This page contains a number of articles from the pen of my very good friend, the distinguished Chazan Moshe Haschel.
In 1988 Chazan Haschel became Cantor of the Finchley Synagogue in London, where he succeeded Naftali Herstick and since 1997 he has been Chazan at the prestigious St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London.
He is a very popular Chazan and had given concerts in many parts of the world.
I am very appreciative that he has given me permission to reproduce these articles, which I am sure you will enjoy.
THE MUSIC OF OUR LITURGY
By Cantor Moshe Haschel
The musical material that we use for our prayers consists mainly of the traditional ‘Nusach’. The word nusach in our context refers primarily to the ancient traditional melodies that are specific to particular prayers. these melodies, through their majestic beauty and because of their ancient age have attained a status of sanctity. They have become an inseparable part of our ‘Minhag’. For these reasons they are also known as ‘Niggunim Missinai’ – ‘Tunes from Sinai’ and are regarded as if given on Mount Sinai.
Melodies in this group include the Kadishim before Mussaf of Yamim Noraim and before Neilah, Kadishim before the Geshem and Tal (prayers for rain and dew) ‘Vehakohanim’ of the Avodah Service on Yom Kippur and more. Their dissemination among Ashkenazi Jewry is attributed to Rabbi Yaacov Molin (known as The Maharil) of 14th century Mainz, a major halachic authority and himself a chazzan. His Sefer Haminhagim compiled by his disciple Rabbi Zalman, constitutes the foundation stone for Rabbi Moshe Isserlis’s (the Rama) halachic work Darkei Moshe and his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch. Thousands of quotations from this work are scattered in halachic literature. It is in this book that we find many instructions regarding the correct way of chanting various prayers. For Rabbi Molin’s efforts in spreading these melodies they are also known as ‘Nigunei Rabeinu Maharil’ – the tunes of our rabbi Maharil.
The term nusach can also refer to a certain musical style applied to some prayers. In distinction from the above missinai tunes, here nusach is a more general instruction. Whereas in the missinai tunes we have complete tunes, in this kind of nusach the insistence is only on a particular mode (a mode is a musical scale that bears a distinctive colour or flavour due to the specific intervals between its notes) and in some cases other specific motifs, but in general there is more freedom for musical expression.
For example, in the Musaf Service we have the section of Malchuyiot (biblical verses relating G-d’s kingship) – beginning with Al kein nekaveh Lecha. In order to express the majesty of G-d conveyed in these verses we very appropriately utilize the major scale which is capable of expressing majesty and grandeur. But apart from this requirement, the chazzan, within the major scale, is free to follow his own style and create his own recitative.
Another important element in our liturgical music is the wealth of compositions that were created particularly in the last two centuries. The beauty of our liturgical poetry inspired many chazzanim and choirmasters to compose and arrange many moving, rousing and exciting settings. People like Solomon Sulzer (1804- 1890), Louis Lewandowski (1821- 1894), Joseph Rosenblatt (1882-1933), Zavel Kwartin (1874-1952), Mordechai Hershman (1886-1943), Leib Glantz (1898-1964) and Moshe Ganchoff (1905-1997) to name but a few, created magnificent masterpieces for the Days of Awe. Some of these compositions were so enthusiastically received by congregations that they have become an integral part of the services in many synagogues thus attaining almost ‘Nussach’ status.
Last but by no means least we have also the beautiful tunes sung by the congregation during the services. These simple and catchy but nevertheless delightful melodies have the power to inspire and unite the congregation. Take for instance ‘Ki Anu Amecha’ before the ‘Vidui’ – Confession on Yom Kippur when the entire synagogue is immersed in singing ‘For we are Your people and You are our G-d’ in the traditional melody. This is one of the highest moments in the entire synagogue calendar. I have to say that at this point I just listen to the congregation and draw enormous inspiration.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that a Shaliach Tzibur – the chazzan acting on behalf of the congregation, has to have the ability to draw the good points in each one of the worshipers and then, having gathered all this goodness with him then he can pray on their behalf.
The great gift of music given to us by the almighty can elevate our prayers into a symphony of the goodness within us to bring us nearer to Him.