Musaf Service for Rosh Hashanah

According to the Conservative Format

Musaf header

This essay pertains to the Milken Archive's recording of a traditional Musaf Service for Rosh Hashanah. For notes on the individual settings of the servicevisit the links below:

Musaf Service for Rosh Hashanah: Part 1 | Part 2

Listen on Spotify: Part 1 | Part 2

THIS RECORDING IS A COMPOSITE REPLICATION of a conventional Rosh Hashanah musaf service once (and in some cases still) typical of tradition-committed, preservationist congregations within the wider diverse fold of the Conservative movement in North America (viz., the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism). For some, this replication will ignite automatic nostalgia; for others, it may well come as a revelation. And for those, whether Jews or non-Jews, who might never have experienced even modified traditional synagogue worship, this will provide an aural document of one aspect of Ashkenazi heritage.

When newly reconsidered options began to appear, even the prayerbook generally regarded as the most liberal of the three used among the vast majority of the Conservative movement’s affiliated congregations until after the 1970s (compiled and arranged by Rabbi Morris Silverman in 1939, with many subsequent reprintings and still used) diverges from orthodoxy to any significant extent only in its loosely construed and interpreted translations and new supplementary English meditations, readings, and commentary. Its Hebrew liturgy remains intact, no less so than in mainstream orthodox prayerbooks, apart from a few variant words resulting from scholarly decisions rather than revision. (We might be reminded that the Conservative movement, after all, was so named by its founders out of concern for the conservation of modern American Judaism from what they perceived as danger of its rapid disintegration under the banner of Reform Judaism.) And until fairly recently, traditional, undiminished hazzanut (cantorial art) of eastern European origin, together with its choral dimensions, prevailed in nearly all Conservative movement–affiliated synagogues. Thus, all that distinguishes the present recorded replication of a Rosh Hashanah musaf from a mainstream orthodox service is the mixed a cappella choir in place of an exclusively male-voice ensemble. 

The settings here were selected for each applicable liturgical text from a pool of many dozens of alternatives. Tastes, preferences, and orientations are always subject to differences, as they should be (a Hebrew saying advises that al ta’am v’al re’aḥ ein ma l’hitvake’aḥ: “About taste and smell one cannot argue or debate.”). Much has always depended upon habit, cultural affinities, one’s early synagogue experiences, perceptions of what should constitute “sacred music” or dignity of worship, degree of presumed decorum, or how one relates both to the occasion and to a particular prayer. In a service of this length and breadth, there is of course copious opportunity and ample room for a stylistic variety of musical expressions that reflect the diverse yet mutually reinforcing dissimilitude of moods, sentiments, and tones embraced by the liturgical conglomeration. For we should bear in mind that the High Holy Day liturgy, and especially its musaf services, articulates a particularly Judaic confluence of awe, sober reflection, solemnity, majesty, holiness, humility and supplication, praise for Divine sovereignty, renewal and regeneration, steadfast conviction, confidence in the leniency of God’s judgment and ultimate redemption, memory, and—equally significant—buoyant optimism and joyful celebration of life.

It is true, however, that the nature and overall tone of the repertoire in some tradition-leaning congregations (both in prewar Europe and in America) has been more or less homogenous by design—whether tilting mostly toward the melos and spirit of the less sophisticated settings here, such as those by Joshua Lind and Isaac Kaminsky, or confined to a more dignified classical approach throughout as exemplified here in compositions by Max Helfman, Paul Discount, Louis Lewandowski, and Moshe Ganchoff. Depending upon the predispositions of a particular congregation and its cantor and choirmaster, the former might be heard by some as unacceptably crossing a line between sacred music and popular entertainment—lacking restraint and incongruous with inherited perceptions of what is or is not appropriate for synagogue worship. On the other hand, confinement to more seriously artistic settings to the exclusion of lighter or even a bit of theatrical fare might be heard by other congregations as wanting, excessively solemn, even monotonous for a liturgical occasion that includes rejoicing with gladness and spiritual festivity at the prospect of a new year. (At one time, among orthodox circles in England and parts of the British Empire, the High Holy Days and Rosh Hashanah in particular were commonly called “High Festival”—even though the Hebrew yamim nora’im is considered best rendered in English as the Days of Awe—and the High Festival nomenclature is still heard there.) The aim here was to provide a balanced composite of various constructions and musical interpretations of the liturgy within a traditional Rosh Hashanah musaf service. Moreover, a careful review of relevant synagogue archives—along with unimpeachable recollections—has revealed that precisely this specific, varied array of settings has been heard in many traditional American synagogues over the years.

