Kings and Queens


"Kings and Queens" is a fascinating topic. At first glance, it may seem rather archaic, but think of "leadership" and the relevance is immediately apparent. So it is not surprising to find the subject well-represented in our folksongs; in fact, Jewish poetry and song are replete with mention of kings and queens from the historical, religious and metaphorical points of view.

The kings and queens represented in song which are dealt with on this page:
I. Biblical kings - King Nimrod; King David: "Cuando el rey Nimrod" [When King Nimrod]
II. Queen Esther and other biblical queens: "Esta noche de Purim" [This Purim night]
III. The Messiah - future king of the Messianic age: "A sudenyu" [A feast]
IV. Kings and queens in Sephardic romansas: "Landarico" [Name of a Sephardic knight]
V. Monarchs of other nations: "Vi azoy lebt der keyser?" [How does the kaiser/tsar live?]
VI. King and Queen in one's home: "Amol iz geven a mayse" [Once upon a time]
VII. God, King of the universe: "Adon olam" [Lord of the Universe]; "A din toyre mit Got"
VIII. The Shabbat Queen: "Melave malke" [Accompanying the queen]

On this webpage (similarly to that of the introductory lecture), we enter the doors opened by each of the songs – one by one – and see which aspects of Jewish heritage they lead us to. Which historical events do the songs refer to? How are they related to other aspects of Judaism: beliefs, Biblical interpretation and tales, customs and tradition? To which extent are they drawn from Jewish roots or those of their surrounding environment?


 I. Biblical Kings

   CUANDO EL REY NIMROD  [When King Nimrod]

[Lyrics and translation into English]   [Lyrics and translation into Hebrew]

1. Who was King Nimrod?

Another name for the song "Cuando el rey Nimrod" [When King Nimrod] is "El nacimiento y vocación de Abraham" [The birth and destiny of Abraham]. Who was King Nimrod and what was his connection with the patriarch Abraham?

The Bible tells us that Nimrod was a powerful king and hunter (Genesis, 10:8-12) and, according to the midrashim [Talmudic legends], the instigator of the Tower of Babel, which was to have challenged God's supremacy (Genesis 10:10; 11: 1-9). Abraham, the first person to believe in one God, was willing to stand up against Nimrod, the greatest representative of paganism. The written Bible does not indicate why Abraham was chosen to be father of the Jewish people; it is from the midrashim that we learn about Abraham's insight regarding monotheism, his miraculous birth and upbringing, and his struggle against Nimrod. Read the whole story here.

The first video, sung by L. Garcia Sanchez of "Raices", presents the first three stanzas of the saga. (The Ladino text is translated into English). Following is an authentic rendition of the original version of this song, "La mujer de Terah" [Terah's wife], by Berta Bienvenida Aguado, an informant who sings in the Turkish tradition.

The song "Cuando el rey Nimrod" is based upon the story as related in Me'am Lo'ez, the compendium of Biblical commentary which was popularly studied in the Sephardic diaspora in the 18th and 19th centuries. Based upon the Talmud, midrashim and folk literature, this was written – initially by Rabbi Yaakov Culi – in Ladino so as to be accessible to lay people. 

"Cuando el rey Nimrod" belongs to the genre of coplas – songs in Ladino which are mainly (but not exclusively) associated with religious festivals and life-cycle ceremonies, and which convey an educational message. (See the section on coplas in the "Musical Heritage" page for more details). The circumcision [brit mila] ceremony at which it is sung commemorates the covenant between Abraham and God (Genesis 17, 1-14). The last few verses of the copla refer to Abraham, as well as to the participants of the ceremony, including Elijah the Prophet ("Angel of the Covenant").

Cohen, J. (Winter, 2001). Clearing up Ladino, Judeo-Spanish, Sephardic Music. HaLapid.
Weich-Shahak, Susana. (1999). Coplas - a Judeo-Spanish educational genre. Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy, 21: 41-50.


