Month: February 2016

The Yamim Noraim Synagogue chants have always portrayed the moods and emotions of our people. A verse that reflects these moods and emotions is “lishmoa el harinah v’el hatefilah” (KINGS I, 8:28) literally meaning, “to hearken unto the song and unto the prayer”, recited on the first Selichot night prior to the Yamim Noraim. Our sages comment (Berachot, 6a) on this verse, “b’makom rinah sham tehi tefilah” (where there is song, there shall be prayer.”)

The Maharil (Moreinu Harav Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi, 1365-1427), the leading German rabbinic authority, set definite standards and practices for the music in the synagogue and community. A work entitled Minhagim Sefer Maharil, compiled by his pupil Rabbi Eliezer b. Jacob is replete with descriptions of musical practices that became the guiding light for all of Ashkenazic Jewry. In regard to the recitation of synagogue prayers by the hazzan, he considered such matters as changes in the dynamics (loud and soft) and tempo (fast or slow), and how both relate to expressive qualities in the synagogue service. He also outlined melodic direction of specific prayer: that is, he gave direction for tonal patterns, phrase patterns, and appropriate melodies to be used in different prayer texts. The paragraphs that follow will attempt to describe some of the practices of the Maharil as well as other leading authorities in synagogue chant and will examine closely the reasons for these musical customs and usages.


The Ma’ariv service on Yamim Noraim opens with the Barekhu melody which is adapted to that of the adjacent prayers with slight variations. Because of the majestic character it sets, the invocation is sometimes called Barekhu Hagadol, the great Barekhu. Chanted in a grand manner in a major scale, it is difficult to comprehend why we usher in the Yamim Noraim services with a melody whose style is so lofty. When all has been considered, it is Yamim Noraim, a period when HASHEM sits in judgment.

A reason given is that a prolonged melody for Barekhu constitutes a call to prayer and gives the worshipers ample time to gather for the service. Subsequently, the melody serves as a prelude which creates the atmosphere of the day. At the outset, it proclaims that the Kingdom of Hashem, (Malchuyot) is one of the major themes of the High Holy Day Service. Early Hasidim called the first night of Rosh Hashanah, “Coronation Night”. For this reason Ashkenazic Jewry throughout the world joins together with the shaliah tzibbur in this exultant tune.

The ba’al shaharit begins the morning service with the chanting of Hamelekh. The chant in its melismatic form was introduced by the Ashkenazic authority, the thirteenth century Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. It was popularized by the Maharil, who served as a shaliah tzibbur for the Shaharit service on Rosh Hashanah. He began in a hushed, plaintive manner and gradually increased the volume heard by the congregation in awe. In many congregations it is customary for the shaliah tzibbur to chant Hamelekh while standing in his place, then walk to the Amud with bowed head and to continue with the words “yoshev al kisei rom v’nisoh”.

One of the most exalted moments of the service comes when the aron hakodesh is opened and the chant of Unesaneh Tokef begins. The text berosh hashanah, a section of the celebrated Unesaneh Tokef prayer, tells how Hashem judges the world on the Yamim Noraim. From the phrase “mi yanuah umi yanua” (who shall be at ease and who shall wander about) to the end of the prayer, the shaliah tzibbur chants the text according to a fixed nusah (melody chant) and increases the rate of speed at which he is reciting. This is done intentionally in order to confuse the Satan, while he listens to the enumeration of the various decrees in prayer.

The cantillation of the Torah on the High Holy Days is rendered in a special mode. The motive for introducing this special tune, according to the Maharil, is to emphasize the awesome character of the day so that the congregants might lend their ears to the reading and make amends for their faults in reading from the Torah during the rest of the year. In addition, Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margoliath, in his sefer MATE EPHRAIM, points our that the Torah blessings as well as Mi Shebeirakhs are also chanted on Yamim Noraim according to this special tune.

An interesting story is told of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan Hakohen, known to the entire orthodox world as the Chafetz Chaim. Upon being accorded the honor of an aliyah on Rosh Hashanah, the Chafetz Chaim quickly approached the bimah to recite the blessings, but to the amazement of the congregation, he stood motionless and in silence before the Sefer Torah. After several long moments, he finally commenced to intone the benediction. At the conclusion of the services, several of his disciples who noticed what took place earlier approached the great sage and asked, “Rebbe, what was the cause for your delay before reciting the berachot?” “For several moments I could not recall the Yamim Noraim melody,” answered the Chafetz Chaim. “I would not begin to recite the beracha until I was reminded of the special niggun”.

In his article entitled “Halakhah and Minhag in Nusah Hatefilah” (Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy, Cantorial Council of America, vol. XIII) Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz expresses his opinion that congregations should seek Shlihei Tzibbur who combine piety and a mastering of traditional nusah particularly on the Yamim Noraim. “The absence of these hallowed niggunim during the davening would be unthinkable to any worshiper who has an inbred affinity for the feelings and stirrings of the heart, rendered by the proper nusah. Just as the Avodah in the Bet Hamikdash was accompanied by a certain order of Shir or music, primarily vocal, so must our Avodah in the synagogue maintain a proper contact and order of shir”.


Cantor Bernard Beer is the Director Emeritus of the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, RIETS, YU, and the Executive Vice President of the Cantorial Council of America.

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