The vast bulk of the notated repertoire of the eastern European cantorial and synagogue choral tradition, whether created in Europe or as part of its American transplantation, remains in manuscript—notwithstanding the relatively small number of mostly long-out-of-print, if not rare, published volumes (along with the insignificant number of individual folio publications). Moreover, a large part of that repertoire exists only on vintage recordings. Thus, painstaking searches for authoritative manuscripts and recordings were often inseparable from this project. Only a few pieces on this recording were ever published commercially; and even in those cases our self-imposed standard demanded, whenever possible, comparison and reconciliation with preceding ur-manuscripts and/or with surviving archival recordings sung or conducted by the composers.

All of this required meticulous, tenacious research, which in some instances involved refusal to accept apparent “dead ends”. Eventually, nearly all the music here, including sources for verification and authentication as well as obscure biographical and historical material, was located in the archives of the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. The invaluable assistance of YIVO’s library and archives support staff, along with that of student interns, was instrumental in the accomplishment of this undertaking.

This replication represents not merely Ashkenazi tradition to the exclusion of its many non-Ashkenazi counterparts but, more specifically, its eastern European branch as transplanted and perpetuated in North America. In that vein, Ashkenazi pronunciation (as opposed to modern Hebrew) is retained here—and not only out of stubborn adherence to tradition. For any attempt to force the correct syllabic accentuation and stresses of modern Hebrew upon settings composed according to Ashkenazi pronunciation results inevitably in the loss of original flavor, and even the mutilation of vocal lines—analogous in some respects to trying to force an octagonal peg into a circular base without shaving the former beyond recognition, and with as much success. Disconcerting compromises of the sort that eliminate certain consonant and vowel distinctions to conform to modern Hebrew but leave the Ashkenazi accentuation mostly (or inconsistently) intact, make even less aesthetic, grammatical, or linguistic sense.

“The aim here was to provide a balanced composite of various constructions and musical interpretations of the liturgy within a traditional Rosh Hashanah musaf service.”

Some composers in modern Israel have successfully written settings that fuse traditional eastern European cantorial and choral styles with modern Hebrew pronunciation and accentuation (Tzvi Talmon, Isaac Heilmann, and, more recently, Raymond Goldstein, for example), but that repertoire is limited. For those intent on modern Hebrew for such traditional hazzanut and who would want an ample array of interpretations from which to choose—especially for American congregations—that repertoire would require significant expansion de novo.

In fact, through the 1950s, and even well into the 1960s and beyond, many traditional congregations that understandably had adopted modern Hebrew still retained Ashkenazi pronunciation for cantorial renditions, often leaving this to the cantor’s discretion.

As a matter of accepted procedure, regardless of individual dialects or pronunciation variants, Hebrew words in this written apparatus are transliterated according to modern Hebrew.

THE CHOIR: The challenge here was to achieve a symbiosis between maximum choral polish and stylistic authenticity, at the same time avoiding—for this particular type of repertoire in its intended habitat and function—the potentially off-putting, antagonizing, and often legitimately criticized artificial “outsider” sound of an exclusively professional choir fulfilling its engagement. For, as an extension of the cantorial role, the singing of the choir must reflect its wholehearted participation in prayer, with all the emotion and meaning of the words being expressed. Indeed, some of the most convincing choirs for this type of traditional service in its American phase have consistently been those of well-trained, regularly rehearsed amateurs (from congregations and/or their surrounding Jewish communities) who are fully familiar with the Hebrew of the applicable liturgy and its specifically Judaic spiritual impact—sometimes minimally supplemented as needed by a few professional singers who come to the task with substantial synagogue experience.