2. King David 

Ambitious, courageous, lusty, pious, humble, eloquent, compassionate, enervated - King David has had an indelible effect on Jewish history, religion, music, custom and folklore. Here are some examples of how he is portrayed in song and art. 

a) King David in SONG

King David is regarded as ne'im zmirot Israel [sweet singer of Israel] because of his authorship of most of the Psalms and his unparalleled reputation as harpist and singer. He has also inspired songs in various genres, both religious and secular, portraying various aspects of his multifarious personality as well as his legacy as progenitor of the Messiah, as in the evergreen folksong "David Melekh Yisrael" [David, king of Israel].

Two Internet articles (in Hebrew) show how David is portrayed in Hebrew song: דוד המלך בשירה העברית החדשה [King David in new Hebrew song] and דמויות תנכיות בזמר העברי מאת עקיבא נוף/אלי אשד [Biblical characters in Hebrew song], by Akiva Nof, published on the Internet by Eli Eshed. One of Ofra Haza's early disks Shir Hashirim Besha'ashu'im was inspired by the Biblical "Song of Songs"; here is a video of Ofra Haza singing Ballada Lamelekh (lyrics by Bezalel Aloni).

King David is also featured in two Ladino romansas: David y Goliath and David llora a Absalón (Triste está el rey David). The latter song is a lament which is sung on Tish'a be'Av: just as in the verse in Samuel II, 19, 1, David is overcome by the grief of his family tragedy, oblivious to what Absalom did to bring it about.

In Yiddish, Itsik Manger, author of Itsiks Midresh, has portrayed Biblical characters as ordinary folk, full of human foibles. Manger's songs about David include two of his women - Bathsheva and Abishag.

And, not least, the complex web of King David's musicianship and sensuality has been woven within a song that tells us about our own lives - Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".

b) King David in ART

* PAINTING: There was no master like Rembrandt to visualize and portray the heroes of the Bible. Paintings about David include "King David playing the harp to Saul", "The reconciliation of David and Absalom", "David and Jonathan" and "Bathsheba reading King David's letter". Here are a number of links to Rembrandt's paintings and sketches:
The Bible through the Eyes of Rembrandt
Rembrandt's Biblical Work
Janson, J. Rembrandt: Life, Paintings, Etchings, Drawings & Self Portraits

["David and Jonathan" - Rembrandt, 1642]

SCULPTURE: For an interesting article on Michelangelo's famous statue, look at David: A new perspective. Here are links to two other famous statues of David, by Donatello and Bernini. The site "Jewish Heritage Online" features the figure of David in Medieval and Renaissance art and includes an article on a series of paintings of King David by American-Israeli artist Ivan Schwebel. Altogether, "Jewish Heritage Online" has some excellent features on different aspects of King David

"David" - Donatello (c.1440-1460)


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II. Biblical Queens

  ESTA NOCHE DE PURIM   [This Purim night]

[Lyrics and translation into English

There have not been many Jewish queens to sing about. Our most famous queen, Esther - crowned by virtue of her marriage to King Ahasuerus of Persia - is the subject of many songs which we will learn about in the lecture on Purim. In the meantime, listen to Esta noche de Purim (alternatively entitled El testamento de Aman [Haman's will]), a copla from Morocco.

Two queens reigned in their own right: Athalia, Queen of Judah (c.842-835 BCE) and Salome Alexandra (Shlomtsion Hamalkah), the Hasmonean queen who reigned from 76–67 BCE. Other queens mentioned in the Bible were wives of kings; they were both Jewish (e.g., Michal, Saul's daughter who was married to David) and foreign (e.g., Jezebel, the Phoenician princess who was married to Ahab), and usually mentioned specifically because of their involvement in a message underlying the narrative.

Athalia's story is certainly not a model of exemplary behaviour (Kings II, 11; Chronicles II, 22:1023), but it makes for wonderful musical drama, exploited masterfully in the oratorio by Handel. 


