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Introduction to Shul Music

by Victor Tunkel, Moshe Haschel and Geoffrey Shisler

Sections 1 to 11 and section 15 were written by Victor Tunkel for publication in the Daf Hashavua. Victor is a barrister and law lecturer at London University but has a long standing involvement in Jewish music – starting with being a chorister in his synagogue choir from age of 7. Victor has one of the largest and finest collections of Jewish music and musicology in the world and is renowned as an amateur but eminent collector, researcher and historian of Jewish music.

Sections 12 and 13 were written by Moshe Haschel for his congregation in 2010. Moshe was born in Buenos Aires but in 1969 emigrated to Israel and studied chazanut there at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. He has been chazan at St John's Wood Synagogue since 1997 and is one of the foremost cantors and chazanut teachers in the UK.

Sections 14 was written by Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler. Rabbi Shisler was for many years a chazan and teacher of chazzanut at Jews' College and is now Rabbi at the New West End Synagogue. He has composed many attractive new tunes for the year round synagogue liturgy and the first collection of these were published recently as "Shiru Lo Shir Chadash", obtainable via here

INTRODUCTION

How old is our synagogue music? Who wrote it? Is it what they sang in the Temple? Is it the same all over the Jewish world? Or the Ashkenazi world? Or is it just local Anglo-Jewish?

There are broadly 4 main types:

  • leyening, cantillation of the Torah and the haftarah; the three megillot Shir Hashirim, Ruth and Kohelet, respectively for Pesach, Shavuout and Succot;Esther for Purim; Eichah for Tisha B'Av and the special tune we use in leyening on the mornings of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur;

  • nusach, traditional chants in which our prayers are recited, differingly for Shabbat, for Yom Tov, and weekdays (and which when elaborated we call "hazzanut");

  • missinai melodies, venerable ancient tunes associated with specific prayers such as Kol Nidre and Tal; and on Rosh Hashanah the special settings of Kaddish and Alenu; and

  • later composed tunes for e.g. En Kamocha, Etz Hayim, Adon Olam, etc.

1. Leyening

The public reading of the Torah with the division into weekly sidras was formally instituted about 2,400 years ago. That reading was, and still is, from the unpunctuated Sefer-Torah text of consonants. A thousand years later, the Masoretes, scholars in Tiberias, invented the vowel symbols and the 27 musical symbols as they appear in the humash; but only so as to define and perpetuate the ancient time-honoured way of reading and chanting.

Our way of singing the Torah and haftarah in England is the way it was in Central and Western Europe. Ashkenazim in Israel and America have mostly adopted the Eastern European ("Lithuanian") style. We can hear the differences when visiting their synagogues. The experts agree that our way is the more ancient, having evolved in the Rhineland by about the year 1000. It was first written down in modern musical notation (by non-Jews) in about 1500, and allowing for uncertainties in hearing and transcribing, it is practically the same as our present style.

Why is there this difference in the Askenazi world? With the destruction of the Rhineland communities in the first crusade, the survivors fled eastwards and eventually established communities in Eastern Europe. They took with them their Germanic language, Yiddish, and their ancient music. But in the centuries in the Slavic area their chants became influenced by the local music culture. Hence the difference between the styles of the German Jews and those from the Baltic, Poland and Russia. Today, faced with the combined Jewish strength of Israel and America, there is a danger of our older western style being eclipsed and lost. With the destruction of European Jewry we are its last custodians. We should treasure it and do our best to study it and preserve it.

2. Nusach

One of the most striking things about our ancient prayer-chants is how specific and distinct each is: Shabbat or Yomtov, morning or evening. This is because of our use of "nusach", the traditional musical modes of Ashkenazic liturgy. There are a number of different nuscha'ot. Within each there are characteristic musical phrases. For example, the end-b'racha and 'amen' on festival mornings is quite different from the way we conclude prayers on Shabbat, or Rosh Hashanah. This gives an individual flavour to each occasion.

Similarly, the Shabbat service begins in the minor-sounding regular weekday nusach. But approaching the Shema, we change to the nusach known as "ahava rabba", taking its name from that prayer before the Shema. We then continue in that mode for the rest of the morning. Ahava rabba (in Yiddish, "freygish") is that characteristic oriental mode of, e.g. Hava Nagila, or the final Avinu Malkenu, and many other folk tunes. We may think of it as the most typical "Jewish" music, but the musicologists say that we picked it up somewhere in our dispersion.

Other principal nuscha'ot likewise take their names from associated prayers: "magen avot" used on Erev Shabbat and Shabbat minha; "adoshem malach" used in various prayers such as the Kedushah. Each nusach is so strong in its Jewish associations that stage and screen have borrowed them freely: adoshem malach for the opening phrase of "If I was a Rich Man" in Fiddler on the Roof; and magen avot for the "Exodus" theme.

Within each nusach there are characteristic musical phrases and cadences, and these vary according to the occasion. For example ahava rabba is the same framework used both on Shabbat morning and weekday evening services; but the musical motifs, the b'racha endings, etc., are quite different. Similarly no one entering the shul on a Friday evening should think it is Shabbat afternoon, even though the nusach is the same.

