Kabbalat shabbat

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In the summer of 1966 the Jerusalem Joint Center for Action in the Diaspora sent Paul Ben-Haim to America to participate as a kind of “artist-in-residence” in a special project within a summer camp program of the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY)—the youth wing of the American Reform movement. That project, called Arts in Judaism, was initiated by Cantor Raymond Smolover, who was then the executive vice president of the American Conference of Cantors—the national association of cantors serving Reform pulpits. Many prominent artists and writers had been similarly involved with the project, whose purpose Smolover described as “not only to develop the talents of gifted young people whose contributions will enrich synagogue life in the coming years, but also to make a lively community where creative artists and men of religion discover how each group can reinforce the other.”

As part of his interaction with the program, NFTY commissioned Ben-Haim to compose a formal, full-length Sabbath eve service—one that could find use in Reform synagogues for actual worship. Thus was born his Kabbalat Shabbat, written according to the liturgical format of the Union Prayerbook, which at that time was still the official and nearly exclusive prayerbook of American Reform.

The title is misleading. This is primarily not a kabbalat shabbat service, even though it incorporates two abbreviated texts from that liturgy. In origin as well as current traditional practice, kabbalat shabbat (welcoming the Sabbath) is a distinct service that not only precedes arvit l’shabbat—the Sabbath eve, or Friday evening service—but actually commences just before sundown at the end of the day on Friday. Although the conclusion of kabbalat shabbat is usually followed directly by arvit l’shabbat, the two liturgies are independent, with no element of one appearing in the other. However, the Union Prayerbook did not distinguish between the two services; nor has American Reform been concerned historically (unlike its counterparts in other countries, e.g., Great Britain) with the actual time of sundown on the eve of Sabbaths or holy days. Thus the format Ben-Haim addressed was one that incorporated and intermingled elements of both liturgies into a single Sabbath eve service.

Psalm 98 and l’kha dodi are two of the texts in the Union Prayerbook that are drawn from the traditional kabbalat shabbat service; the other prayer texts of Ben-Haim’s service, with the exception of Lighting of the Sabbath Candles, have their origins in the Sabbath eve service proper. Curiously, l’kha dodi is called Sabbath Hymn in his score, an appellation that applies as a literary term to the poem, but not—in its usage in the realm of sacred music—to the same sung text within the order of the liturgy. The tune to which its refrain is set was adapted from an old melody the composer understood to have been sung by Sephardi Jews in Israel to the unrelated poem Y’did nefesh (Beloved of My Soul [God]). This poem, with its origins in kabbalistic mysticism, was not generally familiar to American Jewry (Reform or traditional)—outside Hassidic circles, where it has long been recited—until the 1960s, when it was encountered in Israel by the increasing numbers of American Jewish visitors. The melody is published in an important Sephardi collection edited by Léon Algazi (Chants Séphardis; 1958).

The full text of l’kha dodi as it appears in traditional prayerbooks contains nine stanzas. The truncated version in the Union Prayerbook, however, as set here, retains only the second, fifth, and final stanzas.

The second movement, Lighting of the Sabbath Candles, is a setting of the b’rakha for the traditional home ritual, which American Reform practice incorporated into the synagogue service. A b’rakha (plural, b’rakhot) is a generic term for an anaphoric prayer formula commencing with the phrase barukh ata adonai (You are worshipped, Lord) and proclaiming to God that He is to be worshipped for a particular attribute or for having provided a particular commandment—in this case the rabbinic commandment to light Sabbath candles. Notwithstanding its common but misleading translation as “blessing,” or, only a bit less accurate as “benediction,” the term b’rakha has no acceptable English equivalent.

Kindling a flame is prohibited on the Sabbath by halakha as followed by traditionally observant Jews; the candles are lighted, usually at home, just prior to sunset on the eve of the Sabbath. But since the prohibition as a matter of law does not apply in Reform practice, it was possible beginning in the 19th century to include the ritual in Friday evening services, even well after sunset. One of the rationales behind this innovation—apart from aesthetic considerations—was to ensure the retention of this important ceremony, or at least its reflection, at a time when, in the early stages of Reform development, some congregants did not do so at home or were insufficiently able to recite the Hebrew. This is not the only case of home ceremonies or rituals being transferred to the synagogue in America, as a way of preserving them. Even though the home candle-lighting ritual has always been encouraged in Reform practice—even if it is duplicated by public synagogal performance—and even though, by the second half of the 20th century, Sabbath candles were routinely lighted at home by a much larger number of Reform-affiliated households than previously, the ceremony still prevails in the formal worship of many Reform synagogues.

