The Shema and its musical setting

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Towards the revaluation of the Cantorial Art

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Divinity and Music

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A new exponent of the
Hebrew chant

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The Shema and its
musical setting

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The “Shema” and its Musical Setting By REV. WALTER A. DAVIDSON 

In order to conceive an appropriate musical setting befitting the Shema, it is very essential for the one undertaking the task to fully comprehend the significance in all its phases since its inception.The Shema, the liturgical use of which originated at the Temple in Jerusalem, is universally accepted as one of the main foundations of the Jewish faith. To this day it is one of the most important prayers in the Synagogal service. In daily recital by reader and Congregation it has, since its inception, been a stirring and solemn proclamation and confession of Israel’s faith, and to this day it is with great devotion that the Jew utters the “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

An illustration of the great importance of the Shema, is the direction of the Talmud to teach children the Shema as soon as they commence to speak (Suk. 42a). The careful enumeration of the rules governing the pronouncement of the Shema by
the Rabbis is also indicative of the significance attached to it. This supplication must be spoken with great mental devotion (kavonah), with utter reverence and extreme solemnity. Its recital is to be pronounced audibly, accentuating the “Echod” strongly and at length, thereby visualizing a readiness of self-sacrifice for “Kiddush Hasheim.”

Since remote Jewish history the Shema had always been the resisting reply to Israel’s torturers and with that word upon their lips the martyrs withstood inconceivable agonies and atrocities committed upon them and died heroically for their belief, the faith in one God. Rabbi Akibah, who declined to refute his belief and for which he was subjected to torment with iron combs upon his flesh, patiently endured this cruel torture by reciting the Shema and died pronouncing the word “Echod” with his last breath (Ber. 61b). And so during the multitude of persecutions and massacres, from the time of the Inquisition to the slaughter of Kishineff and Chevron, the “Shema Israel” was the spirit of determination and steadfastness upon the lips of the dying heroes in resisting a forced recognition of falsity which was contrary to their religious belief. This “Shema Israel” has even become a sign of recognition between Jew and Jew, a so-called pass-word by which one Jew recognizes his racial brother in all corners of the world.

From the above it is readily conceivable what an inexhaustible field of inspiration is open for the musical interpretation of the Shema by an ingenuous master of Jewish Synagogal Music. So far, in the author’s opinion, no impressive Shema with complete  expression of its tradlitional rendition had come to light, and it is all together not clear how these many generations could have passed without bringing forth a traditional rendition (nusach) of the Shema while prayers and piutim of lesser importance acquired traditional melodies of immense beauty and feeling. Even such classical composers of Synagogal music as Sulzer, Lewandowsky or Naumbourg did not attain a musical setting for the Shema which exhibits an example of fidelity to the true Jewish spirit with a vivid expression of a complex, passionate and dynamic emotion with which ancient traditional melodies of the Synagogue are permeated.

In these days and especially due to the modern form of worship, a genuine musical setting for the Shema is of utmost importance. In the Reform and Conservative Congregations as well as in some Orthodox Synagogues, the Shema is the focal point of the entire services. The great profession of the Jewish Faith! The affirmation of the unity of God! This is the spirit in which the Shema should be transformed into music, thereby retaining the historical tradition without which its true significance lacks perfection.

Concerning the existing musical settings for the Shema, we may point out that Edward Stark in his “Annim Zmiros” (Bloch), services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, succeeded in bringing forth a Shema of grandeur and passion, vividly and symbolically portrayed. But a musical version of the Shema to be completely comprehensive of its great historical significance, created in the Jewish spirit and possessive of the characteristics of our ancient biblical music is still awaiting its master.

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