My understanding of the prayers, indeed, my understanding of the Bible, of God, of life, is completely anchored in the Hasidic, Kabbalistic and mystical ground of Judaism. It is my foundation and the only way I know to make sense of this life and certainly, the tradition we have inherited. To be truthful, it is the only way I approach our other sister faiths, as well.
Therefore, for the sake of clarity and out of a sense of compassion for the reader, I strongly recommend that you either print out the page on the S’firot God’s emanations, or keep referring to them as you move through these commentaries so that my words may actually serve to help and not just to confuse.
I also suggest that, if at all possible, you read and reread the commentaries that may confound you the most. I find that through immersion in the language of our mystical heritage, which I have tried to keep as simple as possible (and failed, I am sure), we can arrive at a beautiful, exciting and thoroughly imaginative and expansive understanding of the perplexing words we have been handed down through the generations.
Enjoy the ride.
1. Amar Hashem/ Shalom Aleichem
1. Vizhnitz-Hasidic/Harav Shmuel Brazil
Two songs meet in one setting. Amar Hashem is a mystical, veiled messianic hymn from the middle ages. Its source material is from the prophets, mainly Isaiah, and follows the acrostic theme of many Jewish liturgical hymns, tracing the Hebrew Alphabet from Aleph to Tav. Shalom Aleichem is a mystical hymn of unknown origins. It has become a staple of pre-Shabbat services, usually sung at home in more traditional congregations. It is mainly in the Liberal congregations that the song is sung at Temple at the start of the service. Surprisingly, both melodies are Hasidic, even though they may not sound so off the bat. Both songs were placed upfront to usher in a sense of power, joy and uplift, and while both are old, traditional compositions, their treatment is as contemporary as can be, while staying true to their essence.
2. Karliner Niggun
Niggunim, melodies without words, have become very popular of late and while I am pleased by this fact, I am a touch concerned about the general use of the Niggun as a ditty, a little frill of inconsequential music with which to open or close a service. The Niggun is one of the most important contributions of Hasidic Judaism to the world at large. It is the Jewish musical take on true meditation; it is the Hasidic version of a Zen Koan an instrument of enlightenment, a poem, a riddle meant to alter a student’s consciousness; it is the sound of the breaking heart; the music of the yearning flesh and the aching soul. It is anything but frivolous. This particular Niggun pierced my heart the first time I heard it and has not let go of me since, no matter how many times I sing it.
3. Z’eir Anpin
3. D. Maseng/Psalms 95, 96, 97, 98, 99 & 29
The Kabbalists of Safed instituted the tradition of reciting the six psalms for Friday night, in the 16th century. The psalms correspond to the six days of the week, the six days of creation and the penultimate six emanations of God, known as “the small face.” The seventh psalm - Psalm 92 - A song for Shabbat - is recited following the L’cha Dodi, the bridge between the weekday and Shabbat. Prior to the introduction of L’cha Dodi, Psalm 29 and Psalm 92 were the only constants in the Shabbat evening service.
4. L’cha Dodi
4. D. Maseng/S. Alkabetz
4. [With gratitude to Dr. Reuven Kimmelman for his
4. scholarship, research and writings]
Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, one of the seminal teachers of Kabbalah, wrote this hymn in Safed, in the upper Galilee, sometime during the early 1570's.
It was Alkabetz who instituted the 6 Psalms of Kingship, Psalms 95-99, and Psalm 29, to be placed before the L’cha Dodi, and Psalm 92, a song for the Sabbath, to come out of L’cha Dodi This structure mirrors the creation story of Genesis chapter one, with L’cha Dodi placed as the bridge between the 6 days of creation and the seventh day of holy non-action.
The hymn was intended to bring about the age of redemption, the coming of Mashiach. It is a means by which we can perfect the world and heal the world. The hymn is dedicated to Tikun Olam, through the healing of God and humanity, the joining of heaven and earth, the masculine and the feminine, light and darkness.
L’cha Dodi is not merely a hymn to welcome the Sabbath Queen and Bride - it is the hymn around which Kabbalat Shabbat - the receiving of the Sabbath - was created.
Elements to watch for in L’cha Dodi
- Alkabetz placed his name as an acrostic spanning the beginning of eight verses: Shlomo Halevi שלמה הלוי
- The hymn consists of nine verses and a refrain as a “crown” for each verse. We cannot speak of ‘Keter’ - the Crown because it is considered to be too close to the source, the God about whom absolutely nothing can be said, and therefore it serves only as a refrain, a hint pointing upwards, and not a verse. These ten elements - the nine verses and the refrain, symbolize the ten S’firot, the ten emanations of God.
- Three verses deal with Shabbat: The top two and the tenth - Wisdom, Understanding and Kingship
- The middle six, “The small face”, deal with Jerusalem
- Each verse ends with the letters Lamed and Hey two Hebrew letters representing 30 and Five - the number of words in the “Vayechulu” prayer on Friday evening.
