Commentary

Ve-Atah Banim Shiru La-Melekh – People Over Angels on Shavuot

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Yitzhak Szyf

Famous as the source text for a modern hasidic tune, the piyut of Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh fills a prominent slot in the Shavuot mahzor. It can be found immediately after the key words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” in the blessings before Shema. Composed by the great rabbi and liturgical composer Shimon Bar Yitzkhak of Mainz, Germany (950-1020), it was commonly said in many, if not most, of the Nusah Ashkenaz synagogues in Europe before the war and is still printed in almost all Ashkenazi mahzorim for Shavuot. In some modern mahzorim (such as Beit Tefillah and ArtScroll), it remains in its original lofty spot within the prayers while in others (such as Rinat Yisrael and the new Koren Sacks mahzor), it lost its prominence and was moved to the back, a fate shared with most of the other piyutim.

By now, it is likely that many readers are singing or humming the joyous modern tune of Ve-atah banim to themselves, and probably know the two lines of the song by heart. But the full piyut of Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh (“And now, children, sing unto the King”) actually has five stanzas, each comprising four lines. The lines commonly sung in the modern tune are the first line of the first stanza and the first line of the third stanza. While the rest of the piyut may not have a catchy tune, the entirety of this relatively short piyut, as well as its unconventional placement within the prayers, deserves our attention.

Ve-atah banim takes the form of an “ofan,” which is a piyut that is said in the midst of the daily section of prayers that recount the angels’ sanctification of G-D (right after the words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh” and before “ve-ha’ofanim”), and is usually an expansion of that topic. On Shavuot, however, the ofan of Ve-atah banim—one of the only piyutim instituted for both days of Shavuot—specifically deviates from the theme of the prayers. Rather than expanding on the song of angels, it describes a song of “children.”

While Ve-atah banim was one of the highlights of the Shavuot prayers for many generations—and was even singled out as one of the key piyutim recited by the Vilna Gaon with great fervor[1]—unfortunately, today, it is only recited in a handful of communities[2]. It’s message, however, remains as relevant as ever.

In this article, I would like to address the following two questions:

  • What is the connection between Ve-atah banim and the holiday of Shavuot?
  • Why would this piyut, which describes a song of “children,” find itself in the midst of a section recounting the song of angels?

This article will hopefully shed light on the key role that Ve-atah banim plays within the theme of Shavuot and perhaps even inspire some to find it in their own Shavuot mahzor and include it in their prayers or in their Yom Tov zemirot this year.

But first, let us take a step back to better understand the background of Shavuot and its connection to Mattan Torah (the Giving of the Torah) so that we can appreciate the role of Ve-atah banim within the general context of the holiday.

Shavuot – A Time of Partnership

There is no explicit connection between Shavuot and Mattan Torah within the verses in the Torah that describe the holiday. The verses in Parashat Emor (Leviticus 23:15-21) mention that the 50th day of the omer is a holy day on which work is forbidden and on which an offering of new grain is brought to the temple, the two loaves of bread. In Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 16:9-10) the holiday is specifically named Shavuot but, again, no reference is made to Mattan Torah.

It is the Rabbinic tradition that makes the connection between Mattan Torah and Shavuot[3]. The link to Mattan Torah is based on verses in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 19:1-19), which indicate that the revelation on Har Sinai (Mount Sinai) happened in the early days of the third month, Sivan–around the same time Shavuot occurs. While the exact dates are not explicit in the Torah, Rashi, based on the Mekhilta, understands that B’nei Yisrael arrived at Har Sinai on Rosh Hodesh Sivan.[4] Once at Har Sinai, Moshe went up and down the mountain a couple of times to relay messages between Hashem and the people, after which there were three days of preparation prior to Mattan Torah. The Mekhilta (Exodus 19:10) aligns the various actions performed by Moshe (ascending and descending from the mountain as well as building an altar) with the different days of Sivan to support the accepted tradition that Mattan Torah occurred on Shavuot.

