April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Why We Should Love More Nusach

At the 25th Anniversary of the Jewish Music Institute in 2010, Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks extolled the value of Jewish music: “To me, music is the most spiritual form of expression that exists. Music is absolutely essential to Jewish spirituality,” he says. “Words are the language of the mind—but music is the language of the soul.”

When he talks about nusach, he adds: “…you know exactly when and what kind of literature you are listening to simply from listening to the music. When we move from the secular to the spiritual world, words take wings through music.”

Rabbi Sacks makes the point: Nusach is a guiding light and a pathfinder in the tefillah. I believe that as the decades go by we are losing our way through the forest of prayer and need to return to the proper path.

We all appreciate the participation of community members as chazanim/baalei tefillah. This is wonderful because it lets everyone participate and contribute. But our community experience could be enhanced by taking the time to provide some type of training for community members who want to lead the davening. Raising awareness for nusach and better understanding the meaning of tefillah will bring closer that guiding light again.

Most of our nusach comes from the Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Moelin (1365-1427), who was the chief rabbi of the Rhineland, where the majority of Ashkenazi Jews lived at that time. He was concerned that the tunes of folk singers and church melodies were infiltrating into shuls and that certain traditions of prayers that could be traced to the time of Babylon or even of the Second Temple were getting lost. He standardized the nusach, and till today we can tie much of how we pray, and even the melodies themselves, to those heard by our ancestors. Later halachic authorities, i.e., the Shulchan Aruch (Hilchot Tefillah) and the Rema cite the Maharil and codify this.

We all love to incorporate beautiful contemporary melodies into davening. And within nusach there is room for such sing-along niggunim if we adhere to some rules. One should strive to match a niggun with the emotional mood of the tefillah. 

The musical pattern of nusach emphasizes a mood in its purest way and builds an emotional room that helps us differentiate between different parts of the tefillah and underscore the importance of a situation. It expresses an emotional state, helps to reach a spiritual level and at the same time is a guide through our tefillot, and its mesorah dates back to the early times in Babylon.

To replace nusach with modern niggunim one needs to understand the concept of nusach and the tefillah. A baal tefillah should aim to raise the level of the tzibbur’s kavanah. The kavanah of the tzibbur rests on the chazan’s shoulders.

Some years ago, after we moved from Switzerland to Bergenfield, I joined a series about nusach for baalei tefillah conducted by the Belz Music School. The unforgettable Cantor Sherwood Goffin led the first introduction. I remember very clearly when he quoted Rabbi Y.D. Soloveitchik saying how proud he is of how far this country got with learning and studying Torah, but how sad he is when he sees where the country got with davening. According to the quote, the Rav meant the amount of time we spend davening and understanding tefillot and their nusach.

It seems to me that there is a trend for tefillah to become “a popular Jewish contemporary music kumzitz.” There are good reasons to enrich our tefillot. People know these songs and join in, become part of the tefillah, and it creates a great inclusive atmosphere. But on the other hand, we miss out on that guiding light Rabbi Sacks spoke about. 

A professionally trained baal tefillah, as opposed to an “amateur,” isn’t the “unlucky one” who finally agrees to daven for the amud after the pleading and cajoling of the gabbai. But rather this is a professional who is learned in the understanding and art of tefillah and takes his role with all the gravitas needed to lead his congregation. He has the power to uplift the spiritual tone and tenor of the tefillah.

Everybody can achieve this, and since it’s important I’d like to show some ideas on how to allow nusach to improve our davening. On Friday night we have Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv. Kabbalat Shabbat was created by the Kabbalists in Tzfat as preparation for Shabbat. It lacks the kedusha of other tefillot and doesn’t require a minyan. There’s no Kaddish, no Barachu, etc. That’s why some shuls let boys under bar mitzvah lead that part. The six selected Tehillim we say at the beginning are according to the six days of the week. Between the Tehillim of Friday and Shabbat, we find the much-loved Lecha Dodi. There is a universal tradition that baalei tefillah change the tune midway of Lecha Dodi. Since it is between the Tehillim of Friday and Shabbat, the (approx.) center of Lecha Dodi symbolizes the change from Friday to Shabbat.

Sticking with this analogy, the tune of the second part should be more uplifting and more joyful since it represents Shabbat. However, in many cases, baalei tefillah start with a vibrant melody to get everybody engaged, and the second one is often a more serious, slowing-down one. Understanding the concept of the tefillah helps us as we select the tunes for different parts.

Another example comes to mind: Imagine you’re standing in shul for Kol Nidrei. Surrounded by the white clothes and decor, people are standing and preparing themselves for the important tefillah. You already hum the first parts of the famous melody for the Kol Nidrei tefillah. The chazan focuses before he starts the Kol Nidrei slowly—to the most popular Carlebach niggun.

What would happen to you? Would you be torn out of your concentration? Would you be lost? Could you find back to the seriousness of that vital moment? Would you feel the same way connected to your families and friends starting Yom Kippur in different places? I would have to answer four times “no.” It would hurt my mind and my neshama.

The Kol Nidrei melody is a very old nusach, and we sing that in every Ashkenazic synagogue around the globe, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, almost the same way. We expect that melody at that point, and it helps our spiritual orientation and bonds us as a congregation, community and Jewish nation.

You don’t sing happy tunes at a funeral, but I heard people using Selichot tunes for Hallel, which sets the Hallel tefillah in the wrong mood. Every melody we use needs to have the matching interpretation of the text and the correct mood, and it shouldn’t be about one’s favorite niggunim.

