02 Aug 2018

Ekeb – Bendigamos, the Soul of the S&P

Insights from the S&P Sephardi Community Rabbis on the Parsha

Ekeb – Bendigamos, the Soul of the S&P

There is only one Biblically mandated blessing and it appears in this week’s parashah. This singular obligation is to recite Birkat Hamazon, Grace after meals.[1] The verse states: And thou shalt eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD thy God for the good land which He hath given thee (Deuteronomy 8:10). Birkat Hamazon is a blessing of thanksgiving. Having eaten a meal with bread to satisfaction, we are then required to express our gratitude to the Almighty.

I believe that there are no Jews in the world who look forward to reciting Birkat Hamazon as much as the Spanish & Portuguese Jews. For one thing, amongst the Western Sephardim this blessing is said collectively, the leader saying it out loud in its entirety, with everyone else listening intently and responding amen at the conclusion of each blessing (or saying the final words of each paragraph together). This communal recitation is a fulfilment of the Talmudic principle ‘Berob ‘Am Haderat Melekh,’ ‘With a multitude of the nation is the splendour to G-d.’

However, what makes Birkat Hamazon so special at an S&P table is the additional singing of the song ‘Bendigamos’. Bendigamos is a jovial Spanish language song of thanksgiving. It is sung according to the melody of Az Yashir, the Song at the Sea.  Its exact origin is obscure, though its recitation by the Western Sephardim as a whole isn’t ancient. Indeed, it apparently only became known in London in the 1960s. Still, the singing of Bendigamos is often a highlight of many people’s experience at an S&P synagogue.

Two articles have looked into the history of Bendigamos, one by H. P. Salomon,[2] historian of the Western Sephardim, and the other by Edwin Seroussi,[3] a Jewish music historian. Salomon believes that the song was first written in the Western Sephardic French community of Bayonne or Bordeaux in the 17th century (though later translated there into French), and over time it migrated to the Caribbean, Amsterdam and eventually to New York in the twentieth century. Seroussi, however, demonstrated that Bendigamos seems to be a composite of some earlier songs from Spanish Morocco. There, a large number of Spanish language Jewish songs developed, including one about the Biblical Moshe. Over time, these songs merged, verses dropped, and new stanzas were constructed until the song took the form that is common today. According to Seroussi, ‘Bendigamos’ with the opening words ‘Bendigamos’, first emerged in Livorno in the 18th century, and only later in Southwestern France. The version of the song which is now common was adapted by Rev Joseph Coreo who served in New York in the early 20th century after having served as Hazan in Curacao. Bendigamos then likely made its way to London in the 1960s thanks to Rev Haham Gaon (though a bit earlier to Oxford care of Cecil Roth).

This evolutionary history may also explain the usage of the Az Yashir (‘Song at the Sea’) melody for Bendigamos. The opening words of Az Yashir are Az yashir Moshe, ’Then Moses sang’. The melody for Az Yashir may therefore have been used for the Spanish song about Moshe, and then eventually for the redacted Bendigamos. Regardless of how this melody came to be used for Bendigamos, the melody itself seems to be quite old. Variations of it are found not only amongst the Western Sephardim, but also amongst Moroccan Jews, which points to an Iberian, pre-Expulsion origin for it.

Today, Bendigamos is usually sung on every Shabbat with Birkat Hamazon (though in New York only formally on Succot). In nearly all S&P communities it is sung at the conclusion of Birkat Hamazon, though at London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue it is sung beforehand (replacing any other introductory Psalm or Ein Kelokenu). According to Mordecai Arbell, who served in the Israeli Foreign Ministry in the Caribbean, this was also the case in Jamaica many decades ago.[4]

A reason to recite Bendigamos only at the conclusion is that by saying it first a person may inadvertently fulfil their obligation to say Birkat Hamazon. This is similar to the opinion of the Vilna Gaon to refrain from singing the table song Tsur Mishelo. The counter argument to this is that unlike Tsur Mishelo, Bendigamos does not mimic the structure of Birkat Hamazon and therefore its recitation could not be considered a premature Grace After Meals. In fact, one might actually prefer to recite the beautiful Bendigamos before Birkat Hamazon. This would be similar to the recitation of medieval piyyutim (poems) before each of the services on the High Holy Days, as their objective is simply to introduce the services, not to replace them.

Returning to our main point though, it seems clear that Bendigamos itself, no matter its exact origin, is a relative newcomer to the Western Sephardim. Yet, regardless of that, its Spanish language helps remind people of the S&P community’s actual provenance. This sense of nostalgia, or Hispanidad, provides for an almost tangible connection to an actual Spanish or Sephardic history. Hearing people sing a Jewish song in Spanish excites the memory of a world too distant to actually recall. Indeed, Bendigamos continues to attract newcomers to Spanish & Portuguese communities, thankfully inspiring a growing number of young people to the traditions and worldview of the Western Sephardim. Not least, it makes all of us enthusiastic to fulfil the important mitzvah of Birkat Hamazon!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Shalom Morris
Rabbi, Bevis Marks Synagogue

[1]According to some authorities the Birkhot HaTorah are also Biblical.

[2]  The Strange Odyssey of Bendigamos. The American Sephardi. 3 (1969), pp. 69-77.

[3] The Odyssey of “Bendigamos”: Stranger than Ever. Studia Rosenthaliana, Vol. 44, Mapping Jewish Amsterdam: The Early Modern Perspective (2012), pp. 241-261.

[4] The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean. Gefen Publishing House (June 2002)