The solution for this recording was a choir of selected cantorial students from the School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in more or less equal numbers, bolstered by a few additional tenors and basses from the New York–based Jewish choral ensemble Schola Hebraeica. The “step-out solos,” or solo passages, were sung by choristers who were cantorial students at the time of recording, all of whom are now invested cantors.

ABOUT OUR HEBREW USAGE: Adonai is used as is without hesitation throughout this discussion and in Rabbi Morton M. Leifman’s fresh translations, inasmuch as it is not God’s holy name, but rather an arbitrarily devised substitution (usually signified by a meaningless, nonphonetic combination of Hebrew letters) for the sacred but proscribed tetragram or tetragrammaton that is God’s actual, proper name—whose utterance or attempted pronunciation is strictly forbidden. In antiquity, the only exception was on Yom Kippur, and only by the High Priest (the kohen gadol) in the inner sanctum (the “Holy of Holies”) of the Temple. (Even then, we are told, it was deliberately mumbled with a degree of unclear audibility in case anyone within hearing might discover its precise vocalization—which remains unknown or at least uncertain—and thus inadvertently pronounce it in the future.) The common rendering as “Lord” is without meaning vis-a-vis God’s identity, both because it is neither God’s proper name nor a translation of the tetragram, but simply a poor English substitute, and because the word has so many different meanings and connotations in the English language. The supposedly righteous “substitution for the substitution” as hashem (the name)—ubiquitous in certain circles for reference outside actual prayer, Psalm quotations (but only in full), or synagogal biblical readings—is even more obfuscating as well as diverting. We do not, after all, worship God’s name, but God Himself; nor do we proclaim in the sh’ma that “the name” is our God and the only God, but that the only God is adonai

Rosh Hashanah Musaf: Background, Liturgy, and Music

For Jews the world over, the first day of tishrei, the seventh month on the Hebrew calendar, is ROSH HASHANAH. This holy day (actually two continuous days amounting in effect to a forty-eight-hour day) is everywhere understood as the Jewish New Year and linked with the holiest of all days, Yom Kippur, ten days later, to form what we know as the yamim nora’im—the Days of Awe, or simply the High Holy Days.

But this was not always so. The written Torah, viz., the Pentateuch, in which Rosh Hashanah is rooted, contains only two succinct applicable references, which are in need of much clarification: that the first of tishrei is to be a shabbaton zikhron t’ru’a—a “sabbath of solemn rest, a memorial [or commemoration] with horn blasts [blast of horn or horns], a sacred convocation” (Leviticus 23:24); and that a sacred assembly is commanded, to be accompanied by refraining from “servile tasks” in observance of a yom t’ru’a—a Day of Trumpeting (Numbers 29:1). The term rosh hashanah (lit., head of the year) appears nowhere in the Torah and only once in the Hebrew Bible (Ezekiel 40:1), where its connection to this occasion on the calendar is neither entirely clear nor universally accepted. (Some authorities interpret the verse as a reference to Yom Kippur.)

That this commanded “memorial with horn blasts” or “trumpeting” and the launch of the new year on the seventh month rather than the first are one and the same was far from an initial assumption—not least because of the apparently contradictory but later reconciled verse in Exodus (12:2) that instructs that the month of nisan “shall be the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year unto you.” Neither was it automatically understood that the shofar, now the most emblematic physical as well as aural symbol of Rosh Hashanah (in particular the shofar shel ḥayil), is the horn mentioned and intended in the Torah, since no specific instrument is identified other than one generically capable of (horn-type) “blasts”. It took more than a millenium of rabbinic deliberations, interpretations, and rulings to determine the status, significance(s), calendar ramifications, theological purposes and themes, instrumental specificity, and ritual observances of what became our Rosh Hashanah, although the appellation was already in use for the first of tishrei by the time of the Mishna (roughly the first–second centuries C.E.), in which an entire tractate is titled rosh hashanah.

It is reasonable to intuit that pairing the two mutually reinforcing Torah verses eventually yielded the coinage of two of the thematic designations by which Rosh Hashanah is now also known: yom t’ru’a (the Day of the Shofar Blasts) and yom hazikaron (Day of Remembrances, or Remembering). Taken together, these two verses provide a logical connection between the annual public shofar soundings and the concept of perpetual, sacred historical memory, which the shofar blasts are understood to invoke, arouse, and assure.

