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Hazzan Steve's Message

Music in Helical Time

An old joke: Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana. What is Jewish time like? Not an arrow, it turns out. The lunar rounds of our lunar/solar calendar bring us from new moon to new moon. The solar rounds bring us from season to season, with a Shabbat every week, a Rosh Chodesh every month, our High Holidays at the new moon of the month of Tishrei, Sukkot at the fall harvest (on the full moon of Tishrei), and so on. These sound like circles but, as Reb Lisa reminds us, the rounds together really are a spiral or a helix. We come back to the same phase of the moon over and over again, and to the same calendar dates year after year, but we never find ourselves in exactly the same place.

Jewish time is marked with music, as well as astronomy. The sound of weekday prayer (and communal prayer is mostly sung, of course) is different from the sound of Shabbat. Shabbat morning sounds different than Shabbat midday, which in turn is different from the sound of the late afternoon. And then it is weekday again, with its own sound. The big festival holidays (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) have their own sound, different from weekday or Shabbat. And of course the High Holidays have their own sounds.

Just one example: The amidah, the standing prayer that is at the heart of every prayer service no matter what the day of the year or the time of year, has unique melodies on the High Holidays. The words of the amidah vary a bit from the more familiar Shabbat words, but the music is really different. The amidah for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning begins (and here I am speaking of traditional Ashkenazic melodies that we and most American synagogues use) in a major key, then shifts to the mode called “freygish” (a modulation to freygish on the five of the original scale, for you who like musical details), then goes back and forth among that freygish, the original major and minor in the same original key. Within this structure are motifs, repeated snippets of melody, that are sung only on the High Holidays. Now and again really ancient bits of melody (these are called “Mi Sinai” melodies, though they are not quite as old as Sinai) sneak in.

These High Holiday melodies and modes that we hear only for a few days each year can make singing along a bit more difficult than on Shabbat. And you know that I almost always want all the “Jews in the pews” to sing with me (yai dai dai, or la la la, working just fine if you are not sure of the words). Luckily, sprinkled throughout the High Holiday prayers are familiar High Holiday melodies that everyone can sing. Here I am thinking of Zochreinu and then M’chalkeil Chayim in the amidah, Avinu Malkeinu, and others.

Here are a couple of links to YouTubes of Zochreinu:

In the second YouTube, the cantor begins with the “Misod Chachamim” text that is sung in one of those Mi Sinai melodies, before she and the other singers get to Zochreinu. The Zochreinu melody in both YouTubes is by the prolific composer of Jewish liturgical music Samuel Goldfarb. Because the melody has been around for so long it is considered traditional, and because the melody is so widely used it evolved into several variations over time. The way we sing it at CBI is not exactly like either of these recordings, but close enough for you to sing along with the YouTube and then sing along with me and the CBI community on Rosh Hashanah, which is just over a month away. Enjoy.

With blessings for a happy, peaceful and healthy week,

Hazzan Steve

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