- The word Shabbat - is made up of the letter Shin a - and the word ‘Bat’ - בת - daughter. The letter Shin is composed of three Vavs ו ו ו Three stands for the top three emanations; Vav equals the number six, which stands for the middle six S’firot. Shabbat is, therefore, the daughter of the three and the six
- “The Crown” - the refrain - is made up of seven words for the seven full days of creation, for the seven days of the week - the number of perfection.
- “The Crown” is divided into two parts - male and female (Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad), Day and night (Vay’hi erev, Vay’hi boker, yom echad). The first, consisting of fifteen letters. Fifteen is the numerical equivalent of Yod Heh יה the second half, consisting of eleven letters. Eleven is the equivalent of Vav Heh וה It is the joining of both parts together that is the act of unification; the healing of God’s name. Together, the letters add up to 26, the number of the letters of God’s name. Since God’s name adds up to 26 and there are only 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, these 4 letters of God stand in for the secret, real, letters of God’s ineffable name.
- “Shamor V’zachor B’dibur Echad” - “Keep and remember...” this is, normally, a reference to the two times in the Torah in which the Ten Commandments refer to Shabbat. In this instance, However, Alkabetz is hinting at Genesis, Chapter one, in which God creates the human male and female in one act, in one verbal command. “Shamor” - keep - hints at the keeping of the seed, the feminine; “Zachor” - remember - hints at the root Zachar - masculine. Remember that God created the human both male and female.
- “From before the beginning she was crowned” M’rosh, mikedem nesucha - Rosh - Crown, head, the top S’fira; Kedem - East, Tiferet, the lover, the central S’fira; Nesucha - crowned, poured in to, filled with wine, Sh’china, Shabbat, the Cup, West. What looks like a statement of historical precedence, is actually a description of the flow of divine wine-water-light-semen, from the crown through the heart to the daughter-lover-wife-sister- Sh’china. This is a chart of divine hydraulics. The deed at the end is embedded in the original thought - Shabbat is the original intention of creation.
- Yamin Us’mol - “To the right and to the left you shall go forth”.
The Right side is Mercy and is associated with Abraham. The left side is Judgment and is associated with Isaac. The center column unifies and Shabbat is at its base. Abraham’s first born is Ishmael - the father of the Arab nation - Islam. Isaac’s first born is Esau - the father of Edom, and by extension, Rome - Christianity. Islam’s holy day is Friday, Christianity’s is Sunday and Shabbat is in between them, in the middle column. This is a call to reach out to both of our sister faiths, the Monotheistic religions, and to bring them together in Jerusalem, to worship God.
- The word ‘Dodi’ - means, biblically, ‘My Beloved.’ This is the form it takes in the Song of Songs. However, from a Kabbalistic perspective the word is an acronym for the hidden name of God. The process involves an exchange of one letter for another. In this case, the letter Dalet ד appears twice, hinting at the key to the puzzle. One letter before Dalet is Gimel - a reading of which would render the word Gogi - meaningless. One letter after Dalet, however, is the letter Heh ה and that letter reveals the secret behind the name: Heh Vav Heh Yod הוהי hold this combination up to a mirror and Yod Heh Vav Heh יהוה emerges, the ineffable name of God. My God is my beloved, my lover and, as the text from Song of Songs suggests - I am God’s lover.
5. Tov L’hodot
5. Ken Chasen/K. Chasen & Psalm 92
“It is good to give thanks to God and to sing to your exalted name!” so begins Psalm 92. The word for “to sing” in Hebrew is Lezamer. That same word can also mean: to prune, to shear. The Zohar, the magnum opus of Jewish mysticism, quotes Song of Songs: “The time of the nightingale Zamir is here;” the Zohar goes on to propose that Zamir, in this context, means - the shearer, the one who prunes. Shabbat is the time of pruning the dross, getting rid of the mundane. Through singing, the ultimate weapon, ignorance is sheared on Shabbat, anger is cut off and hatred removed.
6. D. Maseng/D. Maseng & Evening Prayers
Public prayer is a public affirmation. It is a theatrical, ritual event that has meaning beyond the written word, beyond the concepts expressed in the pages of the Siddur. The very sound of our public affirmation, when done wholeheartedly, is a mystery that rises above the collected words, ideas, wants and wishes of the community. In Hasidic tradition, public prayer is sometimes referred to as Shir Hamaalot - a song of ascents. We wish to ascend towards a place of holiness through our prayer. We wish to rise as we progress in the service towards the ‘Amida’ - the heart of the service.
Placed between the Sh’ma and the Amida, the Geulah makes some bold statements: “God is King. God is our Salvation. We accept God’s rule gladly. God is our Redeemer.” These concepts are and have always been Jewish. They were adopted by our sister faiths, but they are fundamentally Jewish. And, yet, we Jews seem to be uneasy about them. Uneasy, perhaps, because of our history; because of the way our religion has come to be taught; because of the way we have come to view our relationship with God. Whatever the reasons, the Geulah has become the ‘mumbling’ portion - that part, which is either skipped over entirely on our rush to the ‘Mi Chamocha’, or else is mumbled in undertones with occasional punctuation by the Cantor or the Rabbi.