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III. Messiah - King of the Messianic Age

   A SUDENYU  [A feast]


The Messiah [Moshiakh] - literally meaning somebody who has been "annointed" in an act of ritual consecration - has come to refer specifically to a future Jewish king from the Davidic line, who will rule the Jewish people during the Messianic Age.  

["Behemoth and Leviathan" - William Blake - from the Book of Job]

When the Messiah comes, the righteous will sit down to a meal of Leviathan, Wild Ox and Preserved Wine, each one of these constituents hailing from the six days of creation of the world and abounding in symbolic significance. According to midrashim, the wine preserved from Creation symbolizes the Torah, while the Wild Ox (symbol of the revealed tradition of the Torah) and Leviathan (symbol of the concealed realm) will battle and defeat each other at the end of days. More information about these creatures may be found in the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine.

The Baal Shem Tov ("Besht": 1698-1760), founder of Hasidic Judaism, established the "Moshiachs seudah" [Messiah's feast], to be celebrated on the 8th day of Pesach.

Here is more about the song, also known as Vos vet zayn [What will be?] in Yiddish and Ma nochal base'udah hazo [What shall we eat at this feast?] in Hebrew. It is a cumulative folk-song, enumerating the honorees who will be featured at the messianic feast, from Moshe Rabbenu, who will speak about the Torah, to Miriam the Prophet, who will dance for the righteous guests. This is a classic Hasidic text, favoured by some great chazanim [kantors], which has made its way across the Jewish world. Apparently the song was carried across to Khoms, Libya, by Jewish soldiers of the Palestinian Regiment of the British Army during World War II. The song was taught to Rabbi Frigia Zuaretz, leader of the community and an esteemed Hebrew teacher, and it was incorporated into the cluster of songs ending the seder. When Rabbi Zuaretz's students immigrated to Palestine, they brought the song back "home" with them, where, in its Hebrew version, it was included as an integral part of the Libyan seder tradition. A songbook used by the religious Kibbutz movement features the Libyan, rather than Hasidic melody. Here is an Afgani melody, and here is an interesting modern setting of the Hebrew lyrics. (See an internet discussion - in Hebrew- regarding the origin of the song here).


(For another example of a "wandering" folksong, see "Tumbalalayka").

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IV. Kings and Queens in Sephardic Romansas

   LANDARICO  /  EL REY QUE MUNCHO MADRUGA  [The king who arose early] 

[Lyrics and translation into English]   [Lyrics and translation into Hebrew

Kings, queens and nobility - whether historical, legendary or allegorical - are the heroes and heroines of romansas. The Sephardi Jews sang about medieval Spanish and European rulers (e.g., the 7th century King Rodrigo or the 11th hero El Cid), classic heroes and heroines (e.g., Helena of Troy), Biblical leaders (King David), as well as famous soldiers (Roland). In a very much later romansa set against the background of the Bulgarian struggle for independence, a Jewish mother blames her son's death on King Ferdinand for expelling the Jews from Spain. The queen referred to in the romansa "Landarico", featured in this lecture, is believed to have been the adulterous wife of a 6th century Burgundian king, Chilperic I.

Here is a video of two versions of "Landarico" - the first in Haketia, the dialect spoken by the Sephardic Jews in Morocco, followed by a version sung by the Sephardic Jews of Turkey. They are from a wonderful disk - "Yahudice" [the Jewish quarter] - a collection of Turkish-Sephardic songs sung by Hadass Pal-Yarden.

Nowadays, many people refer to all Ladino songs as romansas.*  However, romansas comprise a particular genre within the Ladino song repertoire: they are narrative poems with a strictly-defined formal structure, sharing the stylistic features of European ballads. Subjects range through tales of heroism and cowardice, loyalty and faithlessness, love gained and thwarted, filial devotion and incest; the romansas are set in kingly palaces, secluded islands and tall towers. The Jews sang ancient Hispanic romansas, but also ballads stemming from other European countries, before and after the expulsion from Spain. While set against exotic backdrops, the ballads served as prototypes by means of which to explain human behaviour and present ethical values. They were normally sung by women while lulling their children to sleep or carrying out household tasks, and at such life-cycle events as the elaborate preparations prior to weddings. Read more here about romansas and Sephardic folk songs.


