Ki hinne kaḥomer 07:52

Liner Notes

Different Stylistic Approaches to the Same Prayer: Mark Silver and Joshua Lind 

Mark Silver’s setting for cantor, other soloists, and choir (with nonobligatory organ accompaniment) of Ki hinei kaḥomer (We are like clay [in the hand of “the Potter”])—a piyyut inserted into the s’liḥot (penitential liturgy) during the Yom Kippur eve service in most Ashkenazi rituals—is undoubtedly his best-known composition.

Ki hinei kaḥomer is an alphabetical acrostic piyyut of unknown authorship, thought to date approximately to 12th-century France. Its structure is strophic with a simple refrain (viz., identical at each repetition). Its recitation on Yom Kippur eve includes six stanzas—with the first one reprised as a conclusion in some prayerbooks. In some liturgical customs of German Jewry, this piyyut, with two additional stanzas, was included on the fifth day of s’liḥot recitations during the penitential period beginning before Rosh Hashana, known as aseret y’mei t’shuva (see The First S’liḥot); and in many German synagogues it was recited at the concluding service on Yom Kippur, n’ila.

The poem comprises various metaphorical images representing God and His relationship to humanity and its future, both of which He fashions according to His will and design. Each stanza thus refers to a master craftsman of some particular craft as a metaphor for God as the supreme Creator—who exercises complete autonomy and authority over His work—and to the craftsman’s product or handiwork as a metaphor for humanity, whose destiny is dependent on its Creator’s will and judgment (“So we are in Your hand …”). Hence, the potter who molds his clay, shaping it as he wishes; the stonemason who hews the stone as he conceives it; the ironmonger who forges the raw iron as he envisions the result; the seaman who either stays course or drops the anchor, according to his decision; the glassblower who forms the crystalline material to suit his notion, blowing it clear or melting it down; the draper who fashions his product out of formless cloth to suit his plan for the finished product, with lines and folds, or unadorned, according to his scheme; and the silversmith who decides whether to refine the silver or to fuse it, making whichever type of object he wishes, alloyed or pure. Each stanza affirms that the raw physical material of man has no value until formed by God into humanity, and thus mankind is perpetually “in His hand.” And each stanza also refers to one of God’s attributes—God of loving-kindness who remembers deeds of kindness; God the Author of life and death; God who supports and keeps faith with the poor and unfortunate; God who pardons benevolently; God who graciously forgives both willfully or knowingly committed sins and inadvertent lapses; God who judges; and God who heals. The refrain asks God in His judgment to consider and be mindful of the covenant with the Jewish people and to show mercy by overlooking and disregarding the people’s evil inclination (i.e., taking into account its inclination towards good).

Rabbi Louis Jacobs once observed that all the images in this piyyut reveal the truth that even the most skilled master craftsman relies on the worthiness of the basic raw materials. Thus, in praying for God’s favorable guidance and fashioning of human destiny, it is incumbent upon mankind to “provide God,” as it were, with worthy material—faithfully led lives and meritorious deeds:

Seen in this light our abasement before God on Yom Kippur is to fall before Him that He may elevate us. It is the submission of the clay to the potter who can fashion it into a thing of beauty; of the silver to the refiner that he may purge it of its dross; of the ship to the pilot to guide it on its way.

The composite European and American synagogue repertoire contains numerous tune versions as well as cantorial-choral settings of ki hinne kaḥomer. From the extant evidence, however, the practice of engaging in elaborate, emotionally expressive, and sometimes even quasi-operatic or theatrical renditions appears to be largely an American phenomenon—one that arose and prevailed for many decades in orthodox and similarly traditional services. In most printed European cantorial-choral anthologies, this piyyut is represented by a simple intonation, sometimes with a modest choral refrain and occasionally some basic choral accompaniment. There are a few possible exceptions, in the form of developed choral compositions whose original versions (unadorned or unextended by choral arrangers in America) remain mostly in manuscript, but these are typically more concise and more conservative than their American counterparts. 1

There are European precedents for full-scale, formally composed settings of two other principal piyyutim of the Yom Kippur eve service—ya’ale and amnam ken—though many of them also exhibit more reserve than American settings of the same poems. 2 But it was principally on the American scene during the first half of the 20th century that many cantors, choirmasters, and composers in traditional European and immigrant era–inflected synagogue circles seized upon ki hinne kaḥomer as well for expanded musical expression, perceiving the Yom Kippur eve recitation of all three of these piyyutim as legitimate opportunities for extended aesthetic experience and even concert-type performance. 