I wrote this liturgical piece with the idea that, perhaps, the Geulah could be sung out loud, in its entirety, by community and soloist in public affirmation. I chose imagery that sprang to my mind directly from the evocative language of the prayer; images of the Exodus, the historical heart of the Geulah, and images of daily deliverance, which is at the personal heart of the Geulah. I chose the language of Psalms and Song of Songs, our two greatest sources of God poetry. Both the language and the images are inherent to the prayer. I constructed the music so that it will build and rise towards the Mi Chamocha; so that it will ascend towards the ‘Amida;’ so that it will lift those who sing it and become a true public affirmation of faith; so that it will be a true Shir Hamaalot - a Song of Ascents. I hope that congregants will be moved to read and reread the Geulah, to struggle, as I have, with its message.
7. D. Maseng/Evening Prayers
“And the children of Yisrael shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations.” The song is a direct quote of passage from Shemot, Exodus 31:16-17 and, once again, on the face of it, the song requires no commentary.
But, as we have previously seen in L’cha Dodi, there are deeper issues here. Friday evening, Kabbalat Shabbat, is the realm of the Queen, the Bride, and Shamor, refers to that feminine aspect, the keeping of the seed. Shabbat morning is the realm of the King, the Groom. I have, therefore, tried in this composition of Veshamru, to emphasize the feminine side of Shabbat so that Yismechu, the Shabbat morning sibling of Veshamru awaiting us on the next CD, will get its fully masculine character.
8. Yedid Nefesh
8. Traditional/E. Azikri
Another gem from the hills of Safed, this time, written by Eliezer Azikri, one of the members of Sukkat Shalom, the Kabbalistic “Shelter of Peace.”
The paring in this instance, rather than bride and groom or king and queen, is between servant and master, maidservant and lord. The imagery is passionate, sensual, and pushes hard the theme of love and yearning, which can only be satisfied through eternal union.
There have been attempts in some prayer books to modify the text in recent years, changing the gender language, attempts which I find to be quite puzzling. The whole piece hinges on the gender balance and is rendered meaningless and pointless if the language is changed. There is much liturgy tainted by gender bias within Judaism, indeed, within most major religious writings. This is not such a case; this is actually a study in gender equality, since both genders here take turns in pursuing, reaching and submitting to the eternal lover.
9. D. Maseng /Evening Prayers
“Lay us down for the sake of peace and raise us up for the sake of life.”
I have always felt this was no simple request for a good night’s sleep; the words are far too layered, too loaded for that interpretation. What we need more than anything else is for our lives to have meaning; for our daily existence to have purpose. This prayer, for me, is a plea for our lives to have significance, especially at our most vulnerable moments; at the very moments we seem to have no control: we fall asleep when we are overcome by fatigue and we awaken when our bodies decide to awaken. We ask that even those most fundamental actions that frame our lives be meaningful, that they be for a blessing.
10. Osse Shalom
10. Spanish/Portuguese traditional/Kaddish
This is my favorite melody for Osse Shalom, by far. At face value, this closing of the Kaddish prayer has a very simple meaning, requiring no explanation. The Kabbalistic take on this prayer, however, is wonderfully fanciful and expansive. It involves the inter- relationship between God’s emanations, as well as the complex relations of the Biblical heroes for whom these emanations also stand.
Our father, Jacob, is identified with the middle S’fira, Tiferet - Glorious beauty, the heart emanation. Our mother Rachel is identified with the last S’fira, Sh’china The Dwelling, Shabbat, Malchut The Feminine Reign. Our mother, Leah, is identified with the third S’fira, Bina Understanding, the source of discernment and intelligence.
One needs to hearken back to the book of Genesis and revisit the tortured relationship between the two sisters, Rachel and Leah, and their common husband, Jacob. It is Jacob who sinned by loving one sister and hating the other; it is Jacob who never gave the older sister, Leah, her due love and respect; it is Jacob who caused a rift between two sisters and their respective children.
Since nothing here on earth is independent of the world on high; since our Bible is a metaphor for God’s inner story and internal struggles, these, seemingly, human affairs have profound affect on heaven, just as the heavenly descent of the S’firot from their ultimate source all the way towards earth have an affect on us.
It is Jacob’s task to reunite the sisters whom he had separated and make our family whole again; it is the task of Tiferet, the heart, to reunite Bina and Malchut, the twin sisters on high, so that God may be healed speedily in our time.
This is the true hidden meaning of Osse Shalom: no peace can be achieved before we take the responsibility for the pain our namesake caused. May Jacob make peace between his sister-wives; may Tiferet make peace between Bina and Malchut, and may we all learn to reconcile our own polarities from within and without.
11. V’taher Libeinu
11. D. Maseng/The Amida Prayers
“Our God and God of our ancestors, accept our rest...” What an extraordinary request: accept our rest. As though rest were some special sacrifice, some exalted offering. There is something so sweet, so childlike about this request. We have nothing, really, to offer you, other than our rest, our willingness to stop our business may it be acceptable before you. May our rest be so perfect, so pure and so total, that it becomes a true gesture of worship. Our M’nucha rest becomes our Mincha offering.
