Music and Liturgy

By Hazzan Dr. Ramón Tasat

What’s New?

On Selihot and on Yom Kippur, I will introduce two melodies that are enormously popular in the Middle East: “Adon haSelihot” and “Adir ve Naor
On Rosh haShana evening we will introduce an ancient melody for the Haskivenu prayer that originated in Portugal and became popular in Bordeaux (France)
On the first day of Rosh haShana I will introduce a contemplative Turkish melody for Nishmat kol Hai setting the mood for the morning.
The Kol Nidre service will be introduced with a Syrian niggun originally applied to the words Adonai Melekh.
During Ne’ilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur, we will chant a poignant Sephardic melody of Portuguese origin entitled El rey de Francia (The king of France) Later on, during the Yizkor service we will offer renditions of four selections of Israeli poets and composers, songs deeply associated to times of loss and longing. — Hazzan Dr. Ramón Tasat

The Music

Our music environment mirrors our philosophy. Every music style and every genre is welcome when it help us connect with the text and our emotions.

Some melodies are more accessible and invite communal participation. Whether the music is Hassidic or Middle Eastern, our goal is that clear:  we aspire for it to reach our most intimate being.
According to Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller, there are at least four different ways of finding God through sacred music:

Music of majesty,

Majestic Music is best illustrated by the unrestrained repertoire of the Western art tradition. In our services, it is exemplified by works such as Max Janowski’s setting of Sim Shalom, and the Louis Lewandowski compositions Enosh (Yom Kippur Yizkor service) and Haleluyah (Psalm 150 in the Shofarot on Rosh Hashanah).

Music of meditation

Meditative Music corresponds best to prayers recited individually punctuated by the hazzan beginning and ending these meditative moments.  Think of the Pesuke deZimra (preliminary service) and the first section of the Shaharit-morning prayers.  Majestic Music is grandiloquent, extroverted while Meditative Music transports us deep into the heart of the prayer in an intimate way. At the same time, though, one might classify Hin’ni, the hazzan’s plea for the ability to pray on behalf of the congregation, as music of meditation.  This sublime moment offers me the challenge and opportunity to express my desire to represent you as a community.  Each time I walk up the aisle, through the community of souls I represent, I improvise the interpretation to try to capture the essence of who we are (while following a general musical plan dictated by tradition).

Music of Meeting

Music of meeting enables us to sing together. Think of congregational melodies such as Alenu, the Torah Service, B’rosh Hashanah yikatevun and many others. Remember that music of meeting is only effective if you are part of it.  Ya’ale and Avinu malkenu are just a few of the many melodies we sing together at Shirat HaNefesh. While we incorporate new melodies every year, the core of them remains the same so if you recognize a particular tune don’t hesitate and sing with me.

Music of memory

Kol Nidre is the example par excellence of music of memory — a melody that is filled with associations of your Jewish life – a melody associated with hundreds of years of Jewish history. Many of the tunes at the heart of our service date back hundreds of years – some of them even more and we purposely preserve them for the High holidays. Yes, they are special, unique and we don’t sing them any other time of the year! Other examples of this music of memory are Hamelekh, the Great Alenu, and Yigdal, among many others. Music carries our hearts, minds and souls into the past and into the future.

Congregational Participation

Niggunim – melodies without words

As the niggunim resonate in the room, join in, and enter the sacred music tent.  As you gain familiarity with the chant, it will help you connect with those around you. Musical concerns will be minimized, and slowly you will enter a different realm, a kingdom where time, will stop governing our lives. One of them, composed by Cantor Natasha Hirschhorn, entitled Yesh Adonai ba makom ha ze, ve anokhi lo yadati (God is in this place and I did not know it), helps us become aware of the sacredness of the day.

Pizmonim – refrains

The Hebrew language has a direct link to our communal past, to our ancestors. It is part of our linguistic identity. Yet, for many, Hebrew is not easy to pronounce and may get in the way when we are trying to connect with the Creator of the universe. To help with this problem, we have incorporated several pizmonim – a few words that repeat often helping us memorize them, thereby easing the way toward participating more intensely during the service.  Here are a few that you might want to “practice” in advance to get ready to add your voice to our communal singing:

What’s New?

On Selihot and on Yom Kippur, I will introduce Sh’ma Kolenu (listen to our voice) a congregational melody composed by Hazzan Sol Zim.
On Rosh haShana evening we will sing Kadeshenu be Mitzvotekha (Sanctify us with Your commandments) to a contagious Turkish melody. We will conclude the evening service with “Let me dwell with You” a moving composition by Aviva Chernick (Psalm 27:4)
On the first day of Rosh haShana and before the Haftarah for look for a deeply felt rendition of Akara (Barren) a poem by Rachel Bluwstein with music of the celebrated Israeli singer Achinoam Nini.
On Yom Kippur afternoon you will hear a fado, a Portuguese melody written by the talented Israeli singer Idan Reichel to the prayer Sim Shalom (grant us peace). Later on, during the Yizkor service we will offer renditions of four selections of Israeli poets and composers, songs deeply associated to times of loss and longing.

Liturgical Overview

Selihot – It is Time for Teshuva

The High Holidays are the magnet for a great number of musical compositions. We involve ourselves with texts and melodies that uplift our neshama and help us immerse in soul searching and personal explorations. On our road to teshuva, we strive to be what we are not yet.

Erev Rosh Hashanah Evening Service

The Evening Service for Rosh Hashanah is similar to the one for Shabbat.  It is distinguished only by the inclusion of the Torah verse Tik’u Va hodesh Shofar and a silent Amidah that includes subjects and melodies unique to the high holidays.  A majestic tune, heard repeatedly from Barkhu on, is remarkably upbeat and reminds us that Rosh haShana announces the creation of the universe. The Evening Service concludes with a special High Holiday version of Yigdal –an ancient melody that I have rearranged in flamenco style. There is no more regal motif to be found in the nusah than that which is central to the Evening Service for the High Holidays.  For Bar’khu we sing a majestic melody that will be heard throughout the service and embodies the hopefulness of the New Year.


