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8.559428-29 - FIRST S'LIHOT (THE): The Entire Midnight Service According to Orthodox and Traditional Ritual



S'lihot for the First Day

In the Ashkenazi rite, the formal First S'lihot service takes place at midnight on the Saturday prior to Rosh Hashana and is now most often referred to simply as s'lihot. But this service actually marks the first of a series — known as the Days of S'lihot — of daily predawn recitations of the penitential liturgy, in spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days.

The First S'lihot service functions as an inauguration of the penitential season — a prelude to the coming Days of Awe that focus on repentance and renewal, culminating in the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) observances. This service is now considered to be part of the sequence of High Holy Day services, even though it is not itself a holy day.

Apart from the services on Yom Kippur itself, only this inaugural recitation of the s'lihot liturgy has acquired the aesthetic format and visage of elaborate cantorial-choral expression. The service often includes numerous formally composed musical settings, and in some respects it is a virtual "religious concert" in the most profound spiritual sense of that often misused term. Ideally, it offers a synthesis of musical and poetic art in synergy with the dynamics of a genuine prayer experience that encourages both personal and collective self-examination. Since the 19th century, this service also often functions in practice as a musical foretaste of the lengthier worship services to come on Yom Kippur, much of whose liturgy as well as musical repertoire this First S'lihot service previews.

The Liturgy

A s'liha (lit., forgiveness) denotes a liturgical poem whose central theme concerns supplication for forgiveness from sin and transgression, and invokes the doctrine of Divine mercy and pardon. The plural form, s'lihot, also refers to an order of service consisting primarily of these poetic texts, which have been recited historically on fast days and in connection with special emergencies and appeals for Divine intercession. Today, however, the most widespread association of the s'lihot liturgy is with the High Holy Days, and its most common recital is in that connection.

The oldest elements of the formal s'lihot service predate the actual s'lihot poetry. They include biblical quotations, Psalm recitations, and the kaddish — together with a few prayer texts borrowed from other early sources or rituals. But the majority of the texts belong to the special category of s'liha poems. The earliest of these poems nonetheless predate the later era of liturgical Hebrew poetry known as the paytanic era, and they are at least as old as the Mishnaic period. A few are actually mentioned in the Mishna (Ta'anit 2:1–4), some in the context of special prayers for rain; for example, the s'liha that begins mi she'ana, with the refrain hu ya'anenu (May He who answered… answer us). In general, most of the liturgical section toward the end of the service is considered part of that early, pre- paytanic, s'lihot liturgy. Shomer yisra'el, too, is thought to be of ancient origin.

Most of the poetic s'lihot in the aggregate penitential liturgy, however, are post-Mishnaic period creations, written between the 7th and 16th centuries. They were composed by g'onim (7th–10th century talmudic sages in Babylonia); by rishonim (early rabbinic codifiers of Jewish law); and by paytanim (authors of religious or liturgical poetry — piyyutim), including some of the most widely recognized medieval Hebrew poets such as Yehuda Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Moses Ibn Ezra, who was also known as hasallah (the supplicant) for his many s'lihot. But many of the s'lihot, even from that later period, are anonymous; others reveal in acrostics only the first names of their authors.

The first arrangement of the s'lihot into a specific order dates to the 9th century and is found in the ordered ritual of Rav Amram Gaon. He referred to this selection as s'liha v'rahamim (pleas for forgiveness and mercy), just as the talmudic phrase for the recitation of biblical verses as a course of prayer is called p'sukei d'rahamei (verses of mercy: Tosafot Avoda Zara 8a; M'gilla 32a). S'lihot also have been called by their authors bakkasha, t'hinna, and atira — all of which denote supplications or petitions.

The central theological foundation of all s'lihot resides in the biblical passages known as the Thirteen Attributes of God's Mercy (Exodus 34:6–7). In rabbinic literature, the greatest collective crime of the people of Israel concerns their idolatrous worship of the golden calf, described in Exodus 32–34. All other transgressions and sins can be perceived as emanating from that denial of God and all it can imply in terms of an absence of monotheistic moral and ethical grounding. In that account in the Torah, Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people and create a new people in its stead — as was God's initial reaction — but rather to avert the punitive decree and extend pardon. God is then swayed by Moses' supplication. Passing by Moses atop Mount Sinai, where Moses has been instructed to present himself alone, God proclaims the words that became known as the Thirteen Attributes, or seder s'liha (order, or rite of forgiveness). This text — adonai, adonai, el rahum v'hannun — centers around the Divine ethical essence of mercy, compassion, graciousness, forbearance, forgiveness, and pardon. These words, which are pronounced four times during the s'lihot service, constitute both the core theme and the prevailing refrain of the penitential liturgy.

The Talmud further expanded on these verses — and on the concept of Divine pardon — in a poetic image of God at that moment wrapping Himself in a tallit (prayer shawl) as a hazzan, to reveal to Moses the order of prayer. In this creative scenario, God proclaims to Moses, "Whenever the people of Israel sin, let them pray according to this order of prayer [the verses containing the Thirteen Attributes] and I will forgive them" (Rosh Hashana 17b). The genesis of the s'lihot liturgy has thus been assigned by scholars and commentators not only to those original scriptural verses, but also to their talmudic explication and interpretation.

