Cantor’s Corner

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Cantor’s Corner2019-03-31T11:36:59-05:00

Cantor’s Corner

As I sit here writing this article, I realize that today marks the beginning of my fifth year as the Cantor of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley. It has been five years since Cantor Biddelman stepped down after serving as your illustrious cantor for more than forty-four years. Then as now, I’m beginning to prepare for the upcoming holidays. Believe me when I tell you that there is a significant difference in my mind set from five years ago to today. As I begin to focus my thoughts, one question I’m considering is, “What is the most important prayer for me during the holidays”? Is it Hineni, the Hazzan’s prayer? No, it is and always has always been the Kol Nidrei. Kol Nidrei is even more special for me here at Temple Emanuel because I am able to share the chanting of Kol Nidrei with my friend, Cantor Emeritus Mark Biddelman.

The Kol Nidrei ritual has always fascinated me. There are probably more myths and legends woven around its melody than almost any other liturgical theme heard in the synagogue. Most synagogue music falls into the category of what musicians call “program music.” That is, music composed to express a theme, an idea, to tell a story, or to enhance the text of a prayer. The primary task of the Hazzan is to make the words of the liturgy more meaningful, more moving, more relevant. It was considered vulgar to use a melody that had no integral relationship to the text but was used merely to introduce a lovely tune.

Kol Nidrei is an outstanding exception to that rule. It is the melody that stands out, that touches the heart, that moves the worshipper. The words add absolutely nothing to its mystical attraction. What do the words actually mean? As we approach Yom Kippur, we are reminded of our past errors for which we hope to receive forgiveness from God. We accomplish this by first begging forgiveness from our fellow man. We do this using a legal formula which we use to annul false oaths and promises not fulfilled. But words are not always reliable nor are they ultimately satisfying. We are led into most of our pitfalls with words misspoken, poorly chosen, inappropriately delivered or just as likely, improperly received. How can words alone bring us the forgiveness we seek? The legal formula is nothing more than dry words that need careful thought and interpretation to make them meaningful and binding. It is the unique Kol Nidrei melody which makes the Kol Nidrei text moving and interesting.

Many liturgical authorities articulate that the melody for Kol Nidrei originated in Worms, Germany sometime around the 12th century. But the Kol Nidrei text was already in use in the 9th century.

A legend is told about the Marranos of Spain and the melody of Kol Nidrei, but not the words. It proposes that the Kol Nidrei tune originated as a series of phrases used as a code for Marranos. The Marranos were Spanish and Portuguese Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula who converted or, more likely, were forced to convert to Christianity during the Middle Ages yet continued to practice their Judaism in secret.

When a Marrano attempted to enter one of the secret Yom Kippur services, he was made to pass from one watchman to another. He would chant a phrase and would receive the next phrase in response. The person would then be directed to the next watchman until they reached the actual service and joined his fellow Marranos who were risking their lives to be Jews again on this holiest of days. Though this story is interesting, it has not won wide support since in those Sephardi communities where Kol Nidrei is chanted, the melody, which we all love so much, is not used at all. However, the legend is important for another reason. It proposes that the melody is built up out of separate musical phrases. Even a cursory inspection of the melody would seem to bear this out.

The opening phrase of the Kol Nidrei tune was originally sung without words as a sort of overture, as though the Hazzan, in awe and trepidation, was timidly knocking at the gates of Mercy. Such introduction, or overtures are quite common in the Jewish liturgical tradition. The major section of the High Holy Day Shacharit service is introduced by the word “Hamelech,” the King, which is sung without words before it is actually articulated.

Musicologists have analyzed each phrase of Kol Nidei and have clearly identified them. Originally, it is thought that these phrases were patched together according to the taste and preference of the Hazzan. The set formula which we know now was probably not formalized until the late 16th century. Whatever its origin, it is almost impossible to explain the melody’s mystical attraction. This is the Jewish song par-excellence and it achieves its grand status without any help from the words. For more than eight centuries this melody has been linked to the holiest day of the Jewish year. It has become the song of the soul seeking God, the melody of a people striving to be like Him.

Erica and I wish you a happy, healthy and sweet New Year.

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