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My thoughts on the Holiness of Shabbat (URJ Ten Minutes of Torah)


Penny Kessler

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Music is midrash: it enhances and fills in gaps and unanswered questions suggested by texts and lyrics. Choosing music for prayer texts and saying that this or that setting “works” means that the text and music complement and respond to each other.

Each of the three prayers of K’dushat Ha-yom (Mishkan T’filah, pp. 250, 252) represents a variety of aspects of our celebration of Shabbat: joy, renewal, reinvigoration, community, family, contemplation and meditation. And the music for these prayers should reflect its own particular midrash.

Yism’chu is a prayer of pure joy – oneg – and its music should reflect an outpouring of delight. I frequently choose Rabbi Joe Black’s setting of Yism’chu1 because it makes me smile when I feel the joy and the love and the absolute delight of the music. I love that it's not frantic, I respond to the salsa beat, it's fun and a real joy to sing. Rabbi Black described his thoughts this way:

I guess the music came to me because of the groove – the rhythm is what makes it work, more than anything else. Shabbat is all about rhythm to me – it's realizing, celebrating and giving in to the natural rhythms of the world around us. Six days a week we fight against the natural rhythms of our lives – or, even worse – we create new rhythms that don't really fit our world – but we force them to work and, eventually, these self-made rhythms come to dominate our senses – they are all we feel and hear. But on Shabbat – when we have time to (experience) both silence and appreciation – we go back to our natural state – allowing the rhythm of Shabbat to flow over and through us. The melody is, for the most part, flamenco. It's emotional and joyous. It moves because of the syncopation and because those who hear it (and sing it) cannot be helped to dance through the Shabbat.2 Listen

’s text is Biblical (Exodus 31:16-17) and its purpose is to teach us the role of Shabbat in our lives. As I researched music for this article, I was surprised to discover that one of the most popular melodies was written only 30-some-odd years ago by Rabbi Moshe Rothblum3 for Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. Rabbi Rothblum was interviewed in 2006 on his retirement from Adat Ari El Synagogue in Valley Village, California:

“I liked the sense of community that was created (at camp). I very much enjoyed the rituals,'' Rothblum said. “And I was still able to do the artistic stuff in a Jewish setting.”

It was while he was a counselor at Camp Ramah that Rothblum composed a melody for a prayer called the V'shamru. The prayer, chanted in Hebrew during a Shabbat service, calls for Jews to keep and observe the Sabbath as a covenant with God.

His melody now is heard in synagogues and at Jewish summer camps around the world to such an extent that many consider it to be the “traditional” song.4 Listen

The music’s simplicity and community building are the main reasons for its success; it engages worshippers, and they enjoy singing with each other. Rabbi Rothblum’s V’shamru represents a basic foundation of Shabbat: sharing the day with a community.

Especially because the Rothblum music is so familiar, I enjoy taking some midrashic license when we sing it. My students bounce up and down as we sing “et ha-Shabbat,” and I invite worshippers to inhale and exhale deeply as we move into the last verse, “u’vayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash” before playfully bringing the upbeat tempo back for the last chorus.

R’tzeih vim’nuchateinu contains a textual onomatopoeia: sab’einu mituvecha, samcheinu bishuatecha, ….. The text’s grace and elegance lends itself to the nusach as notated by Adolph Katchko.5 Katchko’s melody is haunting and invites us to experience Shabbat’s holiness in a mystical and ethereal fashion. I take advantage of the text’s meditative quality to give worshippers a chance to taste a different kind of Shabbat menuchah by letting the nusach wash over them. Listen

The midrash music of K’dushat hayom: engaging worshippers on Shabbat through singing and meditating.

Penny Kessler serves the United Jewish Center in Danbury, CT as cantor. She also serves on the ACC Executive Board. Cantor Kessler was invested by the School of Sacred Music of HUC-JIR in 1993.


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