Does the concept of nusach seem restrictive? On the contrary, the prayer-leader, while staying within the appropriate nusach, is expected to improvise freely. Our prayer chants allow - indeed, require - spontaneity. The leader should never be totally predictable but, keeping always to the meaning of the prayers, should adorn the chant with every melodic twist and pattern that the nusach affords.

To maintain our nusach tradition it is important that those who lead services are well versed in it, and indeed congregants also. Tephilharmonic is hoping to put on nusach appreciation courses to help this.

3. Missinai Melodies

Next in age are the set melodies we call "mi-sinai" (literally "from Mount Sinai") because of their antiquity. The missinai melodies include the special tunes for Aleinu on Rosh Hashanah, the Neila Kaddish, Tal and Geshem, Akdamut on Shavuot, Eli Tsion on Tisha b'Av, and of course Kol Nidrei. No one (I hope) in our community would think of singing these prayers to any other tune.

They are not all equally old. But some go back more than a thousand years to the Rhineland, the heartland of the Ashkenazi community. For one melody, tragically, we have a date: Aleinu with its opening descent and upward leap was old and well known in 1171. In the northern French town of Blois the terrible accusation of the blood-libel led to 33 of the town's Jews, men, women and children, being burned at the stake. The dying song of these martyrs, as reported by a Jewish eye-witness to Rabeinu Tam who lived in nearby Orleans, was Aleinu. The tune seems to have impressed the Christian bystanders. There is no trace of such a tune in contemporary Gregorian chant, yet it appears in the later-composed sanctus of the Mass; from where 400 years later Martin Luther adopted it for his German Mass: a missinai tune as the musical centrepiece of the Reformation!

But we may infer that the missinai melodies are much older than this. When the Rhineland communities were savaged in the first crusade in 1096, many Jews escaped and fled eastwards. We know that they took with them their vigorous Jewish and German culture, as we see from the use of Yiddish throughout Eastern Europe. Similarly, since we find the missinai melodies firmly established throughout that vast area of Jewish settlement, from the Baltic to the Balkans, and long before the days of mass communication or music written-down, this points to a truly venerable common origin.

Hence the inspiring missinai melodies, preserved through the devotion of generations of Jews, replay for us our community's history: its wanderings, troubles, torments, endurance and, through all, its loyalty. That music enables us to hear and share the experience of our Ashkenazi forebears with an immediacy which no other medium or text or study can produce. We do well to treasure them.

4. Later Composed Tunes

Later than the missinai melodies but no less ingrained are compositions which have become "traditional" and sung everywhere: They are not truly traditional because we know the composers: Sulzer'sEn Kamocha; Lewandowski's Uvenucho Yomar. Every Shabbat we hear Julius Mombach's Hodo al Eretz and Havu from Victorian London. Older than these are tunes which go back to Duke's Place of the later 1700s: the Yigdals for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Succot; and the Kaddish before maftir on festivals. Older still we have Maoz Tsur and Adir Hu, of non-Jewish origin but now firmly rooted in our homes and also adapted to various shul texts.

In the English synagogue for a century or two we have had graceful and joyful tunes for the Hallel psalms: Odecha, Ma Oshiv, a Hodu and Anna for each festival. Lately these are being displaced by rather lumbering hassidic tunes which carelessly distort words to fit the tune, and show little feeling for poetry or meaning.

Another trend is to adapt recent Israeli songs to our prayers: Hanina Krachevsky's Al S'fat Yam Kineret, Joseph Hadar's Erev Shel Shoshanim, Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Shalom Postolski's Kuma Echa and others pop up in the kedusha and elsewhere. We also have Nurit Hirsch's Oseh Shalom, T. Portnoy's Etz Hayim, and everywhere bits of Shlomo Carlebach.

The hassidic tunes do at least show some religious feeling; and the popular songs can sometimes be adapted to sound appropriate to their text. But now we have an intrusion of camp-fire sing-alongs from American youth camps which have no musical worth, reducing the meaning of sublime poems such as Adon Olam to doggerel. Similarly the excessive restriction on repeating words, quite recently imposed on our community, means that we get fill-ins with meaningless childish "lye-lyes" and "oy-yoys" where the repetition of a word could give emphasis and feeling.

At one time our community was cohesive in its prayer melodies. One could go into any Anglo-Jewish synagogue and feel at home with its familiar, dignified service. Now, to adapt the words ofShofetim, "everyone sings what is right in his own ears". Tephilharmonic is set up to fight this trend - please register as a friend or member to show your support.

5. Sulzer

Some pieces of composed shul music have become so embedded and adopted everywhere that we regard these as the tune of the piece, for example, En Kamocha and Ki Mitzion. That music was in fact written by Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), the great cantor-composer of Vienna. With his command of the old German synagogue tunes, his appreciation for the Hebrew and the meaning of the prayers, and his skilled musicianship, he restated our missinai melodies (e.g. Hamelech, the various kaddishes, Kol Nidre) adding parts for choir; and gave us new ones in keeping with Jewish feeling and a renewed dignity of worship. His was the first attempt to provide a musical compendium of all the prayers for the entire year.

