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Musical Settings: Sh'ma

The first core element of the Jewish worship service is the Sh’ma and its blessings. The Sh’maproclaims the unity of God – the basic tenet of Judaism. It further declares the special relationship of God to the Jewish people: “Hear – or listen – Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” We are instructed to recite the Sh’ma when we awaken and right before we go to sleep. Because of its centrality to Judaism, the Sh’ma can be the perfect prayer to point out the two aspects of God: immanent and transcendent. God can be the “still small voice within us” or God can be the majestic presence that inspires us. The music we use to sing the Sh’ma is a wonderful vehicle for illustrating these two facets of God. I have chosen four settings of the Sh’ma to illustrate God as transcendent and God as immanent.

The first selection I chose is the setting of the Sh’ma by Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890). Sulzer was the Cantor in Vienna, Austria. He believed in reforming traditional chazanut, eliminating excessive floridity (lots of very fast notes on one word of text) and incorporating the popular music of the time. Sulzer was much admired by Schubert and Liszt, and one can very clearly hear the influence of Schubert in Sulzer’s music. When you listen to this setting, imagine a vast cathedral with a large choir of men and boys proclaiming our faith that God is One. Through the music we heighten the meaning of the words that inspire us and create a sense of awe. Listen

The next setting of the Sh’ma has been attributed to Sulzer but it sounds quite different. It is the “regular” The Sh’ma most of us know and the setting we are used to; the setting we sang as children and that is sung all over the world. Musicologists believe this setting is based on the one we heard in the first track, and it was modified in a way familiar to us from the children’s game of “telephone.” Thus, the piece began as one thing but through the years changed to the one we hear in example 2. There is something very comforting hearing this setting sung in unison by the entire congregation. The immanent God is felt when all join in the singing of the Sh’ma. How interesting is it that the same piece sung in a different manner can evoke different emotional responses. Listen

The next setting is by Isadore Freed from his “Hassidic Service” It was written in 1954. Dr. Freed was a very important Jewish composer of the last generation. In this setting, a melody taken from the Idelsohn “Anthology of Hassidic Music” was arranged for Cantor and choir. The Hassidim gave to our people the sense that joyous music could bring worshippers to the experience of God. When Freed sets the Hassidic chant, he makes the music expressive and heartfelt. The melody is beautiful and the setting touching. It reaches out to God, yearning for a connection to the Almighty. The Cantor begins the Sh’ma with a plaintive melody searching for God’s presence. She is joined by the soaring melody of the soprano voice taking us with her as she reaches for the transcendent God. This is an extraordinary piece eliciting great emotion in the listener. Listen

The last selection is by Debbie Friedman, our modern Jewish composer of great renown. Debbie was one of the first Jewish composers to use the American Folk idiom to express Jewish text. In this Sh’ma, the Cantor and the congregation sing a simple haunting melody that expresses the true immanence of God. Melodies of a lovely and uncomplicated nature, like this one, allow the worshipper to concentrate on feeling God’s presence. This melody achieves that end and brings God to the moment. Listen

Jewish music is the conduit for searching for God – whether in our Communal experience or alone with our own thoughts. A prayer text is enhanced by the music that it is wedded to. There are so many ways to express our connection to God and it is the music that gives wings to our prayers.

Cantor Ellen Sussman serves Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, PA and serves also on the Executive Board of the American Conference of Cantors.