The initial pronouncement of the Thirteen Attributes in the s'lihot service is preceded by the words el erekh apayim ata (God, You are slow to anger, You are called Lord of Mercy). Thereafter it is introduced by the s'liha text el melekh yoshev (God, King, You occupy a throne built on mercy). The latter is thought to be one of the oldest of the poetic s'lihot, and it contains a built-in reference to the Thirteen Attributes: "God, You taught us to recite 'the Thirteen'". In Ashkenazi synagogues from the late 19th century on, el melekh yoshev became one of the major opportunities for cantorial-choral expression, both in the First S'lihot service and on Yom Kippur. Numerous composers have created settings of this text in a wide variety of styles.

Each pronouncement of the Thirteen Attributes is followed by a direct plea for forgiveness: v'salahta la'avonenu … (Pardon our iniquity and our sin…). This juxtaposition is rooted in the Torah, where Moses, following the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes, pleads that God forgive Israel (Exodus 34:8–9).

The earliest post-Mishnaic s'lihot were composed with relatively simple poetic structures. Some of those forms have been compared with the Psalms, in that both literary forms have neither perceptible meter nor rhyme, while in both cases the rhythm is formed by phrases or lines of roughly equal length. That comparison led some commentators to consider the early s'lihot as, in effect, "extensions of the Psalms". More complex forms were developed by the late medieval period. Various alphabetical devices were introduced, such as forward and reverse acrostics that used the initial letters of a biblical word or verse, or, in many cases, the letters of the poet's name. The s'lihot literature was also further enriched by the development of poetry with two-line stanzas (sh'niyya) and, later, three lines per stanza (sh'lishiyya). Eventually, poems with four-line stanzas (shalmonit — complete, or entire) were added, and rhyme schemes were introduced as well. A still later stage saw inclusion of the pizmon — a complete strophic hymn with a refrain, sung or recited responsively between the precentor or cantor and the congregation, or sometimes strophe by strophe by the congregation, each strophe followed by the cantor's repetition.

B'motza'ei m'nuha, which begins with a reference to the end of the Sabbath and thus underscores the Saturday night parameter, is such a pizmon. It contains the refrain lishmo'a el harina (listen to our voice) as the fourth and concluding line of each stanza. (In some German traditions, up through the 1930s, b'motza'ei m'nuha was recited at the Yom Kippur n'ila [concluding] service, which is consistent with the concept of Yom Kippur as the "Sabbath of Sabbaths".)

As a body, the s'lihot literature focuses on such themes as repentance, return to God and His teachings, Israel's collective iniquities, God's mercy and compassion, ramifications of the Day of Judgment, acknowledgment of transgression, Divine forgiveness and pardon, and aspects of the complex relationship between God and the Jewish people. There are many allusions in the texts to biblical incidents and expressions, and in some cases a single biblical phrase or verse is the foundation for an entire s'liha.

These supplications can provide two intertwined levels of prayer — personal and communal. On the personal level, they give expression to the individual's desire for atonement, his acknowledgment of responsibility for actions and their consequences, his petition for forgiveness and reconciliation, and his resolve to mend his ways — even though these pleas are recited collectively and, as with nearly all Jewish prayer, are framed in the first person plural. But on the communal plane, the s'lihot also represent entreaties on behalf of the entire Jewish people, and they give voice to its yearnings for national spiritual redemption.

The s'lihot literature expanded in response to persecutions and communal suffering. Intense persecution and massacres during the 12th century, for example, especially in connection with the Crusades, generated many new poems from Rhineland areas. Poets such as Ephraim ben Yitzhak of Regensburg and Eliezer ben Natan described the carnage attached to the Crusades in 1096 and 1146 in their verse. But s'lihot emanating from the Iberian Peninsula during that period were more often born of positive artistic inspirations and of the rich poetic activity that flourished in that cultural environment.

Even the institution of pre-Yom Kippur s'lihot recitations began in association with fasting. Originally, these recitations were done only during the Ten Days of Repentance — from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, when, in the past, some pious Jews fasted. Subsequently, those recitations were extended to begin before Rosh Hashana — partially in connection with the old custom of fasting during that period as well. Eventually the rabbis stipulated that there should be at least four days of s'lihot prior to Rosh Hashana, which became the general practice among Ashkenazi Jewry and has remained so — even long after such fasting became a rarity if not a relic. Thus, unless Rosh Hashana falls on a Monday or Tuesday, the First S'lihot occurs at or just after midnight on the preceding Saturday. But when Rosh Hashana does fall on a Monday or Tuesday, in order to comply with the four-day minimum, the inaugural first service is held on the previous Saturday midnight.

On all the Days of S'lihot except the first one, the recitations commence before dawn as vigils (ashmurot), nowadays usually just prior to the regular daily morning services. Several practical as well as mystical-aesthetic rationales have been offered for this practice: that the stillness of night facilitates intensified introspection and self-examination; that ordinary worldly cares and concerns may appear least urgent during those hours; that nighttime may provide an atmosphere, especially metaphysically, as a time of "special acceptance" before God, the time when He recalls with particular compassion the destruction of the Temple and the "night" of Israel's exile.

It became customary in many communities, however, to hold the First S'lihot service at or shortly after midnight following the conclusion of the Sabbath, rather than waiting until the immediate predawn hours. This is now the practice in nearly all Ashkenazi congregations, apart from certain Hassidic groups and some communities in Israel. The origin of this custom is sometimes attributed to Psalm 119:62: "At midnight I rise to praise You".

