Haven yakkir li efra’im is a passage from the Rosh Hashana musaf liturgy that quotes Jeremiah 31:19 (20?). In the context of the immediately preceding passage in that liturgy—a quotation from Ezekiel (16:60) that refers to God recalling, and thereby confirming, His early covenant with Israel despite its transgressions and failures—these words from Jeremiah refer to God’s steadfast remembrance of the Jewish people and His unswerving assurance of compassion. The significance of this quotation within the Rosh Hashana service can be related to the concept of Rosh Hashana as yom hadin—the Day of Judgment—and the acknowledgment of God as the supreme but compassionate Judge.
Since ca. 745 B.C.E., before the time of Jeremiah, the term Ephraim was used to refer to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who, after the death of Solomon, were split from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. This was because of Ephraim’s preeminence among the ten tribes (see Genesis 48:19). In this prophecy, which occurred after the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel while the Kingdom of Judah was still standing, God assures the exiles that they too will be remembered. The allusion here takes the form of a poetic comparison to a parent-child relationship, where a beloved child, though he has provoked justifiable parental anger and even estrangement, is nonetheless remembered tenderly by his parent and is not ultimately loved any the less. In the Rosh Hashana liturgy, this promise extends to the entire Jewish people.
The liturgical portion from which this passage is excerpted is known as the zikhronot (remembrance), which, in turn, is the second of a tripartite section of the Rosh Hashana musaf liturgy known as the t’kiatot. T’kiatot is the presumed plural of the Aramaic t’kiata, the term signifying each of those three parts, the first of which is called malkhuyyot (Divine sovereignty), and the third, shofarot (trumpetlike or shofar sounds heralding Divine revelation and fulfillment of the Divine promise for ultimate messianic redemption and liberation). Each of these three liturgical divisions concerns and illustrates one of the three central theological themes of Rosh Hashana.
The zikhronot addresses the theme of God as the Divine recorder of all acts and deeds, who therefore remembers all promises and covenants, in connection with which Rosh Hashana is also known as yom hazikaron—the Day of Remembrance. (In addition to its name of yom hadin, which is exemplified in the malkhuyyot division by its reference to God’s absolute kingship and authority, Rosh Hashana is known by yet another name: yom t’ru’a—the Day of the Shofar Blasts, which heralded God’s revelation on Mount Sinai when the Torah was given to the people through Moses and which will also herald the ultimate redemption. That theme is expressed is the shofarot division of the t’kiatot.)
Each of these three liturgical divisions contains ten biblical quotations that pertain to and support its theme: three from the Torah, followed by three from Psalms, then three from the Prophets (of which this Jeremiah verse is one), concluding with yet another from the Torah. This ritual and order is traceable at least to the 2nd century C.E., since it is mentioned in the Mishna (Rosh Hashana iv, 5–6), which dates to that period. At the conclusion of each division, the shofar is sounded according to a prescribed set of articulations, or shofar blasts. This practice, too, is cited in that same 2nd-century Mishna. Each of the ten sets of biblical quotations is also preceded by a prologue and followed by a prayer and its related b’rakha. The insertion of those texts is attributed to the 3rd-century scholar Rav, who founded the Sura Academy in Babylonia.
This passage from Jeremiah, haven yakkir li efra’im, is thus only one of twelve equally significant and musically inviting texts in the zikhronot—viz., the ten biblical quotations together with the prologue, ata zokher ma’asei olam (You, God, remember all that has transpired since the world’s beginning) and the concluding prayer, zokhrenu b’zikhron tov (Focus on Your favorable memories of us). Yet these particular words have captured the imagination of American Jewry more than any other part of that liturgical division. Virtually all musically notated European cantorial-choral sources from the 18th through the early 20th centuries—printed volumes as well as manuscript compilations and even rare early recordings—treat this passage proportionately vis-à-vis the whole of the zikhronot, which in some cases is even set in its entirety as a continuous musical rendition. Indeed, there are many fine settings of haven yakkir li among those European sources (usually including the preceding two passages as a single composition). But these are neither lengthy nor overly repetitive expositions of the type often prevalent in the American repertoire, and even in those eastern European synagogues where virtuoso cantors did sing moderately extended recitatives or improvisations for haven yakkir li, it would not have been to the exclusion of the other surrounding texts, and certainly not the sole musical emphasis within the zikhronot. To the contrary, there are many important extant European cantorial compositions for its other parts, and many other dramatic moments and images that lend themselves to cantorial expression.
In the American arena, however, the words of haven yakkir li appear to have been singled out for the peak moment in the zikhronot, often overshadowing the rest. From fairly early in the 20th century in America, cantors and synagogue composers—ironically, mostly European émigrés—seized upon the theatrical possibilities in these words, sometimes exceeding the usual boundaries of prayer in an appeal to popular tastes and enjoyment. As concert pieces, however, such boundaries need not apply.
This setting by Samuel Malavsky may be considered such a concert piece. Although he was a prominent traditional cantor in his own right, Malavsky is best known for singing with his six children, collectively known as the Malavsky Family Choir—a highly popular attraction for Jewish audiences especially during the 1950s and 1960s—and it is expressly for the family choir that he wrote most of his settings and arrangements.
Malavsky was born in Smela, near Kiev, in the Ukraine (dates have been given variously as 1893, 1894, and 1896, but in a 1999 interview his three daughters confirmed the first). In a typical scenario for late-19th-century eastern Europe, he sang as a child in synagogue and itinerant cantorial choirs throughout parts of the Russian Empire, often with important cantors. By the age of fifteen he had become known as a wunderkind hazzan. Shortly after he came to America, in 1914, he was “discovered” by the legendary and world-famous cantor Yossele [Joseph] Rosenblatt, who became his close friend and mentor. But while Malavsky’s own cantorial delivery was often patterned after his mentor’s, his later choral settings for the family choir departed drastically from Rosenblatt’s classical, operatic, and more traditional European choral approach.
The Malavsky Family Choir sang for religious services, usually in independent venues, but it also appeared on recordings and radio and in concerts of liturgical music as well as Yiddish theatrical and popular numbers, which had the character of light entertainment. On some programs they even did “reenactments” of synagogue services, costumed with cantorial and choral garb and including ritual stage business. One of Malavsky’s daughters has described her father as “equally an entertainer and a hazzan—the first ‘stand-up’ hazzan.” The style of his compositions and arrangements, as well as their renditions, thus often exploited the undeniable theatrical elements in certain liturgical texts. Because the family choir was the inspiration for Malavsky’s settings, the overall distinctive sound of that ensemble is usually associated with the music he created. The rendition on this recording, however, reflects an alternative, more classical approach.
Although this setting of Haven yakkir li was often performed at Malavsky Family Choir concerts, the Malavskys and others have sometimes sung it for actual synagogue services on Rosh Hashana. In those worship settings, it is acceptable to abbreviate some of it and curtail some of the cantorial extensions. The version recorded here combines Simon Spiro’s own arrangement with modifications by other arrangers for the introductory section.
Sung in Hebrew
And it is said:
“Is Ephraim not my beloved son,
My dear child?
For even when I reprove him,
I remember him with love.
When I think of him,
My very innards turn over with emotion.
Surely I will have mercy on him.
So says the Lord.”
© Simon Spiro Organization
Arranger: Simon Spiro
Translation by Rabbi Morton M. Leifman
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