Basic math, however, coupled with the Talmud’s conclusion of the timing of two historical events, relegates Mattan Torah to the 51st day of the omer–one day after Shavuot, and Yom Tov Sheini of Shavuot in the diaspora. The Talmud (Shabbat 86a and 87b) concludes that:

  1. The Exodus from Egypt occurred on a Thursday. By extension the first night of the omer began on Thursday night.
  2. Mattan Torah happened on Shabbat.[5]

Now for the math. The first night and the 50th night of the omer must fall out on the same night of the week. So if the first night of the omer is a Thursday night (as per #1), the 50th night must also be a Thursday night, and the 50th day would have to be a Friday. Since Mattan Torah happened on Shabbat (as per #2), it could, therefore, not have occured on Shavuot but could have occurred on the following day, the 51st day of the omer.[6] In fact, based on the traditional understanding of the verses in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 19:1-19) that Mattan Torah happened around the time of Shavuot (not a week before or a week later), we must say that it happened just one day off from the biblical holiday of Shavuot, which by definition is celebrated on the 50th day of the omer. It seems too close to be a true coincidence, and our tradition tells us that this is no coincidence. Shavuot and Mattan Torah are strongly related. We call the holiday Z’man Mattan Torateinu (the time of the giving of our Torah) in all of our prayers, as per the accepted Rabbinic tradition. But if Mattan Torah is related to Shavuot, why would it take place exactly one day later?

Let us take a short detour to discuss the calendar date of Shavuot before answering this question. The Torah does not assign a calendar date for Shavuot, but the verses in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 19:1-19), as understood by Rashi, suggest that Hashem was at the very least planning to give the Torah on the 6th of Sivan. There is a discussion in the Talmud, however, regarding whether the Torah was actually given on the 6th or 7th day of Sivan. According to the Rabbis, the Torah was given on the 6th of Sivan. According to Rav Yossi, the Torah was given on the 7th of Sivan. While Hashem intended to give it on the 6th, Moshe Rabeinu “hosif yom ehad mi-da’ato”—added an additional day to the preparatory days before Mattan Torah of his own volition, believing the people needed an extra day to get ready for the occasion (Shabbat 87a-b).[7]

Since there was not yet a set calendar when the Jews left Egypt and the months of Nissan and Iyar could have either had 29 or 30 days, the 51st day of the omer on which the Torah was given could have aligned with either the 6th or 7th day of Sivan. According to the Rabbis who say that the Torah was actually given on the 6th of Sivan, the 51st day of the omer must have coincided with the 6th of Sivan that year and then Shavuot itself (50th day of the omer) must have occurred on the 5th of Sivan.

According to Rav Yossi, the logic is more straightforward. The Torah was meant to be given on the 6th of Sivan, which was the 50th day of the omer (Shavuot) but Moshe asked to push it off one more day to the 7th of Sivan, which was the 51st day of the omer (Shabbat).[8] This offers a clear explanation as to how Mattan Torah got pushed from the 50th day of the omer to the 51st.[9]

Today, since we have a set calendar, the 50th day of the omer (Shavuot) always coincides with the 6th of Sivan. So if we follow the view of Rav Yossi, the second day of Shavuot, the 51s day of the omer, will now always coincide with the day of Mattan Torah, the 7th of Sivan. But if that is the case, why are we calling the first (and in Israel only) day of the holiday Z’man Mattan Torateinu, what aspect of Mattan Torah are we celebrating on that day?

In the introduction to his Shavuot volume of Nitei Gavriel, Rabbi Gavriel Zinner (in following Rav Yossi’s opinion) explains that on the 50th day of the omer (the first day of Shavuot), we celebrate our partnership in Torah. On this day, Moshe asked to add an extra day for the Jewish people and Hashem agreed. In listening to Moshe’s request and altering the date of Mattan Torah, Hashem made it clear that we too have a role in shaping the scope of the observance of Torah. That is why the holiday is called Mattan Torateinu, the day of giving of our Torah. It is the day on which the Torah became ours.

