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Cantor's Comment - Parshat Vayeilech                    September 11, 2021 - 5 Tishrei 5782

09/10/2021 08:53:59 AM


What makes a style of music, or a particular melody or song choice appropriate for use in prayer?  There’s no shortage of differing opinions on this question, as it pertains to many religious communities around the world.  Even within the same religion, the answer will continue to vary by religious denomination or sect, by individual synagogue, church, mosque or temple, and even within the same community at different periods in that community’s history.  If you joined us for Rosh Hashanah this year, you know that it’s certainly true for us at Beth Radom, which, by the way, if you haven’t seen this year’s Rosh Hashanah adon olam a cappella music videos, pause this video right now, head on over to the Beth Radom YouTube channel and check them out, the rest of this video will make a lot more sense after you do.  Let’s begin.


Shabbat shalom, shanah tovah and g’mar chatimah tova to everyone out there, I certainly hope your Rosh Hashanah celebrations for 5782 were happy, sweet and fulfilling, and if this is your first time checking out what the Beth Radom YouTube channel is all about, welcome.  We hope you enjoy this little d’var Torah where we’re about to pack in some Torah, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and popular Jewish culture all into about 10 minutes, so strap in, and if you like what we do, don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and keep in mind that there’s still time to give our office a call if you’d like to join us for virtual Yom Kippur services.

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This week’s parsha, Vayelech, always falls during the Yamim Nora’im, or the Days of Awe.  These are the 10 days between the Holydays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The parsha takes us through the last day of Moses’ life, which also happens to be Moses 120th birthday.  This is the source of the traditional Jewish birthday blessing, “may you live to 120 years”, “ad me’ah v’esrim”.  After Moses formally passes his leadership role to Joshua, he composes a “shirah” which is a song or a poem, for the Israelites to learn by heart.  The song is about teshuvah, which is the Jewish concept of repentance, literally meaning ‘to return’ to God.  Knowing how irreverent the Israelites can be at times, Moses believes that making them study and learn this song about Teshuvah will one day be helpful in guiding the Israelite people back to a life of righteousness.  Even to this day, every educator knows that if you want to commit something important to memory, turn it into a song, or a rhyme. Personally, I still can’t remember which of the months have thirty days and which have thirty-one until reciting, “Thirty days hath September, April, June and November…”.

And so it was in ancient Israel that music and poetry was an essential part of Israelite religious culture, teaching theological principles, and of course, bringing beauty to the act of worship in the Temple.  

But throughout recorded history, it is clear that not all musical forms were deemed appropriate for worship.  For as long as Jewish prayer music has existed, so has secular music, which included tavern drinking songs, work songs, songs for dancing, songs of love and seduction, which we might assume were kept far removed from the Levitical Temple choir.  But then again, perhaps not.  

The book of Psalms contains 150 sacred poems, most of which begin with some kind of superscript, an introductory note with special instructions.  For example, the superscript for Psalm 8 reads, “Lamnatze’ach bin’ginot al Hashminit, Mizmor L’David”, meaning “to the director, for playing upon the 8-stringed harp, a song of David”.  Or the superscript for psalm 84 which reads “Lamnatze’ach al hagigit livnei korach mizmor”, meaning “to the director, for playing on the gigit, a song for the children of Korach”, the gigit being some mysterious untranslatable name for a musical instrument that has been lost to time.  But a few of the psalms have superscripts that seem particularly curious.  Psalm 22 begins with the superscript, “Lamnatze’ach, al ayelet hashachar, mizmor L’david”, meaning “To the director, according to the deer of the dawn, a song of David”.  The phrase, ‘deer of the dawn’ seems a strange phrase as an instruction to the director.  As are the superscripts for psalms 45 and 69, which both read, “Lamnatze’ach al shoshanim“, a message to the director suggesting the psalm should be performed according to “lilies”.  Scholars agree that Lilies and Deer of the Dawn were likely names of popular secular songs at the time, indicating that the psalm should be sung to the melody of the popular tune, which means, singing sacred texts to popular secular melodies has been a Jewish custom for at least two and a half thousand years!

Of course, if we import secular music into our prayers, it should be done with care.  As we just discussed, songs are mnemonic devices, and when we bring a secular song into our modern prayer service, it comes along with whatever it may have been associated with previously, including the song’s original lyrics, it’s themes, and even the reputation of the composer.  So of course, there are songs to avoid bringing into shul with us, not that we can’t otherwise enjoy them, but only because singing them in shul would take away from our prayer service more than they would add.  And that’s really what it boils down to – does singing a religious text to the melody of a particular secular song bring beauty, meaning, and dare I even say “fun” to prayer?  You be the judge.

Shabbat Shalom, have a happy, healthy and sweet new year, and an easy fast.

Mon, July 4 2022 5 Tammuz 5782