The word Zemirot means literally "songs" or "hymns" but is used to refer to two specific repertories: The first, according to the Sephardic tradition, refers to the preliminary section of psalms and biblical verses recited during the Shacharit (morning) prayers: the Ashkenazic terminology refers to these Psalms as Psukeydezimra. The second repertory is well defined in Neil Levin's Overview of his Z'mirot Anthology. "In Ashkenazic tradition the term refers to z'mirot shel Shabbat (Sabbath hymns) translated variously as table songs, domestic songs and home songs. These are a specific set of religious poems in Hebrew or Aramaic written mostly between the 10th and 17th centuries, which are sung during and directly after Sabbath meals. The musical versions are numerous and heterogeneous reflecting a wealth of different styles and geographic origins, and comprising an ever expanding body of folk material."
The texts of the Zemirot describe the joys and rewards of keeping the Sabbath and portray the Sabbath as a sign both of the Jews' acceptance of God and his Sabbath and of God's remembrance of his people.
Musically, the repertory of Zemirot Sabbath is diverse and eclectic. Within the Ashkenazic musical traditions one can point to a few types of melodies:
1. Liturgical style recitation of the texts in a soloist manner. This technique was commonly used with texts of changing lengths and leaned heavily on Liturgical modes and formulae.
2. Non-Jewish folk tunes served as the music for the Zemirot texts; these included German, Bohemian, Hungarian and Polish secular songs and dances.
3. Jewish melodies either newly composed or already in use in other functions adapted to Zemirot texts. Hassidic dance melodies were particularly popular.
4. In the past 30 years, the development of the electronic media facilitated the dissemination of newly-composed settings for Zemirot as part of the Neo- Hassidic musical genre which gained popularity in Jewish homes worldwide.
The singing at home took place around the table with the participation of all the family, and was a unique opportunity for the married woman to incorporate musical traditions of her own family into the household.
See also Zemerl in the Lexicon of Klezmer Terminology (LKT).