Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) is the culmination of the process Teshuvah (return) that begins on the first day of Elul, the last month of the Hebrew calendar. Teshuvah creates for us the possibility to totally re-invent our selves; to return to a path that not only leads to self-fulfillment but also a deeper, more intimate relationship with God. On Yom Kippur we endeavor to transcend our mortal existence and attempt to enter the realm of the angels who serve in God’s Holy court. Angels, being non-corporeal beings, require neither food nor drink nor any other physical sustenance but exist only in order to spend 24 hours a day praising God. Realizing that we mortals cannot sustain this angelic existence but for a brief time, we spend at least one entire day per year as an angelic, holy prayer community; fasting and abstaining from physical pleasures. Fortunately, the liturgy for Yom Kippur is specifically crafted to help us in this sacred process. Not only do we add Kol Nidrei and its accompanying prayers, as an introduction to the Day of Atonement, but we also include an extra service at the end of Yom Kippur called Neilah. There are also specific liturgical inclusions and insertions that are employed throughout this Holy Day, all of which are designed to facilitate this spiritual endeavor called Yom Kippur.
Before the Day of Atonement can officially commence, it is required that we intone the ancient Kol Nidrei – perhaps the best know of all High holiday supplications, and its accompanying liturgy. Because of the soulful pathos of its melody, which dates back to 16th Century Germany, Kol Nidrei is one of the few incidences in Judaism where the impact of the music by far exceeds that of the text. Following the Kol Nidrei is a moving plea recited, as is Kol Nidrei, three times in legalistic fashion. The prayer is called V’nislach, “may forgiveness be granted to the entire congregation of Israel and those who dwell in our midst…” This is a moving setting by the 19th Century composer, Solomon Sulzer (1804-1890), one of the greatest of all who ever created synagogue music. Performing this version of V’nislach is the choir of the wonderfully talented and distinctive Hazzan Shlomo Katz and the Hizzuk Emuna of Baltimore Congregational Choir under the baton of the late Dr. Hugo Weisgal. Shlomo Katz recoded a Yom Kippur and a Rosh Hashanah album with the choir, both of which are outstanding. The sensitivity to the text and the stirring interpretation of the artists makes this an exceptional example of liturgical music.
Selichot, the penitential prayers are not only recited throughout Yom Kippur, but are recited up to a month before Rosh Hashanah, in Sephardic communities and at least four days before the New Year among the Ashkenazim. The Selichot section of liturgy has a fixed structure that features liturgical poetry revolving around a recurring refrain consisting of the ancient prayer, El Melech Yoshev (Our God who sits on the throne of Mercy). El Melech Yoshev is followed immediately by the recitation of the 13 attributes of God that were revealed to Moses when he asked to know God’s name. This prayer, first found in the collection of the 9th century liturgical pioneer, Rav Amnon Gaon, instructs us to recite and model God’s attributes. Just as the best way to honor our earthly parents is to practice and follow their qualities, principals and values; God, in the biblical narrative cited by this Tephila (prayer), requires that we strive for holiness by emulating our Heavenly Parent. In this modern setting by Joshua Lind (1890-1973), Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi, one of the most talented and influential Hazzanim of our era, is joined by New London Children’s Choir and Schola Hebraeica conducted by Neil Levin. This piece is available on the recording entitled, Introducing The World Of American Jewish Music (Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.)
Each of the services of Yom Kippur also contains a version of the Vidui or Confessional. Two components make up this essential section of Yom Kippur liturgy, Ashamnu (we have sinned) a short alphabetical listing of transgressions and Al Cheit (for the sin…) a longer catalog of sins. During the Vidui, all sins are expressed in the plural to demonstrate that all members of the Jewish community are responsible for one another and for the global community. The Vidui is recited 10 times over Yom Kippur, both individually and communally, always in the same order, to remind us that we do possess the ability to take control of our internal impulses. Ana Tavo L’Fanecha (“may our prayers come before You…”) serves as an introduction to the Vidui. In this captivating setting of Ana Tavo L’Fanecha, the brilliant, legendary, nineteenth century composer, Samuel Naumburg (1871-1880) exquisitely expresses the theme of this text which is the essence of Teshuvah; we must first acknowledge a problem and then come to terms with it before we can work on modifying our behavior. The recording is by the group, Lachan, conducted by Hazzan B. Maissner from a CD entitled, Jewish Identity through the lens of Jewish Music.