But in addition Sulzer had a superb high baritone voice which attracted all the composers and singers of Vienna, then at the peak of European musical culture, to come to his synagogue to hear him. One of these, Schubert, composed for Sulzer's Friday evening service a Mizmor Shir Leyom Hashabbat. This was the first and only example of one of the geniuses of world music writing for the synagogue - that is until such as Leonard Bernstein, Arnold Schoenberg and Kurt Weil in our own day.

Sulzer's influence was felt everywhere among European synagogues. Chazanim were sent by their communities to study with him. Not only his compositions, but his vocal style and choral settings were imitated. Such is his lasting achievement that all our synagogue music can be viewed as either pre-Sulzer or post-Sulzer.

6. Mombach

The shul music of our Anglo-Jewish Ashkenazi community is a rich hybrid: originally German, but with eastern European style later added. The first immigrants came mainly from northern Germany. They brought their traditional nusach, and their set tunes which we can still recognise: Maoz Tsur, Adir Hu, the festival Yigdals, the Hallel tunes; and of course our leyening style. Their melodies took firm root in the Great Synagogue, Duke's Place, in the 18th century. Successive chazzanim appointed there who came from Germany or Holland had no difficulty in attuning to the local minhag. Chazzanim from further east had to learn and adopt this dignified western style.

In 1828 the Great appointed a new chazzan, Hanoch Eliasson, chazzan of Darmstadt. He brought with him a youngster of 14, Julius Mombach, son of the chazzan of nearby Pfungstadt. Mombach, with a sweet voice and exceptional musicality, at first joined with chazzan and bass in the traditional trio, a form of synagogue music-making that had been practised for a century or two in Europe. But after a few years the synagogue decided to follow the example of the leading synagogues of Europe and establish a choir. Mombach, now in his twenties, was made Director. He held the post for nearly 40 years. In that time he composed many settings for the entire year, and became the leading influence on synagogue music and choirs not only in England but throughout the empire.

Exceptionally modest, Mombach published not a note of his music in his lifetime. It was left to Chazzan Keiser to collect Mombach's manuscripts and publish them in 1881. This is unfortunate because Keiser included tunes not by Mombach; and may have missed others which we now have to call "traditional". Among familiar and much-loved compositions undoubtedly by Mombach are his Hodo Al Eretz and Havu still sung everywhere every Shabbat; Ledavid Mizmor for festivals; his regular and sefirah Lecha Dodis and Ahavat Olam for Friday evening; Mechalkeil and Hayom Harat Olam on Rosh Hashanah; Ki Anu Amecha on Yom Kippur, and his Adon Olam now rightly reserved for concluding Rosh Hashanah morning and Kol Nidre.

Soon after his death, the United Synagogue resolved to collect and publish a compendium of Anglo-Jewish settings for choir and congregation for the entire year. This appeared as Kol Rinah: The Voice of Prayer and Praise, but far better known as the "blue book". It remains the core-collection of our choral pieces. The editors obtained the copyright of Mombach's compositions, and with some editing to improve their Hebrew stress, they are the backbone of the collection.

7. Alman

The music of the United Synagogue received a fresh new impetus with the arrival of Samuel Alman. Alman was born in Sobolevka, in the western Ukraine, in 1877. Between 1895 and 1903 he studied music at conservatories in Odessa and Kishinev. Conscripted into the Russian army, he served as a bandsman. Following the Kishinev pogrom he came to England in 1906 and continued his studies at the Guildhall School of Music. He gained the ARCM in 1910.

Already many Jews had arrived from Eastern Europe and, finding the established Anglo-Jewish davening and musical style not to their taste, had formed their own synagogues. Alman's achievement was to create a synthesis of the older Anglo-Jewish style with the musical expression of these relative newcomers. He became choirmaster first at Dalston synagogue and then at the Duke's Place. In 1911 he completed his biblical grand opera in Yiddish, King Ahaz, which was performed to much acclaim the following year.

In 1916 began his long career as choirmaster at Hampstead, working with the hazan, Wolf Stoloff. In 1921 there appeared his first group of Hebrew songs, and in 1925 his first large volume of synagogue music for the sabbath, followed in 1933 by the second volume for the high festivals. When Stoloff was succeeded in 1931 by Gershon Boyars, there began a musical partnership in which each inspired the other. Alman's style for hazan was in the South Russian tradition of recitative. But while his many choral compositions also reflect this eastern nusach, his musical training enabled him to introduce more 20th-century harmony. He added an important Supplement to the 'Blue Book', re-arranging much of our German-style shul music with correct Hebrew and phrasing. He founded the Halevi Choral Society for which he wrote many of his four-part mixed choir pieces, and also conducted the Hazanim Choir. His concert works include a string quartet 'Ebraica', and a set of organ preludes based on Jewish themes.

