E-Hazzan: Pesach Liturgy

Pesach is known the joyous festival of redemption. Of course, the quintessential element in the observance of Passover is the Seder, which takes place in the home. However, Passover is also observed in the synagogue; our celebration of Pesach is marked by special insertions in the liturgy which highlight the uniqueness and festivity of this holy occasion. In addition to the various biblical insertions, great liturgical poets, inspired by the deep meaning of the prayers, sought to embellish the service by adding their own compositions know as Piyutim (liturgical poetry). These poems inspirited many great Hazzanim and composers of liturgical music.

The evening service of the first night of Pesach is punctuated by the Piyut, Leil Shimurim, “Night of Watching” This medieval Poem is comprised of an alphabetical listing of verses all beginning with the title phrase. The concluding formulae of the blessings of the evening service are preceded by several verses of the Piyut. According to the great liturgical scholar, A.Z. Idelsohn, this poem was once thought to have been authored by Rashi, the most famous of all biblical commentators. Leil Shimurim expresses the hope that just as God chose to redeem the children of Israel at midnight He will chose to redeem us at this mystical hour as well. This is a rare setting of the Leil Shimurim verses that introduce the Bracha at the conclusion of Hashkieveinu (cause us to lie down in peace), Hapores sukat shalom… “Who spreads over us His tabernacle of peace…” The artists are two all time greats Ya’Akov Koussevitzky & Zevulon Kwartin. This is a selection from an interesting collection called Leil Shimurim – A Collection of Prayers for Passover and the Omer Counting Day 

One of the most notable of these special additions is the Piyut (liturgical poem) Brach Dodi – “Hasten O friend divine”. Based on verses from the Song of Solomon, an epic biblical love poem which speaks metaphorically of the relationship between Israel and G-d, Brach Dodi is inserted into the morning service immediately before the Amidah. The blessing of Geula, (redemption) links the recitation of the Shema with the Amidah. Brach Dodi, hypothesizes that, out of the tremendous love that the Lord has for His people, G-d will continue to be the redeemer of Israel in the present and in the future, just as He saved us in the past from the bondage of Egypt. Our Siddur has two versions of this prayer, one for each of the first days of Peach. While both versions date back to the middle Ages, the first version was composed by Shlomo Bavli while the second was authored by the very prolific liturgical poet, Eliezer Kalir. Here is a beautiful setting of Brach Dodi preformed by the great Hazzan Moshe Stern

As I alluded to above, Shir Ha Shirim – the Song of Solomon is an important part of the liturgy of Passover. It is costmary to include this vividly sensual love poem on the Shabbat which falls during Pesach. Many settings of selections from Shir Ha Shirim can be found and are often heard at Jewish weddings. It is traditional to chant the Shir Ha Shirim according to the ancient Trop or biblical Cantillation. Motives from Shir Ha Shirim are also heard on the Seventh day of Pesach when Shirat Ha Yam, the jubilant song sung after the Israelites successfully crossed the red sea is read from the Torah.

Hallel, a series of Psalms (113-118) that recall the magnifent celebration in the Holy Jerusalem Temple, is added on each day of Pesach as it is on all festive occasions. We also include selections from Hallel in our Seder observance. Interestingly, while the complete Hallel is recited on the first two days of Pesach, during the rest of the festival only the partial form of Hallel is employed. Our sages explain that, just as we sadly spill drops of wine when recalling the ten plagues during the Seder, our joy must also be diminished when reciting Hallel because our deliverance came at the expense of the suffering of fellow human beings. There are innumerable musical settings of the psalms of Hallel. This is a moving setting by the inimitable Hazzan Moshe Taube of psalm 116, Ahavti Ki Yishma, “I love knowing that God hears my cry of supplications…” (Siddur Sim Shalom for Weekdays, RA.) Hazzan Taube on this Recording entitled Hallel is joined by the Beth Shalom Choir and organist Howard Cohen. Listen to the magnificent word painting in this selection.

Inserted in the Avot (merit of our ancestors) section of the Amidah, the climax of the service of the first day of Pesach is Tal – The prayer for dew. As Pesach represents a time for renewal and rebirth, it also marks the transition from the rainy season to the dry season in the land of Israel and asks for a year of prosperity which the appearance of dew represents. Siddur Sim Shalom, cites a Midrash which states that it was on the first day of Pesach that Isaac blessed Jacob and asked God to grant him “the dew of heaven,” thus the connection to our biblical ancestors. Tal, a reverse alphabetical acrostic contains 24 verses, two for each month of the year. This poem was also composed by the great liturgical poet, Eliezer Kalir. Here is a fascinating setting by, one of the greatest Hazzanim of all time, Yossele Rosenblatt. In this technically marvelous and moving setting of Tal, Hazzan Moshe Schulhof intertwines his magnificent voice with a classic recording of the great Rosenblatt. This piece is part of a compilation that is a joint project of the United Synagogue and the Cantors Assembly called The Spirit of Passover.

With its distinctive liturgy and the home Seder observance, Pesach offers us an unsurpassed opportunity to celebrate our freedom and our unique position as God’s chosen people.

Once again, best wishes to all for a “Zissen” (sweet) and joyous Pesach.

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