“The term rosh hashanah (lit., head of the year) appears nowhere in the Torah and only once in the Hebrew Bible (Ezekiel 40:1), where its connection to this occasion on the calendar is neither entirely clear nor universally accepted.”

Further along the path of its conceptual, thematic development, Rosh Hashanah acquired yet a third designation as yom hadin, the Day of Judgment, which, along with this holy day’s related status as the New Year, the Day of Remembrances, and other essential features, was decided mostly during the Gaonic period (roughly late sixth through the mid-eleventh centuries).

Because the yom hadin association is without biblical basis or reference, however, this designation is absent by name from the core statutory liturgy. It is amply discussed nonetheless in talmudic literature; and it finds stirring, weighty resonance in the expanded liturgy of piyyutim (interpolated liturgical poems) and other insertions that figure conspicuously in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayerbooks and services.

All this would ultimately have critical implications for liturgical animation through the musical expression at the heart of cantorial creativity, choral reinforcement, and composers’ inspired imagination.

Rosh Hashanah worship comprises the following six services (“orders of prayer”): ARVIT (ma’ariv), the evening service that ushers Rosh Hashanah in at sundown; PRELIMINARY (morning) SERVICE, including birkhat hashaḥar, commencing upon or after sunrise, followed by (or including) p’sukeí d’zimra—“introductory hymns and psalms”; SHAḤARIT, the morning service [proper], divided into the ordinary shaḥarit prayers that begin morning services and the succeeding shaḥarit shel rosh hashanah—the order of prayers specific to Rosh Hashanah; the TORAH SERVICE (seder k’ri’at sefer hatora), the assigned biblical readings preceded and followed by particular prayers and punctuated by the ceremony of shofar soundings (thirty of the required hundred blasts), sometimes called the “shofar service”; MUSAF; and MINḤA, the afternoon service.

MUSAF (t’fillat musaf) is a distinct, self-contained service that follows the morning service on Sabbaths, Rosh Ḥodesh (the New Month), the Three [Pilgrimage] Festivals (Sukkot, Pesaḥ, and Shavuot), and the High Holy Days. Its English heading in many prayerbooks as “Additional Service”—despite its accuracy as literal translation—can be both misleading and confusing for those not sufficiently grounded in the structure and history of the liturgy. That misguided heading can (and often does) easily but erroneously suggest something “additional” in the sense of optional or extra, perhaps some discretionary supplement, which is of course anything but the case.

Musaf refers to the required “additional sacrifice” (the korban musaf) in the ancient Temple following its daily morning and afternoon sacrificial rituals on the above-cited special occasions. Like the subsequently obligatory morning and afternoon—ideally communal—prayer services that in effect replaced the sacrificial rites once they were no longer possible after the destruction of the Second Temple, the musaf service was designed to correspond to the fixed time or time frame of what had been the korban musaf. (Arvit, the evening service, was established only later as equally obligatory, since, although also rooted in antiquity, it corresponds to no Temple sacrifice.) The correlation of these prayer services, including musaf, to the times of the former sacrificial ceremonies has been said to sustain collective historical memory of the Temple and Jerusalem as Israel’s spiritual center—a correlation that also preserves their significance in terms of Israel’s “former glory” vis-à-vis both national sovereignty and religious independence. In some assessments it is musaf that provides these links more so than any other service.

