Why is the Music Different During the High Holidays?

Cantor Kay Greenwald

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine that you are gathered with your congregation for High Holiday worship. It is Erev Yom Kippur - the holiest night of the year. Look around the space, at the people of your community gathered all together - those familiar to you and those you do not know. The room is filled with anticipation of the evening and day to come. You have just finished the last meal that you will eat for 24 hours. Your stomach is full, but you already sense the empty feeling you will be experiencing by the time morning arrives.

Why are we gathered? Why do we fast? How do we feel? Our liturgy reminds us that we are finite, that our own power can only take us so far, and that what we do in this world really does matter. Our liturgy reminds us to think about where we have fallen short during the year, and to tell those we have wronged that we are sorry. It exhorts us to promise to try to be better, to live up to a higher standard. It is a time of community, of family, and of awe and wonder.

What do these liturgical messages have to do with the music of the High Holiday season? To understand Jewish music, we have to understand Jewish concepts of time, space, spirituality, and worship.

We can begin by reminding ourselves that Judaism is, in fact, ancient and filled with mystery.

For about the last 200 years, Reform Judaism sought to minimize elements of Judaism which did not conform to rational thought. The brilliant founders of our movement took the Enlightenment's elevation of reason, which they loved because it brought them emancipation, and placed it at the center of their Judaism. For the early Reform Jews, ritual mitzvot were completely non-binding and God became an ethical ideal, rather than a personal redeemer. The liturgy was stripped of mystical poems and prayers, and the Kol Nidrei was even taken out of the Yom Kippur service - because it was illogical to apologize in advance for breaking one's word.

The leaders and rabbis of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought the ancient rabbis were just like them - reasonable and rational thinkers. They were -- but many also engaged in mystical meditation. For rabbis from the second century through to the sixteenth and beyond, the world was a miracle constantly unfolding - all time was sacred time, all space was sacred space, and all living was sacred living. Those rabbis gave us a prayerbook full of colorful imagery and mantra-like prayers, like the Kaddish. These men believed the singing voice to be intrinsically holy, because it came from breath and breath comes from God.

This mystical aspect of Judaism is seen nowhere as clearly as it is in the music. In Arabic music and Indian Music, there are melodic themes that are associated with certain times and certain days of the year. In fact, traditional Ashkenazic synagogue chant is defined so much by date and time of day that if you took a traditional Jew who davened every day out into space for a few months, and then dropped him, blindfolded, into a traditional Ashkenazic synagogue anywhere in the world, he would be able to tell you within minutes if it was a weekday, holiday, or Shabbat and whether it was morning, afternoon or evening - just by the melodies that he was hearing.

Travel back in time with me. It's an ordinary week in ancient Israel. Only a few Israelites can put down their daily chores in order to gather in Jerusalem for the sacrifices and to observe the Temple service. As one of the group of men in your community who travels to Jerusalem on a rotating basis to observe the Temple service, you feel a unique obligation to the Temple service and to your village. So, as the service is taking place in Jerusalem, you gather with other men from your village - the Anshei Ma'amad, or "Standing Men," who also rotate through Jerusalem to observe the Temple service, and you chant the Psalms and prayers of the service as you remember them. You recite the words of the liturgy and you sing the Temple songs. Life is not always easy, but as long as the Temple service continues, you know your place in the world, your purpose, and you believe that you understand what God wants.

Then, Jerusalem is taken and the Temple falls. The service that seemed to keep the order of the world going is over. In panic, our ancestors asked: What happens now? How do we serve God? Gradually, painfully, the answer came: we have houses of study, we have the liturgy and the music. We can reinvent ourselves.

During those traumatic years, as our people watched their homes and land devastated, the new synagogue gave them hope. What could not continue was ended, but what could continue was necessary for the - now exiled - Jewish community's spiritual well-being. The use of instruments was banned from services, as a sign of mourning for the Temple. The vocal music, however, proved to be a powerful, emotional force in helping the newly exiled community face its unclear future. Throughout the first centuries of the Diaspora, our people were on the move. As they moved northward - deeper into Europe and the Iberian Peninsula - regional differences in practice started to become more pronounced. Did your community speak Yiddish, or Ladino? Or maybe Judeo-Arabic? Were you part of a community in North Africa? Muslim Spain, or Christian Europe? How did your neighbors influence you? How did you influence them?

For many centuries, our people lived in peace and prosperity, and then the Crusades began. Those Jews who survived a bout with Crusaders were left in small and frightened groups - and many of them began to migrate eastward - into what would become Russia, the Ukraine and Poland. They took any possessions they had left with them. They also took their fear, and their intense hope for a better world. They expressed their fear and hope in their poetry and music, but the time was long ago and not very much was written down. Over time, much of the poetry was lost.

We still have the music.

We call these melodies Missinai, which means "from Sinai." They are not nearly as old as that - dating back only to the 11th or 12th centuries CE. Up until this point in history, we know quite a bit about the synagogue service, and that vocal music was integral to that service. We are fairly certain that some of our prayer modes grew out of Torah and Haftarah chant, but we have no record of actual synagogue melodies. It is only now, with the Missinai tunes of the eleventh to fifteenth centuries that we have a melodic record. These melodies are considered to be among our people's most sacred possessions.

When would you use your most powerful and sacred melodies? The answer, of course, is clear: at your most powerful and sacred time of the year. Thus, we hear these special melodies only once a year, during the Yamim Noraim, the "Days of Awe." We hear them in the Amidah, the Sh'ma, Bar'chu, Mi Chamocha, Aleinu, Kaddish, Unetane Tokef and Kol Nidrei. Certain melodic formulas repeat over and over throughout the High Holidays - for example special cadences such as the way we sing "Amen." Some melodies are rhythmic and easy to sing, like "Bar'chu," while others, presumably older, are more irregular and chant-like - for example the chant for "Avot v'Imahot."  These melodies evoke something different than does our regular Shabbat worship. They evoke remembrances of ages past, of wonder at the mysteries of the universe, of lives lived and lost - heroically - in utter faith and devotion to our people, and to God.

We cannot expect High Holiday music to sound and feel like Shabbat. The High Holidays are a unique, awesome and special time of year. That uniqueness and awe is echoed in music that reverberates with the hopes and trials of ages past. Through this music we preserve our people's history and our spiritual legacy.

Today, we have a wealth of Jewish music from which to choose. We have westernized much of our music: we have added harmony, removed much of the ornamentation, made things metrical and written them down. We have incorporated folk song throughout the ages. Once upon a time, a simple folk melody became the High Holiday Bar'chu. Today our services are enriched by melodies composed by new composers like Rick Recht, Mah Tovu, Jeff Klepper, and Debbie Friedman, as well as classics by Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer. All of it is Jewish music. My hope is that all of it remains Jewish music. We should not throw away our musical roots, we must use our musical tradition to nourish our souls and keep the history of our people alive.

When we once again gather together for the Days of Awe, may all of us be fully present in that worship, involved in the life of our own communities, in the spiritual tasks demanded of us, and in the sacred music of our people.