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Shabbat: A Time to Sing and a Time to Listen

Shabbat: A Time to Sing and a Time to Listen

Worshippers wearing tallitot with heads bowed, intentionally praying

Years ago, the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and the Conservative seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, held a joint weeknight concert at Central Synagogue in New York. Students in the graduating classes, myself included, sang solos and ensemble compositions.

When the concert ended, the congregation’s cantor emeritus, Cantor Richard Botton, after congratulating everyone, gave us all some advice about singing on Shabbat. Although we were a bit surprised by the topic, I believe the fairly new cantor emeritus was giving us parting advice. It is advice I’ve never forgotten.

Cantor Botton said, “In order for a Shabbat service to be a true Shabbat service it must have three elements: oneg (joy), kedusha (holiness) and menucha (rest and reflection).” He stressed the equal importance of each element and subtly warned that diminution of any one of them would negatively impact how meaningful Shabbat could be. Although still students, we fully understood his message: We need to treat moments of reflection with care, offering worshippers opportunities to engage by listening and absorbing, rather than by singing along.

I knew there was great truth in this teaching, but I struggled with the idea in my first congregation. With help from the rabbi and me, and after years of teaching, inviting, persuading, and even composing for them, the members had become a singing congregation. I wondered, therefore, about those moments of reflection Cantor Botton had spoken about. They were not as present as I had hoped, and the congregation deserved to experience a balance between participating and reflecting.

In re-reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, I came to understand that to achieve that balance, the congregation needed a Shabbat within Shabbat.

For many of us, it’s unrealistic to go seamlessly from our hectic, work-a-day world to Shabbat without a buffer between the two – time to take a breath, adjust, unwind, and re-orient our thinking. Although the preparatory prayers that begin both the Shabbat evening and morning services are designed for this purpose, they often don’t work as well as a simple, wordless melody: a niggun. Giving ourselves permission to join in when we are ready creates an environment in which people are eager to sing – not out of habit, but from the heart – and can yield unexpected feelings.

Perhaps Heschel said it best: “The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose is to praise, sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, Man cannot live without a song.” Ideally, the song Heschel refers to is one the congregation can sing and one to which it can listen – each at appropriate times. How else can individuals pause to recognize and appreciate the changes they experience as a result of prayer?

In one siddur (prayer book), Likrat Shabbat: Worship, Study, and Song: for Sabbath and Festival Services and for the Home, we read this passage, which illustrates how music and prayer require both reflective silence and practice:

A great pianist was once asked by an ardent admirer: “How do you handle the notes as well as you do?” The artist answered: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes—ah! That is where the art resides.”

In great living, as in great music, the art may be in the pauses. Surely one of the enduring contributions Judaism has made to the art of living is Shabbat, “the pauses between the notes.” And it is to Shabbat that we must look if we are to restore to our lives the sense of serenity and sanctity that Shabbat offers in such joyous abundance.

Indeed, as HUC-JIR Professor Larry Hoffman wrote in The Art of Public Prayer: Not For Clergy Only, “Public prayer takes practice.” The permission we give ourselves as worshippers to practice, entering a moment of prayer honestly and on our own terms, through music, helps us truly connect to what it is we are doing – and why. Perhaps it is this connection that helps us understand instinctively what Rabbi Heschel meant when he shared the idea that prayer may not protect us from the trials and tribulations of life, but it makes us worthy of that protection.

If, as Rabbi Heschel says, prayer is a song that makes us worthy of God’s protection, is it any wonder that music during worship affects us as powerfully as it does? At its best, it offers an active group expression of what words alone cannot say and a time for thoughtful listening, giving us an opportunity to reflect on how we can improve ourselves and our world and a connection to each other and to peace. May we all continue to sing (and to listen) as our hearts move us, and may our hearts move us to do so often.

Cantor Cliff Abramson has served Temple Sinai in Sarasota, FL since 2006. He was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and holds a graduate degree in theater from New York University. He is a classically trained tenor and classical guitarist. Cantor Abramson has also performed in the concert hall and on stage, film, and television.

Cantor Cliff Abramson
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