Among compositions for which we remember him are his Rosh Hodesh bensching, his Sefirat haOmer, and perhaps best-loved for its pathos, his Shomeir Yisroel. Outside the synagogue he set very many Yiddish and Hebrew songs, still favourites among choirs. But in synagogues today his compositions are not so often heard because of the lack of choirs capable of performing them.

Alman's influence, partly on account of the 'Blue Book', was felt throughout the Jewish world. When he was due to retire, the United Synagogue resolved to create a new post for him as the U.S. Director of Music. But he died only weeks later at the age of 69.

8. The Music of Megillat Esther

Purim gives us two opportunities to hear Esther. Esther has the most varied and feature-full leyening (sung chant) of any of the Bible books. It is also the most demanding, not only for its 167 verses from an unpointed scroll, and not only for the exuberant reception that the reader may have to surmount; but also for the variety of its music. First there is Esther's own regular trop (tune). But then there are various passages which in our tradition are leyened to other musical styles: the trop of Eichah for the mournful passages; an allusion to the music of 'Hamelech' from Rosh Hashanah; a plaintive style for Esther's pleading; a narrative style for the story-telling; a declamatory style for proclaiming the honouring of Mordechai; and a triumphant style for celebration. And then the four p'suqim shel g'ulah,(verses of deliverance)sentences in which the congregation anticipate the reader, for which he uses a special cadence to cue them.

These musical variations serve to heighten the drama, bring out midrashic interpretations, and encourage participation. Perhaps if we are allowed to listen more intently we shall get a fuller appreciation of this, our most colourful leyening.

9. The Music of Pesach

For the Seder songs most families have their own traditional tunes. Hence the cheerful cacophony at multi-table hotel sedarim!) For Ashkenazim, Adir Hu seems to be the only universal tune. It is of German origin, with bits that are the same as pieces of various German folk songs of the 1500s. It also does service for Hodu and An-na in Hallel, and Adon Olam, and is used as a seasonal leitmotiv, for example in the bensching for Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

In the Musaf for the first day we have Tal, the poetic prayer for dew in Israel's summer. We are prompted by the hazzan, now in white, singing the kaddish to the special solemn tune used only here and for the Geshem (prayer for rain) at Succot - see the article below. After the silent amidah he commences the repetition with the same melody. This Ashkenazi Tal chant is 'missinai' meaning one of our melodies from time immemorial, and immutable. Research suggests that it dates from at latest the year 1000 CE, that is before the Rhineland settlements were destroyed in the first crusade. The Jews fleeing eastwards took their tunes as well as their German dialect, and so these same missinai melodies were preserved and treasured among our people from the Baltic to the Balkans and long before the days of mass communication.

The Tal poem itself, inserted in the Amida repetition, is by Kalir (possibly 6th century) and has been set to music by various composers, most notably by Yossele Rosenblatt.

10. The Music of Shavuot

Shavuot shares with Pesach and Sukkot our general festive music: the stately German tune which introduces the Shochen Ad verses; often this is where a baal musaf will start. Similarly we hear the regular festival nusach chant in the repetition of the Amidahs. But added to these, Shavuot has its own u nique missinai melodies to accompany the special prayers unique to this festival: Akdamut, the 11th century poem inserted before the leyening, is sung like a psalm in alternate verses by the baal k'riah and the congregation. (Its tune has been adapted for the kiddush of all three festivals.) There is however a more elaborate old German tune for Akdamut and this can be heard in Hallel in combination with the traditional Anglo-Jewish Shavuot tune for Hodu, dating from at least the 19th century.

Yetsiv Pitgam, inserted in the haftarah, has an old tune. Mombach, the 19th century choirmaster at the Great Synagogue, reworked this in triple-time and three-line verses. This tune likewise may be used in Hallel for, e.g., Anna Hashem. Then there is the poem Az Shesh Me'ot in the repetition of the Musaf Amidah. This has its own ancient tune but regrettably few prayer-leaders nowadays seem to know it.

Finally we should enjoy the special Shavuot leyening of the Book of Ruth, the one Bible book about ordinary everyday life of ordinary people in ancient Israel. This megillah is leyened in the same warm summer trop as for Shir Hashirim and Kohelet on the other two festivals. But if read with understanding and expression, the trop itself enables this precious gem of the Bible, with the moving words of devotion of Ruth to Naomi, the midnight surprise of Boaz, the family and property matters, to come alive for us again each Shavuot.

11. The Music of Tisha b'Av

This darkest day of the year, repeatedly tragic in Jewish history, has acquired a musical tradition of its own. First, there is the unique chant of Eicha, the book of Lamentations. The music of each sentence starts out all in sunshine and optimism, only to be brought down to a sad, dark ending. Repeated some 150 times in the darkened synagogue, the congregants seated on the floor, it creates a sense of monotony, inevitability, despair. We get a foretaste of the Eicha trop on Shabbat Hazon preceding the fast day, when it is used in the haftarah. And an aftertaste: it is heard again in the haftarah on Tisha b'Av morning. It is also quoted in the reading of Esther on Purim, to remind us, even as we celebrate, of our exile and loss of the Temple.