Both the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur morning services begin with Hamelekh, a poem stressing the imagery of God as Sovereign of all. The main prayers of Shaharit are the Sh’ma and the ‘Amidah. The personal recitation of the Amidah always oncludes three opening and three closing blessings. The opening blessings represent God in history, God in nature and God in holiness. The final three represent Acceptance of our prayer , Thanksgiving, and Peace. In the repetition of the Amidah, several sections are added – piyyutim with their own liturgical theme and own unique melody. The music for the Torah Service includes many familiar melodies originally conceived for choirs and that now the community sings together. You might pay specially attention to the melody used for the chanting of the Torah as is unique to the Yamim Noraim.

Musaf (Additional) Service

After the Torah is returned to the ark, the Musaf service begins with a unique and special prayer of the Hazzan, a dramatic Cantor’s petition called Hineni which the hazzan chants beginning at the rear of the congregation. The Musaf service for the Days of Awe contains a number of elements that are truly unique to these Holidays: It includes rich prayers such as the Un’taneh Tokef (“who shall be written in the book of life,”) an extraordinary rendition that paints with vivid colors our desire to be inscribed in the book of life. Later highlights in the Musaf service include the Great Alenu followed by the Shofar-sounding sections Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot. At Shirat haNefesh we conclude the Musaf ‘Amida with a rendition of Sim shalom sung to the melody from the movie Schindler’s list composed by John Williams.

Minha: The afternoon service

The afternoon service is punctuated by the book of Yona (Jonah) that centers on the power of repentance. This year we will be telling Jonah’s story of as a bibliodrama conceived and produced by Shirat haNefesh Educational director Steve Berer and a number of congregants of all ages.


We recite the memorial prayers during the afternoon service of Yom Kippur immediately preceding the powerful Neilah service when sun sets. Yizkor will include a meaningful opportunity for all to participate in two ways: First, we will encourage anyone who has lost a loved one between last Yom Kippur and this year to offer brief comments on the lives they are remembering so poignantly at this time. Second, we will encourage anyone who wishes to bring a small stone or stones with them in order to place them in a memory basket at the front of the community during the service. In this way we will demonstrate our connection with the lives of loved ones, especially those whose graves are far away, providing an opportunity to respect a revered custom of visiting the graves of ancestors.


We are getting to the end of the Day of Atonement. It is time for Neilah, the gates of heaven are closing but still open to receive our final prayers and supplications. Prayers like Ptah lanu sha’ar and Pithu lanu sha’are Tzedek magnify our desire to keep the gates open. The mood swiftly changes and a feeling of urgency and spiritual transformation permeates the air. You will hear the haunting Ne’ilah melody only chanted once a year during this service. Here is our final chance to pour out our hearts to bend God’s decision towards mercy. Many worshipers feel a revitalization of their spiritual strength. Beginning with the repetition of the Amidah, the ark remains open throughout the Neilah service. We replace the phrase “inscribe us in the Book of Life,” for the urgent “seal us in the Book of Life.” A long blast of the shofar (tekiah gedolah) symbolizes the certainty and the sheer joy that we have been granted divine forgiveness and been inscribed for a good year.

Spiritual Practices

The repetition of certain prayers during the Days of Awe can serve as a vehicle to deepen our emotional connection to God and to the core of our being. The prayers can enter more deeply as the chant becomes ever more familiar and connecting until by the time of Neilah we can actually feel our physical being rising with the words.
Frequently our mind wanders and our focus shifts and one time our entry into a prayer may cause us to focus on only one word or one thought that moves us in a particular direction. The prayer service can and should serve to take us along a journey into ourselves.
Here are eight specific practices which occur during the Days of Awe:
The most characteristic element of the traditional format for prayer is a balance between public and private prayer times. During the standing prayer (the Amidah) we have the opportunity to pray privately as in a whisper. People take different amount of time to pour their hearts. When we finish this section, we may begin a communal melody while some are still praying and therefore giving permission for those folks to continue.
At times, the service leader begins a prayer together with the community and then lowers his/her voice so that individuals can continue with the prayer intimately. At the end of the section the leader brings the community together once more. This practice might provide a good opportunity to connect the flow of the service with our own pace and thoughts.
Twice a year we actually take the opportunity to express our awe at the wonders of Creation and our humility before the Creator by actually bowing all the way to the ground and prostrating oneself face down. This happens during the Alenu prayer in the Musaf service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Undoubtedly, this is our most physical of our rituals in that it involves the whole body, but actually not so strange given our Muslim cousins do something similar five times a day and certain of our Christian cousins kneel at every service.
We take time to reflect on the central themes of the holiday.
Many of us connect emotionally with prayers more effectively if chanted. The use of a recurrent melodic motif can create an atmosphere that helps us concentrate more fully. Sometimes chanting prayers in both Hebrew and English is also helpful sp we take full advantage of this practice as well.
Inspirational texts aimed at entering the sacred space especially as introductions to major sections of the liturgy.
At the Yizkor/ memorial service we encourage you to bring an object related to a loved one, or perhaps a brief recollection in writing and place them in a basket near the ark at some point during that service. This will be a tangible link to your loved one and a physical and symbolic act of remembering.
At Neilah, the concluding service for Yom Kippur, the ark stands open for almost the whole service and many remain standing the entire time. Some of us choose to walk up directly in front of the ark and offer personal prayers.