By Cantor Lorna Wallach
In his book, The Art of Public Prayer, Lawrence Hoffman states that sacred music is music that performs sacred acts. It is considered sacred not on account of what it is, but on account of what it does.
The music of the High Holidays is a collection of ancient chants, congregational melodies, and choral works. The most venerable component of this musical tradition is the MiSinai [from Sinai] tune. There are many examples of MiSinai tunes such as the melodies of Bar’chu for Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sh’ma Yisrael in the Torah Service, the Great Aleinu in the Musaf service, and, perhaps the most well–recognized, is the plaintive tune of Kol Nidrei. These melodies, which are of anonymous origin, are sung with remarkable uniformity throughout Ashkenazic Jewry. The MiSinai tunes developed during the Middle Ages (generally between the 11th and 15th centuries), but they have become so deeply embedded in our tradition that they are accorded the name and status of being directly linked with the giving of the Torah on Sinai.
The combination of prayers and melodies traditional to our service is known as nusach. Although the term has at least as much to do with the order of the prayers as with their melody, its use in these notes refers primarily to the melodies traditional to the prayers. Each service during the year has its particular nusach, and it is the nusach which determines the flavor of each service. Naturally, this system evolved over centuries. Nonetheless, it is remarkable to observe the genius with which our ancestors assembled our prayers and music.
Yet, as modern “Americanized” Jews, we struggle to make our traditional liturgy meaningful in an ever-changing world. It is my hope that the sacred music of the High Holiday liturgy will help us find meaning in the text and reach a deeper part of our souls. As a community, may we inspire one another to pray as we lift our voices together in songs to G-d on the High HolyDays and throughout the year.
Michael, Shira and Joshua join me in wishing all of you and your families a Shanah Tovah Umetukah.