There are those for whom the thrust of musaf, taken at face value, appears to underscore an undiminished superiority of the Temple rites over prayer service “replacement” as the ideal. And that conviction might be reinforced by those parts of the musaf liturgy that express hope in—and assurance of—eventual, messianically induced restoration of the former in full. Yet in this connection it is worth observing that it was none other than the renowned medieval giant among Judaic philosophers and biblical exegetes of all time, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, who took issue with that prevailing conviction of his day concerning the ideal form of worship. A rationalist with Aristotelian orientation who is known for reconciling faith with reason, Judaic teachings with philosophical truths, and the Divine Commandments with practical realities, Maimonides apparently disagreed with the accepted doctrine that held that, had the Temple never been destroyed, the sacrificial rites would still be performed as the primary and preferred form of worship; and, as a corollary, that eventual restoration would come in full. (This, even though his formulated “Thirteen Principles of Faith” include the coming of the Messiah.) Without suggesting liturgical revision, and admittedly in the context of his liberal and sometimes seemingly contradictory planes of thought as part of his overall complexity, Maimonides proposed instead that the Temple rituals had given way—in effect evolved—to the development of a more profound form of communion with the Almighty. The implication was that the sacrificial system, together with its demise, had been a bridge to the institution of seder t’fillot—the order of prayers—as a more advanced form of worship.

Thus, within the Ashkenazi orbit, the musaf service came over time to invite far more than pro forma acquittal of its legal obligation. Cantorial elaboration of some Rosh Hashanah musaf prayers and piyyutim are included in extant Baroque-era manuscripts of Western and west Central European provenance, although most are inferior mimetic simulations of corresponding second-rate Baroque-era classical music and of no lasting value. (We have no musically notated evidence of contemporaneous practice in eastern Europe.) By the third decade of the nineteenth century, however, the paving stones had been laid in Poland as well as in Vienna—to be followed shortly thereafter first in German communities and then throughout Europe—for building an enduring, continually expanding, and stylistically diverse cantorial and choral repertoire in which High Holy Day musaf settings figure prominently.

Anchored by established Ashkenazi customs, prayer modes, and evolved florid cantorial art, the musical substance of musaf repertoires came to range from classically oriented perceptions of “sacred music” influenced by oratorio and other Western genres to popular juxtapositions of assimilated materials from surrounding (Jewish and non-Jewish) folk musics, choral techniques, and clichés of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ukrainian and even Cossack choirs, Gypsy echoes, opera, and Hassidic as well as pseudo-Hassidic melos.

The volume of this aggregate musaf repertoire continued on an upward incline through the 1920s in Europe (except for its almost immediate abortion within the borders of the new Soviet Union following the Bolshevik coup in 1917) and all the way up until the destruction of European Jewry by the Germans, Austrians, and their enthusiastic collaborators.

The inventory was further enlarged on American soil as part of the transplantation of eastern European synagogue music tradition, promoted by the creativity of immigrant as well as native-born American cantors and composers. Supplementing the treasury brought from Europe, their music penetrated not only orthodox and quasi-orthodox synagogues, but also the tradition-oriented elements of the Conservative movement. Musaf on the High Holy Days became an expected peak musical experience—a religious showcase for cantorial and choral art and virtuosity, appertaining all the more so in congregations with the resources to support cantors of Hazzan Mizrahi’s caliber, along with polished, well-trained choirs—professional or amateur, or a mixture.

“It took more than a millenium of rabbinic deliberations, interpretations, and rulings to determine the status, significance(s), calendar ramifications, theological purposes and themes, instrumental specificity, and ritual observances of what became our Rosh Hashanah.”

We are left with the futility of seeking any acceptable English heading to describe musaf. One can only imagine the comic absurdity, for example, of a cantor announcing his engagement to “daven (pray) the ‘additional service’ at such and such a synagogue.” Our conclusion must be to acknowledge that, like b’rakha (see below), musaf in its synagogal context belongs to a plenitudinous category of foreign words, phrases, and expressions that defy translation and are thus best left in their original languages even within English sentences: the French savoir faire, for example, or esprit de corps, beau monde, sangfroid, belle epoch, and je ne sais quois; the German Zeitgeist, Weltanschauung, Schadenfreude, or Gemütlichkeit; or the Yiddish m’khutn/makhatonim, vey/oy vey, or shtik. No groping for matching English words can capture their essence, spirit, allusions, or linguistic nuances, all of which are uniquely inseparable from their cultural contexts, worldviews, and mind-sets.


HIN’NI. The cantor’s personal prayer for worthiness to represent the congregation as its “messenger” (shali’aḥ tzibbur)—a de facto prologue to the service.

