Bezalel Shulsinger

Bezalel Shulsinger (Odesser)
1770-1873 (1861?)

Jewish music in general and liturgical music in particular is an integral part of our national and cultural heritage. It has always been cherished and preserved by a few very devoted and distinguished people, who specialised in their profession. Their task was to collect, to teach and hand over their knowledge to future generations, in order to preserve this heritage for perpetuity.

One of those few outstanding people was the great Chazan and Composer of Chazanut Bezalel Shulsinger known as Bezalel Oddesser, since he lived most of his life in Oddessa, Russia, and served there in one of the great Synagogues known as the “Shtot Shool”. He was born in 1790 in Uman Russia (according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica 1770 and died in the year 1873), according to others he died in 1861.

The cradle of east European Chazanut was in Vohlinya a district in the Ukraine. From where emerged two styles of Chazanut. One was the style of the well known Solomon Weintrob who was named Kashtan. He was a contemporary of Shulsinger. His style found its recognition in North Western Countries, while Shulsinger’s style spread to the South. Both of these styles were similar in character, having the same elements and forms. Both were rich in expression and full hearted singing, what is termed in Hebrew “Shirat Halev.”

Both of the styles were based on the Ahava Rabba Styger. Kashtan’s style was nevertheless different from Shulsinger’s. It had more depth of thought and dignity. While Bezalel’s was more lyrical, sweet and persuasive, distinguished by its simplcity and grace.

Bezalel was a phenomenon in his life time. He belonged to a generation when Chazanut as we know it today was non existent. Very little is actually known about him before he came to Oddessa at the age of 36. From then on he became renowned as the man who created a Renaissance in Chazanut. A Chazan who laid the foundations of a new way of singing the prayers. Chazanim regarded him as an authority on the true Nussach Hatphila.

After years of persecutions, blood libels and Pogroms, Chazanut became the heritage of a very few. Many of the Chazanim of the 19th century were self taught Ba’alei Tephila who had good voices and a feeling for chanting the prayers. But they were singing to the masses and had vulgarised their art. Their way of singing Chazanut was to utilise the text for the benefit of the melody.

It is probably for that reason that many chazanim were critised by Rabbis and Scholars of that time for not having the proper devotion (Kavanah) in prayer. Bezalel Shulsinger appeared as a luminous star in the sky of Chazanut. He brought some order in the manner which a chazan should sing his prayers. He taught many Chazanim the true Nussach and the correct way to chant the prayers. He taught them devotion and uprooted vulgarity and superfluous repetitions. The singing of our prayers in the Shul at that time, was a part of the life of the people. The Synagogue was not only a place of worship but a second home to every religious Jew. A place where people came to pour out their hearts to the Almighty. Thus the Chazan had to possess exceptional talents. He had to intercede on behalf of his congregants to God, to express their feelings of pain and sorrow while chanting the prayers. The people expected the Chazan to stir them to ecstasy, to make them feel elevated in prayer and bring happiness to their hearts.

Therefore the outstanding Chazanim of the I4th century were those who endeavoured to gain knowled and discernment in the field of Chazanut as well as in the learning of the Torah. Among the great Chazanim who emerged at that time were also Nissan Belzer, Yerucham Hakatan, and Shlomo Weintrob (Kashtan). But Bezalel Shulsinger was probably the most renowned among all the giants Many legends were told about him while he was still alive. Although he did not receive any formal musical education, and did not know how to write music, nevertheless his influence on Synagogue music was far reaching.

Many Chazanim were his ‘Singers’ so to speak because they came to realise that his talent and knowledge was far greater than their own. Almost all the famous Chazanim of the first half of the 19th century have emulated his style, either in their composition or in their singing. Bezalel composed many recitatives mainly for the High Festival prayers, and many of his compositions achieved wide popularity. All of his compositions were written down by his pupils who had musical knowledge, and because of this most of his compositions were not published in his name. Only a few compositions from the text of the Avodah for Yom Kippur are to be found today ascribed to him.

Shulsinger’s compositions distinguished by their lyrical simplicity and easy moving grace were written down by members of his choir, many of whom became famous Chazanim. Chazanim like Shestopol, Abras, and Bachman, who were composers in their own right, wrote their compositions based upon his style and his ideas. They drew their inspitation from the well known recitatives of Bezalel, whose compositions were by then famous and of great use to every Chazan.

He seldom used ‘coloratura’ or any vocal acrobatics, but rather simple and straightforward tones of beautiful melodies. His ‘Negina’ was adorned with splendour and bore strict adherence to the correct Nussach. Shulsinger was the only one of his generation in whose recitatives one could recognise a continuous ‘Motife-line’. His greatness was that in spite of his lack of musical education, his compositions were very orderly and perfect in the layout of the text. His style was recognisable to every musician who dealt with liturgical music.

His expertise was especially revealed in the liturgy of the Yom Kippur Mussaf. There he showed himself in all his greatness and magnificence. It is said that whoever did not hear him render the Avodah prayers of Yom Kippur, had not heard a performance of the yearning of the soul.

His singing of the prayer ‘Umishechorav Beis Mikdosheinu’ became a master-piece for many Chazanim, an illustration of how one can pour out the heart to the Almighty, and express sorrow for the destruction of the Temple.

Bezalel Oddesser was not only a great ‘Menagen’ but also a great man, in wisdom and knowledge . A very pious and learned man. It is said that even great Tsadikim had high regard for him. They all promised him that he will eventually fulfil his desire to live his latter years in the land of Israel.

According to the famous Chazan Minkowsky, Bezalel was the last Chazan of past centuries who had deep knowledge of the various Nusschaoth. Leib Glantz in one of his articles mentions that Bezalel Oddesser was in his time the only great authority of the true Nussach Hatphila. Dr. Harris in his book describes, that his compositions would always aim for simplicity, beautiful melodies which befit the content of the prayer.

Shulsinger collected many Neginot by listening to Baalei Tephila of his time, absorbing the various nuances. Thus he could form and shape his own style of Chazanut. Among the very few recitatives left by Chazan Minkowsky at the Hebrew University library in Jerusalem, I have found a composition for the text ‘Umishechorav Beis Mikdosheinu’ which no doubt originates from Bezalel Shulsinger. Minkowsky always said, that he continued in the tradition of Bezalel.

The most famous of Bezalel’s work is the composition Ato Nosein Yad Laposhim which he sang to his pupils and admirers on the eve of his departure for Palestine, soon after his retirement. It was his greatest wish in life to settle down in the Holy Land.

He was over ninety when he died, and was buried in Jerusalem.

(Written by Chazan J Landenberg, and first published in the Cantors’ review, September 1981)