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Sunday, January 14, 2007

It was beautiful, it was thrilling, but is it dovening?

I'm talking about "Chazanut," the highly stylized Jewish "performance" prayer art, most comparable to "opera." And "dovening," best described as an "intense prayer experience."

A friend of ours invited us, and anyone willing to make the effort to get, to his shul (synagogue) in Tel Aviv for his 80th birthday celebrations. The highlight was a show-stopping Shabbat morning prayers by some of the best Chazanim, (Cantors--Jewish prayer leaders,) in the world. Being close personal friends, we were put up in a nearby hotel, though there were people who walked miles to pray to the accompaniment of the world class Chazanim and Choir.

The stars were the legendary Sol Zim, Mordechai Sobol, who led the choir and organized the "event," Yisrael Rand and Yaakov Motzan. The members of the choir were also top-notch. I'll blog in more detail about the Ramah Synagogue, 159 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv; enter via an alley and park; I think that there's only regular prayers on Shabbat--worth going.

Now, back to the "experience."

As I told the expert cantors during the post-prayer Shabbat lunch, it had been decades since I had heard anything comparable.

The prayer experience in Shiloh is very different. In simple words, it's more participatory. It's led by our neighbors and guests, who take on the role as "Shaliach Tzibur," Messenger of the Congregation with varying musical talents and traditions. Some have excellent voices, some inspiring "soul," and some combine the two. But one thing we always enjoy is that we all sing along. It is not a performance.

Your professional opera-like chazan is something else, especially when he's accompanied by a choir, and even more so when the choir includes chazanim who can carry the entire service solo. That was the experience we had on Shabbat.

I can't deny that it was beautiful.

I can't deny that it was thrilling.

I can't deny that it moved me. I actually found myself dancing; the music, a cappella of course, had such power.

But the crucial question, when it comes to prayer, Jewish prayer, is:

Did I concentrate on the words? Did I think about what I was hearing and saying?

In all honesty, no.

I had a great experience, but was it spiritual? No it wasn't. Maybe, in my pre-Israel, pre-Shiloh, pre-Hebrew comprehending days I would have found it spiritually uplifting, but I've been spoiled living in a community like Shiloh.

A number of years ago, my cousin's son came to Shiloh for a Shabbat. He was a typical American Jewish high school boy with a superficial knowledge of Judaism, not totally assimilated, but not Torah observant either. On Friday night, he went with my husband and sons to our synagogue for the Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) prayers. His reaction was an amazed:

Everyone understood what they were saying!

Yes, that's prayer, when you're actually speaking to G-d in the words written and compiled by our sages in the siddur, prayerbook.

Don't think that I'll avoid good chazanut. I won't. The five hours (instead of the two it would have taken at home) sped by. I was even disappointed when some of the prayers were done in a rushed manner. You could say that once the Chazanim had started, I was a "glutton" for more, like "pigging out" (bad expression) on my favorite ice cream. I got a kick from their obvious enjoyment of their rendition of Adon Olam at the end of the prayers.

Maybe I should get to a Chazanut concert and see if I enjoy it as music, rather than prayer.

Shavua Tov

Have a wonderful week!


Isramom said...

Israpop and I heard a hazzanut concert a few months ago and we loved it. I definitely think it's the way to go. Much nicer than when you try to daven. Not the same at all.

Batya said...

Well, maybe we should double-date sometime!

yitz said...

I basically agree that most of today's Chazanim give a "performance" which is usually more suited to a concert than a Tefilla. However, I see no reason why a good Chazan shouldn't also be a good Baal Tefilla and Shliach Tzibbur, and both uplift the congregation * encourage their participation. I find that a Carlebach-style davening usually fits this bill -- there's lots of singing, & lots of participation, both singing & dancing. Of course, Modzitzer and other Chassidic groups do this too... :))

Batya said...

Thanks, I agree.
One strange thing was, most probably due to the Carlebach influence on me, I found myself "dancing around" while listening. I must have stood most of the time. It was hard to sit quietly.

YMedad said...

Since I was also present, let me say that a) it was obvious to me that we were coming to a performance. Pesach Mor sponsored the Shabbat with 3 Chazzanim and a ten-man choir just for that purpose. I found it delightful and at times, mamash moving. It's not for every Shabbat but this was an "occasion". and b) after all, prayer in the Beit Hamikdash included instruments (trumpets, cymbals, lyres, etc.) and choral singing.

Sources -

See: "when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began," II Chron. xxix. 27) and at the wine-libation (Maimonides, "Yad," Kele ha-Mikdash, iii.). Two priests with silver trumpets gave the signal for the choir to begin (Tamid vii. 3).

And see:
Some [Levites] acted as doorkeepers, and others were engaged as either singers or musicians. Each one was assigned his post in the choir or orchestra, and was not permitted, under penalty, to assume the position of another. Hence the choristers could not be instrumentalists, nor vice versa. Five years' preparation, from the age of twenty-five to thirty, was required of every Levite; this preparation included instruction in singing. This limitation, in vogue at the Tabernacle, was, according to the Talmud, eliminated in the Temple service, where ability to sing, and not age, was the qualification of the Levite chorister(Ḥul. 24a). At the dedication of Solomon's Temple the sons of the Levites accompanied the choir in singing the praise of God (II Chron. v. 13). These young Levites "sweetened" the music with their soprano voices, but were not permitted to use instruments, and were restricted from entering the priests' hall in the Temple before the adult Levites had begun to sing. They were not allowed to stand on the same platform with the latter, but had to take up a position on the ground below ('Ar. 13b). The Temple choir was composed of no less than twelve adult singers besides the young assistants.

The question whether vocal or instrumental music formed the principal service is decided in favor of the choir (Suk. 50b;

and see:
Women took an active part in choir-singing. At the exodus from Egypt, Miriam formed a chorus composed of women, and sounded the praise of God to the accompaniment of drums and dance-music. Ezra mentions 200 singing men and singing women among those that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem(Ezra ii. 65); but for the Temple service only the sons of Asaph are counted (ib. iii. 10; compare Neh. vii. 67-xi. 22). The women choristers, however, were heard in dirges in honor of the dead. "All the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations" (II Chron. xxxv. 25). R. Meïr says those were the wives of the Levites (Pirḳe R. El. xvii.).

and here's a final reference:

King David wrote fifteen Songs of Ascent, corresponding to the future fifteen steps in the Temple, where the greatest choir and orchestra ever assembled in the history of the world sang and played. The tribe of Levi trained vigorously till age thirty before taking their place among the multitude of musicians who performed there. People came to the Temple with great expectations and high emotions, completely focused on drawing close to God and the music which took place there was an integral part of the spiritual experience.

muse said...

thanks for the extra info

It definitely was different from our humble neighborhood shul.

benning said...

Very good post! Around here I find the same phenomenom. The difference between a large church or cathedral, where hundreds, if not thousands, file in and witness a huge choir, and such, is far less fulfilling to me than going to a small neighborhood church. Those in the small church are worshipping together, never mind the simplicity of the surroundings, and worship is the reason to be there, not to "see the sights". Too often, it seems to me, those going to the "show" church are there more for the "experience" than to worship. It can be exciting and beautiful, but it seems less edifying for the Spirit.

Batya said...

I agree, but there are people who need the external stimuli to reach their soul.