By Rabbi Geoffrey Shisler
At this time of the year, when many congregations have to employ extra
Ba'alei Tefillah to lead parallel services, the question of 'traditional'
melodies becomes of serious concern, not only for people with a specific
interest in Synagogue music, but also for the regular Shul-goer who
recognises and relies on his familiarity with these melodies, and uses
them to aid him in his concentration.
That musical traditions vary from one community to another is readily
discernable to every visitor, but many people don't realise that there's
a clear distinction between what's traditional, and what's patently
A Ba'al Tefillah who begins the repetition of the Amidah on Rosh Hashana
in the same way that he would on Shabbat, is not just following the
tradition of his community, even if it's been done there for fifty years.
He's simply wrong!
Many congregations have melodies that have been used in their services for
many years, and such tunes are obviously 'traditional' in that particular
community. Very often, you won't even hear them in another Shul.
There are also tunes that are well-established in London congregations
that you might not hear in a provincial community, and vice-versa.
In terms of 'traditional melodies,' we must distinguish between
individual compositions and 'modes.' The prayer modes are called 'Nusach
Hatefillah', and the same ones will be heard, with minor variations,
throughout the world. (Those used by the Sephardim are totally different
from the ones employed by Ashkenazim.)
A thorough explanation of what Nusach Hatefilla is, is outside the
scope of this brief article, but it may best be described by drawing
your attention to the theme used for the repetition of the Amidah.
You will notice that, whereas Ba'alei Tefillah will sing a variety of
melodies for "Unetaneh Tokef," they will all use the same basic modes for
the paragraphs beginning with "Uvechein Tein." They will sing different
tunes to "Ya'aleh," on Kol Nidrei night, but will use the same basic
modes for the Penitential prayers - the "Selichot."
A very significant, and instantly recognisable element of these modes is
the way that the Beracha and its Amen are sung. In the unlikely event
that one had lost track of time, a regular-Shul goer would be able to
identify the day of the Jewish calendar by hearing just one Beracha in
These modes are exceedingly important since they help to create the
atmosphere of the day, and if the wrong one is used, it can be very
disorientating and totally spoil one's concentration.
Among the fascinating aspects of the Nusach for the Yamim Noraim are
the threads which connect it with other occasions of the Jewish year.
In some communities extra prayers are added in the Shacharit service
on the Shalosh Regalim. These are called "Yotzerot" and "Kerovot."
The modes used for them are very similar to some of those used in the
Shacharit service on the Yamim Noraim.
We utilise the Succot themes in the Kedusha, as well as the flavour
of "Tal" and "Geshem", the prayers for dew and rain, in the Kaddish
There's also an association between the Shavuot hymn, "Az Sheish Mei'ot"
and "Kol Nidrei", and Lewandowski, at least, makes an arrangement of
"Ya'aleh" to his themes for "Tal."
Although it is difficult to establish why these specific associations
were made, it's not out of chance, or ignorance.
It's as if the Nusach itself is reaching out to us from beyond the Yamim
Noraim and saying, 'Come back and hear me on other occasions too.'
A rather surprising aspect of the melodies for the High Holydays
is the preponderance of happy tunes. It's only because most of us
don't understand what we're singing, and don't even take the trouble
to glance across at the translation, that we don't recognise the
apparent incongruity of the lustiness with which we sing, "Ashamnu,
Bagadnu..." or "Veal Chataim."
There is a variety of reasons for the utilisation of these tunes on the
most solemn days of the year, the days on which we are literally begging
for our lives.
Firstly, singing them joyfully demonstrates our confidence that the
Almighty has indeed forgiven our sins. The trial through which we go on
these awesome days is unlike a trial by a human court. We know that, if
we have prayed with devotion, if we have made a sincere commitment to try
to improve our ways, then with absolute certainty, we shall be forgiven.
Also, I believe the rabbis did not object to them because they inspire
communal participation much more readily than sombre tunes would.
And the notion that, being very attractive, they may encourage people
to return next year, should not be too readily dismissed.
The importance of utilising the 'traditional' Nusach cannot be overstated.
The Chachamim were insistent on the correct melodies being used, and it's
incumbent on a congregation to do everything in its power to employ as
Ba'alei Tefillah, only those who can demonstrate their total familiarity
with it, before allowing them to officiate!
© Copyright Rabbi G. Shisler