The Power of Jewish Music

Cantor Paul S. Glasser, National Executive Director of NCSY

Jewish music affects the soul of the individual. Often it is the music of the Jewish people which motivates an individual to take a look at himself and grow from one stage to the next. Often it is Jewish music which, at a simcha, creates such excitement for the benefit of the baalei simcha that we become totally enveloped in its vibrancy and vitality. The power of Jewish music is substantial; in NCSY it has been a critical component of our message and has been used as such in our programs for over four decades.

I remember clearly the excitement at what we used to do at havdalah in NCSY. Rabbi Stolper made havdalah and the second that he finished the words, "HaMavdil bein Kodesh l’chol", there was a band ready behind the curtain, the curtain was opened and the excitement of the music as Shabbos ended brought us yet to another emotional peak at an NCSY Shabbaton. Today we consider it such a critical component to our program that we do not even wait for the end of havdalah. Since we have technically made havdalah in the davening, we are able to hear and participate with the band during havdalah. Most of you are familiar with the excitement and the emotions which are generated by our music at havdalah.

The melodies of the Jewish people are referred to as a niggun. Niggunim are full of words from the Siddur, the Tanach, and Torah Shel Be’al Peh. Therefore, when we learn a song, we are learning a pasuk, we are learning a message, we are learning a lesson from the Torah; when we sing, we not only sing, we also learn and we pray. Over the years, NCSY has often introduced a "special niggun" that has been "the song" at a National Convention or a particular Shabbaton. Advisors have prepared a particular song that will be taught and will be the focus of the ruach for the weekend. It is this musical experience which not only energizes and invigorates the event, but it also serves to motivate young people to develop closer and deeper feelings for Yiddishkeit.

Can you imagine a Shabbaton or Yarchei Kallah which did not have Shabbos ebbing away with the traditional songs which move us at the end of Shabbos? Could you imagine a kumzits where the music did not play an essential role in the message of the Shabbaton theme? Music is used to motivate NCSYers to speak about themselves and their experiences. Jewish music has been paramount in the NCSY experience and the NCSY Shabbaton model.

So why is Jewish music Jewish? Well, technically we use a particular solfeggio scale in which we have come to define Jewish music, both through its scale and its intonation. In Shemos we read, "Viyehi Kolos Uvrokim Al Hohor," suggesting musical sounds as far back in Jewish history as Har Sinai. There are tunes of the davening of the High Holidays associated with tunes as far back as Har Sinai ("MiSinai tunes"). In terms of our davening, we often relate to the times of the year through Jewish music. This music often has its basis in the Taamei Hamikrah or the cantillation, the notes of the Torah or the Megillot, which are considered to be in many cases more than a thousand years old.

Rashi, who lived from 1040 to 1105, mentions the Taamei Hamikrah, the notes of the cantillation, in some of his commentaries. This suggests that, because of the way in which those notes are placed, there is a particular way in which to read the pasuk.

Throughout the ages, Nusach Hat’filah, the modes of prayer, have been developed using the basic cantillation modes. Therefore, when we walk into shul on Rosh Hashanah and sing the traditional tune for maariv before Boruch Hu, we are all affected emotionally.

When Jews all over the world enter Ashkenazic synagogues and hear the intonations of Kol Nildre by the shaliach tzibur, they are moved to relate to the Day of Atonement in such a way that affects them to the core of their very being. If an observant Jew davens in Melbourne, in New York, in Los Angeles or in Tel Aviv on a particular Shabbos or Yom Tov, the expectation for the music of the davening is the same in almost every single city that has as its basis the Ashkenazic mode of davening. Therefore, perhaps the greatest power of synagogue music is the way in which it unites us as a Jewish people.

The Nusach Hat’filah sung appropriately will sound the same in a modern Orthodox synagogue or in a Chassidishe shtieble. Although you will find an array of different congregational singing, the basic modes of davening are the same.

In summary, music has the power to effect our neshamos and to move us to be closer to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Our music has the power to educate; our music has the power to teach, and our music has the power to motivate. For you, the NCSYer, buy cassettes and CDs and get closer to Jewish music. It may truly make a difference in the quality of your soul.