies, recited and sung on Tisha B’Av, the day set aside for mourning the two destroyed Temples, as well as many other tragic occurrences throughout Jewish history.

The three meals of Shabbat, the center place of so much of the spirit and essence of the day is replete with zemirot, the special songs of Shabbat. These songs complied over many generations, locations and eras, symbolize the ongoing development and love the Jewish people have with expressing themselves in music and song.

Our great leaders, judges, kings, prophets, sages, rabbis and mystics have, and still use, music in various ways to express the deepest longings of the heart, to heal the spirit, receive Divine inspiration and as a way to praise God.

We now turn to prayer, another means of coming close to God, and we will see the profound and essential connection between it and song.