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Musical Settings: Shalom Rav

The Shalom Rav prayer comes at the end of the evening Shabbat Amidah, and like its correspondent prayer in the morning service, Sim Shalom, is a benediction asking for peace.

I’ve always found the prayer a fitting ending for the T’filah, as it raises us from the personal to the collective: we ask for peace not just for ourselves, but for all, and for all time. Because it was traditionally prayed silently, it has become fodder for many creative musical settings.

The most well-known of these, of course, is the Shalom Rav created by Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Dan Freelander way back in 1974 (no—it wasn’t handed down at Sinai). They met as college students, both working as music teachers in Reform temples and active song leaders at camps. Klepper and Freelander were embracing the cultural changes of the late 60s and early 70s, and followed closely in the footsteps of Michael Isaacson and Debbie Friedman in bringing contemporary musical styles into worship. Beginning in 1972, after they had worked together at NFTY events and UAHC’s Eisner Camp, they would meet regularly to sing together and write songs. As part of their process, Freelander would flip through the pages of the Union Prayer Book to find appropriate texts to set to music, preferably ones for which there was no popular melody already. One night they happened upon Shalom Rav, and after experimenting with a variety of approaches, came up with the basics of the tune we know today.

This setting of Shalom Rav entered first the camp and NFTY lexicon and moved into the synagogue to become the classic we know today, spreading far beyond the Reform congregation. It is eminently sing-able—a lovely tune with interesting chord changes and varying sections that fit the text so well…and ends with a slowing cadence that, I think, musically represents peacefulness. Listen

Klepper and Freelander are still performing together, and they will celebrate 40 years of doing so this year.

Perhaps the other most well-known and often used setting of Shalom Rav is by the composer Ben Steinberg. It is of a different cloth—but equally lovely. Written for cantor and congregation (or choral) accompaniment, the cantorial voice begins in a lilting ¾ time, and the melody alternates between cantor and congregation in a soft, almost call and response fashion, and changes into 4/4, building, until a return to the lilting 3. Unlike Klepper and Freelander, the piece closes with a more traditional—but equally peaceful—blessing. Listen

More recently, Cantor and composer Erik Contzius wrote a Shalom Rav following the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin for a memorial service. He created a more melancholy version that reflected that tragic event, but yet yearns for the peace that Rabin sought in his life. Composer Bonia Shur added a choral arrangement at Contzius’ request. Listen

There are many other versions that capture the Shalom Rav blessing in a broad array of styles: from the recently deceased Jack Gottlieb, to Cantor Robbie Solomon, Michael Isaacson, Noam Katz, Simon Sargon and David Burger, to name a few. They all deserve multiple hearings. I suspect there will be more, for our longing for and the need for the peace expressed in the prayer will continue. “May it be pleasing to You to bless Your people Israel in every season and moment with Your peace.”

Jim Ball , a member of Congregation Beth El in Sudbury, MA, is a marketing and public relations consultant in Boston, and a co-founder of the Boston Jewish Music Festival. A member of the URJ’s North American Board of Trustees, he is chair of the Trustees Marketing and Communications Committee, and also serves on the URJ’s Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living.

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