By these examples, everybody can understand the importance of nusach and tradition in our tefillah. This doesn’t mean that every place in our tefillah has the same importance as on Yom Kippur or we permanently sing serious Selichot tunes. Still, those examples are a good illustration of the importance of this topic.

Lastly, one more example to showcase how important it is not to mix different nuschaot.

We end the bracha (“…mechaye hametim”) before the Shacharit Kedusha on Shabbat and Yom Tov by a downward melody, while for Musaf we go up. Why does nusach make that apparent distinction at that point?

We need a deeper understanding of what the Kedusha is and the difference between the Kedusha for Shacharit and Musaf. I like Rabbi Wolkoff’s explanation. In short, for the Kedusha, we are reciting verses according to different rabbis used by the angels to praise Hashem. The human posture in the Shacharit Kedusha is passive: we mimic the angels (hence the tradition of rising up on our toes three times while saying Kadosh, in imitation of the angels) and express our hopes for redemption (Yimloch). The human posture in the Musaf Kedusha is much more active. Besides our imitation of the angels, we make our own unique and profoundly Jewish declaration—that God is One—and interweave it with God’s own universal Divine declaration yet to come.

Understanding these differences between the two prayers explains the nusach of having a downward music pattern for Shacharit (passive) vs. an upward music pattern for a more active Kedusha in Musaf. By following the nusach we then switch from major to minor music before the Shema part in the Musaf Kedusha. By distinguishing between our mimicry of the angels and our own personal declarations and wishes, we set the proper accents. This thought process should help to choose the right melodies for the Kedusha.

Once we as a community understand the importance of meaning and concepts of our tefillot, it should be our ambition to allow every baal tefilah to experience such an education. My intention is not to criticize anybody who takes on the responsibility as a baal tefillah today. Thankfully we have many volunteers. However, they lead us and our tefillot before God, and such positions require appropriate training and preparation.

Equally important for our davening experience is the knowledge about the minhag hamakom. I leave it to the rabbis to talk about the importance of minhagim and minhag hamakom, but as a shaliach tzibur, one should know and hold to the minhagim of the tzibur for whom he davens.

For example, there’s a minhag for a baal tefillah to say the last words before the Shacharit Shemoneh Esrei (Ga’al Yisrael) out loud, and there is another minhag to say it quietly. We have good reasons for both traditions, but usually shuls follow their traditions, and it is essential to hold to these minhagim.

One last point: Nusach is not the same as long chazanut pieces that people may or may not like. If somebody’s voice is trained he can perform nusach more melodically and enriched, and thus it has more emotion and can sometimes emphasize a more obvious mood. But this is still not the art of chazanut.

Cantor Goffin explained—talking about what chazanut is—that Koussevitzky davened until 2 or 3 p.m. because that’s what his congregants wanted. It developed in Europe when the Jews couldn’t go to the opera. So they brought the opera into their shuls by asking their chazanim to expand and become more elaborate.

That was where they socialized and consumed culture. But that world has gone. Today we live in different times. We socialize and consume culture differently. We don’t need shul on Shabbat as a cultural event. It is more spiritual—even though in some places today we try to “squeeze” it into our socializing schedule and try to minimize the time for our tefillot.

Using proper nusach doesn’t mean that the tefillah must be extra long. We should always strive to find the right balance between seriousness and enriching our tefillot and what seems appropriate to the congregation.

One of my teachers, Cantor Marcel Mosche Lang, taught me something that can be applied to nusach, tefillah and davening in general. In many shuls the following phrase is written on the aron hakodesh: דע לפני מי אתה עומד, Know in front of whom you’re standing. This phrase can be understood in two ways. A baal tefillah as a shaliach tzibur must be aware that he stands before Hashem. At the same time, he also stands (leading) before his congregation. He needs to know about the seriousness of the tefillot and the nusach, but he also must be aware of the needs of his congregation.

We must be careful to regain this balance because the music of davening at different moments—even at different moments on Shabbat—has its own tonality and distinctions that Cantor Goffin says “is being violated too often at services led by the well-intended but untrained.” He meant when people lead davening solely based on knowing a few niggunim, chagim start to sound like Shabbat, and Shacharit Kedusha sounds like Musaf Kedusha.

As a chazan for close to 30 years, I see myself as a guardian and advocate for nusach and the seriousness of leadership in tefillah. I acknowledge that we cannot turn back time and that certain contemporary melodies have already become kind of “nusach.” I think it is essential to make the davening experience engaging and exciting to everyone. But still, we need to be careful about our legacy and our mesorah by incorporating new things with the right degree of caution and maintaining tradition where required. Otherwise we will end up with a Carlebach niggun for Kol Nidrei.

Leaders of our shuls should be our guardians of nusach, take even more care, maybe introduce mandatory introductory lessons for baalei tefillah about nusach, the meaning of tefillot, and the minhagim of the shul. We should make the minhag of the shuls more open to the congregants so that everyone can understand their more profound meaning. Preparing lists of proper modern niggunim and melodies for specific tefillot as a tool for baalei tefillah could be a great help too. We can all enjoy a lot of contemporary tunes and communal singing. However, we have a history that allows the guiding light to improve our spiritual experience in the long run.


Michael Sobol, born in Basel, Switzerland, now lives in Bergenfield and learned chazanut and tefillah with various cantors in Switzerland and the USA. He can be reached at [email protected].

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