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Nusach or How to Tell a Prayer by its Tune by Orrin Tilevitz
Nusach or How to Tell a Prayer by its Tune by Orrin Tilevitz

Volume 1 , Issue 2

In the short story "Ne'ilah in Gehenna", the Yiddish writer I.L. Pertez (1852-1915) tells of a town, not a soul from whom ever landed in hell, because that town had a cantor who, though himself a man of insignificant heart, sang so beautifully that everyone was moved to perfect repentance, and their sins were forgiven. The head of hell, angry at this disturbance of the natural order, placed a curse: the cantor was to lose his voice until his death. When after unsuccessfully seeking help from every rabbi around, the cantor was finally told why he could not sing, and he swore revenge.

A few days later, he committed suicide and, deliberately refraining from reciting the vidui, the prayer for repentance, before his death, guaranteed that he would be brought to hell. But once inside, the cantor, his voice returned, began the kaddish of ne'ilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur. Immediately, the wailing from the boiling cauldrons ceased; the damned souls began to accompany the cantor in an undertone. The fiends of hell, their mouths agape, sat stupefied, or rolled on the ground in convulsions. And when the cantor reached the verse, mechaye hamatim "who quickennest the dead", the damned souls, now fully repentant, answered in unison "amen", grew wings, and flew off to the open gates of heaven.

What had so moved the damned of hell and distracted their tormentors when the cantor began the kaddish? Surely not the words of the kaddish, which is routinely said several times during each service. Perhaps the cantor's voice; but the story implies that the real force was the tune, one used only during the ne'ilah service and capable in its anguished cry of moving the most unrepentant sinner.

What is so significant for us is that any reader of this story, even today, who had heard ne'ilah in a synagogue praying in the Eastern European tradition--the majority of synagogues in the United States--would know precisely to which tune Peretz was alluding.


The tune which so moved the damned of hell is an example of nusach. In this context, the term nusach means the tune used when the cantor recites a prayer. It is to be distinguished from a tune such as Adon Olam used by the congregation in its communal singing. To use an operatic analogy, nusach is more akin to a recitative than an aria. However, like the dead in the Peretz story, the congregation, if properly moved, will sometimes hum along with the cantor. In fact, particularly on the high holidays, congregational accompaniment is part of the nusach.

At least in the Eastern European tradition. each prayer has a unique nusach, and any synagogue in the Eastern European tradition (which is the type of synagogue I refer to in the rest of this essay) will do it substantially the same way. For example, the Friday service of kahhalat shabbat has a special nusach, as does the Friday evening service; the morning and additional services for the Sabbath are sung in the same nusach, while the afternoon service has its own nusach. On Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the evening service has a special nusach, while the morning additional and afternoon services share a common nusach. There is a special nusach for the evening services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and a different nusach which is used for most of the other high holiday prayers. And, of course, the beginning of ne'ilah has its own nusach.

The half kaddish which precedes or is contained in each of these prayers has its own nusach, generally evocative of the main nusach. The nusach for each of the following kaddishim is different (even though the words of each are the same): during the Friday evening service; at the beginning of the Sabbath morning service, preceding the additional service for the Sabbath; preceding the afternoon service for the Sabbath; during the evening service on high holidays; at the beginning of the morning service on high holidays; preceding the additional service on high holidays; at the beginning of Ne'ilah; and preceding the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret. All this can be difficult to keep straight, which is why some synagogues hire professional cantors. In fact, I have often thought that the ultimate test for a potential cantor should be to recite each of these kaddishim successively, without a break in between.

