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Hazzan Steve's Message

Have Fun In Shul

“Sing ‘Baruch’ like you know what it means” may be the most important thing Hazzan Jack has ever said to me.  To budding shelichei tzibur (“emissaries of the community”, meaning leaders of communal prayer) Jack also likes to say “be shy on your own time”.  And “have fun in shul”.

So last Saturday we had fun in shul.  Ask anyone who was there.  

It was Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach, the Shabbat that falls during the eight days of Passover.  I sang some of the special melodies for the Amidah of the first day of Pesach.  Together we sang Tefilat Tal, which is a prayer for dew that marks the change from the rainy season to the dry season in Eretz Yisrael (and here) and also uses special melodies for the first day of Passover.  Yes, I know Saturday was not the first day.  But we were not together on the first day, and we were together on Saturday morning, and I feel a responsibility to keep these very old melodies alive.  Why?  Tradition!  And because I am a hazzan, a cantor, and an important part of my job is to curate a couple of thousand years of Jewish music. 

There is another reason for us to hear and sing these special melodies.  It has to do with one of Rabbi Lisa’s favorite subjects - the Jewish calendar.  We live in cycles within cycles within cycles, most of them evident in the natural world.  Days (sunset to sunset) cycle into weeks (seven days) cycle into months (new moon to new moon) cycle into years (twelve or thirteen months, depending on the year) cycle every seven years into a shmitah year of release.  Once upon a time we counted a cycle of 49 years, seven shmitah cycles, to mark the jubilee year, but somewhere on our journeys we misplaced the knowledge of just which of the seven shmitah cycles we were in, and we can no longer find the jubilee year.

Natural and agricultural phenomena follow us through our cycles.  Rosh Hashanah falls in the fall, and then Sukkot marks the end of the harvest season.  Chanukah is at or close to the darkest day of the year.  Pesach celebrating spring and our exit from Egypt is an agricultural festival at its heart.  Two really, merging the barley harvest festival of our farming ancestors with a lambs and kids festival of our pastoralist ancestors.  Shavuot, seven weeks after Pesach, marked the beginning of the wheat harvest.  

These cycles and phenomena are at the core of who we are and how our lives play out.  So what has this to do with liturgical music and having fun in shul?

The cycles carry musical markers.  The nusach (modal music of prayer) changes over the course of the day.  Morning, afternoon and evening sound different!  Shabbat sounds different from weekdays (and within that, of course, Shabbat evening sounds different from Shabbat morning, and Shabbat afternoon differs from both evening and morning).  The Shelosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot) sound different from the rest of the year, and each of those three differs in some respects from the other two.  High Holidays are a whole big box of musical presents.  These are a legacy of riches, whether in the Ashkenazi form I learned and sing or in the equally rich (richer, probably) traditions of the rest of our Jewish family (Sephardic, North African, Yeminite, Indian, Mizrachi…).  

And then there is Hallel, a set of Psalms (113 through 118) traditionally sung on the monthly holiday of Rosh Chodesh at the beginning of each month and on the Shelosh Regalim.  Hallel was a big part of our fun in shul last Saturday.  Rabbi Lisa talked about the origin and structure of Hallel, and we read through the Psalms in translation (English, as it happens).  Then we sang some.  Some of Psalm 113 to the tune of the Pesach seder song Chad Gadya.  Some of Psalm 114 to the familiar tune of Yiyi Yisrael.  Hodu from Psalm 118 with a calypso melody and beat.  Min Hametzar from Psalm 118 to a tune very commonly used just for that.  Pitchu Li to Rabbi Shefa Gold’s melody for Ozi V’Zimrat Yah (also from Psalm 118).  Tamborines, bongos, shakers, maracas, and more were banged and shaken.  

Fun in shul. Your next opportunity?  This Friday evening, which I promise will sound like Friday evening.

With blessings for a week of peace and wholeness,

Hazzan Steve

 החזן שלמה זלמן עיט בן מרדכי מרגלן

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