By Dr Annette M Boeckler
Imagine entering an Oxford Street store. Music plays softly to make you feel relaxed, willing to buy things. But suddenly a Christmas carol is played! In summer! What went wrong? Your calendar, the seasons, or does the store already have special winter offers in the basement?
I often have similar feelings in synagogue services. Jewish worship has a rich tradition of using very specific music for specific occasions and times of the year, but so often this is ignored.
I got used to the usual mix of Shabbat evening, morning and weekday tunes happily interwoven in any Shabbat service, but often the service suddenly is spiced with some surprising High-Holiday motifs or Sukkot tunes.
I can’t figure out what a certain out-of-time tune could teach me. Prayer tunes are more than background music. They are midrashim, interpretations and expansions of our liturgy. The festival Kiddush, for example, uses a Shavuot tune to connect Kiddush and Torah. Hazak, hazak, which we sing at the end of a book of Torah, uses the Ashkenazi Shirat haYam tune to connect each new beginning with the exodus out of Egypt.
There is a special musical weekday feeling, but then on Shabbat time slows down. On Shabbat, there are different tunes for each phase of the day, evening different from morning, with each phase of the service sounding different – and all different from a weekday, from the very beginning onwards. The majestic Shabbat Amidah is the sound of a festival and ‘yishtabach’ has a special mode to mark Shabbat and festivals. It is strange to hear these tunes in a shiva service during the week.
Why don’t we care more for this beautiful ancient tradition of time-bound nusach tefilla, the music of our prayers? It can be presented with love and meaning. I love these midrashic interpretations of prayer and time by music. We must not lose this beautiful tradition but keep it alive as a meaningful tool to create the kavannah, an elevated intention and spiritual focus for prayer.
• Dr Annette M. Boeckler is lecturer for Jewish Liturgy and Jewish Biblical Interpretation at Leo Baeck College and responsible for its library. She is one of the lecturers at the College’s new Sacred Jewish Music programme