Music and Jewish Prayer

Music in Jewish worship can be high art or popular song, by solo expression or with group participation.

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When properly understood, nusah is a great aid to prayer. A worshiper hears the leader use a certain melody appropriate to Rosh Hashanah, for example, and this helps set the mood for that day. Obviously this depends also on the knowledge that the worshiper brings or the memories he or she has acquired over a lifetime.

The one instance with which most of us are familiar is the Kol Nidre melody on Yom Kippur, which seldom fails to stir deep feelings within us, despite the fact that the words of the Kol Nidre are particularly lacking in emotional appeal. In this case it is the melody and the implication of the whole setting that moves us. One would have to go into the psychology of music to know what there is about the combination of tones that so affects the human being, but all of us know its power from personal experience. From the passion of opera to the passion of the most modern expressions of popular music, we see the way in which masses of people can be moved to ecstasy, to tears, to excitement by the sound of music.

Niggun: A Wordless Melody

The Hasidic practice of emphasizing song was part of their method of attaining true prayer. The wordless melody-the niggun--was a brilliant method of demonstrating the extrasemantic dimension of prayer. We may even go so far as to say that words can be impediments to the deepest communication, for what words can adequately express our feelings about God? Nor can they truly capture the depths of our emotions at times of grief or of overwhelming joy. In the words of the Hasidic master R. Dov Baer, "The ecstasy produced by melody ... is in the category of spontaneous ecstasy alone, without any choice or intellectual will whatsoever."

Words can become idols. They concretize that which cannot be concretized. Ideas can intellectualize experience. Melody is pure soul. One understands why many western congregations have included "readings"--translations of prayers without any melody--into the service. But we would be well advised not to abandon the use of chanting in prayer. We need not turn the service into a performance and the cantor (hazzan) into a performer in order to avail ourselves of the musical tradition to enhance our worship. Prayer is not a spectator sport. The role of the hazzan is to help us pray, to be the expert we may not be, to inspire us and guide us in a true experience of prayer.

Who Sings, Who Leads

There are two basic methods of using melody in prayer: the Ashkenazic and the Sephardic. In the first, most of the prayer is said individually in a singsong pattern, with the leader of the service beginning and concluding each section and leading the chanting of certain appropriate portions. In the second, the congregation chants most of the prayers aloud in unison, word by word, with certain sections chanted by individuals. In either type of service, melody adds an important dimension to the experience of prayer.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.