Rema mi-Pano points out that the Torah was given specifically in the diaspora and on the 51st day of the omer (ie: on Yom Tov Sheini) and specifically on the day that Moshe added, to show that Hashem Himself was “celebrating” on Yom Tov Sheini.[10] In fact, Yom Tov Sheini⁠—which in the diaspora must be treated with the same reverence (and same laws) as a full-fledged Torah holiday—is a classic example of the rabbis doing exactly what Moshe did when he “added a day.” Like Moshe, the rabbis used their own halakhic ingenuity to modify Torah practice for the realities of the diaspora, thereby partnering with God. The fact that the Torah was given on such a day is proof that Hashem views Torah as a partnership and accepts the rabbis’ halakhic decisions just as He accepted Moshe’s decision that B’nei Yisrael needed more time to prepare for Mattan Torah.

Given Rav Yossi’s generally accepted view that Hashem agreed to push Mattan Torah off by one day, we can understand why we celebrate Mattan Torah on the day before the Torah was given. The most important day for us to celebrate is not the day on which we actually received the Torah but the day on which the partnership began–the day on which Hashem agreed with Moshe’s (and our) partnership in Torah. That day is the 50th day of the omer. In other words, for generations later, what we celebrate is not the day on which the Torah was given but the day on which God proclaimed how the Torah would be treated–as a partnership with man.

The Talmud (Shabbat 88b, 89a) describes how the angels weren’t happy that the Torah was taken “down” to the people. Moshe explained to the angels that the Torah cannot possibly be relevant to them. First, it is focused on elevating the physical aspects of the world and humanity, which angels have nothing to do with, and second, it places great emphasis on social interactions (such as honoring one’s parents) that are of no relevance to angels. While Moshe’s attempts at placation were admirable, these explanations were surely obvious to the angels. Clearly there was something deeper bothering them about God’s choice to give the Torah to people.

Rabbi Gavriel Zinner explains that the angels must have been particularly disturbed by this new partnership between Hashem and the Jewish people that was created on the 50th day of the omer. Angels just follow God’s orders blindly; they didn’t understand the idea that people could influence Torah, as Moshe did on the 6th of Sivan when he added an extra day “mi-da’ato.” It was this partnership that was created at the time of Mattan Torah which the angels could not countenance.

Ve-Atah Banim Shiru La-Melekh – The Song of Man

This background can now help us understand the role of Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh within the Shavuot liturgy.

On Shavuot, after we describe the praises of Hashem that are sung by the angels and recite “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” we cannot continue without adding our own two cents. The words “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” taken from Isaiah 6:3, were sung by a choir of angels in the famed mystical vision of the prophet Yeshayahu. In his vision, Yeshayahu saw Hashem enthroned among the heavenly hosts, the angels, who praised Him in unison. On Shavuot, we are focused on the fact that we are greater than the angels because we are part of a true partnership with Hashem. The piyut of Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh, “and now, children, sing unto the King,” focuses not on the angels but on the banim, Hashem’s children, referring to the Jewish people. It interjects our daily description of the angels’ song to make a point that we are greater. In other words, the piyut essentially proclaims, “put that on hold, angels, now is the time for the children to sing!”

As mentioned above, the piyut consists of five stanzas, each comprising four lines. Let us explore just the first and last lines of the piyut:

  • Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh be-tiferet mefoar (first line of piyut)

       And now, children, sing unto the King Who is glorified with splendor[11]

The first word “Ve-atah” signifies that it is a continuation of the previous section of the prayers. As discussed above, the previous words were “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” the praise of Hashem uttered by the angels. The piyut begins with the words “and now” to build upon the previous lines: “And now” that we started describing the role of the angels in sanctifying Hashem, it is time to describe our role. On Shavuot, when we celebrate our Torah partnership with Hashem, we will not take a back seat to the angels. Our “song,” symbolizing our constant and persistent connection with our Creator, overtakes that of the angels because it matters most. As the second word of the piyut states, it is the song of the “banim” (literally, the sons, but often translated more generally as children). Unlike a ruler who may not care about the opinions of his subjects, a father cares deeply about those of his children. While the father has the final word, the suggestions of his children definitely have an impact on his decision making and may often sway his decision. The children are ultimately partners, not subjects. Hashem is our Father, and from the day of Mattan Torah, He made it clear that our voice will always be heard and considered. As long as we keep singing the song of the “banim,” we will be treated as Hashem’s children and will remember our unique role as part of a partnership of Torah.