Criticism, if not outright opprobrium, has followed from other, differently attuned quarters, reflecting opposing predispositions concerning the appropriate role of music vis-à-vis prayer and invoking divergent perceptions of spirituality in worship. Yet adherents of the grand-scale, performance-oriented, and transparently melodious approach to these three piyyutim in particular could find justification in the colorful language and reassuring sentiments of the poetry, and in the notion that joyful melodic expression need not necessarily be incompatible with optimistic anticipation of forgiveness and renewal. Moreover, in the sensibilities of congregations that welcomed such settings, the ostensibly unhurried service on Yom Kippur eve—with its absence of preordained time restraints and even the desiderata of prolonging the service in order to preclude any other activities before retiring, until the resumption of prayers early the next morning—could invite such indulgences as contrasting relief from the otherwise pervasive solemnity and awesomeness associated with the Yom Kippur services. 

Of course, that same situation and those same circumstances applied in Europe with reference to Yom Kippur. That a sense of classical reserve pervaded the musical renditions of all three of these piyyutim in the relatively westernized and more sophisticated khor shuls—which were attended by middle-class and upper-middle-class Jews in cosmopolitan eastern European cities—may be attributed to their acculturated classical tastes and their attraction to perceived modernity. We are able to assess the nature of that khor shul repertoire with at least some degree of authority because a significant part of it (though by no means all) is preserved in printed or published form. Additional evidence is contained in the well-organized, hand-notated and bound choirmaster’s score compilations that have survived—known colloquially, if incorrectly, as partiturs. And there are some extant part books. We are less informed, however, about the nature and styles of the choral music in the less westernized or non-westernized synagogues—both those in the same cities where khor shuls existed, and those in smaller towns in outlying regions of the Czarist and Hapsburg empires (and Rumania). Yet these synagogues represented the bulk of religiously observant eastern European Jewry. Cantors, choirs, and choirmasters in that world relied heavily on a collective manuscript tradition and a manuscript repertoire, much of which has yet to be located, studied, identified, and authenticated—and much of which is probably irretrievably lost. And the European origin of many such manuscripts and primitive sketches that have been collected cannot always be confirmed, in part because many of those same composers and choirmasters immigrated to America and continued composing without differentiating their scores with regard to location of completion. And—more potentially confusing—they often revised and extended earlier drafts from Europe, usually without dating them or providing other information. Nor can authorship always be verified, since not all composers credited themselves on the manuscripts. The musical handwriting of these composers is rarely known and is at best subject to guesswork; and such manuscripts were often notated by copyists other than their composers.

Still, we do know from the available evidence—which includes eye- and ear-witness accounts, a few authentic recorded examples, and certain manuscripts that can be identified or documented—that ya’ale and amnam ken in fact did inspire choral compositions and performances far beyond, as well as comfortably within, the khor shul context. And at least some of the former suggest theatrical or dramatic parameters found in later American settings, albeit usually in less-uninhibited expositions. Still, the question specifically concerning ki hinei kaḥomer remains, in principle, for it is unclear why that piyyut seems not to have attracted the same degree of choral attention in Europe as did the two other piyyutim—and why it awaited the American experience to achieve such recognition.

Many of the ki hinei kaḥomer settings written in America during the first half of the 20th century (Joshua Lind’s, for example, also recorded and presented by the Milken Archive) were addressed primarily to worshippers with orthodox or similar eastern European aesthetic orientations, and most of this type, including Lind’s, were never published. These were therefore typically composed either with TTBB männerchor (adult male voices) or with ensembles of men and boys in mind. Mark Silver’s piece for mixed choir, however, while lacking none of the melodic immediacy, warmth, conventional harmonic treatment, and traditional flavor of those others (and, if rearranged for male choir, could be equally suitable for orthodox services), became the most widely sung setting of this piyyut among Conservative synagogues. It has also become known in those Reform congregations that have restored it to their liturgy as an option (it was not included in the Union Prayerbook), either in its entirety or in abbreviated form. Over the years, its currency can only have been increased by its inclusion in 1940 in the Yom Kippur volume (Volume II) of Gershon Ephros’s Cantorial Anthology of Traditional and Modern Synagogue Music, a rich and widely disseminated compilation of settings by numerous composers for nearly all the principal texts of the liturgy.

