Torah Cantillation for the High Holy Days

June 27, 2013Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky

There are many elements which make the High Holy Days a unique experience.  Often, congregations swell to double or triple their usual size, the musical settings of even common liturgy are different, and some might alter their dress by wearing either traditionally all-white garments or more formal wear than they would sport on Shabbat. Some congregations even have unique garments to dress their Torah scrolls in white. I would also add, though it is a purely subjective observation, that there is an intangible yet different sort of energy in the sanctuary.  There are certainly multiple climactic moments during the High Holy Day services, such as hearing the Kol Nidre chanted on Yom Kippur (you will read more on that in several weeks), or anticipating the piercing blast of the shofar. In my personal opinion, one of the most powerful of these high points is the chanting of the Torah. The impact of the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is twofold. 

First, there is the topic matter: On Rosh Hashanah, we read a portion of Genesis (Bereshit) which usually falls towards the end of Parshat VaYera (read three weeks after the holiday of Simchat Torah), commonly known as Akedat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac). On Yom Kippur, we read a portion of Deuteronomy (Devarim) from Parshat Nitzavim (read just before Rosh Hashanah begins) that deals with our task of choosing between good and evil, blessing or curse. Thus during the Days of Awe, not only do we think about our deeds over the course of the past year, but by reading a bit from both the beginning and the end of Torah, we recreate the experience of the entire year’s cycle.

Second, there is the manner in which the Torah is chanted. There are six unique systems of cantillation used to read from our holy books: 1. for Torah on Shabbat, 2. for Haftarah, 3. for Torah on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, 4. for the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, 5. for the scrolls of Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim), Ruth and Ecclesiastes (Kohelet), and 6. for the scroll of Lamentations (Eicha). With the exception of the melodies used for Lamentations, which are sad almost by definition, the melodies for reading Torah on the High Holy Days are quite somber. A. W. Binder, author of Biblical Chant, goes so far as to instruct the one who chants as follows: “This system of cantillation is done in a solemn and sympathetic manner in keeping with the serious character of the High Holyday season.”

Combining a serious subject matter with appropriately fitting melodies to “paint” the text almost creates a midrash, or deeper story within the words. To illustrate this point I will use the reading for Rosh Hashanah morning, from the book of Genesis (Bereshit) Chapter 22. The chapter begins ordinarily enough, and the melody even sounds somewhat cheerful (in a major key), until the dialogue begins. Adonai calls out to Abraham and instructs him to take his beloved son Isaac up to a mountain and sacrifice him! The melodies add so much to the drama of the situation, and if the chanting is done with different “voices” for each character, the Torah reading practically transforms into a tragic opera. LISTEN

Time passes by without a word, and in the next breath, Abraham is almost trance-like as he goes about the necessary steps to follow God’s instruction. LISTEN

Innocent Isaac, who can see the tools to make a sacrifice but not a sacrificial animal, asks in a simple fashion where the sacrifice is. His father resolutely says that God will see to the sacrifice. LISTEN

The tension rises in the chanting as the actions speed up, and we imagine that it is impossible to stop what is practically upon us: Abraham sets up the altar and lays Isaac down as the sacrifice, lifts the knife…and suddenly is stopped by an angel of God. LISTEN

A miraculous rescue just in the nick of time! The angel tells Abraham not to lay a hand upon Isaac, for God knows that Abraham was willing to give literally everything to God.  Abraham then sees a nearby animal to substitute for Isaac as the sacrifice. LISTEN

The story goes on, of course, as the dialogue and the drama come to a close.  The cantillation used for the Torah readings of the High Holy Days adds so much to the experience, that when we come to the same story on a regular Shabbat, it seems somehow unreal to me.  I hope these few excerpts have expressed the energy I feel while chanting the words. Although we have an entire summer before Rosh Hashanah is upon us, I wish you a restful and meaningful end of the year 5773.

A. W. Binder, Biblical Chant, Sacred Music Press, 1959.  pp. 85-92

Selections from Genesis Chapter 22, verses 1-13, chanted by H. Kobilinsky

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