* Many disks of Ladino songs are WRONGLY titled "romansas". Here are three of them:
Yehoram Gaon: Romantic Ballads from the great Judeo-Espagnol Heritage
Francoise Atlan: Romances Sefardies – Sephardic Songs
Ensemble Accentus: Sephardic Romances – Traditional Jewish Music from Spain


Mirrer, L. (1996). Women, Jews, and Muslims in the Texts of Reconquest Castile. C.5: "Queens in the Ballad: Landarico and Doña Blanca"

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  V. Monarchs of Other Nations

   VI AZOY LEBT DER KEYSER?  [How does the Tsar live?]

[Lyrics and translation into English]  [Lyrics and translation into Hebrew]

Adrienne Cooper, accompanied by Zalmen Mlotek

Here's Paul Robeson singing the song, with English translation

1. Life under the Tsars

There are several ironic folksongs about the Russian tsars, such as one facetiously "mourning" the death of Czar Nicholas I (1796 – 1855) by singing the cantillation motifs of the Book of Lamentations: "There is lamentation in St. Petersburg, / There is mourning in Moscow. / Sadly they sing, "God save the Tsar." / You peasants sing lamentations for your sins, / That dog, the Tsar, is bloodied." [Idelsohn, 1932, #31] [Wohlberg]. In another ironic song, "Di blum", the great badkhn Eliakim Zunser (1836-1913) quotes Alexander "comforting" the poor, downtrodden Jewish flower: I would never, God forbid, take away your faith, I only want to polish you and gild you!" He was referring to Alexander I's attempts to convert the Jews: the "Society of Israelite Christians", founded in 1817.

The song Der soldat is one of many that depict the tragedy of Nicholas's law forcing young men to serve in the tsar's army for tweny-five years, and the especially cruel edict tearing very young boys from their families. Another example of the harrowing consequences of conscription is In shtetl Nikolayev. On the other hand, Yoshke, the rakish soldier conscripted to serve the virulently anti-semitic Nicholas II in the Russo-Japanese war, takes a more "philosophical" attitude - Yoshke fort avek.

What was life like for the Jews under the tsarist regimes? Here is a photographic exhibition of Russian Jewry, two historical overviews of the Jews in Russia, and two first-hand descriptions of life under the tsars:
♦ Beyond the Pale: The History of the Jews in Russia [photographic exhibition]
♦  Hein, A. Russia. The Jewish Virtual History Tour. 
♦  History of the Jews in Russia and the Soviet Union. Wikipedia. 
♦  Mary Antin: A Little Jewish Girl in the Russian Pale, 1890. Modern History Sourcebook
A Jewish Life Under the Tsars: The Autobiography of Chaim Aronson, 1825-1888Totowa, N.J.: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1983.

2. What's in a word?

What's the difference between keyser, kenig and melekh? The words for rulers of different countries is aptly featured in the song by the Berditsher rabbi, "Rabbi Levi Yizchok's Kaddish" [Kaddisch des Rabbi Levi-Jitzchak Barditzewer],  otherwise called A din toyre mit Got] - Rabbi Levi Yitzhak's protest against Jewish suffering while attesting to the supremacy of God's sovereignty. For an explanation of this song, see Bob Kurtzman's entry in the Mendele Discussion List. The galvanizing effect of Jan Peerce's rendition in the Soviet Union is described by James Loeffler [below]. An article by Jonathan Karp [below] explains why Paul Robeson regularly performed the "Hassidic Chant" (Yoel Engel's setting of the song) as an expression of what he believed to be a common bond of suffering between the Jews and Negroes. Performances by four cantors - Gerson Sirota, Sidor Belarsky, Lubavitcher Chassidim, Benjamin Siegel - have been preserved on Judaica Sound Archives.

