We celebrate a very special shabbat, this shabbat shira, sabbath of song, when we read the torah portion Beshallach – in which we cross the Sea of Reeds after the Sea splits and we reach the other side dry, and watch as our Egyptian pursuers are swallowed by the Sea. Our long years of slavery are finally really truly over and we are ready to embark on a new life. But before we do, Moses sings the Song of the Sea, a song/poem/prayer that biblical scholars believe was much more ancient than the text surrounding it. Several of the Song’s verses that have been set to music, and appear in our liturgy: Mi Chamocha, Ozi v’Zimrat Ya. After Moses finished his song this wonderful verse appears: (Ex. 15:20) Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. Hence shabbat shira’s name.
Given that our Final Friday Cultural Series falls this month on Shabbat Shira, we are blessed that the Tahoe Truckee Community Chorus is here to bring our songs to life.
But before we continue with the service, I have been asked to speak briefly about the history and evolution of Jewish prayer songs and liturgy. Much of what I will speak about comes from the book Synagogue Song: An Introduction to Concepts, Theories and Customs, by my friend and colleague, Cantor Dr. Jonathan L. Friedmann. I’ll be quoting him extensively. Pretty much everything that follows is either a direct quote or a paraphrase because, well, he wrote the book.
First, as we learned from my description above, when we Jews celebrate, we sing and dance. Music has part of human rituals since our beginnings, according to cave paintings and other evidence. All known cultures have singing, associate singing with the supernatural, and accompany religious activities with song.
The torah and the Hebrew Bible are filled with moments of prayer songs. In addition to the Song of the Sea that contains the Mi Chamocha, we find Moses’ final song to us before he dies, Hannah’s prayer song to receive her son, the prophet Samuel, Deborah’s song before battle in the Book of Judges, and of course the entire book of Psalms – 150 different prayer songs, sung by the Levites in the Temple, often with instructions about instrumentation.
If I were to ask you why we sing our prayers, what would you tell me? Cantor Friedmann tells us that the roles of melody and song are
- to convey ideas and information,
- to facilitate social bonding and cohesion,
- to retain and pass on culture and oral traditions
- to make it easier to remember the words, especially in another language,
- enable ownership of the prayer experience
- help to cultivate a prayerful mood.
Perhaps more directly than any other medium, music connects worshipers to the words of prayer and to each other.
After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the priests were no longer singing psalms, we moved our worship into houses of prayer, our shuls. The rabbis of the Mishnah and Gemara (collectively known as the Talmud) became our architects of Jewish worship. They realized that it is not enough for the themes of a prayer to be sacred; the way in which the words are expressed must also be extra-ordinary.
According to Cantor Friedmann, this is a primary reason why prayer is written in the lashon kodesh— “holy tongue”—of Hebrew and presented in the sacred sound of musical tones. By combining these elements of Hebrew and music, the words of prayer are made holy.
The sages established the ritual of praying three times a day: morning (shacharit), afternoon (mincha) and evening (maariv). This structure fulfills a Jew’s obligation to pray regularly and offers a ritual opportunity to express one’s gratitude, heart felt desires and need to seek forgiveness, or what we teach as “Please, thank you, I’m sorry and WOW.”
To make each prayer service specific, Ashkenazi (Northern and Eastern European Jews) produced distinctive musical modes, known collectively as nusach ha-tefillah…nusach is text-driven chant, with words directing the flow and contours of the music. Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam… The chant patterns of Jewish liturgy vary as the service progresses and differ from one service to the next.
Scholars cite two benefits of these nusach variations. One is their ability to announce time. For those who pray nusach three times a day, these variations announce the day of the week, time of the day, season of the year and date on the calendar. This is especially important, as much of the liturgy remains the same (or receives only slight modification) throughout the course of the year, and we might become bored.
Cantor Friedmann identifies three elements in most Jewish religious songs:
(1) they are sung publically in the context of a ceremony, like here at services, at a Passover seder, at a funeral.
(2) their words are delivered on behalf of the community – generally in first person plural; and
(3) God is directly or indirectly referred to in the text. At their core, these prayers are meant to draw attention to the divine presence in the world and stipulate the moods and themes of specific sacred times.
Do you know what a Mi Sinai tune is? Mi Sinai means “from Sinai” – that the music harkens back to the moment we received revelation at the Mountain together. There are a couple of ways to look at this – there are the so-called Mi Sinai motifs of Rosh Hashanah (Barechu…) and Yom Kippur (Avinu Malkeinu) and the various holiday songs that have genuinely come down to us through the generations. Such melodies are, in essence, mnemonic devices, storing and prompting distinct feelings and memories.
How many of you watched the community memorial service in Newtown that Sunday 6 weeks ago? The other clergy recited beautiful interpretative prayers. But the rabbi reached into our traditional liturgy and sang a beautiful rendition of El Malei Rachamim, God Filled with Mercy, a traditional prayer from our funeral and yizkor services. Singing something that is so well known, so familiar in such a soulful way was more heartwrenching for me than the other more spontaneous prayers. The ritual, the repetitions all matter.
Another way to look at Mi Sinai tunes is the melodies that a congregation – or a person – believes is THE melody that SHOULD be sung for a given prayer. We have a lot of examples of this here – how we sing Oseh Shalom, for example.
Cantor Friedmann notes—and we certainly know this ourselves, that few changes stir more controversy in a congregation than the introduction of new prayer melodies. The instinct for preservation, the comfort of routine, and the perceived holiness of long-established tunes all militate against it. And yet, Cantor Friedmann notes that this self-limited musical range seems to run counter to an important function of synagogue music: the enlivening of static texts.
And, it is important to note that Jewish musical traditions are as numerous and varied as the communities that produce them. Most major prayers of the Jewish liturgy have several musical settings. Musicologist Abraham Z. Idelsohn noted in 1929 that there were 2,000 melodies for Lecha Dodi alone. I myself have 6 different versions of Oseh Shalom in my iTunes library. And yet, there is no single tone or rhythm that is inherently more sacred than another.
Through the act of offering prayerful songs, Jews have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the ultimate reality. So, whenever a congregation sings a prayer, and no matter how recent the melody, it is engaging in a most ancient form of religious expression. It is, in a very real way, carrying on a practice that began at the shores of the Red Sea.
As we embark on this musical service, I invite you to open your hearts to new melodies, try singing before it feels comfortable, recognize the person singing behind you, in front of you, beside you as a member of your community. If you don’t know the words, la-la works well, although lie-la-lie is a little more Jewish. You’ll know some melodies, you’ll have heard many, some might be new. Different styles might work for some of you better than others, and those others might work from someone else. Enjoy the ones that help you catch a glimpse of that ultimate reality.