The Traditional Aesthetic Characteristics

This recording provides a sample aural illustration of a typical formal First S'lihot service as it might be conducted and heard in its entirety in American orthodox synagogues whose orientation derives from eastern European tradition. But this rendition can also apply in most respects to those nonorthodox but tradition-oriented congregations — including Conservative movement affiliates — that follow the same long-established s'lihot liturgy and the same basic unabridged liturgical order of service without interruption. In either case, the nature of the repertoire and the highly stylized manner of its delivery reflect the practice of the s'lihot service in synagogues that are not only partial to an aesthetic heavily informed by eastern European roots and immigrant-era sensibilities, but whose resources also permit an accomplished cantor and a well-rehearsed professional or amateur choir. Throughout the United States, this situation was, admittedly, far more prevalent in the past, but it is still far from extinct. There are recent indications of renaissance — especially with regard to High Holy Day–related services such as this one.

Where this rendition bespeaks a more specifically orthodox perspective, however, is in the exclusively male voice choir — and the idiomatic timbre of that particular vocal blend. Women's voices have always been excluded from synagogue choirs in orthodox worship, where Jewish legal prohibitions are held to apply. The choral dimension of hazzanut is as old as cantorial art itself, and is historically as well as artistically inseparable from it. But apart from a few Baroque-era experiments that failed to gain sustained acceptance, four-part choral practice with western-influenced harmonization began to take hold in synagogues only in the late 18th century. Throughout eastern Europe by the second half of the 19th century, the established orthodox synagogue format, which was then imported to America as well, was always SATB — soprano / alto / tenor / bass — but with unmatured boys' voices on the soprano and alto parts. (Mixed choirs — i.e., with women's voices — were gradually accepted only in nonorthodox synagogues in Central and western Europe, England, and America, and then sometimes in sister nonorthodox émigré communities on other continents.) That combination of boys' and men's voices produced the quintessential choral sound associated with traditional eastern European hazzanut for more than a century. The larger, sophisticated and important synagogues in major cities throughout the Czarist and Hapsburg empires often had apprentice systems that amounted to de facto boy choir schools. And itinerant cantors, who often vied for the services of especially talented children, traveled with their choirs of boys and men for their guest pulpit appearances. On individual occasions, when the required boys' voices might have been unavailable or insufficient for one reason or another, choirmasters resorted to adjusting the music to accommodate TTBB (first and second tenor, baritone, and bass) performance. But the desiderata in Europe always remained the boys-and-men combination.

The Central European männerchor tradition, which enjoyed fashion in non-Jewish secular contexts at various periods during the 19th century, never applied to the synagogue — nor, for that matter, to Jewish secular choral activity. Apart from occasional pieces written in TTBB format simply for aesthetic variety, no significant original TTBB synagogue repertoire was ever developed in Europe.

The same situation prevailed in the American transplantation for several decades in orthodoxy; and nearly all émigré synagogue and cantorial composers wrote according to that SATB format. But various sociological and socioeconomic factors contributed to a decline in Jewish boy choirs, and as the competing lure of secular life and its expanded variety of available competing childhood activities made it increasingly difficult to attract, train, and sustain boy choirs in American synagogues, the TTBB format gradually replaced the SATB one in most orthodox situations. Even before mid-century, the tendency was beginning to shift toward all-adult male choirs in American orthodoxy. The existing repertoire then had to be rearranged and revoiced, either by the original composers or by subsequent choirmasters or arrangers — often in rehearsal, without actually notating TTBB versions. The result of this socially driven adjustment was the birth of a new liturgical aesthetic — a männerchor sonority, with all its adjunct conventions and effects, that now came to be associated with orthodox or quasi-orthodox cantorial performance. (Similar scenarios eventually unfolded in orthodox synagogues in other countries to which eastern European Jews emigrated, such as England, South Africa, and Australia.) Whenever possible, however, cantors and choirmasters have still tried to train at least one or two boy altos or sopranos for characteristic special solo passages and duets, providing some echo of authentic flavor. In addition, on this recording, boys' voices and adult countertenors are also used sparingly on selected choral passages to double the full TTBB voicing, which suggests a patina reminiscent of the earlier timbre.

Notwithstanding the intended orthodox orientation of this recording, all of the repertoire presented here could just as easily be performed in its original SATB voicing with mixed choir — as much of it frequently is done — in Conservative synagogues that espouse traditional hazzanut. The liturgical content and order of service in the Conservative ritual — and in the s'lihot prayerbooks geared to Conservative congregations — does not differ appreciably from orthodox services.

Even though instrumental accompaniment for this First S'lihot service would be permissible legally even by most orthodox standards, since the service occurs on a weekday (and is not during a mourning period), the typical presentation is nonetheless a cappella. Nearly all composed selections for First S'lihot services are taken from the repertoire of Yom Kippur, when, as on all holy days, such instrumental use is prohibited by traditional interpretations of halakha (Jewish law). These particular settings, and alternative ones in similar styles, were therefore composed according to that prerequisite. The a cappella timbre — including idiomatic choral imitations of instrumental figures and effects — is a fundamental part of the aesthetic identity of this music.

A traditional service embodies a continuous flow of the liturgy, not punctuated by such contemporary innovations as Hebrew or English responsive congregational readings, spoken prayers, or verbal commentary. This aggregate format consists of three basic conventional forms:

a) Composed settings for cantor and choir, or for solo cantor. In the latter case, accompanying responses and chordal underpinning are typically improvised by the choir. But even in the formal choral pieces, cantorial tradition often includes improvisatory interpolations and ornamented extensions at certain points.

b) Cantorial improvisations. These ornate and sometimes virtuoso expressions can be applied to texts that are not sung as choral compositions. Here, too, improvised choral support may be added.

c) Cantorial recitations. These are simple logogenic and rapid chantlike intonations of liturgical passages, or even entire sections, with neither choral participation nor word repetition, and a minimum of ornamentation. This is more in the style and manner of a skilled baal t'filla (lay precentor or prayer leader). These recitations are fundamental components of the service — aesthetically as well as liturgically — and a truly artistic cantor must master this style as well as his virtuoso delivery.

