Sounds of the Season

For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1)

In Jewish prayer not only is there a season for everything, but a sound for every season. The musical nusach (literally “style”) of our liturgy is made up of musical modes and motifs that have evolved over the centuries into an evocative aural landscape. Simply stated, the prayer “tunes” help put us in the mind set of the holidays and the cycle of the Jewish year.

To understand how this works try this experiment: hum the tune of “Happy Birthday” and note to yourself any imagines, smells or emotions that come to mind while you are humming. Do you smell the candles burning? Do you imagine the friends and family crowded around the glowing cake? Perhaps you even have a sense of a certain season or time of year? For most of us, this simple tune carries with it joyous waves of memories and associations. It places us in a specific context of celebration—it puts us in the mood for a party and marks the passing of another year.

In the same way, there are distinct tunes and melodic patterns associated with each of the various Jewish prayer services. Weekdays, Shabbat, holidays; morning, afternoon and evening—each has a distinctive sound. So, even where the liturgical text is identical, the sound of the prayer is distinctive.

Of course the nusach for the High Holidays particularly distinctive and essential to our experience of the season. Most of us can hum from memory the familiar melodies for “B’rosh Hashana,” “Avinu Malkeinu” and “Ashamnu.” And who can imagine Yom Kippur without the haunting melody of Kol Nidre? Even the Torah trope for the High Holidays are special—the only time of year when this is the case. Mix into this the clarion call of the shofar and you have a “soundtrack” that evocates the mood and spirit of the season—preparing us for the journey of personal reflection and transformation that is the spiritual purpose of the High Holidays.

This year I hope that the “sounds of the season” will carry you and your family through the process of self-discovery to an experience of spiritual, as well as seasonal, renewal.