Attached to the Musaph, (additional) service is the Avodah, a reenactment of the Yom Kippur service of the High Priest in the time of the Jerusalem Temple. Describing in graphic detail the process of sacrificing the appropriate animals, the Avodah relates how the priest would first confess his own sins and those of his immediate family, followed by confessing the sins of all of the priests, and finally by confessing those of the entire Jewish Community. It was only on Yom Kippur, the Holiest day of the year that the High Priest entered unaccompanied into the holiest chamber of the Holy Temple and dared to pronounce God’s ineffable name. During the Avodah the worshiper is transported back in time as the Hazzan or prayer leader, falls prostrate on the floor as the Priest did in ancient times. A melody that has been sung for many centuries accompanies this dramatic reenactment. Here, however, is a rather paradoxical setting of a repeating Avodah text which relates the slaughter of sacrificial animals. Yossele Rosenblat (1882 – 1933), who some consider to be the greatest of all know Hazzanim composed this jovial setting of V’Af Hu (“And the High Priest would prolong the utterance of the Holy Name.”) It is sung by Hazzanim Rafael Cohen and Ben Zion Miller accompanied by an all male chorus. One can find many recordings of this piece; this one is taken from Rafael Cohen: Tribute to Yossele Rosenblat
The Ezkera, or martyrology is also appended to the Musaph of Yom Kippur. A striking and disturbing tale of the horrible torture suffered by some of our greatest sages at the hands of evil despotic rulers is graphically related by the extensive text of the Ezkera. Many modern Machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) substitute or include other extreme examples of the persecution suffered by our people, such as medieval blood libels or the Holocaust. The inimitable Hazzan Zavel Kwartin (1874 – 1952) made famous this heartrending setting of V’Tiher Rabbi Yishmuel (Rabbi Yishmuel purified himself…) which recounts the demise of that great sage. Our selection is from a CD entitled, Musique du monde : Liturgie juive – Sept Grands Cantors.
Yom Kippur is the only day of the year on which Neilah; a final service is added to the liturgy. Neilah comes from the word to close or lock; as the sun is about to set, we get the sensation that the divine gates of prayer too are beginning close. Despite our being exhausted, both physically from lack of food, and spiritually, from all of the prayer and introspection, it is customary for the Ark to remain open and, for those who are able to do so, to stand throughout this somber service. Beginning with Ashrei (psalm144) and including the finial recitation of the Yom Kippur Amidah, Neilah is illuminated by selections of Piyut or liturgical Poetry that reflect on various themes of Yom Kippur. Ezkera Elohim, (“I remember, O God and I shall moan…”) is a one such stirring lamentation that yearns for the restoration of Jerusalem to its original glory. Leib Glanz (1898 – 1964), the world renowned Hazzan and composer, created a passionate and moving setting of this poem. In this performance, Ezkera Elohim is chanted by the magnificent Hazzan and vocal artist, Hazzan Louis Danto. The depth of Hazzan Danto’s Kavanah (intensity in prayer) and the stirring purity and beauty of his voice combine for a breathtaking interpretation. I must say I had the privilege of being a member of Danto’s Beth Emeth Synagogue in Toronto and singing in his choir as a teen. Once, while I was a student at the Seminary, I had the opportunity to hear Hazzan Danto chant this piece during Neilah. I must confess I was as excited as a kid at a rock concert; if my father had not restrained me, I might have jumped off the balcony were our seats were located, in sheer excitement! This selection is from the Recoding entitled, The Art of The Cantor.
Yom Kippur is indeed the most intense day on the Jewish calendar. The hours we spend in prayer, song and reflection afford us the opportunity to transcend our mundane existence and to transform our lives. The magnificent music of the Yom Kippur Liturgy, acts as a guide to steer us through the course of this solemn occasion. By spending time together as a holy community engaged in prayer and self examination, we can emerge, collectively and individually on a path of self realization that leads us to an ever deepening relationship with our God.
Best wishes for A Kiitvah and A Chatimah Tovah, may you be singned and sealed in the book of Life.
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