In some recitations and improvisations, the hazzan renders an entire text. In others, he either begins a text and then allows time for the worshipers to complete it on their own while he does the same quietly, or the congregation recites a text, after which the hazzan intones a cadential recitation on its concluding lines. On this recording, the pauses between such cantorial recitatives, either prior to or following a choral piece, represent those congregational recitations. Missing on the recording, however, is the characteristic din as the worshipers pray aloud to themselves, each at his own pace, in an unmeasured murmur.

In Ashkenazi ritual, much of the core liturgy is intoned according to a system of prescribed prayer modes. These prayer modes are assigned to specific services or sections of services on particular liturgical occasions (Sabbath, High Holy Days, Three Festivals, weekdays, etc.) or even assigned to certain individual prayer texts. This complicated modal network is often known colloquially as nusah hat'filla (the established way of liturgical rendition). In this ordered labyrinth, the designated modes are identifiable by their own particular battery of motives, motivic formulas and patterns, intervals, and principal tone functions (reciting tone, finalis, etc.) — all in the framework of corresponding specific scales or types of scales. Cantorial recitations of the principal s'lihot logically follow the mode for those same texts in the Yom Kippur service. This s'liha mode (or shtayger in the older, German, and perhaps more apt terminology), which betrays a prominent recurring pattern akin to major tonality — in addition to other quasi-minor properties — is especially recognizable in the cadences of the cantorial recitations.

The poignant and even conspicuously sentimental tunefulness of some of the music selected for this recording, emblematic of the traditional melos in the eastern European–American format, together with its dramatic dimensions, may seem incongruous with perceptions of sacred music as something inherently more subdued, reverential, or austere. These characteristics may even strike some as inconsistent with the seriousness of the occasion and the sober content of its liturgy. Yet the s'lihot are not kinot (elegiac lamentations). And though the penitential parameter is paramount in this service, it is neither a lugubrious ceremony nor an exclusively somber experience. In tandem with its mood of awe and penitence, which permeates certain sections of the liturgy and informs its musical expression accordingly, this service can also be infused with an element of optimism — as a prelude to a new year of reconciliation and renewal.

The First S'lihot service has thus also been interpreted in song as a celebration of the conviction that God does indeed hear prayer and does respond to genuine resolve. Some of its melodies can appear to acknowledge happily and with gratitude the very possibility of spiritual return and behavioral change, and the assurance of forgiveness. Whereas variant Western (but no less traditional) counterparts in Ashkenazi custom (German, French, Viennese, and Central European repertoires forged within the embrace of the German cultural orbit) display a more restrained and reserved style, this manifestly eastern European hazzanut resonates with highly charged and more transparent emotion. That orientation finds its expression here in impassioned cantorial passages that reflect intense pleading, fervent supplication, and heartfelt repentance. Equally prominent are down-to-earth bright melodies that seem to spin from the hope that is sustained by recalling the Divine eternal assurance of pardon.



The Musical Selections

Ashrei customarily serves as a prelude to the s'lihot service. The origin of this practice is uncertain, and it may have begun simply as a selection from the Psalms to set an appropriate mood, or perhaps to provide a liturgical link to antiquity. One conjectural rationale stems from its 16th verse, pote'ah et yadekha … (You open Your hand and satisfy all the living with favor), which could be interpreted as God's openness to repentance — the favor of His listening to and granting the petitions for pardon that are about to be offered.

Although ashrei [CD 1 Track 1] is also recited or sung during other services, its specific function as a prelude to the S'lihot for the First Day has inspired numerous and sometimes extended cantorial and choral settings that exploit the virtuoso aspects of cantorial art. Unlike the simple responsorial chant that usually accompanies this ashrei, for example, on the Sabbath, s'lihot -related settings are typically clothed in a tone of awe and supplication, in keeping with the occasion. In this rendition, the opening section is excerpted from a complete setting of the s'lihot service by the learned cantor-composer Leib Glantz (1898–1964).

Einei khol — the setting of the latter portion of the ashrei — is a self-contained composition that was sung by Moshe Koussevitzky (1899–1966), one of the most famous virtuoso star cantors of the 20th century, who immigrated to the United States from Poland following the Second World War. Although the setting is commonly attributed to Koussevitzky, he probably did not compose it in a formal sense, and the choral parts have always been left to subsequent arrangers. It is nonetheless based on his improvisation, which became a relatively fixed rendition and may also have been drawn — as was much of Koussevitzky's hazzanut and especially his modal constructions (nusah hat'filla) — from the melodic style and characteristic phrases of Elias Zaludkovsky (1889–1943). As a youngster, Koussevitzky sang in Zaludkovsky's choir, both in Rostov and Vilna, later succeeding him as cantor at the Vilna Khor Shul (choral synagogue). Still, Koussevitzky fashioned his rendition to exploit his own extraordinarily high tessitura and the legendary brilliance of his upper register. That aspect of his style was often modeled on the vocal approach of Gershon Sirota (1877?–1943), who served prior to Koussevitzky as chief cantor of the prestigious Tlomackie Synagogue in Warsaw. Koussevitzky made this rendition a standard part of his s'lihot services in Brooklyn during the 1950s and 1960s at Temple Beth El of Boro Park, where Cantor Benzion Miller currently officiates.