2- Ahar shetei teivot mazkirim Shem Kodsho, lehodia lakol ki hem zera Kedosho (final line of piyut)      

After two words they mention His Holy Name, to inform all that they are His holy offspring

Although this final line of Ve-atah banim did not make it into the popular song, it is arguably the piyut’s punchline. The line hints to a discussion in the Talmud (Hulin 91b) regarding how the angels need three teivot (words) to sanctify Hashem’s name while we only need two. In their key prayer, they say “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh,” and only then “Hashem.” The Jewish people, on the other hand, need only two teivot. In our key prayer, we say “Shema Yisrael,” and then “Hashem.” This can be understood as a “proof,” so to speak, that we are a step above the angels! If so, we have a right to be interrupting the angels’ song to sing our own.

The idea that we are superior to the angels is also expressed in another more commonly recited piyut of Shavuot, Akdamut Milin[12], which is recited prior to the Torah reading of the first day. After describing the greatness of the angels in depth, Akdamut includes the following line:

Adav yekar ahasantei havivin d-vikvata,

Avida lei hativah bi-dnah u-shkata

But the portion of His precious inheritance is better, for with regularity

They make Him their sole desire, at sunrise and sunset

The above line from Akdamut is based on an idea described in the same section of Talmud cited above, which mentions that the Jewish people pray more regularly than the angels and say Shema twice daily, in the “morning and the evening.” In fact, according to the Talmud (Hulin 91b), the angels recite their praises of Hashem either once a day, once a week, once a month or once in 50 years, and otherwise remain uninvolved.

The regularity with which we pray and speak exemplifies the idea that we are regular and consistent partners who are constantly in touch, unlike the angels who do not offer their praises as often. The piyut of Ve-atah banim plays a similar role as Akdamut in describing our remarkable status above the angels, but at a much earlier—and arguably more critical—point in the prayers as far as angels are concerned. It specifically disrupts the daily description of the kedushah recited by the angels to make the point that it is now time for our shirah.

Particularly on Shavuot, a holiday focused on pointing out the Torah’s place among humans in the physical world, the great paytan Shimon Bar Yitzchak of Mainz felt compelled to remind us of our “song” that we must offer Hashem. The song signifies our active role in shaping our partnership in Torah that only humans, not angels, can achieve. By interrupting the regular description of the song of angels with a description of our own song to God, Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh reminds us—in a very unique way—of our special role. Whether we recite this song within our prayers or sing it at the Yom Tov table, we can hopefully gain new strength from this beautiful, nearly 1000-year old, piyut during the upcoming Yom Tov.


[1] The Vilna Gaon (Gra) specifically added Ve-atah banim to the list of piyutim that he recited on Shavuot after Hallel (since he thought it would be an interruption to say it within the blessings of Shema). Generally, the Gra recited many of the piyutim of the repetition of the amidah (after the leader’s repetition, or after Hallel on Yom Tov) but not many of the piyutim that were composed for the blessings of Shema. Ve-atah banim was an exception. In the first of only two simanim (numbered sections) on Hilkhot Shavuot in Maaseh Rav (Siman 195), it mentions that (based on the custom of the Gra) “Ve-atah banim shiru la-Melekh is recited with kol zimrah (chant) verse by verse (ie: responsively).”

