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In 1979 I left Israel to continue my studies at the Conservatoire de Musique in Geneva. At a Sabbath evening service at a local synagogue there, I heard a tune I had never heard before, which was sung for the liturgical text hashkivenu—a prayer recited at every evening service, although this particular melody was reserved in that synagogue for the Sabbath. I was immediately inspired by its beauty and its mixture of dignity and melancholy. Although the synagogue was a traditional Ashkenazi one, I recognized from the tune’s character that it could not be of Ashkenazi origin. Indeed, it turned out to be a traditional Sephardi version, known in Near Eastern Sephardi as well as Moroccan synagogues. But the Geneva rendition is a distorted variant of the tune, probably because those worshipers were removed from the mainstream of Sephardi liturgical practice. In any case, I memorized the tune as I heard it there and I resolved to use it in one of my next works.
About a year later I wrote Hashkivenu Variations for string quartet, employing this melody as the principal theme, but in the ensuing years I still felt that I had not explored sufficiently the full potential hidden in the inspiring tune. So in 1993 I returned to it for a series of short choral movements within my opera Fool’s Paradise. In this comic opera, there is a role for some singers who pretend to be angels and who sing hashkivenu in celestial harmony. That new piece—for four-part mixed choir, percussion, and organ—offered a fresh perception by combining the essence of the hashkivenu prayer text with other Sabbath-related mystical images: (1) the Sabbath Queen—the sh’khina, traditionally understood as the feminine manifestation of the Divine Presence, who is welcomed into the midst of the congregants as the Sabbath approaches; (2) the kabbalistic image of the “Sabbath bride,” who enters during the preliminary kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) service, which precedes the section of the evening service proper (arvit) during which hashkivenu is recited or sung; and (3) allegorical images of the angels who are perceived poetically as ushering in the peace of the Sabbath and even accompanying worshipers home for the evening meal following the service to ensure the blessing and presence of Sabbath peace. (According to a legend in an allegorical passage of the Talmud [Shabbat 119B], two angels, one good and one evil, escort each Jew or family home. When, upon seeing the home specially prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel expresses the wish that it may be the same on the following Sabbath, even the evil one is compelled to give his assent. Hence the words in the well-known Sabbath hymn shalom aleikhem, sung prior to commencing the meal: “May your departure also be with peace, angels of peace!”—viz., peace for the following Sabbath as well.)
In this newer choral version, I complemented the elements and fragments of the traditional tune as I heard it in Geneva with new, original material for the words in the hashkivenu text—v’taknenu b’etza tova milfanekha (Direct us in the right path through Your good counsel). The cycle ends with the angels’ departure, recalling the dual image in the shalom aleikhem text, “Come with peace [also in the final strophe of l’kha dodi in the kabbalat shabbat service] and go with peace.” The ending is a musical echo of the angels’ entrance, but this time the wordless canon is accompanied by dark, distant cluster sounds in the organ.