Va'anahnu — the concluding part of ashrei — is from a setting by Joshua Lind (1890–1973), a highly respected émigré cantor and teacher, today best remembered as an extraordinarily prolific composer of traditional settings in the unapologetically earthy and melodically communicative style acquired from his earlier years in eastern European synagogue choirs. In particular, Lind's music transparently reveals the imprint of his mentor, the revered hazzan, choirmaster, and composer Zeidl Rovner [Jacob Samuel Maragowsky; 1856–1943], whose own style was profoundly influenced by a general Hassidic melos. Lind's hundreds of choral settings were never published, but they found their way into synagogue repertoires throughout the United States and Canada through networks of admiring cantors and choirmasters.


Ashrei leads directly into the rendition of the hatzi kaddish (half kaddish), which, by established convention, always introduces the actual s'lihot liturgy. The hatzi kaddish [CD 1 Track 2] is a reduced form of the full Aramaic text recited at other points in the liturgy, sometimes identified by liturgical scholars as the doxology. Kaddish embodies the supreme acknowledgment of God's unparalleled greatness. It is the ultimate expression of unqualified glorification, praise, and worship of God unto all eternity. Originally, kaddish was not related to the liturgy per se, but was recited at the conclusion of rabbinic discourses or lessons, perhaps as a way of dismissing the assembly with an allusion to messianic hope as well as supreme faith. Because those discourses were delivered in Aramaic — the daily language of Jews for approximately fifteen hundred years following the Babylonian captivity — the kaddish text, too, was composed in that language. It developed around its central congregational response, y'he sh'me raba m'varakh l'alam u''almei almaya (May His great name be worshiped forever, for all time, for all eternity), which derives from Daniel 2:20. Later, the kaddish was introduced into the liturgy to signal the conclusion of sections of a service, to divide such sections, or to conclude biblical readings or talmudic quotations. As the liturgical tradition developed, various forms of the kaddish — its full recitation as well as versions either omitting certain parts or containing alternate ones — were assigned to different specific roles in the liturgical order.

The original rationale for the hatzi kaddish as a preamble to the s'lihot is unclear, apart from the theological and poetic appropriateness of the text. However, by established liturgical rule, a kaddish recitation must function either as a conclusion of, or a division between, liturgical sections or scriptural readings — i.e., it must follow one or the other. This suggests yet another possible reason for the institution of ashrei as a prelude, for ashrei then fulfills the requirement of providing such a preceding section.

The hatzi kaddish rendition contains the oldest melodic elements in any formal First S'lihot service: the individual motives and phrases — including the signature incipit — that combine to form this misinnai tune. Misinnai tunes are seasonal leitmotifs whose canonization for specific occurrences on the liturgical calendar dates to the initial formulation of the Ashkenazi rite in the Rhineland during the Middle Ages. They remain a fixed practice in all Ashkenazi synagogues. This particular tune is prescribed for the hatzi kaddish that precedes the mussaf service on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. By established cantorial tradition, the same basic misinnai kaddish version for those Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mussaf services is also employed on the First S'lihot, providing a musical anticipation of the impending Days of Awe. The easily recognizable motives of this misinnai tune figure prominently in any expanded cantorial-choral arrangement, regardless of style or period. But additional, more recent melodic components are usually attached as well to other parts of the text.

This 20th century arrangement — a hybrid based on two distinct settings by émigré cantors Todros Greenberg (1893–1976) and Abraham Kalechnik (1846–1927) — exhibits these misinnai tune properties while also referring to a well-known but musically unrelated melody (beginning with the words b'hayyeikhon uv'yomeikhon) commonly attributed to Wolf Shestapol (ca. 1832–72), an important cantor and synagogue composer in the Ukraine. That melody has become nearly inseparable from High Holy Day hatzi kaddish renditions in America. Similarly, the sequential and lighter-spirited melody for the last section ( yitbarakh v'yishtabbah) is also frequently found in these hatzi kaddish settings in American synagogues. Clearly eastern European in style, but not found in any notated European sources, it may be either European or American in origin. Its authorship has not been established.


L'khu n'rann'na [CD 1 Track 4] contains verses from Psalms 95, 89, and 55, and Job 12:10, and leads into hann'shama lakh. The setting sung here, which became familiar in many American synagogues by the mid-20th century, is by Isaac Kaminsky (1871–1943), whose emotionally evocative melodies are very much in the popular vein of Lind. Most of Kaminsky's music, however, has been known primarily in eastern states and especially in the greater New York area, probably owing to its advocacy there by the prominent choirmaster Oscar Julius (1903–86), who conducted for many of the leading cantors of his period and who arranged and edited Kaminsky's repertoire. This is one of the few Kaminsky pieces that became popular throughout other parts of the United States, and it remains one of the most frequently sung settings of this text. Like Lind's choral repertoire, most of Kaminsky's music remains in manuscript and has been disseminated among cantors and choirmasters through their collegial networks.