ḤATZI KADDISH. A reduced form (“half kaddish”) of the full Aramaic text versions reserved for other points or purposes in the liturgy. The role of kaddish—sometimes identified as the doxology—is thought to have originated not as liturgy per se, but as a recitation at the conclusion of rabbinic discourses or lessons, perhaps to dismiss the assembly with allusions to messianic hope as well as supreme, unswayable faith. With the exception of one Hebrew passage, kaddish was composed in Aramaic, in which those discourses were delivered and as the daily language of Jews (Judeans) in the Near East for approximately twelve hundred to fifteen hundred years following the Babylonian Captivity. Only later was it introduced into the liturgy in various forms to signal the conclusion or divide sections of a service, to conclude biblical readings, and as kaddish yatom for recitation by mourners. The ḥatzi kaddish was assigned to establish a separation between services, in this case to separate musaf from the preceding shaḥarit as a distinct service.

The AMIDA. The silently recited statutory core liturgy of this and all services that qualify as seder t’fillot (order of prayers), and so named from the Hebrew amida, “to stand,” because it is recited in its entirety while standing—ideally prayed communally yet individually, each at his own pace.

The amida comprises and is centered around the most basic prayer formula, the b’rakha (pl., b’rakhot), whose incipient stage of development is thought to date to the Tannaitic era (roughly the first and second centuries C.E.). But, though talmudic discourse in the ensuing centuries is peppered with discussions and debates, rabbinic consensus about details of wording, syntax, typologies, rationales, rules, and other related issues coalesced into binding standardization only in post-talmudic periods.

Simply put, a b’rakha is an anaphoric liturgical formula whose original incipit is the phrase barukh ata adonai (You are worshipped, adonai [the source of blessings]). The remaining words—or those of preceding passages considered part of a b’rakha—vary, depending upon the type or category: acknowledgment of a Divine attribute or role; proclamation and affirmation of God as the Creator of something or as having established and/or mandated some procedure, event, aspect of life or nature, or legislation; corroboration or acceptance of God as the sole supreme sovereign of the world and His ultimate authority over it; acknowledgment and fulfillment of a commandment; or, even if implicitly, thanks and praise for a Divine gift, judgment, or blessing conferred on us.

Like the Hebrew musaf, b’rakha in the context of this formula has no acceptable English equivalent. All imprecise compromises, e.g. “blessing” or “benediction”, fall far short of the mark and risk misleading unintentionally, for it is obviously not in the domain of mankind to bless or confer blessings on God, which such erroneous English labels might inadvertently imply.

The amida of musaf on Rosh Hashanah contains nine b’rakhot, expanded and enriched by acquired introductory, linking, thematically supporting, or amplifying passages (including applicable biblical quotations), all of which are considered part of a given b’rakha as its t’filla—prayer—apart from inserted piyyutim, or liturgical poems.

Of the nine b’rakhot, the first three belong to the category of sħevakh (praising or paying homage to God), and the last three belong to the hoda’a grouping (gratitude). All six are common to the amida of every service throughout the year, with the exception of a single word variant of the third—known as k’dushat hashem (the holiness of God’s name)—in which hamelekh is substituted on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for ha’el, to read “the holy King” in place of “the holy God”. The three intervening b’rakhot are unique to Rosh Hashanah, although the first of them, k’dushat hayom (the holiness of this day) also appears in the musaf of Yom Kippur with altered applicable wording.

The silent recitation of the amida allows for—indeed encourages—communication with God on a personal level, prayed with individual sensibilities. Yet, on a simultaneous plane, it is also prayed collectively on behalf of the community, the Jewish people, and, by extension in modern understanding, humanity as a whole. (One of the early rationales dates to talmudic times as a procedure to avoid embarrassing those seeking forgiveness for transgressions.)

ḤAZARAT HASHATZ. The cantor’s repetition of the silently recited amida. This is the turf on which the ideally uninterrupted cantorial and choral expression is played out, now enhanced and elongated by additional piyyutim.

