"If you hear that same sweet song again, will you know why?"
ーGarcia / Hunter, "Bird Song"
The new year of the trees, Tu Bishvat, typically occurs around the same time as Shabbat Shirah, when we read the Torah portion of Beshalach recounting the Israelites jubilant song after crossing the sea to freedom from Egyptian slavery. There is an old tradition to feed birds before Shabbat Shirah in acknowledgement of their song, which is said to have inspired this spontaneous singing on the shores of the Reed Sea. In this source sheet, we look at sources describing the songs of both trees and birds, searching for new ways to inspire our own music and prayer. Related songs and videos are interwoven with these texts, but you might also consider checking out the companion playlists compiled by Rising Song Records on Spotify and Mixcloud:
"Yonati" is from Joey Weisenberg's second album, Transformation of a Nigun, which can be streamed and downloaded from Rising Song Records on Bandcamp. See live performances of "Yonati" with the Hadar Ensemble on Joey's YouTube page here and here.
Among the Willows
...Then he arose like one in a trance and followed the music. When he turned in the right direction, the music seemed to grow louder, and when he turned the wrong way it grew dim. In this way Shabbatai was led to a cave, whose entrance was hidden behind a willow tree. He entered the cave, and found it filled with a glowing light, and he passed through it, still led by the hypnotic strains of the wondrous music. At last he reached the other end of the cave and came out into a garden that seemed to be surrounded by an aura. He knew he had recached a very sacred place. When he looked up Shabbatai's breath was taken away -- for there, in every tree, he saw a harp, its strings plucked by the wind. This was the unearthly music which had led him there. But most wonderful of all was a gleaming, golden object that Shabbatai saw in the upper branches of the finest willow tree of all, one which towered above all of the others. It was at that moment that the old man completed his quest, for he had found the harp of David he had sought for so long. He seated himself at the foot of that lofty willow, and listened to the very strains that had wakened King David himself on so many nights and inspired him to write the immortal psalms. And there, beneath that tree, the old man remained...
[Excerpt from "David's Harp" found in Howard Schwartz, Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish Folktales from Around the World (Oxford: Oxford, 1988), pp. 163-167.]
See Perek Shirah to hear the songs of the Vine, the Fig, the Pomegranate, the Palm, the Apricot, the Sheaves of Wheat, the Sheaves of Barley, the Rooster, the Hen, the Dove, the Vulture, the Crane, the Swallow, the Stormy Petrel, the Laughing Dove, the Stork, the Raven, the Starling, the Domestic Goose, the Wild Goose, the Ducks and the rest of Creation's chorus. So sing the Wild Trees...
The Ziz is a giant bird as big as Leviathan. When it stands in the ocean, the water only reaches to its angkles, and its head is in the sky. Some say its head reaches as far as the Throne of Glory, where it sings songs to God...
[Found in Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 147. Cf. Talmud Bavli Bava Batra 73a]
...the Baal Shem Tov suggested to his Hasidim that they go out for a sleigh ride together in the snow-covered countryside and take along with them some wine, honey cake, whiskey, and fruits for Tu BeShvat.
As they careened along in the sleigh, the snow was falling and they were so joyful that they felt they were lifted up on a cloud of light. Remembering that it was Tu BeShvat, they sang songs from the kabbalistic Book of Song, Perek Shira, that explains which Torah verses animals and plants "sing" praising their Creator. They sang, "The fig tree says, 'The one who tends the fig tree shall eat its fruit.' The pomegranate says, 'Your cheeks are like the halves of a pomegranate.' The palm tree says, 'A righteous person shall flourish like a palm tree.'"
The road entered the forest, and the horses galloped in pleasure, kicking up snow all over. On the two sides of the road, an ancient, dense forest stretched out with trees whose branches leaned out, arching over the road, almost touching in the middle and nearly blocking out the sunlight. But here and there the sun peeked through the branches, lighting the travelers' path as they sped along in the sleigh. An as they went, they sang another song from the Book of Song: "Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord...!"
Their singing grew stronger and stronger, and flocks of birds flying above them began chirping so loudly that it seemed that they were singing along with the joyful travelers in the sleigh.