In conceiving his formal structure, Silver followed a practice common to many other settings of this piyyut, as well as to those of ya’ale and amnam ken (including multiple settings), whereby each strophe constitutes an independent through-composed musical unit—a mini-composition with fresh melodic and rhythmic material. After the initial strophe, none of the succeeding ones contain developed material from earlier ones. All the strophes are bound by the simple refrain (labrit habet), preserving its unaltered recurrences in the poem. Only the first four strophes are further related by his consideration of the third and concluding line of each as if it were part of a complex refrain, or part of an overall complex strophic structure with altered refrains—viz., each stanza beginning with the same words (ken anaḥnu b’yadkha; We are thus in Your hand), which are then followed in each case by a distinct reference to one of the Divine attributes stated by the poet. Those concluding lines of each of the first four stanzas, with their text variations, are set to the same tune, with identical harmonization. Lind and others use this procedure as well.

Another established structural convention invoked by both Silver and Lind for ki hinei kaḥomer (and typical of piyyutim settings in general) is the assignment of particular strophes to specific solo voice types (soprano solo, alto solo, etc.) drawn from the choir—in addition to the cantor, who is assigned one or more strophes as well. (Lind reserves more than one strophe for full choir treatment in this case, while Silver sets only the first stanza chorally.)

Despite these shared features, the two settings differ stylistically in a number of telling ways. Indeed, a comparative consideration of the two provides a useful illustration of some of the generic divergences between two equally “American” directions in traditionally based synagogue music up through the 1940s. One, while respecting aesthetic-historical continuity, is conservatively modern (Silver), shaped by modest artistic sophistication and informed by a perceived sense of sacred occasion. The other (Lind) betrays no pretense at modernity. Rather, it sounds more overtly driven by Old World folk sensibilities, Yiddish theatrical elements, reverberations of Hassidic optimism, and an eastern European cantorial melos (including the imitation of operatic idioms, which was prevalent in much eastern European cantorial-choral repertoire). Lind’s setting features virtuoso choral passages that require substantial rehearsal for the syllabic articulation and idiomatic effects, as well as borrowed Italian operatic clichés that evoke Verdi at some points and Rossini at others. These aspects give the piece the status of a concert number, in which capacity it has in fact enjoyed considerable success (as late as 2003, for example, at New York’s Lincoln Center), in addition to its proven liturgical function for appropriately attuned congregations. This potential dual role should not be deemed necessarily incongruous, given the character of the piyyut—whose text falls outside the strict boundaries of obligatory prayer and thus might be viewed as extra-liturgical. 

By contrast, Silver’s setting is far more restrained, even in its tuneful but more melodically interesting refrain. It is less dramatic and more lyrical, suggesting in its solo lines the imprint of classical lieder rather than operatic influence. Unlike Lind’s, it would probably not be programmed on concert presentations.

This comparison of the two settings reflects not only the different levels of musical education and artistic development of the composers, but also the differing perspectives and frames of reference of their intended audiences. The points of departure in these pieces are in some ways indicative of the distinct but still broadly traditional cultural camps into which each fell.

Had Silver composed his setting in eastern Europe at an earlier time, it might well have found acceptance in a khor shul there. Lind’s unabashedly theatrical and in some respects entertaining interpretation would probably not have been tolerated in that Western-bent milieu. Considered together, these pieces also speak to one aspect of the diversity of the American synagogue experience.

1.One example is a setting attributed to Wolf Shestapol (ca. 1832–1872), a learned cantor-composer [a.k.a. Velvele Chersoner] in the khor shul milieu in the Russian Empire. He is best remembered for the now ubiquitous secondary congregational melody employed in many, if not most, familiar settings of the atzi kaddish preceding the musaf service on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (for the words b’ḥayeikhon ub’yomeikhon . ..  and l’ela ul’ela …). His treatment of the ki hinei kaḥomer text exhibits charm and taste, but it is not clear whether Gershon Ephros’s published arrangement (Cantorial Anthology of Traditional and Modern Synagogue Music, Volume II, 1940) represents his new arrangement of a preexisting choral piece by Shestapol or simply a choral construction based on a melody or melodic skeleton by Shestapol. In any case, that arrangement addresses only the initial stanza of the piyyut. 

