Introduction to High Holiday Melodies
Introductory explanation and companion recordings by Hazzan Steven W. Dress
Rosh Hashanah (R"H) and Yom Kippur (Y"K) are distinguished from Shabbat and other holidays in many ways including unique melodies that are reserved for these 3 days of the Jewish liturgical calendar.
To foster participatory opportunities, you are invited to access many of our High Holy Day congregational melodies at this TISharon.org website. Pagination is according to Mahzor Lev Shalem (Temple Israel, Sharon MA High Holy Day Prayer Book.) Transliteration is provided here as an aid for worshippers who may be uncomfortable with Hebrew reading.
The High Holy Days have many prescribed melodies. (Consider these melodies as an Rx from a Jewish musical pharmacy). Our tradition even prescribes stylistic approaches that have been employed for many centuries, possibly a millennium or longer. Many of these melodies (congregational and "solo") may be considered as halachically-prescribed (legally-mandated).
These treasured (skarbova mi-sinai) melodies were prescribed to thwart attempts to radicalize the service. These sacred melodies were legislated to be maintained in order to enhance familiarity, comfort, and inclusion of worshippers. In the middle ages, the Maharil codified melodies largely as a deterrent to overly-creative hazzanim (cantors); yet, in our day the deterrent also applies to other individuals and groups.
Not all High Holy Day melodies were classified with the same legal force. Our Ashkenazic tradition does indeed permit integration of relatively modern melodies including those that have been introduced over the past 150 years. For example, the Sh'ma that we typically chant on Shabbat is about 150 years old. When S. Sulzer composed it, it surely was regarded by many as being a radical intrusion. Now, most Jews consider this melody as "traditional." It is not; but it is among the most "familiar" of all of our melodies and is permitted to be chanted during the R"H/Y"K Ma-ariv and Musaf services. However, during the so-called Torah ceremonial R"H/Y"K service, another uniquely reserved Sh'ma melody, which according to legend is as old as the Torah itself, but in reality dates back 800-1000 years or more, is a mandated melody that must be employed when the Torah is removed from the Ark.
The cantor's sacred duty is to perpetuate our time-honored melodies while carefully synthesizing them with newer and novel melodies that are compatible with conventionally legislated musical modes and themes that are integral to the unique musical aspects of the High Holiday liturgy (nusah ha'tefillah). Since time immemorial, the absolute "right" balance for each individual has probably never been achieved. Yet, for each community, the sincere cantor always strives to achieve a "reasonable" balance by conserving the sacred mi-sinai melodies (conservative musical movements!), nusah ha'tefillah (conventional prayer modes), specialized Torah chanting systems, and relatively contemporary music that is compatible with the sacred nature of the Days of Awe.
You are invited to call Cantor Dress for assistance or with questions.
Meanwhile, please enjoy preparing for a potentially enhanced participatory experience that may link you not only with today's congregation, but with Jewish worshippers past, and with God's help, worshippers yet to be born!
May you be receptive to reviewing and familiarizing yourself with these melodies. May you benefit by enhanced levels of comfort and confidence as you add your voice in our collective prayer. And, may you derive meaning and blessing from our R"H and Y"K melodies and meditations of your heart.
Hazzan Steven W. Dress