Musical Settings: Avot v’Imahot

The major rubric of the Jewish Prayer Service, the T'fillah, begins with our daily re-introduction between Jewish people and the Divine by way of making the family connection from our biblical ancestors to the Jewish present. This links us with our past, thereby gaining audience with the Eternal. One would think that to get the attention of the Divine one would need great fanfare-but traditionally, this section of the service is done separately and silently among the individuals in the congregation. It is only upon the repetition of the T'fillah that music is heard in order to gain a Heavenly audience.

In traditional synagogues, it is only the morning (shakharit) and afternoon (minkha) services which have a repetition of the T'fillah recited aloud. This is because the T'fillah represents the animal sacrifices of old which were made in the morning and afternoon. Since none was made in the evening, the T'fillah which is recited in the evening is only recited silently by the individuals praying. This is in contrast to the Reform Temple where the T'fillah is most often recited aloud.

This difference is important to understand when examining musical examples of the Avot v'Imahot which begins the T'fillah. On any given Friday evening, we mostly hear the Avot v'Imahot chanted in unison by Reform congregations, but this was never the practice before the movement was established. There were no musical settings of this prayer in the proper Nusakh Hat'fillah (musical mode for Jewish prayer) for Friday evening. When the Reform Movement began to sing this prayer instead of reading its English translation, it took the traditional chant from the Saturday Morning worship service, chanted in a musical mode called Adonai Malakh (a primarily major scale). The most popular setting which still permeates the modern synagogue was composed by Adolph Katchko. The following musical illustration is the original by Katchko, without the addition of the matriarchs. Listen

It should be said that this composition, among others like it, was never intended to be chanted en masse, but rather rendered by the cantor alone as part of the repetition of the T'fillah. This solo singing allows for the notes on the page to be rendered in a flexible and spontaneous way which cannot be done when sung by a multitude. Listen carefully to this second setting by Israel Alter, which emphasizes different words of the text, giving a slightly different interpretation to the prayer: Listen

One should notice that although these two settings are different, because they are composed in the same synagogue mode (Adonai Malakh), there is a familiarity about each. They both sound like a grand musical entrance to something-and well they should! The T'fillah requires a great announcement allowing the congregation to enter into a dialogue with the Divine which is serious and demands our utmost attention.

When it comes to Friday evening, the musical modality for the Ashkenazi Jew is not major, but minor. The mode, Magein Avot, gets its name from the very prayer which replaces the Avot v'Imahot on the eve of Shabbat. So despite the tradition of only reciting the Avot v'Imahot silently then, if it were to be rendered aloud, the rules of Nusakh HaT'fillah would demand that the Avot v'Imahot be rendered in this minor key.

The first person to successfully set the Friday evening Avot v'Imahot to the proper Jewish musical mode was Cantor Abraham Levitt. His setting begins in the major mode but migrates well to the traditional mode with ease, retaining the grandeur of entering the dialogue with the Divine while paying respect to our Jewish musical heritage. Listen

Others have tried to create successful arrangements of the Avot v'Imahot to be used in the Reform synagogue, but unfortunately none have reached the popularity of Katchko's setting, first published in 1952. Noted composer and ethnomusicologist, Jack Gottlieb, composed an entire setting of the T'fillah (Tefilot Sheva, published by Theophilous Music), including the Avot v'Imahot in 1991, favoring a contemporary musical language in favor of being bound by the Jewish modes. It is a beautiful melody and should be heard in more synagogues. Others have tried as well, including one or two popular settings more conducive to congregational singing put forth by NFTY. But Katchko has embedded itself into the Reform Jew's psyche the same way Louis Lewandowski's setting of the Kiddush for Friday Evening is sung world-wide.

I, myself, have written a setting of the Avot v'Imahot which addresses two of the issues raised previously: 1) Paying tribute to the proper Jewish modes and 2) creating something intended to be sung by a group as opposed to a solo. This setting was written to be a dialogue between the Cantor and the Choir and Congregation, drawing attention to the matriarchs and patriarchs by using the men and women of the choir separately to give each Biblical group voice. And as a student of Abraham Levitt, I also begin in a major modality and migrate to Magein Avot. But the main thrust of this setting like those before it is to emphasize this first moment in our evening Shabbat prayer when we stop praising the Divine and begin to engage the Divine directly. Listen

Whatever setting is used, may the music of all our worship always be of the Finest Fruits we have to offer.

Erik Contzius was invested by HUC-JIR School of Sacred Music in 1995. He serves as cantor at Temple Israel of New Rochelle.