On the morning of the fast when we come to the last of the kinnot, the congregation get up from their lowly position and sing Eli Tsiyon. The poem, perhaps by Yehuda Halevi, is a lament for Jerusalem seen as a desolate, weeping woman. Its sad, beautiful, melody, as reminiscent of Tisha b'Av as is Eicha's, is used also for Lecha Dodi during the Three Weeks preceding Tisha b.Av, or at least on erev Shabbat Hazon; and in some congregations it is heard during this season for e.g., Adon Olam and Mi Chamocha, so getting us into the mood for the fast itself.

The rhythmical tune of Eli Tsiyon has been traced by the musicologists to medieval church hymns in Spain. Sung by pilgrims crossing Europe, it is quite likely that the Jews found it appealing and plaintive, and adopted it for Eli Tsiyon. But surely its inseparable association with the kinna has made it now entirely our own.

12. Adon Olam

Most of us are familiar with the liturgical poem 'Adon Olam - Lord of the Universe, sung chiefly at the end of Shabbat and festivals services. Its authorship is debated among scholars, but most ascribe it to the Jewish poet and philosopher Shelomo Ibn Gabirol (1021-1051). Adon Olam became known throughout the Jewish world. It proclaims the eternity of God (He was, He is and He shall be glorious for evermore); His uniqueness (He is One, there is none else, alone,unique beyond compare); His providence and protection (into His hand my soul I place, when I awake and when I sleep). Adon Olam is placed in our siddur early on - (at the beginning of the day, see Chief Rabbi's New Siddur, page 10) serving as an introduction to the Morning Prayer. This is in order to instil in us the reverence of the Almighty thus bringing us into proper devotion for prayer. We also bring the day to a close reciting Adon Olam right at the end of our bedtime prayers (Chief Rabbi's New Siddur, page 250), reaffirming our faith in God. We conclude our Mussaf Prayers on Shabbat and Festivals by singing Adon Olam.

Unsurprisingly, there are many musical settings for Adon Olam in a variety of styles. Also, you'll find special tunes for special occasions. We have a majestic melody for Yamim Noraim. On other festivals we imbue the text with the unambiguous festival's flavour. For instance, on Chanukah we sing Adon Olam to the tune of Maoz Tzur and on Pesach to the tune of Addir Hu. Perhaps we should mention here the website www.shulmusic.org where you can find many synagogue compositions including a long list of melodies for Adon Olam. Here are some examples of compositions, some better known and some less so.

Salamone De Rossi (c.1570-c.1630) served as composer at the court of the Gonzaga Dukes of Mantua. He was probably the first Jew to gain recognition for his composing style which was considered rather innovative for that period. In his book for the Mantua Synagogue, 'Hashirim Asher LiShlomo', we find a beautiful and fairly solemn setting for Adon Olam in early Baroque style. A much-loved melody, usually reserved for special occasions, is the 'De Sola', brought over from Amsterdam by Rabbi David Aaron de Sola (1796 - 1860) who was appointed as minister at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1818. In 1857 he published 'The ancient Melodies of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews'. His Adon Olam is still sung in Sephardi and Ashkenazy congregations to this day.

Another classic favourite with British communities, is the setting by Simon W. Waley (1827-1876) for the West London Synagogue. This melody became so popular that it was readily adopted by orthodox communities and is known even beyond the Jewish world. But not many know its origins. Eliezer Mordechai Gerowitsch (1844-1914) was a very distinguished cantor composer. His main cantorial appointment was to the Rostov on Don's (southern Russia) Chor Shul (choral synagogue) in 1887. He was to Eastern European Chazanut what Sulzer and Lewandowski were for western European synagogue music. In 1890 he published his first book 'Shire T'filoh' dedicated to the High Holydays. We sing his T'vieinu in the Selichot Service and on Yom Kippur. In his second book 'Schirej Simroh' published in 1904, we find his Adon Olam which started life as a serious choral four part harmony piece with a cantor's solo. However, it became so well liked that it soon spread throughout synagogues acquiring a lighter character. You can find it in on www.shulmusic.org. It is number 28 on the Adon Olam list and under its composer it simply says, 'Traditional'! Its popularity is such that it is performed in a diversity of styles. To illustrate this I recommend you to listen to the rendition of Yehuda Glantz. Argentinean born Yehuda, who is based now in Israel, is an artist, singer and composer who developed a style that fuses Chassidic and Latino music creating a sort of 'Gaucho Klezmer' idiom. You can hear his interpretation of the Gerowitsch Adon Olam on You Tube, by clicking here , where he accompanies himself on the 'charango' (small South American stringed instrument) adding some Aramaic and Spanish verses! Enjoy.