“And purify our hearts so that we may serve you in truth...” How can God possibly purify our hearts? Aren’t our hearts our dominion, our responsibility? Shouldn’t WE be required to purify our own hearts? We are too small to even beg, we need God to elevate us to the status of true beggars. Purify our hearts, as only you can, so that we may become worthy of serving you in truth Emet from the Aleph of God’s existence and our coming into being, to our death on earth to Met an entire life of service; an entire life of truth. This is our impossible request.
Shabbat is the time in which impossible prayers can be offered, in which impossible requests can be made. It is the ideal moment for purifying our hearts by surrendering them to the one who placed them within us.
12. Adon Olam
12. French/Sephardic/S. Ibn Gabirol
Easily one of the most recognizable bits of liturgy we have in our prayer book. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, 1021; died about 1058, is one of our great poets, thinkers and heroes of the Golden Age in Spain. He was held in such high esteem by his generation that the Sufis, Moslem mystics, considered him one of their saints. Ibn Gabirol wrote in Arabic and Hebrew and the love he held for both languages, for both cultures is evident throughout his poetic body of work.
The hymn itself is a spiritual journey from awe to intimacy; from the regal to the personal; from the general to the particular. The very last statement of the hymn: “Adonai li v’lo irah” “God is mine, (with me, for me) and I shall have no fear,” can also be understood to say: “And I shall not be in awe.” This is a radical statement, since awe is so fundamental to monotheism as to almost need no discussion. It is clear to me that Ibn Gabirol prefers intimacy to awe; that his idea of true religiosity is to be passionately, intimately connected to God. Indeed, if God is my lover, my sweetheart, my intimate friend of friends where is there room for fear?
The melody happens to be an old Huguenot melody which was adopted by the French-Sephardic community and I take special joy in joining the three monotheistic religions thus in one song.
1. Baruch Sh’amar
1. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
Speech is so fundamental to Judaism that it begins the act of creation. Since God chose speech as the means through which to bring the world into being, our sages state that: “Life and death are in the provenance of the tongue.” Speech can uplift and speech can demean; speech can create and speech can kill.
The prayer begins with a beautifully terse statement: “Blessed is the one who said and the world was.” The Hebrew needs only four words to accomplish this description of creation, which stresses the immediacy of the act in which no time lapses between the utterance and the action. The world in its entirety simply was the moment God spoke.
2. Ma Tovu
2. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
I wrote this piece for my son Jonathan’s Bar Mitzvah. I chose it because I was so moved by the notion that Jews begin their public prayer in the synagogue with words uttered by a gentile and not by one of our own sages. I have always felt this was a deep teaching that takes a lifetime to understand if one truly applies oneself to the task.
The historical background for the opening words of Ma Tovu deserves its own exploration and should be looked into by one who is interested. The theological implications of the prayer are so varied and deep that each verse deserves introspection and thorough contemplation.
I will touch on one point only in this space. The words: “And I, my prayer is to you, Adonai, may it be an hour of willing.” This is the normative translation of the Hebrew and, not surprisingly, it does not satisfy me. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory, taught that we should read it this way: “And I am my prayer, for you God, may this be an hour of willing.” I love this reading: I am my prayer. This is an invitation to become the very best I wish for; the highest of my aspirations. It is a decision to allow no distance between my most noble goals and myself. Read this way, if I become my prayer it becomes an hour of willing for God. God actually benefits through my union with prayer.
3. D. Maseng/Psalm 136
Gratitude is the core of a blessed life. Gratitude is the fuel of joy and compassion. Gratitude was my grandfather’s constant lesson to me throughout his life. My sainted grandfather would tolerate much but never a lack of gratitude.
“Say thank you,” he’d tell me daily. “For what?” I’d ask. “It doesn’t matter,” he’d say and grin, “Just say thank you.” He taught me to thank the sun, the leaves, the birds, my sleep, my grandmother, the list was endless. I think his art of gratitude goes a long way to explain his child-like joy and kindness he exemplified until the day he died.
The list of things for which we should be grateful is lengthy in Psalm 136. Not as lengthy as my grandfather’s list, but nobody is perfect.
I pick and choose which lyrics to put to music and which to omit. I do so for many reasons, brevity being one of them, but it goes much deeper. I don’t like to thank God for drowning my enemies, for instance. I just think I am better off not rejoicing in my enemy’s death, even though I am eternally glad to have survived my enemy’s hatred.
4. Tzadik Katamar
4. Louis Lewandowski/Psalm 92
This past May I had the opportunity to visit Louis Lewandowski’s grave in East Berlin. I stood and stared at his beautiful, majestic tombstone and wept, remembering mornings in the Israel of my childhood, hearing his Ma Tovu played on the radio.
Lewandowski was king of Jewish liturgical music; he was the model of regal, full, awesome music. Then awesome, full, regal music fell out of favor in American congregations and so Lewandowski took up residence in bookshelves, archives and dusty storage rooms.