The setting of hattei elohai ozn'kha [CD 1 Track 6] by the noted émigré virtuoso cantor Israel Schorr (1886–1935) was composed originally as a concert piece and was initially recorded by the composer. Later it became part of Yom Kippur repertoires of various cantors and choirs, not only in the United States and Canada but also in Israel. The male chorus arrangement here, for example, was written by Isaac Heilmann for his choir in the Great Synagogue in Haifa. The delicately lyrical melody for the words ki shimkha nikra, however, was not part of the original version and was interpolated later for Moshe Koussevitzky's recording and public renditions, including his Carnegie Hall debut in 1938. He retained that interpolated melody, which is neither his own nor Schorr's (suggestions of authorship have included European hazzan David Eisenstadt), when he sang the piece during his American s'lihot services.


Zavel Zilberts (1881–1949) was one of the few significant choral composers in America to have served previously as a choral director at one of eastern Europe's westernized and sophisticated (but still "orthodox", or at least not nonorthodox) synagogues, known as khor shuls. Prior to his immigration, Zilberts was the music director at the Great Central Synagogue in Moscow, where the repertoire was largely borrowed from the German Synagogue canon. In America, where he wrote for both traditional and Reform services, Zilberts's style remained more classical and restrained than the simpler folk-oriented and sometimes even theatrically embossed melos embraced by the other eastern European émigré synagogue composers represented here. This el melekh yoshev setting [CD 1 Track 8], illustrative of Zilberts's khor shul influence without sacrificing melodic appeal to austerity, is one of his best-known synagogue works.


The entire rendition of the poem b'motza'ei m'nuha [CD 1 Tracks 9–16] is a typical composite of various compositions for individual strophes, interspersed with cantorial improvisations for others and even with alternative refrain melodies. This pizmon has traditionally provided a musical centerpiece for the midnight First S'lihot service. A few composers have set the entire pizmon as a purportedly cohesive composition, but most have set only one or perhaps a few of the strophes. The general practice that evolved in American synagogues has therefore been to plan a selection of strophes from various sources — ideally, of course, with an overall balance of contrasting styles. Even in the very few European sources that contain choral music for this text, such as the collection published in 1874 in Odessa by Joshua [Osias] Abrass (1820–84), only a few of the stanzas are included; and these are free compositions that do not allow rhythmically for the substitution of other strophes.

The aggregate rendition of b'motza'ei m'nuha recorded here is a microcosm of many of the clichés and idioms typical of orthodox and traditional choral style in synagogues where the eastern European brand of cantorial art prevails. Among these are intensely melodic solo passages for boy altos and sopranos; duets with the cantor; sustained bass solos; cantorial improvisations with choral responses and pedal point underpinnings; and fully composed sections that feature cantorial solo lines in harmony with choral expositions.

The setting of the poem's initial strophe is a pastiche of traditional motives that was pieced together and arranged by Arnold Miller (1922–97) for the many choral services he conducted at synagogues in the greater Chicago area. Miller was a leading personality for many decades in the Jewish musical life of Chicago — as a composer, conductor, arranger, bandmaster, and pianist. The melody for the second line of the strophe, hat ozn'kha, was adapted from a tune he attributed to the esteemed cantor-composer and teacher of hazzanut, Joshua Samuel Weisser [Pilderwasser; 1888–1952].

The authorship of this setting of the sixth strophe, marom im atzmu [CD 1 Track 14], is uncertain. Cantor Joseph Malovany transcribed it from a live recording of a s'lihot service sung by Cantor David Kusevitsky (1911–85) with a choir conducted by Morris Barash. An educated guess is that it was composed by Herman Zalis (1885–1969), who conducted, composed, and arranged for Kusevitsky for many years.

The penultimate strophe, p'ne na [CD 1 Track 15], was composed expressly for the Milken Archive by Cantor Ira Bigeleisen. His bass solo part reflects an idiomatic stylistic fixture of eastern European–oriented repertoire.

Meyer Machtenberg's (1884–1979) famous setting of the final strophe, r'tze atiratam [CD 1 Track 16], gained wide currency in American synagogues from its early recording by the world-renowned and preeminent cantor Yossele [Joseph] Rosenblatt (to whom it has sometimes been erroneously attributed, since his initial recording failed to credit Machtenberg). This piece has acquired numerous subsequent expansions and extended arrangements, with multiple recurrences of the signature melody for the refrain, lishmo'a. The one here, however, retains the simplicity of the original.


T'vi'enu [havi'enu in some variant readings] incorporates a verse from Isaiah 56:7 and contains a messianic message that is interpreted dramatically and vividly in this setting by Lind [CD 2 Track 2]. This is an unabashedly theatrical treatment of the type that found great acceptance in traditional eastern European–oriented American synagogues. One is tempted to ascribe its kitsch to American Jewish popular influence, but its flavor is not so far afield from other traditional approaches to this text. Some of its most familiar settings by other composers — e.g., Kalechnik and even Eliezer Gerovisch (1844–1914), whose stylistic orientation is probably the most classically westernized and dignified among all eastern European synagogue composers — also betray a marchlike, almost triumphal military character. It has even been suggested that such lively dramatizations provide an aesthetic moment of emotional relief just prior to the following sober supplication, sh'ma kolenu, which is a fervent, heartrending plea.


The first part of sh'ma kolenu [CD 2 Track 3] is taken from the daily service (from the section known as the sh'mone esrei, or the Eighteen Benedictions). The remainder of the text as it appears in the s'lihot liturgy (generally considered part of the same s'liha prayer) is derived from Lamentations (5:21) and Psalms. Its cantorial rendition generally constitutes one of the emotional peaks of the First S'lihot service. Joseph Rumshinsky (1881–1956), whose setting is sung here for most of the text, was primarily a Second Avenue Yiddish theater composer, songwriter, and conductor, and he is remembered as one of the giants of that popular genre. But like many of his most successful fellow Second Avenue songwriters, such as Sholom Secunda, Abraham Ellstein, and Alexander Olshanetsky, he also wrote (and sometimes conducted) for the synagogue. This is one of his best-known liturgical pieces. In this rendition, free cantorial improvisation has been substituted for the last section, a typical option in such traditional services.


