Does the tune matter?

Does It Really Matter What Tune I Use?

Rabbi G L Shisler

The standard book of traditional Ashkenazi melodies and modes for every day of the year, Abraham Baer’s ‘Ba’al Tefillah’, contains special tunes for Hallel, Az Shesh Me’ot, Akdamut, Yetziv Pitgametc for the festival of Shavuot. If you are lucky enough, you will hear them all during Yom Tov. It is very likely, however, that unless you have the benefit of a trained Chazan in your Shul, you will hear them gabbled through in a way that is barely different from the rest of the prayers, or they will have been attempted by someone who has a vague idea of how his grandfather remembered them being sung in der heim!

There are many places in our literature where the importance of singing with the correct melody is mentioned. Every day, the Levites sang Psalms in the Temple. They certainly sang them to the same tune each time, since the Book of Psalms has the singing notes written with the words, though, unfortunately, we no longer know how they interpreted those notes. It is quite clear that our Rabbis always have considered it exceedingly important for the person leading the service to use the ‘known’ melody for each prayer.

In Talmud Megillah 32a, Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘A person who reads the scripture without the correct melody … of him, Scriptures says, wherever I gave them statutes that were not good.’ The Shuichan Aruch chapter 619:1, quotes the Maharil who says: ‘… no-one should change the custom of the city, even the tunes …’ and on this, the Mishnah Berurah comments: ‘[This is] because it would confuse people.’

To emphasise the seriousness that they attached to making certain that the services were conducted correctly, the Shulchan Aruch, in the laws of Berachot (53:24) states: ‘A community which needs to engage a Rabbi and a Chazan, but cannot afford to pay both, unless the Rabbi [who is available to them] is a great Torah scholar, the [appointment of] the Chazan must take precedence.’
Our prayer modes, Nusach, are very old. Many of them are referred to by Chazanim as Misinai melodies (melodies from Sinai). Whilst it is highly unlikely that any of them are truly that ancient, experts have determined that most of them do go back at least as far as the 8th century CE.

As with other things, the fact that they have been in constant use for so long, their very age imbues them with a certain holiness. This demands that we treat them with reverence.

The reason that it matters whether the correct melody is used or not, is indicated in that terse comment of the Mishnah Berurahquoted above ‘Because [not using them] would confuse people’. Our traditional melodies serve two functions: They both reflect, and help to create, the mood of the day. Imagine hearing someone sing Hallel to the tune of Ma’oz Tzur on Pesach. It would totally destroy the atmosphere of Yom Tov for you, and you would instinctively ‘feel’ that something is not right. It would ‘confuse’ you.

For those people who still know what Az Shesh Me’ot in the repetition of the Shavuot Musaf Amidah should sound like, when they hear it sung, though incorrectly, it creates exactly the same feeling, that something is not right. We need to use all our resources to help us concentrate on our prayers. Perhaps the most effective is that of song, and the one who conducts services must be wary of the great responsibility he bears when he helps to direct the supplications of his congregation towards the Almighty.

(Published by the United Synagogue in the Daf Hashavua, 26th May 2001)