Since the lighting of the Sabbath candles is most commonly associated with the obligation for Jewish women, this setting—like most formal compositions for this b’rakha—specifically calls for a female soloist. In Ben-Haim’s setting of the b’rakha at the end of the prayer mi khamokha, the choir is inexplicably called upon to repeat the cantor’s initial three words (barukh ata adonai) as a response. This has no basis from any liturgical standpoint. Nor does such repetition ever constitute a correct response.

Although a formulaic congregational response of different wording (barukh hu uvarukh sh’mo—Worshipped is He and praised be His Name) is properly articulated after that three-word incipit of a b’rakha when uttered by the prayer leader in certain other contexts or services—in sections of morning and afternoon services, for example—there should be no such response in any arvit (evening) service. There (as at other places in the liturgy), congregational or choral responses within b’rakhot are deemed to disrupt the flow of prayer. For reasons that have never been adequately explored from an historical perspective, the misguided application of this response to b’rakhot in the evening service has become an entrenched habit, even in many synagogues where the leadership is aware of its incorrectness. (In classic Reform practice as reflected by the Union Prayerbook, this response at one time was eliminated for all services, although out of other considerations.) The error has been perpetuated in most musical compositions for applicable prayers of evening services, including settings composed in 19th-century Europe by otherwise knowledgeable cantor-composers. That Ben-Haim avoided using that response in this work is admirable. But why he chose to replace it with a choral echo of the three-word incipit of the b’rakha itself—and, more to the point, why he was not advised to remove that repetition—defies explanation.

Equally strange is the license taken by the composer in establishing a reversal of roles between cantor and choir-congregation in the concluding b’rakha of his setting of hashkivenu. The choir intones the b’rakha in its entirety, to which the cantor merely responds “amen”—admittedly original, but without justification.

For the concluding hymn, adon olam, Ben-Haim also turned to folkloric melodic material. He based his setting on motives of a Ladino folksong, Los Gayos (The Cocks), which also appears in the Léon Algazi collection.

Although it is reflected in the Union Prayerbook only by the instruction “Benediction” following the text of adon olam, it has been common practice in American Reform throughout much of the 20th century to conclude Sabbath evening as well as other services with the threefold “priestly blessing,” pronounced by the rabbi and/or sung by the choir. This is a formula (y’varekh’kha adonai v’yishm’rekha ...; May the Lord bless and keep you...) that derives from the Torah (Numbers 6:24–26). It was also part of the ancient Temple ritual and is part of the statutory morning prayers as well as the ceremony of blessing by the kohanim (priestly descendants), but it is not part of any evening services in traditional rites. These words have also become ubiquitous as an adopted generic benediction in American society—not only in church services (especially Protestant formats) but for secular ceremonial occasions that include nonsectarian clerical benedictions, such as commencement exercises. Although the Reform Sabbath eve quotation of the “priestly benediction” may have faded in recent years, Reform repertoire contains many individual, self-contained choral settings. Ben-Haim, however, creatively joined his setting to adon olam.

He explained in a preface to the published work that he had tried to “set the prayers to music in as simple and modest a style as possible to express the spirit of the Jewish liturgy.” Any more complex musical language, he added, was reserved for the organ or instrumental introduction and interludes. Indeed, the choral writing is straightforward throughout and essentially homophonic much of the time. In some sections the four-part chorus in effect sings in two parts, with tenors doubling sopranos and altos doubling the bass lines. Counterpoint is minimal, but cleverly deployed. Particularly effective are the opening passages of hashkivenu, in which the treble voices are in unison doubled by the basses, against which the tenors sing in parallel fourths.

