Shabbat is the crowning glory of God's creation. It is the closing kiss of Genesis, chapter one and the opening embrace of Genesis, chapter two.
Shabbat is one of the rarest gems of Judaism; a gift to a world consumed with doing, with business, with never-ending tasks and chores. It offers spiritual refuge and rejuvenation, uplift and introspection.
The origin of Shabbat observance is found in the book of Exodus, in the fourth utterance, which commands us to "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor, and do all your work: But the seventh day is the Sabbath of Adonai, your God: You will do no work, not you, nor your son, your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor the stranger that lives within your gates..."
Nothing in this statement, however compassionate and humane its message may be, prepares us for the beauty and the spiritual dimension that is Shabbat as we know it today.
We owe our current understanding and, indeed, expectations of Shabbat to the mystics of Tzfat, a small village on the northern slopes of the upper Galilee, who transformed Shabbat in the sixteenth century.
Strictly speaking, it was the Kabbalat Shabbat – the welcoming of Shabbat –, which the mystics focused on. This newly expanded and developed element of the Shabbat observance precedes the evening prayers – the Ma'ariv – for Shabbat.
This extraordinary group of poets, visionaries, teachers and scholars, all of them mystics, formed a group, a club, if you will, which they named Sukkat Shalom – the Shelter of Peace. They each had individual practices for welcoming Shabbat: some wearing all white; some engaging in ecstatic dancing and singing; many going out to the forest above Tzfat to commune with nature and actually hug the proverbial trees.
But the true transformation of Shabbat occurred around the introduction of L'cha Dodi, the hymn of hymns for Shabbat. The hymn, authored by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, who intended the hymn as a means to heal the world and bring about the advent of Mashiach - the Messiah - became the anchor of Kabbalat Shabbat. Six "Psalms of Coronation," psalms 95, 96, 97, 98, 99 and 29, were placed leading into L'cha Dodi, with psalm 92, A Hymn for Shabbat, concluding the journey from the mundane to the ethereal, from the weekday to Shabbat, from exile to redemption.
The most important theme to keep in mind as we listen to the music of our services and read the liturgy is that of balance: balance between the feminine and the masculine; between the light and the dark; between heaven and earth. This was the genius contribution of Alkabetz, The Ari, Cordovero, Azikri, Vital and the other saints of Tzfat - Safed. It is they who turned the Shabbat services to a marriage between the feminine and the masculine writ large, in heaven and on earth.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century, a mere fifty years or so following the introduction of L'cha Dodi, Shabbat observance was universally transformed throughout the Jewish world, its general structure and intent still with us in the twenty first century.
The music we use at our services reflects the beauty, glory, soulfulness and triumph of Shabbat over the mundane forces of the world.
The music on the High Holydays is, more often than not, choral or solo music, inducing quietude and reflection. At its best, the music is regal, spiritual, and awe-inspiring, seeking to elevate and move the prayer participants in a way the written word alone cannot.
If the core of all Jewish liturgical music is the word - on the High Holydays it is all the more so. Words are angels — messengers from somewhere deep and profound. Every word has a life and must be treated as a living creature. The music, therefore, must stem from the lyrics and be true to their meaning, and at all times it must remain subservient to the written word.
We have chosen music from our varied Jewish traditions: Ashkenazi and Sephardic; Hasidic, traditional, and contemporary; Israeli, European, and American; music reaching back hundreds of years, and music written and arranged most recently, specifically for these very services.
It is our hope that the music we offer you, the congregants, on these High Holidays, reflects the very noblest of our aspirations; the very highest of our hopes and prayers.
Chazzan Danny Maseng
Sacred music is an emotional, intuitive, spiritual tool; an alternate path to the divine; a shortcut to heaven. The function of sacred music is neither to entertain nor to distract from the "important stuff" of intellectual introspection or ritual.
The very fact that the holiness of the word is at the core of Jewish sacred music does not mean that the music is unimportant or lesser than the words, it simply means that the music must find its voice from within the internal musicality of the words, as well as from the various levels of meaning embedded within the liturgy.
First and foremost, the music must be true to the emotional arc of the prayer service; the music must be true to the context of the service: morning, evening, weekday, Shabbat, holidays, etc. The music should also be reflective of and rooted in the historical tradition of the liturgy, especially if the music is contemporary.
There should always be room for inclusive, participatory music, as well as choral or solo music and one consideration should never cancel out the others. It is just as important to receive the gift of a song or a prayer as it is to participate in one; it is equally pleasing to make one's own joyful noise as it is to be silent and present.
As I have already stated, we who live in these times are uniquely privileged to have experienced, heard and learned from a vast repository of holy music – our own, as well as the music of others. Harmonic, rhythmic, melodic, moody, uplifting, ecstatic and pensive – all these sounds and traditions have affected us and have embedded their tracks in our souls.
It is my hope that our services reflect all these truths, which I have come to hold as self-evident.
The word is a living entity, an angel, a messenger from somewhere deep and profound. Words far exceed their cognitive meaning; words are sounds, emotions verbalized, ideas made audible. Every word has a life and must be treated as a living creature.
I mean "The Word" as an embodiment of an abstract idea, as opposed to an image. Jewish Art, I believe, is NEVER image based, even when the medium used is visual art. We are not the people of the picture or the people of the image; we are the people of the book: Am Hasefer, or, even more accurately, the people of the word, Am Hamilah.
Even though we normally refer to our covenant as Brit Hamilah, meaning the covenant of the circumcision, the word Milah also means word. We have three circumcisions we refer to in our tradition: The mouth, the heart and the flesh. The mouth is first in order, the most important, which is why, I believe, we begin our Amida prayers with: "Adonai, s'fatai tiftach, ufi yagid t'hilatecha"- "My God, open up my lips and my mouth will declare your glory."
Sacred Jewish music, therefore, must stem from the word, the lyrics, and be true to their meaning.
Jewish music is, primarily, vocal - it is sung. That is not to say that there cannot be instrumental music that is Jewish, it's just that over two millennia of exile have mixed, stirred and shaken our musical foundations so thoroughly that it is near impossible to tell the Jewish from the Arab, Romanian, Armenian, German or Russian. The words, however, remain stubbornly Jewish at core, whether they are in Hebrew, Ladino, Yiddish or Yamani, and so it is to the words that we turn and return.
Our music at TIOH reflects Eastern-European, German, Israeli, Middle-Eastern, North American, South American, and Sephardic origins and influences. This is the true state of North American Judaism: it is the Judaism of the mixed multitudes; of Jews from diverse backgrounds, as well as converts and reemerging Jews, all contributing their voices and memories to this mix.
This unique situation in North American congregations provides us with a golden opportunity to discover, embrace, create and preserve sacred music on behalf of those who came before us and those who will follow.
Danny Maseng, Chazzan & Music Director, TIOH