Ashamnu [CD 2 Track 5] is the short form of the communal confession. It consists of twenty-four alphabetically arranged expressions and manifestations of sin and transgression. The rendition here follows what has become the basic melodic pattern in American synagogues, based on some European traditions. But the solo vocal line in this arrangement mirrors the refined variant sung by Moshe Koussevitzky. In the synagogue, the choral responses would be joined by the congregation each time, and the recurring wordless tune that interrupts the recitation of collective transgressions is a ubiquitous congregational melody reserved for this occasion in nearly all traditional American services. At one time, there were many extant alternative melodies, but this particular tune has emerged as virtually exclusive.

The curious habit of attaching a lighthearted, homey tune to one of the most awe-inspiring and solemn moments in the liturgy has Hassidic origins in Europe, and even some humorous justifications in Hassidic folklore. S. Y. Agnon, in his Sippurei habesht (Stories of the Baal Shem Tov), relates a story in which the juxtaposition of joyful tunes against the text of the confessional is likened to the gladness felt by a devoted servant upon clearing rubbish from his king's court. Yet the classical European published synagogue music collections contain no such tuneful adjuncts to the confessional. This custom, now standard in most traditional Ashkenazi services, may be but one further example of the lasting Hassidic imprint on the development of eastern European hazzanut during the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Lind's version of rahamana [CD 2 Track 7], an Aramaic text written in Babylonia, is another case of humble supplication accompanied by mirthful song — in this case even akin to a quasi-Hassidic dance tune. Although other, more classically oriented settings of rahamana — such as an extended composition by Zilberts — treat the opening lines with deep reverence and humility, most composers (including Zilberts) have nonetheless also set the final phrase with spirited optimism: "Now, soon, in our own time!"


Maran d'vishmayya [CD 2 Track 9] is also in Aramaic. The composer of this setting, Dan (David) Frohman (1903–77), was the music director of a major Conservative synagogue in the Detroit area for many years. He frequently adapted folklike phrases in his pieces.


Celebrated as a legend both during his lifetime and after his death more than any other cantor in the pantheon of the great virtuosi, Yossele [Joseph] Rosenblatt (1882–1933) was one of the supreme cantorial artists of all time. And especially to the lay public, non-Jewish as well as Jewish, he remains probably the most famous cantor of any generation. His shomer yisra'el [CD 2 Track 10] is one of his most classically constructed and best-known compositions. It is sung here in a contemporary arrangement by the gifted South African–Israeli composer and arranger Raymond Goldstein (b. 1953), who has retained the full spirit and flavor of Rosenblatt's style.


Avinu malkenu [CD 2 Track 11] was improvised, according to the pertinent talmudic reference (b. Taanit 25b), by Rabbi Akiva in the 1st or 2nd century and was originally a nucleus of only five lines, with the preceding refrain on those two initial words of address (Our Father, Our King). It was subsequently increased to 29 lines in the Sephardi rite, 38 in the German Ashkenazi rite, and 44 in the Polish, or eastern European Ashkenazi rite. Only the last line, however, is customarily sung toward the conclusion of the s'lihot service. This melody is universal among American synagogues, but its origin is undetermined. It is not found in any notated European sources.


The full kaddish (kaddish shalem) [CD 2 Track 12] concludes the s'lihot service, just as it was begun with the half kaddish. Although there is no prescribed traditional version for this concluding kaddish, which can be simply and syllabically chanted, the engaging rendition here — which has become increasingly popular in recent decades — is based on a setting composed in Europe by Jacob Gottlieb (1852–1900), better known as Yankl der Heizeriker (Yankl the hoarse one, or husky-voiced one). It is now commonly labeled "Hassidic kaddish", since Gottlieb apparently claimed that he had heard Hassidim singing the concluding kaddish of the Rosh Hashana mussaf service "cheerfully" (though not necessarily to this specific tune). Neither its principal melody nor its secondary motives are found in the repertoire of any authentic Hassidic traditions; and Gottlieb referred to his creation simply as "yitgaddal" — the initial word of the text incipit. According to Gottlieb's son Berl, he even substituted the Yiddish words a heym for the last pronouncement of v'al (and all [Israel]), which he said gave it the meaning, "and all can now go home [since your prayers have been accepted]". This basic composite tune was sung and recorded by both Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitzky, in modified arrangements. It has therefore often been attributed erroneously to one or the other — including in supposedly reliable published sources. The original manuscript, however, formerly in the possession of Gottlieb's grandson until his own death, together with the family oral history as passed down by Gottlieb's son — also a cantor in various European cities and then in Newcastle upon Tyne, in England — leaves no doubt concerning authorship.

The basic version that has emerged through oral transmission to establish its present identity, however, departs in some significant respects from that original manuscript. This includes even differences in tonality, especially in the opening section. Moreover, numerous arrangers have tinkered with the piece, leaving a stream of variant renderings, adaptations, and altered choral elements — though none appear to have consulted the Gottlieb manuscript. The arrangement created for this recording also follows the melodic contours of the more commonly recognizable variants. Even though the Rosenblatt and Koussevitzky recordings introduced this kaddish many decades ago, its popularity increased remarkably over the course of the last quarter of the 20th century. So widespread had its use become by the end of the century that it is now frequently sung on Sabbaths and Festivals, even though Gottlieb intended it more narrowly for the High Holy Days.