13. Geshem - The Prayer for Rain

The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah, chapter 1 mishna 2) tells us that on Sukkot the world is judged for rain. The Talmud (Taanit 7a) says in the name of Rav Yosef that the world's dependence on rain for its sustenance is so total that rainfall is compared to the revival of the dead. This is the reason says Rav Yosef, why the Rabbis put the phrase - ' Mashiv Haruach uMorid Hageshem' - 'He makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall' in the second blessing of the Amida which speaks about Divine Might and concludes with 'Blessed are You, Lord, who revives the dead'. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) brings Rabbi Yehuda's view that the world is judged on all aspects already on Rosh Hashanah but the final judgment is sealed for each feature only in its specific time; for grain on Pesach, for fruits of trees on Shavuot and for rain on Sukkot. Rabbi Yehoshua Ibn Shuaib (13th century Spain) in his work 'Derashot al haTorah' (derasha for Shemini Atzeret) explains this notion in connection with rain that the amount of rain that will fall during the coming year is in fact determined already on Rosh Hashanah. However, on Sukkot it is decided where i.e. on which parts of the world it would fall, and how i.e. whether it would be beneficial to the world or otherwise. This idea is reflected in the Liturgical poem 'Af Beri' by Rabbi Eleazar haKalir recited at the Shemini Atzeret Mussaf repetition. According to tradition Af Beri is the name of the angel appointed over rainclouds. The word 'af' means anger and the word 'beri' means health alluding in his very name the two ways in which rain can fall.

Our Rabbis say that raining on Sukkot would appear as if God doesn't favour our mitzvah of dwelling in the Sukkah, and it is considered a 'siman kelala' - a sign of curse. It would be therefore inappropriate for us to pray for rain during the first seven days of the Festival. Only on Shemini Atzeret, when the mitzvah of Sukkah does not apply any longer, we hold the 'Tefilat Geshem', the prayer for rain, at the Mussaf Service. Shemini Atzeret therefore has a dimension of a Yom Din - a day of judgment. Accordingly, the chazzan wears his white garments for Tefilat Geshem as on Yamin Noraim. This aspect is reflected also on the music for the liturgy of Geshem.

The Nusach (i.e. specific melody for a particular prayer) for the Kaddish before Geshem and the beginning of the Amida repetition and the liturgical poem 'Af Beri' is very ancient. This tune belongs to a group of melodies categorized as 'Niggunim Missinai' - 'tunes from Sinai'. These melodies, because of their majestic beauty and ancientness have attained a status of sanctity. They have become an inseparable part of our 'Minhag' and are regarded as if they were given on Mount Sinai. Other melodies in this group include the Kadishim before Mussaf of Yamim Noraim and Neilah,'Vehakohanim' of the Avodah Service on Yom Kippur and more. Their dissemination among Ashkenazi Jewry is attributed to Rabbi Yaacov Molin (known as The Maharil) of 14th century Mainz, a major halachic authority and himself a chazzan. The tune for the Kaddish before Geshem is similar in its melodic material and structure to the tune of the Kaddish before Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah (even some hints to Neilah are present). The musicologist A. Z. Idelsohn suggests that originally there was one tune used for both occasions and later it branched out as two separate melodies.

Few cantorial compositions convey so beautifully the Piyut (liturgical poem) 'Zechor Av' - 'Remember the Patriarch' as the setting by the famous Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) for the first three stanzas. The first stanza, appeals to Hashem to remember the merit of our patriarch Abraham 'who was drawn behind you like water'. Rosenblatt utilizes the suppliant Ahava Rabah mode. (a mode is a musical scale that bears a distinctive colour or flavour due to the specific intervals between its notes). The elegant way in which the musical theme is developed is a classic example of the traditional chazzanic utterance ('zogechts' in Yiddish). The next stanza invokes God to remember 'the one born with the tidings of 'Let some water be brought'. This is a reference to Isaac, whose birth was prophesied to Abraham when he offered his hospitality (some water) to the three angels. Here Rosenblatt moves to the brighter major scale to depict the happiness of receiving the good tidings. The third paragraph pleads, 'Remember the one who carried his staff' referring to Jacob who crossed the Jordan with his staff on his way to Laban. Here the heartfelt melody aptly expresses the phrase 'he dedicated his heart and rolled a stone off a well of water'. This refers to Jacob's dedication and determination in his faith which enabled him to remove single handedly a very heavy stone from the top of a well in order to water Rachel's sheep. You can hear Rosenlatt's own rendition at the Florida Atlantic University website, in their Judaic Sound Archives where you can listen to about 150 of Rosenblatt's recordings. Click here to go directly to it.

14. Ma'oz Tzur

In the same way that the melody for Adir Hu has become 'the' Pesach song, so has the melody to Maoz Tzur become associated with Chanukah, and although it is a very popular song, the true origins of both the words and the tune are not certain.

Let us start with the words. If you take the first letter of each stanza and put them together, they spell out the word 'Mordechai.' This is, of course someone's name, and there are many examples in our liturgy of people weaving their names into their own compositions. The problem here, however, that we cannot say with absolute certainty who this 'Mordechai' was. One suggestion is that he was Mordechai ben Yitzchak Halevi, and he lived before the year 1250. The first stanza is an introduction to the theme of the next four, which is praise to Gd for having saved us from our enemies. In the second we speak of how He brought us out from the Egyptian slavery, and in the third of our return from the Babylonian exile. The fourth refers to our deliverance from the wicked Haman, and in the final verse we speak of the story of Chanukah itself. In the new Siddur of the Chief Rabbi, there appears for the very first time in the Authorised version, an extra verse which was undoubtedly added to Mordechai's original hymn much later and unlike the other verses does not deal explicitly with any specific historic enemy of Israel. It would appear also that there were even more than this single extra stanza written, although today we no longer have them, composed by Rabbi Moses Isserles, Rabbi Jeremiah of Wuerzburg and others.

