E-Hazzan, Music for Mourning

I suppose it is due to my sadness at the resent  loss of my wonderful father-in-law of blessed memory that my musical attention is tuned to the music and liturgy associated with mourning. Ever since the destruction of the Holy Temple in 956 BCE and again in 70AD much of our collective consciousness has been focused on lamenting the loss Temple and the subsequent exile of the Jewish people. Dating back to the biblical books of Psalms and Aicha (Lamentations), we have examples of an outpouring of grief channeled through sacred text and liturgical music. Here, for example, is a setting of Psalm 137 Al Naharot Bavel, “By the Rivers of Babylon” by the great 16th century composer, Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). One can hear the deep lamentation of the Israelite exiles as they respond to their Babylonian tormentors. The connection of the notion of collective mourning for the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the idea of an individual lamenting the loss of a loved one is natural in Judaism. In fact, the traditional expression of condolence to a mourner is; “ Hamokom y’nachem etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei tzion v’urshalim … May you be comforted together with all of those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” Our Jewish culture is designed so that no mourner need feel entirely alone but is always in a position to be surrounded by an empathetic, caring community. Thus, the liturgy and music used for Yizkor, the public memorial service held in synagogue during major festivals is practically the same as that which is employed at a funeral.

The first prayer that comes to mind when considering the liturgy of mourning is the Kaddish. Constructed around an ancient Aramaic translation of a passage from the Biblical book of Daniel, “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah m’vorach l’olam ol’olmei al maya….May His Great Name be blessed for ever and ever in to the world to come,” the Kaddish is one of the best know elements of our liturgy. Ismar Elbogen the great scholar of Jewish Liturgy notes that the great sages of the early rabbinic period attached deep meaning to this phrase which was invoked at the mention of the Holy Name. Soon this expression began to be used in the context of the formal expression of faith in God’s eternal Kingdom customarily uttered at the end of a rabbinic discourse. Although at first, these expressions were improvised by each orator, the formula eventually became the standardized in the form of the Kaddish.

Elbogen notes that the earliest reference to the Kaddish appearing as part of the synagogue liturgy can be found in a Palestinian source dating back to the seventh century. Phrases like, “L‘eila minkol birchata … beyond all blessings, hymns and praises …,” make the Kaddish an ideal vehicle for expressing the greatness and holiness of God.  Similarly, the passage found in the full Kaddish beginning with, “Tikabel Tzlothon … accept our supplications and petitions …” is most meaningful in the context of the service. In the synagogue, the Kaddish serves to separate various sections of the service. Thus we find a Half or “Hatzi” Kaddish as well as a full Kaddish. There is also a Kaddish D’Rabbanan or “scholar’s Kaddish” which is recited after a selection from rabbinic literature. The mourner’s Kaddish, which is also included at various points during the service, differs from the full Kaddish in that it omits the section asking that our prayers and supplications be acceptable.

The connection of the Kaddish, which proclaims the majesty and grandeur of God, to mourning, is difficult to see on the surface. Certainly the references to the world to come and the establishment of God’s eternal Kingdom are relevant. Some say the idea of connecting the Kaddish to mourning came from an ancient practice of engaging a scholar to offer a rabbinic discourse as part of a standard memorial service. As noted above, the essence of the Kaddish would be intoned by the teacher at the end of his talk.

Elbogen also points out that the sages attributed tremendous power to the Kaddish, especially in that it invites the congregation to praise God by reciting the core of the Kaddish, “Y’hei Shmei Rabbah m’vorach l’olam ol’olmei al maya….May His Great Name be blessed for ever”  and to respond to the mourner’s affirmation of faith  with “Amen.” Moreover, some sages espoused a belief in the mystical power of the Kaddish to influence the progress of the soul form earth to heaven – hence the origin of the requirement for a mourner to say Kaddish for a 3 – 12 month period. Whether or not the Kaddish has magical powers, the act of attending a formal service and saying the Kaddish with the support of the community has tremendous impact on a bereaved individual. Kaddish provides a compelling opportunity to connect with the members of the community and encourage them to praise God in memory of their loved one while at the same time allowing the mourner to feel the presence of and reflect on the memory of the one being missed. At a time when one is at a loss for words and in danger of losing connection with the Creator, the natural Jewish repose is to say Kaddish. For an in-depth look at the history and development of the Kaddish; read this excellent section from Jewish Liturgy, A comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen 1913; translated by R. Scheindlin 1993. Although it is often simply read aloud, there is a tradition to chant the Kaddish in a simple minor form. Here is the traditional chant of the mourners Kaddish.