Another such exception is the modest and succinct homophonic choral setting by Borukh Schorr (1823–1904), a scholarly and celebrated cantor-composer who—after serving important pulpits in Khotin, Bessarabia; Kamenets-Podolski; Iaşi [Jassy], Rumania; and Budapest—became the Chief Cantor of the Great Synagogue in Lemberg (L’vov, Galicia; now L’viv, in Ukraine). During this time he spent five years in New York, after which he returned to Lemberg at his community’s urging. His Ki hinei kaḥomer was published posthumously in a collection edited and issued originally by his son, Cantor Israel Schorr (N’ginoth Baruch Schorr: Complete Service, According to the Traditional Ritual for New Year and Day of Atonement; 1906). How much the son’s editing involved any further choral arranging or rearranging is not known, since manuscripts in Borukh Schorr’s hand have not been located. But an unsigned preface (probably the publisher’s) to the reissued volume by Bloch Publishing Company (1928) states that “in editing the music he [Israel Schorr] endeavored to leave the traditional songs for cantor and choir in their original settings….”


2.The above-cited collection of compositions by Borukh Schorr (n. 1), for example, one of the few relatively reliable editions and publications of representative pieces from the aforementioned aggregate manuscript repertoire tradition, contains two independent settings of amnam ken. We may be safe in assuming that these were part of Schorr’s actual repertoire at one or more of his pulpits. Bothn exhibit intricate, ornate choral writing, and both are infused with emotionally evocative and even quasi-theatrical passages, as well as an overall aura of accessible grandeur. The second one (No. 164 in the volume), the more elaborate and dramatic of the two, was in fact subsequently rearranged for TTBB adult male chorus (from the original SATB version intended for a choir of men and boys) to become part of the concert repertoire of the Hazzanim Farband Chor (the chorus of the Jewish Ministers Cantors Association) in New York, where it was performed at Carnegie Hall (see the introduction to Volume 14). Subsequently it became part of the concert repertoire of other adult Jewish male voice choruses, including Schola Hebraeica, which performed the piece on its 1994 North American tour. 

By: Neil W. Levin



Sung in Hebrew

Like simple clay
In the hands of the potter,
Who can at will shape, lengthen, stretch,
And can also at will crush, abandon,
So too are we in Your hand
Merciful God of love and grace.
Look to Your covenant—
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like an uncut stone
In the hands of the mason,
Who can at will grasp, shape, chisel,
And can also at will shatter, destroy,
So too are we in Your hand,
Master of both life and death.
Look to Your covenant —
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like an iron implement
In the hands of the harvester,
Who can at will wield his tool,
And can also at will lay it down,
So too are we in Your hand,
Sustainer of the poor, the wretched.
Look to Your covenant—
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like a ship’s rudder
In the hands of the helmsman,
Who can at will steer, guide,
And can also at will relent, retract,
So too are we in Your hand,
Beneficent and forgiving God.
Look to Your covenant—
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like crystal
In the hands of the glazier, 
Who can at his will celebrate its beauty,
And can also at will melt, shatter,
So too are we in Your hand,
You who pardon iniquity and guilt
Look to Your covenant —
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like a curtain
In the hands of the draper,
Who can at will shape, lengthen,
And can also at will cut, shorten,
So are we in You hand,
Oh, God of justice and law.
Look to Your covenant —
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Like silver
In the hands of the smith,
Who can at will cleanse away the dross,
And can also at will ignore the impurities,
So are we in Your hand,
Oh, God who sends healing to the sick.
Look to Your covenant—
And not to our perverse inclinations.

Translation: Rabbi Morton M. Leifman




Composer: Mark Silver

Length: 07:52
Genre: Liturgical

Performers: Meir Finkelstein, Tenor;  Neil Levin, Conductor;  New York Cantorial Choir

Date Recorded: 01/01/2000
Venue: Riverside Church (E), New York, New York
Engineer: Stedman, Marc
Assistant Engineer: Frost, David
Project Manager: Levin, Neil

Additional Credits:

 Publisher: Bloch Publishing


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