Friday, February 3, 2012

An Ancient Melody to a More Ancient Song - Friday Kavvanah, 2/3/12

I love musicals, and have performed in many and appreciated many others.  I can almost sing the lyrics of Fiddler on the Roof in its entirety.  Unlike in musical theater, real people do not break out into spontaneous song to mark special moments or process strong emotions.  However, this does occasionally happen in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, for two biblical poems that are recited: the first, in Parashat Beshallah, is the song of victory sung by Moses and the Israelites after successfully crossing the Sea of Reeds; the second is that of Devorah, the prophetess that leads Israel's forces against the Canaanites  perhaps a century after the departure from Egypt.  The first is from the Torah, book of Shemot / Exodus.  The second is the haftarah / prophetic reading, from the book of Judges.

Shirat HaYam, Moses' song, was recited daily in the Temple in Jerusalem by the Levitical choir, when the Temple was standing.  Today it is part of the regular daily liturgy, and here at Temple Israel we sing it every morning to a melody that comes from the Western Sephardic (Amsterdam) tradition, despite the suite of Ashkenazi melodies that make up the rest of our davening.

What is perhaps most appealing about this melody is something that I read years ago in a paper by Cantor Macy Nulman, who was the director of the cantorial school at Yeshiva University.  Cantor Nulman observed that when that popular Sephardic melody is compared with the special chant used by Ashkenazim use when they read Shirat HaYam on Shabbat Shirah and the 7th day of Pesah, we find that they are strikingly similar.  The theory goes that the two melodies were likely identical about one thousand years ago, when Jews were moving northward from Italy and Provence to the lands called Ashkenaz (north-eastern France and Germany).  They took the tune with them, and then the separation of distance and centuries and customs produced the variation that we hear today.

In other words, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic tunes are the same, but differentiated from each other by a real-life game of telephone.  The melody is apparently ancient, though not as old as the words.

The concept of breaking out into spontaneous song, which we might associate with Broadway (or perhaps Glee), is a form of entertainment that is as ancient as the Torah, and the power of traditional melody is undeniable.  It is remarkable that these songs are still part of the fabric of Jewish life; I hope that they continue to resonate for at least another thousand years.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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