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Musical Settings: Sim Shalom

Sim Shalom , the closing morning supplication for peace in the Amidah, captures the imagination of Jewish composers and congregants alike. Reform Jewish ideals and worship praxis enable musical settings of Sim Shalom to burgeon. Its message echoes tenets of prophetic values steeped in civic responsibility, social action, and the promotion of tikun olam/ healing the world. Reform siddurim / prayer books transformed Sim Shalom from a silent prayer repeated by the chazzan in a plain song manner, to a highlight of the communal worship experience. Musical settings pose the questions: How is peace attained, expressed, and textured?

The nusach1 for Sim Shalom is in the Ahavah Raba mode also known as freygish. This mode is most notably recognized by use of the interval of an augmented second.
Max Janowski’s (1912-1991) setting of Sim Shalom for cantor, choir and organ/piano, dedicated to the American diplomat Ralph Bunche2, honors this Ashkenazic musical rite. In the verses, Janowski’s use of chazzanut3 allows for a highly dramatic rendering of the text. The refrain is somber, steady, reflective and reverential. Janowski’s glorious ending seems to suspend time. This step by step tension returns us to the constant journey for peace. It is a long process, filled with trauma and longing. The grand nature of Janowski’s setting lends itself to the majesty of the High Holidays, Festivals or Shabbatot of great importance. The melody is so beloved; a truncated unison version of the refrain is included in “Gates of Song” for all to sing. Listen

Another popular version of Sim Shalom is based on a Chassidic folk tune arranged by the award winning composer Bonia Shur (1917- ). The original version scored for cantor, choir, flute, clarinet, oboe, double bass, and piano offers a tremendous addition to synagogue band repertoire. It is most often sung with cantor and choir; however, “Gates of Song” also contains a simplified version in unison. This delightful setting, upbeat and rhythmic, with an infectious refrain presents a very different aesthetic of peace: Hope need not be oppressive or plodding. It takes tremendous energy to bring about change. Shur’s setting reflects the Reform principle that a messianic age is brought about by the principled actions of every person. In this way, the voices of the congregation soar with each repetition of the chorus. With the recent embrace of Chassidic niggunim to Reform music, this setting provides a sophisticated version of an easy folk style. Listen

Finally, the setting of Sim Shalom by Cantor Erik Contzius (1968-) is a picture of grace and simplicity. The accessible melody flows in a gentle manner. It is calming like the greatest ideals of peace itself. Contzius breaks into a stunning moment of clarity by using English for the verses. Praying in the vernacular is a major Reform innovation. This setting offers congregational participation, complete understanding, traditional nusach, and cantorial interpretation. Along with Shabbat and holidays it is an excellent example of Jewish music to inspire the greater religious community as part of an interfaith service. Listen

  1. Traditional use of nusach – Jewish modes by cantors to express the liturgy is equivalent to rabbinic authority based on halachah – legal Jewish doctrine. The Reform principle of individual autonomy overtakes required observance of halachah. So too, freedom of musical expression overrides adherence to strict standards of cantorial music. The ideal of autonomous choice demands we make the effort to learn and understand halachic principles. This is why rabbinic knowledge is held in highest regard. Rabbinic study helps define Jewish community. Likewise, cantorial knowledge and skills in nusach give definition to Jewish music.
  2. Bunche’s inspiration story and credo: Racial prejudice is an unreasoned phenomenon without scientific basis in biology or anthropology; segregation and democracy are incompatible; blacks should maintain the struggle for equal rights while accepting the responsibilities that come with freedom; whites must demonstrate that democracy is color-blind lead to a successful career in the government. From June of 1947 to August of 1949, Bunche worked on the confrontation between Arabs and Jews through his appointment as principal secretary to the UN Palestine Commission. The commission was charged to carry out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly for a Jewish state and a Palestinian state.
  3. The cantorial art of text painting through free verse association.

Cantor Yvon Shore serves on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the Director of Liturgical Arts on the Cincinnati campus.

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