With regard to the melody, as with many of our 'traditional' melodies, the one that we generally utilise for Maoz Tzur is adapted from tunes that our predecessors heard, rather than being composed especially for those words. One of the great experts on the melodies of the Synagogue, A.Z. Idelsohn, is of the view that it is a typical German melody. He demonstrates that some of the melodic phrases come from a chorale by Martin Luther called 'Nun freut Euch Ihr lieben Christen.' However, it was not Luther's composition since he had, in turn, adopted the tune of an old German folk-song, So weiss ich eins was mich erfreut, das plumlein auf praeter heide. What we have today is a stylized arrangement by the famous British synagogue composer, Julius Mombach (see above article). There is no absolute requirement to sing this melody, and many others have been composed. Since we sing Maoz Tzur eight times at home, (not to count the number of times we sing it in shul and in other places!) it is a nice idea to take another melody on some of those occasions, just for a change. If you would like to listen to a new setting from Rabbi Shisler's recent book of synagogue compositions - 'Shiru Lo Shir Chadash', sung by Cantor Gideon Zellermeyer click Ma'oz Tzur If you would like to listen to renditions from various other communities, you can visit the Israeli Piyut site by clicking here

15. The Missinai Music of the Yamim Noraim

Though they exist throughout the year, our 'missinai' melodies, timeless unchanging tunes and chants, are most concentrated in the High Holiday services. I suppose most people will think first of Kol Nidrei. But there is Hamelekh, Alenu, the special chant of the Torah, the Vidui, the Avoda, the special kaddishes at Musaf and at Ne'ila, the selicha nusach throughout, and even the characteristic 'amen', quite different from Shabbat and Yomtov and weekdays.

These melodies and cadences are a precious legacy. We hear in them the voices of our Ashkenazi forbears resonating down the centuries. We can share directly in their experience, unite with them briefly in history. This music is not a mere accompaniment but intrinsic to each prayer. Consider how Kol Nidrei would be without its music: a dry legal declaration, indeed not a prayer at all. The missinai melody is the means by which a prayer reaches us. It communicates the feeling and associations of the prayer even though we may not be able to translate a single word. In the same way listeners have been moved spiritually by a devoted hazzan's prayer without understanding its meaning. But then we know that music comes to us with an immediacy like no other art form, and without needing to be understood. Every missinai melody has its distinct musical structure and many have a story as well.

Starting with the traditional music of erev Rosh Hashanah, the ma'ariv services have the German major melody throughout: bar'chu, the paragraph endings, mi chamocho etc. Since it is the same in both the Polish and German traditions, that alone would indicate that it must be missinai. In fact all are based on phrases borrowed from the 'Great' Alenu in the next days' musaf see below;

A digression: if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat we will include the prayer Magen Avot. This has its own missinai melody - and indeed from here the name 'magen avot' is given to that mode wherever it occurs, along with the other mode names used by Jewish musicologists, such as 'adoshem malach' and 'ahavah rabba'.

Ahavah rabba mode is the setting for the Yigdal we sing at the end of ma'ariv on Rosh Hashanah. That mode is typically East-European. But this tune for Yigdal has not been found in any of the sources of our music in Eastern Europe and so, surprisingly, it may have originated in England. Perhaps one of the hazzanim from Poland while here at the Great Synagogue composed or introduced it.

The Rosh Hashanah Shaharit service opens with the grand acclamation of the presence of the King: a low, slow, winding chant, growing, mounting to a fortissimo: Ha-Melech! This custom was instituted in the 14th century by the Maharil, (who himself acted as a hazzan). The German tradition sounds in triumphant major; the Polish in minor, seliha-nusach. And this divergence runs generally through many of the piyutim and verses which follow.

In the amidah repetition the opening Avot paragraphs borrow the phrases of the great Alenu for the clause-ends e.g. 'gomel hasadim tovim'. Then follows 'misod hahamim', asking permission to make insertions of piyutim in the normal amidah. These opening words and much that follows have an ancient missinai tune which sounds a little like the funeral march in Beethoven's Eroica. (Our tune is older!). Zochrenu l'hayim may be chanted in seliha nusah. But in some shuls a pleasant plaintive tune by Haim Wasserzug (hazzan at the North London Synagogue 1878) has become 'traditional'. Aapid Nezer has a very distinct missinai chant but this is rarely heard. Adirei Ayuma is usually chanted to the tune of the second morning's piyut Eder vaHod. (We may think of this as the regular tune of Anim Zmirot, but here is where it originated.) As for the end-of-shaharit kaddish, the trend in recent years is to sing all these closing kaddishes to the tune of the so-called hasidic kaddish (actually composed by Yankel Gottlieb 1852-1900). Some think this is a pity and that only the very final kaddish ending Neilah should be so sung.