[Found in Yitzhak Buxbaum, Jewish Tales of Mystic Joy (Jossey-Bass, 2002), pp. 89-90, citing Sarei HaMaiya, vol. 3, p. 168.
The Nightingale and the Orchestra
פעם אחד, התאונן אדם אחד לפני [ר׳ משה מלעכווויץ] על קיצור עבודתו, ורוע מעבדיו, ויש לו עצבות גדול מזה. אך בזאת יתנחם ויפיג צערו ויתחזק בשמחה, בהיחשבו כי הלא נמצא גרועים ממנו. ויאמר אליו הרוח הקדש (אל הרבי), האם מענין כזה יכול האדם לקבל שמחה, כי נמצא גרועים מאתו, ומאין תדע זאת כי הוא גרוע ממך, ועוד איך יכול אדם לחשוב זאת כי נמצא גרוע ממנו. אך מזאת יבא אדם לשמחה.
למלך שיש לו להקת מנגנים הפורטים על כל מיני כלי זמר, ומנגנים לפניו בכל עת, ונמצא גם בהכלו צפור אחת קטנה בכלוב, צפורת הזמיר המנגנת ומפצפצת בכלובה, אשר מקבל המלך תענוג מהצפור הקטנה אשר אין לה שום דעת, ואינה יודעת איך להנעים על פי תנועות חוקי השיר, יותר מכל הבעלי כלי זמר הבקיאים החכמת הניגון. וזה תענוג המלך לשמוע קולה, יען כי היא בריה קטנה בלי דעת ושכל וחכמה, ותשמיע קול נעים.
כן האדם, הגם שיש להקב’’ה כחות כתות אלפים ורבבות המרכבים ומשבחים ומפארים בשפה ברורה ובנעימה, בשיר ושבח הלל וזמרה לפניו, מקבל השי’’ת תענוג מהאדם בריה שפלה בגוף עכור יותר ממלאכי מעלה.
[משה קליינמאן, אור ישרים (פיעטרקוב, תרפ’’ד), כ:-כא.]
Once, a man was kvetching before Rav Moshe of Lekovitsh about the brevity of his prayer, and the poor quality of his acts, and how sad this made him. However [the very act of talking about his problems] brought him comfort, his pain/sorrow/suffering faded, and his ability to feel joy was strengthened, for he realized that others were worse off than he. The Holy Spirit said [to the Rebbe], “Can one truly derive joy from realizing that other people are worse? How can one even know who is worse [or better]? How can one make that judgment that someone else is worse off, and from there come to [sincere] joy?”
This can be compared to a king who had an orchestra, with musicians for each and every kind of instrument, available to play for him at any time. Also, in his palace, there was kept a small bird, a nightingale that trilled and chirped in its cage. The king derived great pleasure from its song, though the bird had no awareness of this at all; it did not know the laws of music theory to sing, [and definitely did not know] more than the masters of music, who are experts in their instruments. But the king’s pleasure was to hear its voice, because it is a creature without any consciousness or intelligence, through which it made heard its lovely voice.
So, with a person: Does not the Holy Blessed One have bands and bands replete with multitudes of angelic charioteers who, exalt and glorify [God] with speech crystal clear and lovely [tone], with celebration and song, melodious exultation... Still, the Holy Blessed One receives such pleasure from the human being, an imperfect creature, in an ugly body, seemingly so much [worse] than the hosts of [perfect] angels above.
[New translation by Joshua Schwartz of story originally quoted in M. S. Kleinman, Or Yesharim, Piotrkov, 1924, pp. 40-41, and found in Louis I. Newman's The Hasidic Anthology, Schocken Books, New York, 1963.]
"Tu Bishvat" is from Batya Levines debut album, Karov, which can be streamed and downloaded from Rising Song Records on Bandcamp. Hear early recordings of this nigun on Batya's Soundcloud page.
"Listen to the silent trees, but still your words float on the breeze"
ーAnastasio / Marshall
Translations of Exodus Rabbah 29:9 and Zohar 1:7a are by Joshua Schwartz. They can be found in Joey Weisenberg's book The Torah of Music (see sources #79 and #112).