El Male Rachaim, “Exhaulted Compassionate God” is also a prayer found both in the Synagogue and in the context of a funeral service. According to R. Reuven Hammer in his commentary on the Sim Shalom Prayer Book for Weekdays entitled Or Hadsah, this hymn began as an elegy for the victims of the medieval crusades. El Male Rachaim asks that the loved one be protected under the wings of the “Shechina,” God’s Holy presence. Our text concludes with the wish found inscribed on many memorial stones, “may the loved one’s soul be bound up in the bonds of eternal life.” Special versions of the El Maleh can be found for martyrs, for victims of the Holocaust and for fallen defenders of the State of Israel. Here is a heartfelt, moving setting of the El Male Rachaim by the Great Hazzan Gershon Sirota (1877-1943.)

Ever since Biblical times, we have turned to the book of Psalms for words of comfort and inspiration. Many selections from the 150 entries contained in this collection of exquisite biblical poetry are appropriate for a memorial services. Perhaps the most widely used is Psalm 93, “The Lord is my Sheppard, I shall not want…” Its popularity no doubt stems from the passage. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil….” There are many settings of this inspirational Psalm; here is an intriguing example of Psalm 23 entitled, Mizmor L’David” from a Collectors Guild compilation of the work of the exemplary Hazzan Joseph Shlisky on a recording entitled On the Sabbath: Uv ‘Yom Ha Shabbbos. In juxtaposition to the traditional setting of Shlisky, here is a choral setting of an English translation of  Psalm 93 by the American Jewish composer, Jacob Druckman (1928-1996), preformed by New York Cantorial Choir & Samuel Adler.  The recording is part of the Milken Archive of Jewish Music. The usage of traditional Jewish musical forms in this modern setting is one of the many reasons it is so compelling. Psalm 121, “Esa Einai El Heharim … I shall lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my comfort come? … from the Lord creator of Heaven and earth” Is also an oft cited source of material of consolation and comfort. Themes like, “the sun shall not smite me by day smite me by  day nor the moon by night,” as well as “the gaurdian of Israel neither slumbers no sleeps,” make this a perfect psalm for a memorial sevice and a compelling text for musical settings.  Although the settings of this song range from folk to classical, the most compelling  version of Esa Einai I have heard is by a Hazzan who some would argue is the greatest of all times, Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1966).This can be found on his wonderful recording entitled The Art of the Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky 

Kol omar K’ra v’omar, Ma ekra? … A voice urges me to cry out and I respond what shall I cry out?” is a prophetic passage often cited at a Jewish funeral service. Fortunately, Judaism provides us with the means to approach that which is beyond our grasp. Beginning with phrases like, “Baruch dayen emet … blessed is the Righteous Judge” and Hamokom y’nachem etchem as noted above and continuing with liturgy such as selections from Psalms, the El Mole Rachamim and the Kaddish, our heritage provides a means to express that which can not be expressed.  With profound brilliance and compassion, our tradition gives us the opportunity and tools to give voice to that which resides deep in our souls. Hazzan Michael Krasman

4 thoughts on “E-Hazzan, Music for Mourning

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post, and please accept our condolences for your loss – I hadn’t heard.

    On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited the Vietnam Memorial. Not knowing what else to say or do, I hummed a setting of El Male Rachaim as I walked past the thousands of names. I’m not sure what the other visitors must have thought of me!

    • Thanks for the kind words. Cool story I am sure you did a mitzvah in DC by honoring the memory of those on the Memorial.

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