Karp, J. (2003). Performing Black-Jewish Symbiosis: The "Hassidic Chant" of Paul Robeson. American Jewish History, Vol. 91.
Katz, D. (2004). Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books.
Katz, D. (2005). Yiddish: sample entry from the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.
Loeffler, J. (2016). How an American Jewish opera star accidentally launched the Soviet Jewish movement. Tablet.
Wohlberg,  M. (1978). The music of the synagogue as a source of the Yiddish folksong. Musica Judaica 2:1, 21-49.

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VI. King and Queen of One's Home

   AMOL IZ GEVEN A MAYSE  [Once there was a story]

[Lyrics and translation into English]  [Lyrics and translation into Hebrew]


Kings and queens often represent ordinary folk, as in the humorous "Monarkhishe idilie", by Harats and Chorny. In the lullaby "Amol iz geven a mayse", the king and queen represent the Jewish people, who are compared to a tree with its branch, nest and bird (see the song "A beymele", by A. Goldfadn). (See the lecture "Tree of Life" for other lullabies based upon this theme). Here is a video performed by David W. Solomons (alto) and Alessandro Balsimini (guitar), with the lyrics translated into English.


What can a Jewish person do to feel like a king? Mostly, he can daydream, as in the Yiddish folksong Der Kremer ("The Shopkeeper")!

Actually, from the traditional point of view, Jewish life offers many occasions for a Jewish person to feel like a king or queen:

1) The exclusive blue thread in the tallith (prayer shawl) traditionally identified the Jewish man as king in his own home (Israelcraft). However, because the source of the blue dye (chilazon [snail]) is not identifiable, today's prayer shawls may be colored blue, but do not contain this particular blue thread (Chabad).  

2) On Pesach, the Seder table is "fit for a king", and the father of the house "leans" to the left while drinking wine and eating, thus enacting feelings of emancipation and kingliness. The phrase "yeder yid iz a melekh" [every Jew is a king] is cited, often sardonically, in a number of folksongs, e.g., "Akh vi voyl s'iz tsu zayn a yid" [How good it is to be a Jew] and "Bin ikh mir a khosidl" [I am a little Hassid]. The theater song "A malke af peysekh" [A queen for Passover] capitalizes on the idea of man being a king in his own home at the Seder table.

3) The Jewish bride and groom are traditionally regarded as king and queen, as we can see from the Midrash on Psalms 19:6: "A groom is like a king. Just as all praise the king for the seven days of a feast, so all praise the groom for the seven days of the feast. Just as a king wears clothes of honor, so the groom wears clothes of honor. Just as a king has joy and feasting before him all the time, so the groom has joy and feasting with him all seven days. Just as the king does not go out unaccompanied, so a groom doesn't go out un accompanied. Just as the king's face shines like the rays of the sun, so the face of the groom shines like the rays of the sun, as it is written, 'And [the sun] is like a groom emerging from his canopy.' (Psalms 19:5-6)." (Midrash Pirkei derebbe Eliezer, Ch.16). (The Jewish Ethicist).

Explicit mention of the bridegroom as king is made in the piyut "Ata emet chatanenu" [You are truly our bridegroom], which is sung in Babylonian and Yemenite communities as the groom is lead to the Torah on the Shabbat following the wedding and during the week of Sheva Brachot [Seven Blessings]. As with other piyutim sung in honor of the bridegroom, this one celebrates the groom's wisdom and fortune, and wishes the young couple a life filled with material and spiritual fulfillment.

In Warshavsky's song "Di mezinke oysgegebn", the bride's father is so happy to finally marry off his youngest daughter that he refers to himself and mother of the bride as melekh and malke!