The Nigun of the Birds
[excerpt from The Dream Assembly by Howard Schwartz]
It was almost Tu-bishvat, the New Year for Trees, when the blessing of the Sheheheyanu is said over a fruit tasted for the first time that year. In Zholkiev it was the middle of a bitter winter, and not a fruit was to be found that he had not already tasted. For this reason Reb Zalman’s spirits were low, for he had nothing with which to make the blessing. And it was his concern to see that no blessing was ignored.
That year Shabbas Shirah came one day before Tu-bishvat, and Reb Zalman still did not know where to find a first fruit. He carried his distress with him as he went outside to feed kasha to the birds on the eve of Shabbas Shirah. He went around to the places where the birds congregated, and spread kasha on the ground for them, for this was a minhag he always followed at that time of year.
Around noon that day Reb Hayim Elya arrived at Reb Zalman’s house, and found him feeding the birds with tears in his eyes. Hayim Elya asked what was wrong, and Reb Zalman told him that it appeared there would be no new fruit to bless that year. And as is the beginning, so will be the end. Hayim Elya wanted to divert Reb Zalman from this sadness, so he asked him why he was feeding kasha to the birds. Reb Zalman replied: “It was the bird who reminded the Children of Israel of their joy in the crossing at the Red Sea, for they flocked above them singing. This inspired the people to break out in the singing of the Song of the Sea. Therefore we traditionally thank the birds on this day. Hayim Elya accepted the logic of this at once, but he was still curious to know why it was kasha he was feeding them. Reb Zalman replied: “Remember that the word kasha means a question. Our question is: Where are we going to find a fruit, over which to make the Sheheheyanu?” And Hayim Elya asked: “But is kasha the traditional food?” And Reb Zalman replied: “Only when we cannot find a new fruit.”
Then Reb Zalman went on feeding the birds, singing the Nigun of the Song of the Sea to himself. The birds, who had been starving, were as happy to see the kasha as were the Israelites to receive Manna from heaven. And after they had fed themselves, some of the birds began to repeat the nigun. At first Reb Zalman and Hayim Elya thought they were imagining that the birds were singing that song, but in truth it happened, and they were both astonished. Hayim Elya turned to Reb Zalman at once and said: “This singing of the very same nigun by the birds is itself a miracle and a sign. And the sign is that you must not give up hope that the first fruit will arrive. For in this way the birds have replied to your question.” And when Reb Zalman heard this, his eyes grew bright again, and a smile returned to his face. And it was apparent to all that he had not given up hope.
All that day Reb Zalman hummed the Nigun of the Sea to himself, and that night he slept peacefully, while his sleep up till then had been fitful. And when he awoke the next morning, when it was Shabbas Shirah, he felt as if his soul had just returned from a long journey, as if he himself had crossed the parted waters of the Red Sea.
That morning, when Reb Zalman opened the door and looked outside, he saw a dove flying from afar, and he thought to himself, “Why is it that the voice of the dove is so sad? Is it not as the sages say because the Shekhinah mourns with a sigh? But when the Messiah comes then will our tongue be full of song. So too, then, when the Shekhinah will no longer mourn, will the dove sing more sweetly than the nightingale.” Just then the dove landed on a branch of a nearby tree, and that is when Reb Zalman saw that it was golden, for the light of its feathers radiated in the sun. And in its beak was an olive branch! Now Reb Zalman could not believe his eyes when he saw that dove and what it carried, for he knew that no such dove existed in this world, and that no lives grow in Poland in the winter, and that the golden dove must have brought them from very far. And suddenly Reb Zalman knew that the birds had heard his plea, and that the Holy One, blessed be He, had replied to his prayer.
[This is a fragment of a longer story found in The Dream Assembly: Tales of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, collected and retold by Howard Schwartz.]
Some of the allusions in this story are derived from the Talmud in Sotah 30b-31a, which contains a discussion of the Israelites' Song at the Sea. Go to source #58 in The Torah of Music (p. 150) to see Josh Schwartz' translation of the singing embryo midrash.
See our source sheet "Rising Up the Ladder of Song" for more about the golden dove.
To learn more about the custom of feeding birds, see R' Tobias Moss' source sheet "Shabbat Shirah: A Shabbat of Song and Special Halakhot"