The use of open perfect intervals in combinations—fifths and fourths, sometimes enriched by seconds—is emblematic of the work as a whole. Although these sonorities echo to some extent the perceived aural ambience of the Mediterranean approach, they also echo an overall sound type used frequently by the major composers for the Reform liturgy in the 1940s and 1950s and even early 1960s—composers known to Ben-Haim in Germany, such as Heinrich Schalit and Herbert Fromm, who had also studied and spent time in Munich, as well as others such as Hugo Chaim Adler, Isidore Freed, and Frederick Piket.

Other imprints of Mediterraneanism in Ben-Haim’s service are found in bits of ornamentation—subtly and conservatively employed—and in a diatonic character flavored with simple modalities.

The fifteen-movement service (of which six are excerpted on this recording) is scored for cantor solo (tenor or high baritone), soprano solo, mixed chorus, and an ensemble of flute, English horn (alternating with oboe), trumpet in C, harp, and strings. It was also published in a version for organ accompaniment. It received its premiere in New York in 1968 at a Lincoln Center celebration of Israel’s twentieth anniversary, sung by Cantor Raymond Smolover and the Camerata Singers, conducted by Abraham Kaplan. Shortly afterward it was performed as an actual Sabbath worship service at Temple Israel in Boston, conducted by Herbert Fromm.

Following the success of Kabbalat Shabbat, Ben-Haim wrote two additional liturgical pieces: a setting of ma tovu (1970) for baritone and piano (subsequently orchestrated), which was commissioned by the Israel Broadcasting Service; and a 1971 setting of the k’dusha (sanctification), commissioned by Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco for baritone, mixed choir, and organ. This was not his first encounter with that major Reform synagogue, but it was his first composition for its worship services. In 1962 Emanu-El had commissioned three Psalm settings (Sh’losha mizmorei t’hillim) in honor of its cantor, Reuben Rinder.

Ben-Haim’s Sabbath eve service could not have been introduced to the contemporary American Synagogue at a more culturally receptive time. In 1968 American Jewry was still pulsating from the euphoria and pride—newly found in some sectors—afforded by Israel’s swift victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Suddenly, even among some circles that had previously shown little interest in the modern State of Israel or its culture, a new level of identification emerged.

The American Reform movement had, throughout the 20th century, encompassed and accepted widely divergent and even fiercely opposing views and sympathies with respect to Zionism and, after 1948, to the State of Israel. And that spectrum naturally included varying shades of orientation between the two poles on either end, as well as neutral positions. Despite the existence of those Reform synagogues that enjoined even the mention of Zionism in sermons or reference to Israeli culture in their music as late as the 1960s (the most extreme of which were the small number that, through membership in the American Council for Judaism, vigorously opposed Israel’s existence), some of the most important leaders of American Zionism were prominent Reform rabbis—such as Steven S. Wise, Abba Hillel Silver, Arthur J. Lelyveld, and Gustav Gottheil (For more on the history of Zionism and the Reform Movement, see the Introduction to Volume 8.) The showdown in 1967, the realization of the extent to which Israel’s survival had been threatened (notwithstanding, of course, the later round of ex post facto, politically motivated revisionist accounts that eventually attend virtually all historical events), as well as the reunification of Jerusalem under Jewish sovereignty, engendered an almost instantly broadened sense of solidarity. Within a short time Israeli flags were displayed alongside American ones in many synagogues where, until then, they would not have been found. Equally significant was the intensified cultural curiosity about all things Israeli, which was largely blind to sectarian divisions among American Jewry. Part of that openness grew out of the emerging younger generations, as exemplified by the enthusiasm in groups such as NFTY. Music by Israeli composers and performances by Israeli artists under the auspices of individual Reform congregations had certainly occurred earlier, and Emanu-El in San Francisco had even commissioned a Sabbath service by Israeli composer Marc Lavry as early as 1958. But none of those incidents attracted national attention to the degree of the Ben-Haim service. That his Kabbalat Shabbat was commissioned not merely by an individual congregation, but by a wing of the Reform movement specifically as an Israeli expression—and that it was premiered at a celebration of Israel’s anniversary largely under its sponsorship—was a telling indicator of the extent to which mainstream Reform Zionist sensibilities and affinities with Israel had advanced.

By: Neil W. Levin