I have always loved his music and so I try, when possible, to listen to it again with new ears, see the notes through new eyes. This arrangement keeps every note of his intact, while offering some harmonic shades he may not have entertained in his day, hopefully reflecting something of the distance we have traveled since Berlin was graced by his inspiration.
The text is some of the very best the Psalms have to offer: lush imagery, beautiful parallelism, power, grace and greatly challenging statements like: “...my rock, in whom there is no fault (no blemish, no wrongdoing).” I wonder who can make such a statement with a straight face. Never is God wrong? Ever? Everything God does is right, just, fair? The truth is I actually believe all that, but I am keenly aware of the distance between my belief and the empirical data that keeps hitting me in the face every time something happens that seems to indicate, at best, an indifferent, remote and cold God.
Statements like this one, that closes Psalm 92, are the very challenges that make faith worthwhile not only spiritually but intellectually as well. They force us to examine what we mouth so often about God without thinking. These words, all of the words in Psalm 92, are deep, spiritual stumbling blocks that can be lifted, examined, honed and polished for the entirety of our lives.
5. Ilu Phinu
5. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
I remember holding each of my sons, as they were babies, toddlers, well into their late childhood, and never running out of superlatives and images to sing of their beauty, sweetness, adorableness, etc. I can distinctly taste the joy of uttering the endless beads of love and adoration and tossing them at their sparkling eyes or flushed faces. The pleasure of heaping praise is a fundamental human trait that is, without doubt, one of our best features.
Arabs and Jews excel in the art of praising. We both seem to delight in finding new ways to praise, laud, magnify, glorify and compliment. Perhaps we do so because we Middle-Easterners are ill-tempered people, beset with wars and the daily hardships of existence between the desert and the sea, placed, as we are, in the middle of a busy highway traveled by endless conquerors on their way from anonymity towards glory and, ultimately, death.
Perhaps we praise because we are afraid to lose our love in the daily struggles of life; afraid of becoming heavy with disappointment and neglect. Praise is our way of staying buoyant.
No prayer I know of praises more beautifully than Ilu Phinu. It is the gem of gems in a sea of praise and I am so grateful it was placed in the morning, when I am most impoverished of praise, most likely to be heavy and laden with the weight of my dreams and the burden of the dawning day.
6. Ki Eshmera Shabbat
6. Sephardic traditional/A. Ibn Ezra
Abraham Ibn Ezra’s text is not the most extraordinary liturgical piece I know of. It’s certainly not one of his strongest efforts. The man was a genius and this piece of liturgical poetry is somewhat pedestrian. I actually chose this piece for the music. It is a shining example of Sephardic music at its sweetest; at its best: flowing, sensual, happy, and oh, so melodic.
I learned this song, as most of us did, through the classic performance of the Parvarim, an Israeli duo of great renown. They are old friends, with whom I have had the privilege of working many times in my youth, and this song is here as a tribute to them and their musical finesse. I played off their arrangement and tried to add something sensual, something lush, mainly through Cameron Stone’s exceptional Cello playing.
If you want to know the true difference between Ashkenazi (Eastern and Central European Jewry) and Sephardic music, you need travel no further. The total lack of guilt; the uncomplicated, flowing, melodic, unapologetic nature of Sephardic music is on full display here. It invites you to swoon, to dance and to sing along with joy and ease. I love this piece with all my heart. It reminds me of my finest moments in my native Israel on orange-blossom-scented summer nights.
7. Ahava Rabbah
7. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
We are given great love and unwarranted grace in the morning prayers, to mirror the image of eternal love we are shown in the evening prayers. In both instances, the way our liturgy seeks to prove God’s love for us informs us more about Judaism than any number of essays and lectures could. The singular, recurring theme is teaching: God teaches us; God has taught us and we beg of God to teach us as God has taught our ancestors before us.
According to the understanding of the Rabbis, the act of teaching is the purest form of love we can show another human being. To take the time to teach someone is true love and God has never stopped loving us since our wedding day at Mount Sinai, as evidenced by the fact that God has never stopped being our teacher.
The prayer is placed right before the Sh’ma prayer and its accompanying V’ahavta “and thou shall love Adonai, your God” because the Rabbis were truly worried that a reasonable person might protest a commandment to love an intangible non-being. The Ahava Rabbah insures the rule of decorum: we are to love God because God loves us. Simple.
8. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
“Gather us for the sake of peace from the four corners of the earth...” this simple image is made profound through the act that accompanies it the gathering of the four corners of the Talit and kissing the fringes. That simple act ties us back, so to speak, to Psalm 104, which we recite in the morning before donning the Talit. “...You are clothed with honor and majesty; you cover yourself with light as with a garment and stretch out the heavens like a curtain...” This poetic imagery of a God wearing light as a garment is mirrored through our actions. We are God imitators.
The prayer has nationalistic overtones to it. It speaks of marching us triumphantly to our land. I tried to have the music reflect the nascent Zionist zeal; to have a flavor of the early pioneering days. We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that the prayer says that all this is done “L’shalom” for the sake of peace. This is not a political statement, but, rather, a reminder of our role on earth as peacemakers.
9. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
Yismechu is the morning brother of Veshamru. Those who keep Shabbat Shomeri Shabbat will rejoice in your Kingship; only those who affirm the feminine rule of the Bride/Queen on Friday evening, may rejoice in the masculine Kingship of the Groom/King on Shabbat morning.
This balance between the feminine and masculine is so crucial - the entire well being of the world depends on it. This strict view held by the Kabbalists, stems from the first chapter of Genesis. The argument is simple and clear: either God created the human in God’s image, male and female, as the chapter states, or God didn’t. If God did, then this indicates a divine architecture of Yin and Yang and there can be no ambiguity about it. Anyone who seeks to dominate over the other side, male or female, is doing injury to God and God’s divine structure.
At the most fundamental, human level, there is a profound respect for creatures having been created the way they were. There is recognition of the Divine in all creatures and an understanding of the extraordinary relationship between what we see in each other and what we can glean from that about our Creator and what emanates from the Creator.
If and when we celebrate the feminine and the masculine as Divine expressions and accord each one its due respect, we can rejoice in God’s kingdom on earth.
10. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
I have often wondered why we humans ask for so many blessings. Why do so many of us constantly wish blessings upon those we love so much? Why are we happy when we are blessed and why are we saddened, even terrified when we are cursed? Is it some primitive, primal urge we have never overcome, some vestige of superstitious fear we carry deep in our psyches? Is it because we are hopelessly adrift in this world and need any anchor, any saving rope that might be thrown our way?
It occurs to me that I never ask God for a blessing. I already feel absurdly blessed through my very being, which occurred prior to my awareness, so what would be the point of asking for any blessings? And it occurs to me that I deeply believe in God (actually, it’s more intimate than that, but I’ll use “believe” because that is the language we use when describing our relationship (or lack thereof) with God). It also occurs to me that most people I know who ask for blessings don’t actually believe in God.
So I will say this: I bless my children because that is what I can do on a Friday night for my boys on behalf of my perplexing God; on behalf of my perplexing religion. I ask for blessings for my wife because it is one of the least selfish acts I can commit on her behalf; I ask for the blessing of health on behalf of friends of mine who are not even aware of my pleading and I hope they remain unaware; I ask for blessings for bereaved parents whose children touched my life and broke my heart.
I do all this blindly, flailingly, ineptly, because I am a beggar in this world and a stumbling believer, and asking for others to be blessed is the best I can manage most of the time.
11. Michael Skloff/The Holiness Prayer
Isaiah is responsible for this prayer. Isaiah is responsible for quite a few of our liturgical pieces. If you know nothing else about Isaiah you can be sure of this: Isaiah could write like no one else. His imagery is crystalline; his language pristine; his rebuke harsh and his comforting lush and enduring. Isaiah was a painter of prophecy and his imagery is as fresh today as it was over two and a half thousand years ago.
My friend Michael Skloff wrote this piece and I can safely state it is my favorite K’dusha ever. The power, the glory, the sweetness, and the overwhelming emotion of Isaiah’s imagery are so resonant in his music I am having difficulty imagining what we did before he wrote this piece, and there have been quite a few excellent compositions of the K’dusha before Michael approached this daunting liturgical masterpiece Isaiah had prepared for him.
The fact that Michael then dedicated this piece to me leaves me nervous, anxious and eternally grateful.
To sing this piece requires some serious mental and physical preparation. It leaves you exhausted and exhilarated; uplifted and spent; delighted and weeping.
What a gift!
12. Sim Shalom
12. D. Maseng/Morning Prayers
I wrote this piece during the last Lebanon war, in 2006, and there is nothing more complicated going on here than the simple request for peace. I wanted the pain to stop; I wanted the beauty of the Lebanon and the Galilee to be restored; I wanted a melody that would reflect the very sweetest core of this prayer and this was the melody that arrived.
There is one element that stands out for me in the lyrics: “...Barchenu, Yotzreinu, kulanu k’echad b’or panecha...” “...Bless us, our creator, all of us as one with the light of your face (countenance)...” This is a departure from the normal language of prayer, where we ask to be blessed, sanctified, uplifted, etc., and never is the word K’echad as one used, so why the difference?
There is something exceptionally altruistic about this request: I ask for nothing for myself that I do not wish upon another. Don’t single out any special interest group bless us all as one. Of course, very quickly we return to asking for this peace to be granted to God’s people, Israel, for we are nothing if not an extraordinarily ethnocentric group of people. However, I am always comforted by the fact that we do see ourselves as guarantors of peace on behalf of the entire world and that this peace must flow, as the prayer informs us, through the love of justice, life, grace, blessing, and mercy.
If my ethnocentricity can lead me to pursue peace and justice on behalf of others, and unity in God’s light is the means to that end, I’ll deal with my tribe’s ethnocentric issues in stride.
13. Tzam’ah Nafshi
13. Tzvi Broyer/Belz Hasidim/A. Ibn Ezra
This liturgical gem by Ibn Ezra is one of my very favorites. His passion, linguistic virtuosity and biblical scholarship are on full display here. This is a shining example of the Judeo/Hispanic/Arab experiment: that rare moment in our people’s history that peacefully blended the very best of three cultures on one peninsula into something vibrant and shimmering.
