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 incorrect.
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 the Amidah.
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 of Neilah.
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. ShislerLast update: 30 April 2006