The musaf kaddish with its sombre opening is considered missinai though it has not been found earlier than the 19th century. The popular bits for 'b'hayechon' and 'l'eyla l'eyla' are not missinai but composed by Wolf Shestapol (Kherson 1832-1872). The Avot, repetition of the amidah's first paragraph, makes use of the 'l'adon hakol' and other musical phrases from Alenu. The second paragraph has various chants for 'm'chalkeil' in seliha mode. Or the fine Anglo-Jewish composition by Julius Mombach can be inserted. Each paragraph has the familiar end-cadence, b'racha and 'amen', the sign-posts of the whole amidah. Misod hahamim and zochrenu l'hayim have the tunes that we noted in shaharit. On the second day l'Kel orech din is in solemn seliha chant with a contrast every third verse. For the un'taneh tokef sequence there are numerous compositions using traditional motifs. In the kedushah it is customary to use the missinai music of the 'v'hakohanim' sentences from the Yom Kippur avodah service.

The Great Alenu: this sublime prayer, mumbled-through all year three times a day, receives its true expression on Rosh Hashanah, where it originated. It opens humbly, descending quietly and with the prostration, so rare in our liturgy; and only gradually rises to a climax: Hakadosh baruch hu! This was to contrast our worship with the idolatry of the general mass of mankind but the original text had to be censored and remains so in our version. In 1171 the small community at Blois in France were subjected to the blood libel and condemned to be burned. We are told that as the martyrs died amid the flames they sang this Alenu as their confession of faith. Our ability to date the music of Alenu in this sad way helps us to date the missinai melodies generally.

The famous music of the kol nidrei is an Ashkenazi creation. Our Sephardi and oriental brethren have no special tune for this solemn renunciation of future vows. Its music is composite, drawing upon various missinai motifs, from Alenu, HaMelekh, and various seliha phrases. It is hard to say how old this music is. The custom of saying it three times, starting fearfully and gradually gaining in confidence, is mentioned in the Mahzor Vitry (France, 11th century). But this does not tell us about its tune. The earliest mention of that is in a statement of R.Mordechai Jaffe (Prague 1530-1612). He says that when he proposed revising the text to make better sense, he had opposition from hazzanim who told him his words could not be fitted into 'the customary melody'. But it must be very much older than that, since eastern and western Ashkenazim have it in common.

The tune has been taken to the general musical world by composers: Max Bruch (a non-Jew) and Schoenberg; and even Beethoven in whose quartet op.131 there is a seeming quotation. The poems that follow, ya'aleh and slah na ashamot have composed tunes which therefore may vary among different congregations. But omnam ken, and ki hineh kahomer have well-established German tunes. Ki anu amecha in this country is generally sung to Mombach's hearty chorus. The vidui, (tavo lefanecha and ashamnu) has what seems a simple major tune. However Idelsohn, the father of Jewish musicology, found this same vidui mode sung by Yemenite, Persian and Iraqi Jews. V'al hatoim is generally sung to a setting by Lewandowski. Avinu Malkenu has no special tune until its last verse; for which we have a tune in ahavah rabba mode by an unknown composer. Yigdal has the same ahavah rabba tune as on Rosh Hashanah, and this is followed usually by Julius Mombach's adon olam from Dukes Place.

For the day of Yom Kippur the music follows the same general pattern of missinai melodies as we have seen for Rosh Hashanah: Hamelech, the Avot, l'Kel orech din, the Kedushah, Avinu Malkenu; and with the Vidui as for the previous evening. The piyutim are different but have melodies similar to those of Rosh Hashanah. We here find the actual piyut 'emecha nasati', whose tune we heard on Rosh Hashanah for 'misod hachamim' to introduce the poetic insertions in the Amidah repetition.

The special feature of the amidah is the Avodah: 'v'chach hayah omer', and the 'v'hakohanim' whose missinai tune we will have heard used for the kedushah verses throughout. The duchaning melody, in which the cohanim follow the hazzan word for word and then round off each verse with their wordless chant, has ancient elements but there are local variations.

The unique concluding service, Neilah, has the unique kaddish of neilah, with its very unusual opening phrases and then its musical figure not unlike that of Tal yet sounding quite different in this context. The kaddish tune is carried forward to the Avot repetition. Among the special piyutim, yahbienu and yashmienu have a well-established rhythmical chant. The 13 attributes (adoshem adoshem) has an ancient traditional tune in keeping with the mood of Neilah. However some congregations prefer the familiar festival tune for these words, in which everyone can join. At the end we have the declarations of faith: 'shema yisrael' has the traditional high holiday tune, as for when the sefer torah is taken out. But the three-fold 'baruch shem kavod' and the seven-fold final verse have a simple ancient pentatonic chant which rises but does not come down again, seeming to want to continue without end.


Last Updated 7th April 2013. Originally published by Tephilharmonic and reproduced with permission