Cycles of Time and the Shul Soundscape

Cycles of Time and the Shul Soundscape

Steven G. Margolin
ALEPH Cantorial Student
Congregation Beth Israel of Chico


We Jews always have time on our minds, perhaps more so at this time of year, the month of Elul leading us to Rosh Hashanah.  Each day of the year, we anchor ourselves by the three times for prayer – evening (Maariv or Arvit), morning (Shacharit) and afternoon (Mincha).  The week of days is divided between Shabbat, the Sabbath, and Chol, the other six days.  The weeks of course are grouped into months and the months into a year.  Unlike other peoples, we simultaneously adhere to a lunar calendar of months and a solar calendar for the year of months, keeping them in sync by adding a leap month to a lot of years.  Our major holidays mark major divisions of the annual calendric round, anchored to changes of the seasons and often falling on the full moon.

The music of the synagogue is keyed into all of these divisions of time.  Sometimes, this is very obvious from what is being sung.  If you hear Lecha Dodi or Shalom Aleichem, you know it is Kabbalat Shabbat, the welcoming of the Sabbath on Friday evening.  Nishmat Kol Chai means it probably is Saturday morning.  There are lots of other examples.

The soundscape of the shul also changes with the time of day, and the sounds of weekday prayer differ from Shabbat prayer, even if the prayers sung are the same.  My examples here are from the music of the Ashkenazim originally from central and Eastern Europe.  On Friday evening, the modal music (nusach) begins in a mode often called “Adonai Malach” (for the musically inclined, the mode uses a scale like a major key, but with a flat seven of the scale).  On a weekday morning, the prayers surrounding and including the Shema use a weekday and fairly simple version of the freygish mode, related to the Arab maqam called “hijaz”, which we may well have acquired from the Ottomans.  (Freygish in C would use a scale of C D-flat E F G A-flat B-flat.)  The beginning of the weekday afternoon prayers uses a minor scale.  The first three sections of the Amidah for weekday morning and afternoon prayer are in a pentatonic mode (“we’re in the army now”).  If you attended the recent Sunday afternoon shiva minyan, you heard me lead the afternoon Amidah in pentatonic.

And then the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have melodies all their own.  Many of the prayers on the evening when Rosh Hashanah begins use a snappy march tune in a major key (yes, every now and then we sing in major).  The chatimah (the “seal” ending of a blessing) for many of the morning High Holiday prayers and the amen right after use a characteristic melody many will recognize when they hear it.  There is a special melody used for the morning Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, slower and more elaborate than the regular Torah trop melody.  At various points in the service there are bits of liturgy that use very old melodies called “Mi Sinai” tunes, because they are said to have been received at Mt. Sinai; the melodies doubtless are not that old, but some may be as old as the tenth or eleventh centuries of the Common Era. Kol Nidre, sung at the beginning of the evening service of Yom Kippur, is the sound of the Jewish soul aching to reconnect.  The melody may come from the melody used for Torah reading in Babylonia.

Rabbi Sara and I are planning some teachings in the weeks of Elul about the High Holidays and the music of this special time of year.  Stay tuned.

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