4) Erev Shabbat is the traditional reminder of God's marriage with Israel (Riskin); so, by extension, the Jewish couple is regarded as king and queen at that time. (See below: "The Shabbat Queen"). Just as at the Seder, the Jew feels like a king at the Shabbat table, and this sentiment is expressed in many folksongs and composed songs, for example, Sholem aleykhem.



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VII. God, King of the Universe

ADON OLAM /   [Lord of the universe]

[Adon olam: Translation into English]    [Adon olam: Hebrew text]

How many melodies do you know?

Addressing God as King of the World is expressed most poignantly in "A din toyre mit Got", by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (above).

One would expect God, the King, to be worshipped in liturgical poetry - but not to be sung about in hit tunes! Although "Adon Olam" - the great piyut extolling God's unique majesty - is essentially a synagogue chant, it has become "folklorized" by virtue of its immense popularity. An example is the "hit song" composed by Israeli Uzi Hitman, consiting of the first few stanzas of the piyut.

As we can see in the website "An Invitation to Piyut", there is an endless number of melodies to which this piyut has been set. One of these is the Ladino folksong "Las ventanas altas" [The high windows], which is discussed in the introductory lecture "Jewish Folklore?". Have a look at some of these versions of Adon Olam on YouTube: do you think that "anything goes", or are there limits to the ways religious texts can be set and presented?

See the discussion on the use of secular melodies for religious texts (Contrafacta) in the introductory lecture "Jewish Folklore?".
Cohen, R. We're playing their songMoment, 1994.
Seroussi, E. & Weich-Shahak, S. Judeo-Spanish contrafacts and musical adaptations: The Oral tradition. Orbis Musicae X (1990-1991), 164-193 

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 VIII. Queen Shabbat

   MELAVE MALKE  [Accompanying the Queen]

[Lyrics and translation into English]   [Lyrics and translation into Hebrew]

In Jewish thought and practice, Shabbat is much more than a day of rest: it is infused with an atmosphere of holiness and majesty, influenced by Kabbalistic perceptions of Shabbat as a bride and a queen, both of which are manifestations of God's presence, the Shechinah. According to a Talmudic Midrash by Rabbi Shim'on Bar Yochai, when Shabbat asked the creator of the Universe why all the days of the week were partnered with each other except for her, He answered that the Community of Israel would be her mate. Thus the Jewish people go out to greet the Shabbat just as a groom goes to meet his bride: Rabbi Chanina would wrap himself in his cloak and say, "Come, let us go and greet the Shabbat Queen." And Rabbi Yannai would don his robe and say, "Enter O bride! Enter, O bride!" When Shabbat enters the bridal canopy and is "married" to the Jewish people, who are compared to a king, she is called the "Shabbat Queen".

Many of these Kabbalistic concepts are embodied in the hymn sung to welcome Shabbat, Lecha Dodi [Come my beloved] written by Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz (c.1500-1580), one of the esteemed members of the Safed circle of scholars and mystics, which included Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the holy Ari (Arizal). The author signed his name in the acrostic formed by the first letter of the first eight stanzas of the hymn.

[Morin Nehedar with Rona Kenan]


The Shabbat queen enhances the spirit of this holy day, until, sadly, it is time for her to depart, and she is escorted out of the Jewish home with music in a Melave Malke [Accompanying the Queen] ceremony. (According to legend, the custom has its origin with King David, who was told by God that he would die on a Shabbat. When each Sabbath was over, David made a party to celebrate his survival. The nation at large rejoiced with him and adopted the practice of celebrating on Saturday night).

H.N. Bialik, expert folklorist as well as great poet, was concerned with preserving Jewish tradion in a society which was becoming essentially secular:  the Oneg Shabbat [Shabbat Joy] gatherings he organized in Tel Aviv used to include study of texts and singing of old and new songs. Here is his Shabbat Hamalkah [Shabbat the Queen], one of his earliest children's songs, set to a beautiful melody by Chaim Parchi.  

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I hope you've enjoyed this vista of Jewish history and culture opened up by the folksongs featured here. Come along to the lecture, and sing the songs together with me.