The prayer leader’s repetition appears to have been instituted at a very early stage of liturgical development out of purely practical concerns that no longer apply. Talmudic sources indicate that it was ordained for the benefit of those who might not be capable of reading the liturgy, in which case they could at least follow the precentor. Suppositions behind the retention of the repetition— even after the advent of printing and the assumption of basic communal literacy—involve the possibility of an insufficient number of prayerbooks at any particular venue. By the nineteenth century at the latest, however, when the repetition was becoming entrenched as a peak musical as well as spiritual experience of the High Holy Days (and the Three Festivals as well, if to a lesser extent musically), its original purposes were irrelevant. That the repetition has been preserved not merely as a legal obligation, but perpetuated with enthusiasm and eager anticipation, is itself testament to the literary, emotional, and dramatic power of the musaf liturgy, which has inspired so much music on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Musical Genres of Rosh Hashanah Musaf

MISINAI MOTIFS. The oldest musical component of minhag ashkenaz (Ashkenazi custom) apart from biblical cantillation, these belong to a finite set of seasonal leitmotifs associated with—and applicable exclusively to—particular occasions on the annual liturgical calendar: related services passim, sections thereof, or individual prayer texts on those occasions. (None, therefore, apply to ordinary weekday or weekly Sabbath services.)

Reference to these motifs as “misinai tunes” is misleading. They are not “tunes” in the conventional Western sense of closed formal structures and prescribed metrical identities. Rather, they are flexible conglomerations of recognizable skeletal melodic incipits and succeeding motives and phrases, signature intervals, and patterns. With one or two exceptions, they have no fixed meter in their original formulations. Since the early nineteenth century at the latest, however, misinai motifs are most often stylized with artificial meters in conjunction with equally arbitrary and inauthentic metricalizations of originally nonmetrical text passages—or in some cases to accommodate metrical piyyutim.

In effect canonized as mandatory authentic tradition, with de facto if tacit confirmation of rabbinical authority, nearly all misinai motifs date to the formative stage and then crystallization of Ashkenazi liturgical practice in Rhineland areas, from where they were later brought to Poland and then, eventually, to the rest of eastern Europe. They have been operative continuously throughout Ashkenazi Jewry for more than six centuries. Their essential value and function reside in their immediate recognizability by lay worshippers as automatic associations with their liturgical occasions, regardless of variation, stylization, or embellishment. Five of them apply to the Rosh Hashanah musaf service.

The misinai designation (lit., “from Sinai”) is merely a colloquial expression implying permanent establishment with quasi-sacred status by virtue of great age—i.e., “as if something had been revealed by Moses at Mount Sinai.” The generic expression dates to a twelfth-century pietistic tome, Sefer Hassidim, although some evidence suggests an even earlier source. Our earliest concrete, documented evidence of the term’s use specifically in connection with musical motifs or other musical elements, however, dates only to late-nineteenth-century scholarly observations among lay as well as trained cantors of eastern European tradition, which suggests that this usage was not new then. Yet at one time many of these motifs were known in some circles as “tunes of the Maharil”, a medieval sage and scholar who was instrumental in the formulation and consolidation of Ashkenazi liturgical practice and who has long been cited as mandating that “traditional” (viz., established) tunes must never be changed or replaced—although just what he meant or to what he may have been referring remains unclear. Moreover, among nineteenth-century (if not earlier) German Jewry, the designation misinai niggunim (tunes) often referred to biblical cantillation, altogether unrelated to the seasonal leitmotifs for the liturgy.

PRAYER MODES. Most of the core statutory liturgy in Ashkenazi ritual—including that of musaf services—is intoned according to a formally prescribed, complex, interrelated system of prayer modes, each assigned by mandated tradition to a particular service or section thereof. In this ordered labyrinth, the modes are not synonymic with corresponding scales per se, as is often misunderstood. Rather, they comprise batteries of signature motives, motivic formulae and configurations, recurring patterns, modulatory devices, associated intervals, emblematic turns of phrase(s), incipit as well as cadential templates, and designated roles of specific tones or pitches of a particular scale or scalar sequence. Nonetheless, although modes should not be defined primarily by nor confined to any particular scales, these individual features—in various combinations—may be shown to conform to underlying tonal or modal scales. Some of them may approximate the major or minor scales of what is known as Common Practice in music of the West (roughly from the mid-to-late Baroque period on), while others suggest or approximate non-Western Arabic, Turkish, and even Gypsy influences, if not origins. Still others may be unique to Ashkenazi liturgical development.