The music is as good a taste of Ukrainian Hasidic music as you will ever get. Slavic harmonies; Hebrew poetry; haunting melody this is truly dangerous music. I have always felt that the very best of Slavic music is as good a weapon as one could wield when engaging in mortal combat and this song proves my point. It is almost scary. It is, without doubt, magnificent. It gave me goose bumps the first time I heard it sung by a male chorus of Belz Hasidim.
“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; my heart and my flesh sing out to the living God.” Nowhere is the painful bond between Jews and their Ukrainian neighbors made more beautiful or more meaningful. I hear this song and I miss this part of the world in which I never lived; I sing this song and my heart knows every note before it was ever uttered, before I was ever born.
14. Elohai N’tzor
14. D. Maseng/The Amida Prayers
What an extraordinary piece of liturgy. It has moved me to write music based on it for my youngest son, Jordan Harry; I have been inspired to write a poem flowing from it and I sing the prayer as often as I can, guarding to never grow complacent about it.
“May my soul be as ‘Affar’ soil, dirt, earth for everyone.” If only on a literary level, as a bit of poetry, this prayer is head and shoulders above so many more prosaic ones. It is such an extraordinary request that it hits you in the face. The fact that it follows the statement: “...and to those who curse me may my soul be silent...” only amplifies the brilliance of the liturgist and the severity of his “God-burn.” This is serious soul diving; it is real religion total, over-the-top infusion with holiness. This is seeing the world in its lacy, gauzy, misty state, where the sacred blue print can still be discerned before the clay returns to cover the evidence.
Make my soul count; make my soul useful; make me fertile ground this is what this liturgy asks for. It is nothing to do with humility. It is everything to do with sustenance. This is an enlightened vision of a world in which each soul has the power to sustain crops; in which each human being has the potential to raise students, to help those in need and to be of value beyond the limits of the self.
This is the meaning of God’s promise to Abraham: “V’nivrechu b’cha mishpechot ha’adamah...” “And the families of the earth shall be blessed through you, because of you, in you...” By making your soul as earth, as soil, the world can find nourishment. Bow down and make yourself one with the earth. It is the place of God’s abode. In it you will find true meaning.
When we think of how often we look upwards, towards the heavens, as though seeking God behind some cloud, around another mountain top, trying to soar and leave our bodies and heaviness behind, how refreshing it is to find a prayer that focuses us on earth, the place, Isaiah tells us, that is filled with God’s glory.
15. Ein K’eloheinu
A simple melody, a simple song and a simple hymn. There is none like God; who, possibly, could be like God? We will thank God and bless God. This is, easily, one of the coolest hymns I know. The music is delightful and the Ladino verses give the hymn a folksy feeling befitting the simplicity of the statements made in the liturgy.
Once again, the Sephardic sensibility does wonders for this liturgy. The song almost sings itself. I say almost, because the Ladino verses can be real tongue twisters for non-Ladino speakers, but the sound of Ladino is so beautiful, so naturally musical, that I could think of no better song with which to bring this CD to a close.
Happily, this piece of Liturgy also brings the morning service to a close on many occasions. May the joy of this song follow you throughout the week.
Thank you for listening.
Chazzan and Music Director, Temple Israel of Hollywood
This project is about vocal music; it is about the versatility and the depth vocal music has to offer. All my work, all my thoughts and efforts went towards highlighting and featuring the voice.
More specifically, this project is, mostly, about harmonic vocal music: duets, trios, quartets, quintets, octets, choral, as many combinations as the music demanded and allowed. The main focus of the production is on the vocal arrangements, since the entire endeavor depended on the sound of the human voice.
I grew up in Israel on harmonic singing: Welsh miner choirs, Russian male choirs, Bulgarian women’s choirs, Rachmaninoff’s Vespers; Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion; Verdi’s Requiem...
Wait none of these are Jewish! Right. Most harmonic vocal music isn’t. It’s mostly Christian European music.
European Jewish vocal music emerged and developed with an absence of instrumental liturgical music at its base, due to the rabbinic prohibition against playing instruments on the Sabbath, the major liturgical event of Jewish life; it developed alongside a desire to put a distance between Jews and gentiles, who had large choirs with mixed voices; many times, it was sung in small, acoustically challenged houses of prayer; it grew out of a participatory liturgy that, for the most part, shuns the theatrical, frontal display; it comes from sorrow and the need to keep a low profile; it is based, mainly, on a male soloist leading the congregation through chanting, punctuated with melismatic vocal flourishes.
In Arab lands, harmonic singing was never an issue. Arab music is melodic and rhythmic and is very close to the origins of Jewish music and so Jewish music developed, quite naturally, side by side with its Arab relative, devoid of vocal harmonizing.
All of this goes to highlight a musical culture that was never dependant upon, nor particularly encouraging of harmonic, choral singing. That said, Jews did not grow up in a vacuum and the surrounding music affected them and found its way into the synagogue in a variety of ways, mostly on the High Holidays, when the grandeur and majesty of the occasion called for a bigger, fuller sound.