[2] Although it is recited almost exclusively today at synagogues that follow German customs such as KAJ (Breuer’s) in Washington Heights, New York, Ve-atah banim is part of the liturgy of both Minhag Polin (Eastern European custom) and Minhag Ashkenaz (Western European custom). As such, it is just as much a part of the heritage of Ashkenazi Jews of Polish or other Eastern European countries as it is of German Jews.

[3] The connection of Mattan Torah to Shavuot is explicitly mentioned in the Mekhilta (Exodus 19:10) as well as in the Talmud (Shabbat 86b), among other places.

[4] This is learned specifically from the words “ba-yom ha-zeh,” on this day, which are written in the same sentence as “ba-hodesh ha-shelishi,” in the third month, indicating that it likely was the first day of the month.

[5] These days are also clearly listed in Seder Olam Rabbah 5:2.

[6] Since the Torah wasn’t given on the actual day of Shavuot, it is thus clear why the Torah doesn’t mention Mattan Torah when it describes the holiday of Shavuot.

[7] This analysis purposely combines the two points described above, the one related to the day of the omer and the one related to the day of the month. The reason is as follows: While Rav Yossi’s logic alone explains how the day was pushed off, his opinion, though generally accepted, is challenged by the Rabbis in the Talmud. In addition, many halakhic authorities, including Magen Avraham and Mahatzit Hashekel (Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 494), struggle with how to reconcile Rav Yossi’s view that the Torah was given the day after Shavuot with the fact that we call Shavuot Z’man Mattan Torateinu.

The issue related to the days of the week (the Exodus on a Thursday and Mattan Torah on Shabbat, leading to the Torah being given on the 51st day of the omer), however, is a more accepted conclusion. It then also strengthens Rav Yossi’s view, which provides an explanation for why Mattan Torah would end up being exactly one day after the biblical holiday. But the question of how we can say Z’man Mattan Torateinu remains. Our analysis further down in this article, based on Nitei Gavriel and Rema mi-Pano, addresses this issue: We can still say Z’man Mattan Torateinu even if the Torah was actually given a day later because, as will be explained below, that is when the Torah became ours. Therefore, Rav Yossi’s view not only better aligns with the conclusion that the Torah was given on the 51st day of the omer, but is also no longer challenged by the issue of how we can say Z’man Mattan Torateinu a day too early.

[8] As explained by Rashi in Verse 15, Rav Yossi builds upon a distinction in the words that describe the third day of preparation prior to Mattan Torah. Hashem uses the word “Yom ha-Shelishi” (the third day) when speaking to Moshe, while Moshe uses “Sheloshet Yamim” (three days) when speaking with the people, the latter of which suggests three complete days of preparation prior to Mattan Torah (which would take place a day later). Despite being an opinion of a single rabbi against a majority, Rashi finds that Rav Yossi’s opinion is convincing given the flow of the verses in Parashat Yitro. Further, as discussed by Magen Avraham in his commentary to Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 494), there is a Halakhah related to Hilkhot Niddah (Yoreh De’ah 196) that is learned from the extra day of separation that Moshe added according to Rav Yossi, and many authorities learn from there that Rav Yossi’s view is generally considered authoritative.

[9] The Rabbis (who argue with Rav Yossi) can still accept that the Torah was given on the 51st day of the omer, but they have a hard time explaining why it was pushed off, unless they argue that it was never meant to be given on Shavuot. According to them, we can still say Z’man Mattan Torateinu since today the 6th of Sivan always falls on the 50th day of the omer (Shavuot), even though it fell on the 51st day at the time of Mattan Torah. As such, Shavuot is now celebrated on the same calendar date as Mattan Torah, even if historically they did not actually occur on the same date. But it is still unclear (according to the Rabbis) why the Torah was given on the 51st and not on the 50th if it is connected to Shavuot.

[10] The text of the Rema mi-Pano (Italy, 1548 – 1620) can be found here, beginning at “od ta’amo” five lines from the bottom.

[11] All translations are taken from the ArtScroll mahzor

[12] Composed by Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak who was a cantor in Worms, Germany in the 11th century.