Musaf of Rosh Hashanah is governed by more than one prayer mode, according to its liturgical subdivisions. Elements and variations of one of the assigned principal modes pervades the b’rakhot and their t’filla—for example, the familiar concluding cadential formula of a downward minor triad, set up by an equally familiar configuration in the relative major. The subdivision of passages beginning with uv’khen, on the other hand, is heard as having its own mode.

Deliberately avoided in this discussion is the widespread but egregiously abused denotation for the prayer modes, nusaḥ (meaning “the [established] way”); or even the slightly more specific but still imprecise and musically undefinable term nusaḥ hat’filla (the established, accepted, and therefore “correct” way of prayer text intonation for a particular part of the liturgy, liturgical occasion, or service). Although derived from the Hebrew, the use of that ambiguous and often fuzzy jargon with musical reference vis-à-vis correct or assigned prayer modes most likely originated as a colloquial “Yiddishism” (nusakh) in eastern Europe—even a sort of insider shoptalk. (We have no evidence of its music-related usage among German-speaking Jewry, whose traditional elements nonetheless adhered to the concept and use of prayer modes.) Moreover, when employed as technical nomenclature, the use of the term nusaḥ hat’filla risks confusion with the same terminology used properly to designate alternative customs of liturgical text variants within the umbrella of Ashkenazi worship (nusaḥ ashkenaz, nusaḥ s’fard, nusaḥ ari). And apart from that correct usage, there is also the term’s increasingly promiscuous invocation in musical-vocal contexts to mean pretty much whatever one wants or thinks it to mean. Even worse is the fairly recent, blatantly ignorant but predictably unstoppable use of the word nusaḥ—even in Israel—to advertise commercial products as manufactured according to some supposedly authentic or traditional recipe. Strangely enough, the prayer modes may exemplify a situation where an English appellation is preferable to any attempt to arrive at a Hebrew label.

CANTORIAL RECITATIVES. Although a misnomer in English naïvely and uncritically adopted from opera and oratorio terminology, where the meaning can be altogether quite different and even opposing, cantorial recitatives are artistically fashioned, expressive, and typically florid solo cantorial settings. Most carry the desiderata of a secondary, supporting role of choral accompaniment, responses, and underpinning—usually implied if not provided by the composer. This is an improvisatory genre. Until the first half of the nineteenth century, few such settings of eastern European origin or orientation were reduced to musical notation. This does not necessarily mean, however, that they were not well planned and worked out in advance, which has remained the optimal procedure for many accomplished cantors (and the advice of prominent cantorial teachers) even though there have always been cantors capable (at least consciously) of completely spontaneous improvisation on the bima. Either way, cantorial art—and especially the eastern European variety—was long considered as much a matter of composition as delivery; and composition need not be confined per se to notated memorialization.

Circulation and even publication of cantorial recitatives composed for others to sing began in earnest in the nineteenth century, initially, for the most part, in the German-speaking cultural sphere. By later in the century and well into the next, a number of cantors and cantor-composers began to excel in the composition of recitatives for markets beyond their own use. Even if a recitative is meticulously notated, cantorial freedom in realization is always expected—including, as appropriate, improvised cadenzas, spontaneously interpolated passages, embellishments, and ornamentations.

CANTORIAL RECITATIONS. These are declamatory, nonvirtuosic, and logogenic deliveries of liturgical texts, without emphasis on vocal display and with minimal embellishment or ornamentation, if any.

CHORAL SETTINGS. These are full-fledged four-part compositions, some for choir only but most with cantorial solo parts and cantorial-choral interplay. Even if not so indicated in a composer’s score, interpolated cantorial passages and even cadenzas may be appropriate. With a few exceptions, even the most elaborate choral settings are meant to flow seamlessly from and into surrounding cantorial recitatives or recitations (or into one another), so that the entire repetition of musaf is uninterrupted.


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