Neil W. Levin



The following thoughts on the meaning of s'lihot for our time have been contributed by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis of congregation Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California.



Does God pray? The rabbis in the Talmud (B'rakhot 7a) ask precisely such a question. In one of their imaginative discourses, Rabbi Yochanan proffers a biblical proof text that God indeed prays. The rabbi cites a verse from the prophet Isaiah (56:7) in which God declares, "Even then will I bring them to my Holy Mountain and make them joyful in my House of Prayer". It is not written in "their" House of Prayer, but in "my" House of Prayer. Therefore, God prays.

But if so, what does God pray? (mai m'tzei.) What does God, who lacks nothing, pray for? Rabbi Zut'ra ben Toviya speculates that the following is the essence of God's prayers: "May it be my will that my mercy may suppress my anger and that my mercy may prevail over my other attributes, so that I may deal with my children in the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice". God serves as the exemplary model to be emulated by the human being created in the image of God. As God prays, so should the human worshiper — not for the acquisition of things, but for the control of his emotions. Pray to strengthen the quality of mercy over judgment. When we gather in the synagogue during the High Holy Days, we seek to overcome our sense of alienation from God. To expiate for the transgressions that distance us from godliness, we seek forgiveness (s'lihot). We confess our transgressions and yearn for reconciliation. We appeal to that character of godliness that enables us to draw closer to God, whose quality of mercy makes genuine reconciliation possible.

God does not want to execute strict justice. God is not desirous of punishment, but wants repentance. According to a telling rabbinic Midrash, King Manasseh placed a pagan idol in the Temple of the Lord. When later the same king came to pray for forgiveness, the angels protested: "Should a person as evil as this man be able to repent?" They then locked all the windows and doors to the heavens to block the king's prayers from God's ears. But God dug out a small hole beneath His Throne of Glory in order to hear the king's repentance. God is not a vindictive judge, but a compassionate Father who rejoices in the capacity of His children to change.

God hears. God loves. God pardons. God forgives. And we mortals are the emulators of God. Whom then do we forgive? Whom do we pardon? Or do we think that the s'lihot relationship between God and us runs only one way from His high position and that it is sufficient unto itself. But that tradition is wary of such a vertical relationship. The rabbis declared, "Those transgressions between God and the individual, the Day of Atonement atones for; but those transgressions between the individual and his fellow human beings, the Day of Atonement does not forgive, until and unless one personally appeases the other and seeks forgiveness".

God is not to be segregated from the world of men and women. If prayer, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are left in God's court alone, then our prayers appear irrelevant. If all is left to God, then the human moral initiative and execution of forgiveness and repentance and reconciliation are of no consequence. But in Judaism the purpose of prayer is not the adulation of God by the imitation of God, not the admiration of God, but the emulation of God's ways.

Between God and us lies a moral correlation: "As God is merciful, be thou merciful; as God is compassionate, be thou compassionate". S'lihot opens the preparation of the heart. S'lihot is meant to move us out of our seats into the arena of human relationship. The worshiper who asks forgiveness and awaits reconciliation with the Father who creates us all is mandated on the eve of the Days of Awe to seize the moment, to overcome the impasse, break through the silent stubbornness, initiate the first call, penetrate the stone wall, reach out to those with whom the conversation has been cut off. To emulate God who prays to master His anger means to act out the courage of seeking forgiveness and of forgiving. S'lihot carries in its prayers a moral mandate: Sacrifice pride, stubbornness, and anger. There are friends and members of the family with whom we have not spoken because of alleged insults, slights, and wrongs, but the courage in Jewish ethics is to make a friend of an enemy. Consider the precedent of reconciliation recorded in the Bible. Jacob and Esau meet after years of brutal anger: "Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept". (Genesis 33:4).

Joseph, dealt with treacherously by his brothers, finally triumphs over the temptation for vengeance and can no longer restrain himself: "I am Joseph your brother. Does my brother live?" With that, Joseph embraced his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him (Genesis 45:14–15). Those tears, those kisses, and those embraces are sacred keys to be revered and emulated. They are not only stories of the biblical past but imperatives for our present and future relations.

To forgive is not to forget. To forgive is to be liberated from the anger that consumes life and embitters human relationships. Forgiveness does not eliminate the memory of the pain and the anguish of the felt injury. A rabbinic sage likened sin to the pounding of nails into a wooden chest and likened forgiveness to the removal of the nails. The nails may be removed, but they leave scars. Forgiveness is not amnesia. Even after forgiveness, the relationship may never be the same as it was before the insult. The holes do not disappear, but the possibilities of a new relationship are opened. The conversation can be resumed, and a deeper dialogue can begin. The nails that tear at the soul and tear families and friends apart can be extricated. This is the power of prayer — to heal and to fashion a better life. Prayer refines our character and stimulates our moral will.

S'lihot is the season that prepares the heart and encourages the will to exercise the dignity of the human spirit. During the penitential period, the sound of the shofar is heard — a sound that includes the sobbing staccato of broken notes (shevarim) to remind us that nothing is more whole than a broken heart and nothing more healing than repentance that leads to reconciliation. The very curvature of the shofar is bent to teach us to direct our heart away from hardness toward reconciliation. As God prays, so do we: "May it be our will that our mercy prevail over our anger and our compassion over our pride and stubbornness".


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