Harmonic singing is a metaphor for community. It depends on a group of people to come together from disparate points of view, possessing individual tastes, likes and dislikes, for the purpose of creating a unified sound that gladdens the heart and uplifts the soul. Harmonic singing is good for you; it is therapeutic. Harmonic singing not only sounds good, it feels good, physically.
We who are alive now have more access to music from around the world than any generation before us; we have been touched and influenced by cultures as varied as the flowers of the field. We also carry with us residues from our migrations from other lands, from other times.
The trick is to be true to the core; to the intent of the liturgy. The challenge is to maintain and preserve what we have inherited and then make something resonant and beautiful with it. Harmony does not contradict melody or rhythm it enhances them and can serve, both to expand, enrich and amplify them. Harmony is what we need more of, especially in our fractious Jewish world, at these tumultuous times.
The harmonies I choose for my liturgical music, whether for my own compositions or for arrangements I craft for existing music, are keenly tuned into a Jewish sensibility, bringing into consideration history, geography, mood and modality. The harmonies are never there just because I like them, just because I thought it would be “cool” to turn a phrase this way or that; they are there because without them the soul would not be shaken and the busy mind would not be overwhelmed and conquered. The harmony is there as a holy ground, upon which we must tread barefoot, vulnerable, stripped of our mental baggage. The harmonies reflect everything I have learned; everything I love; everything that inspires me and frightens me; everything that soothes and comforts me.
Final thoughts about the recording process itself:
I am less and less interested in so-called “perfection,” that state of pristine, faultless stasis in which no blemish can be heard, felt or seen. I am far more interested in the given, fragile moment and what it can reveal.
My desire was to create a CD, or, in this case two CDs, that would feature vocal performances that were as good as they could be the on the day they were recorded. No more and no less. The vast majority of the songs were recorded in one or two takes. There is not one song in which I corrected just a line of singing. If there were any corrections needed, I simply sang the entire song again or played a new, complete guitar track.
Some songs were recorded in a way designed to feel like an actual service on any given Shabbat: live, raw, intimate, warm and imperfect. Others were recorded in as grand a manner as was possible, while others, still, in a quiet, focused and personal mood as we could create. Only K’dusha was recorded outside the studio, in a wonderfully resonant space, using a professional choir, thanks to Michael Skloff and his generosity.
I chose carefully my musicians and singers and they rewarded me with soulful, intimate, meaningful performances that have made this entire process a joy. The volunteer choir and the junior choir sang on those songs I felt would feature them in the best light and were layered upon the professional quartet that sang through twenty-four of the twenty-seven songs in this collection.
The result is, I hope, a fluid testament to our aspirations and abilities during the intense period of recording this project in the studio. The result, I hope, bears testimony to our aspirations and efforts during services. This recording is what we have in mind while singing our liturgy with joy, heartbreak, uplift and excitement.
Join us on any given Shabbat now that you’ve heard the music, now that it feels more familiar. We need you there and we believe being there will have as profound an effect on you, as it does on us.
Temple Israel of Hollywood
7300 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90046
Contact Chazzan Danny Maseng at: firstname.lastname@example.org (323) 876-8330 EXT 1004
This CD was made possible, in large part, through the extraordinary generosity of Jonathan Petuchowski and Leslie Yenkin of Columbus, Ohio
...To my son, Jonathan, for your sweet singing and wise counsel and to my wife, Terry, for the love, for providing me with bone-honest critique and support beyond measure - and for giving up your summer for this recording. Without the two of you this project would not have turned out the way it did...
...To Jordan, Carmel, Sivan, Emma and Tom just for being you...
...To all the wonderful singers and instrumentalists who have touched me with their talent, dedication and imagination; for your commitment, for your appreciation of the music and the truth it attempts to manifest. Shelly and the quartet, the volunteer choir, the junior choir and the instrumentalists, all of you have made this project a dream...
...To the congregants who show up week in and week out for our Shabbat services and warm my heart with their singing and their enthusiasm...
...To Randy & Cindy, for your kindness & calm. You made the recording process a pleasure...
To Jonathan Petuchowski and Leslie Yenkin: Your generosity, quite literally, jump-started this project and made it possible. Your friendship is precious to me...
...To my fellow clergy, Rabbi John Rosove, Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh and Rabbi Jocee Hudson for your encouragement and love - and thank you to the entire staff of Temple Israel of Hollywood...
...To my assistant, Tamara, for all the hard work, the diligence, and for always having my back...
...To Michael Skloff, for your friendship, advice, wisdom, generosity and talent. Your help at TIOH is a source of inspiration - whether it is working with the Junior Choir to make them a blessing to the community, playing with me at services and concerts, or writing extraordinary pieces like K’dusha...
...Most of all to my accompanist and friend Tali Tadmor: Your musicianship is impeccable, your taste sublime and your friendship invaluable...
...Making music with Tali is a little bit of heaven on earth.
Chazzan & Music Director, TIOH