See Song-Fest 20161 page for information on this year’s SongFest

Choral singers.   
             -   -   -   -   -
 With your help & input, we will 
   put up more discussions and   
    resources on
 this web site.    

        (See [Input]. page)               
Nusach: Reclaiming a Lost Heritage   by Jonathan D. Zimet
    The sing-song chant or "davening" one finds in traditional services comes from the oldest part - indeed, the core - of our musical heritage.  This mode and mood-setting chant, which can touch our souls and is the root of our essential religious-musical experience, is called "Nusach." (The term "Nusach" -- roughly, "formula" -- has other meanings that I do not address here.)

    The music of the service includes more than just this chanting/daveningSome parts of the service contain songs we recognize - such as Lecha Dodi or El Adon - or other composed melodies - like the Torah service.  But much of the service consists of the ongoing davening that takes place in the passages between these songs.  This is where we "daven" while the service leader ("Baal Tefila") chants the opening and closing line or two of the paragraph, or the passages between congregational responses such as the Kedushah.  These are sung to patterns of traditional musical phrases.1  A similar kind of patterned melody is sung in some longer passages such as the Amidah.  The tradition of using these patterned melodies and associating various versions with different services and different times of the day, week and year, is the core of nusach.
           1Some parts of the service contain "recitatives" -- musical elaborations by the Baal Tefila / cantor,   
                usually based on and returning to the basic background mode surrounding the recitative passage. 

    While nusach has some ancient origins, it has been influenced and shaped over the generations by the musical traditions of the surrounding communities we lived in. Hence, "traditional" liturgical music of the present has evolved far from its past. Likewise, the nusach of northern-European ("Ashkenazic") Jewry has evolved in a far different manner from that of Sephardic and Mid-Eastern Jewish communities.  Even there, one can find common roots and threads.  These threads, that in part evolved internally and in part absorbed compatible influences of external origin, developed in an organic "folk" way to become the core basis of our liturgical musical experience, and that are collectively called "Nusach."

    Nusach enriches the prayer experience in a number of ways:  First, these patterns draw on the roots of our musical past. I have found the seeking of roots to be as meaningful and rewarding in the musical area as many observant and newly-involved Jews have found it in the areas of study, custom and theology.  Doing so links us more closely with the folk process of Jewish musical transmission and with the experience of our past. 

    Second, consistently associating a certain melody pattern with a certain occasion gives rise to experiential associations much as other sights, sounds and smells will bring back to someone a flood of specific memories and rich emotional connotations and associations.  Prayer is not just a cognitive, intellectual experience (engaging only the "left" hemispheres of our brains).  At its best prayer is a fully engaging process that involves feelings and levels of communication and understanding that we often now call "right hemispheric."  Hearing certain modes that become associated with certain moods helps evoke these moods and settings in ways that labels and concepts alone cannot.  Thus, for example, a pattern one regularly hears at Kabbalat Shabbat will become associated with ones other feelings of that occasion -- such as a feeling of onset of peace after the Friday afternoon rush, or the late afternoon sun, or the smell of the air or of a certain food. Hearing a different melody at Shabbat Mincha - shortly before the Shabbat is to end - may bring a different set of emotions, associated perhaps with the slightly bitter-sweet feeling that "Shabbat is almost over; can't it stay longer," or perhaps a deeper serenity and an effort to savor each remaining minute most fully. Similarly, saying a prayer on Shabbat with a special melody different from the weekday version brings the listener the experiential, non-intellectual realization that it is Shabbat, with all its associations, and similarly when a distinct melody is used for the same prayer on a holiday.

    Third, because Nusach has traditional origins, one is likely to encounter similar melodies and patterns when visiting different congregations -- even in different countries. One is then able not only to follow the service more easily, but to experience from home and to share it with people one never prayed with before.

    Julius Lester (author of Lovesong: Becoming a Jew) summarized this well in a 1991 article on Jewish Prayer:

              Nusah is a way of making time holy.  If one knows nusah, he or she could  be put to sleep and awakened
              in a synagogue anywhere in the Ashkenazic world, and by the nusah, know the day of the week, the
              period of the day, and if it were a festival, the month and period of the year.  . . .
              Anyone who has experienced a Shabbat and been led by the changing nusah from the sprightly
              sound of the Friday evening service to the stately nusah of Shabbat morning to the almost mournful
              sound of Minha to the serenity of Ma'ariv has experienced eternity in sound.  Nusah says that
              the quality and texture of holiness changes throughout the day.  . . .
              The genius of Jewish prayer is that it recognizes that even though our souls participate in eternity, we live
              in time, and as Jews, we are to bring eternity into time.  One way in which we do this is through nusah.

    For centuries, nusach was the possession of the common person in the community.  While Hazanim (cantors who were musically gifted Baalei Tefila) would officiate at some services and special occasions (often on a visiting basis), it was normal in the ordinary community, small stiebel or Beit Midrash for any member to be called on to "daven".  And while some had better voices or sang more musically than others, nearly everyone could take his turn and daven in the shared nusach that all associated as belonging to that service. 

    But in the last 100-200 years, as the Jewish community assimilated, most of us lost our familiarity with nusach. As with other elements of Jewish life, such as knowledge of the sources or of daily practice, the knowledge of nusach and how to lead services became the specialized knowledge of the few. Active participation by the congregants declined as they often listened passively to a cantor's singing.

    In the last few decades, there has been a reaction to this lack of personal involvement.  This has included a rebirth of personal responsibility for observance instead of vicarious observance -- both in traditional and alternative ways, and the formation of Havurot where everyone was expected to contribute more equally to running services, learning and other religious-communal functions.

    However, many people who have rediscovered a meaningful Jewish life did not have the background our forebears had 150 years ago.  People often figured out how to lead services by a patchwork of what they or their friends could recall from their childhood synagogues or youth groups.  Many lay service-leaders:

             may not understand and appreciate the essentialness of nusah and eschew it for the Hasidic
             Song Festival kinds of melodies.  While these may have more of an immediate auditory appeal,
             they do not have the power, grace or sublimity to escort us into the inner courtyards of the soul . . .

(Jewish Prayer, Julius Lester.)  Songs do have their importance in the service, but become more effective when they are selected and placed in the context of a coherent background mode.  The davening and songs then build on and enhance each other.

    Missing for many, therefore, is a sense of nusach that served as a foundation for davening.  But it is possible to reclaim this lost knowledge.  It is not an unattainable, esoteric subject.  ("Lo ba-shamayim hi" -- it is not only far off in heaven.")  While some should study this in depth, a 4-5 year degree is not necessary to understand and benefit from the patterns of nusach.

    An understanding and appreciation of the basic modes and where each one occurs is accessible to the average lay person.  I have taught such courses to people who indeed learn to readily identify the different modes apart, and with a little more effort, to daven the appropriate basic motifs of the service.

    Nusach should and can become once more the province of the common person.  Let us reclaim this heritage and benefit from its wealth and beauty!

       For further information and materials      
       on learning the Nusach modes                                 Jonathan D. Zimet
       or possible courses, contact                                   246 West Upsal St. # D-303
           [917] 981-8224                                                     Philadelphia, PA  19119

Shir  the Song of Songs  Shir Hashirim  exploring its diverse dimensions