Why have a different nusach for different prayers, and why have a system of nusach which is standard for all of Jews of Eastern European descent? In part, the function of nusach is to set a mood, and thereby differentiate among prayers. The nusach for kabbalat shabbat, the first service on Friday night, is in a major key: one must be happy that the Sabbath has arrived. Similarly, the exultant-sounding nusach of the evening service for the high holidays, which is the first service on those days, is also in a major key: we are supposed to be confident that our forthcoming prayers will be answered. By contrast, the nusach for the other high holiday prayers is in a plaintive, minor key: we are praying for our lives and the nusach reflects this solemn purpose. The nusach for the prayer for rain on Shemini Atzeret has an erie, mystical quality about it, perhaps reflecting the unsettling situation that we are praying for something which is probably going to come anyway sooner or later, although we pray, not too late: that we have little way of knowing when it will come: and that we really don't want a hurricane, but are not praying (and, in fact, maybe aren't permitted to pray) that we shouldn't have too much rain. (The nusach for the prayer for dew on Passover is the same, perhapss for similar reasons. Because it's the same nusach, when reciting the prayer for rain I sometimes cannot help thinking of matzoh). The nusach for the kinot, the elegiac poems said on Tish'ah B'Av is suitably mournful. And paradoxically, the nusach for hallel. the psalms of thanksgiving recited on all major holidays, is in a minor key and is almost sad, perhaps because joy and sadness are never far apart for Jews. (I somehow associate this observation with a scene from the prewar Yiddish movie The Dybbuk where the hallel is said.)

Since nusach sets the mood in these ways, and since nusach is pretty much standardized, one can walk into any synagogue on, say, Friday night and feel--ideally--that it is the Sabbath.

Said another way, any Jew of the Eastern European tradition should feel thoroughly comfortable in any synagogue of that tradition. In fact, I have led services in synagogues where I had never prayed before and whose congregants and I had very different backgrounds. but I knew we were using the same nusach as I because some congregants would in singing aloud correctly anticipate the next portion of the nusach, or would join with me in the congregation portion of the nusach. The standardization thus is a sense promotes Jewish unity. In addition, it has a foundation in Jewish law: Rabbi Moses Isserles (1525-1572) writes in his notes on the Shulkhan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law): "The cantor should never stray from the customs of the city, even in the tunes," (0.C. 609:1) [emphasis added].

The correct nusach is even, in a sense, part of the prayer.

People who are used to a particular nusach will pray with more fervor when praying in that nusach. Also, when the congregation hums along with the cantor, it is in an important way participating in the prayer even when only the cantor is saying the words. Nusach can even be a prayer in itself. One Yom Kippur the services in my synagogue were led by a person whom I considered particularly righteous, and who understood--and sounded like he understood--every word of the prayers. He also was exceedingly musical, but at the beginning of the additional service he blundered briefly, but unmistakably into the nusach for the prayer for rain-- not the prayer itself, mind you, just the nusach. It had been sunny out, but later that afternoon in Queens there was a brief cloudburst!

How does a novice learn nusach? There are records and cassettes, I suppose, but that's probably not the way to go about it. For one thing, I have never heard anyone who learned his nusach from one of the commercial tapes and who sounded authentic: one does not learn to make chicken soup the way grandmother did by watching Julia Child do it on television. Also, congregational interaction with the cantor is very much a part of the nusach, particularly on the high holidays, and that flavor never comes through on tape. Instead, there is really no substitute for picking a synagogue and listening. Here, one must be selective, because not everyone leading services (a baal tefillah) knows nusach equally well, or (sad to say) at all. Pick a medium to large-sized synagogue, preferably with a fair number of older Eastern European immigrants and ideally where the gabbai who chooses the baalei tefillah is himself an Eastern European. Listen for baalei tefillah with musical ears, although not necessarily beautiful voices: in one synagogue I know, one person with a beautiful voice has only a vague conception of nusach. while the gabbai, who sings like the plumber he is, is the best baal tefillah in the synagogue. Avoid synagogues with a full-time professional cantor, particularly a cantor with a funny hat. papal robes and/or operatic pretensions. You are likely to hear an idealized version of how nusach would have sounded had it been written by Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner or worse.

What if you never anticipate leading a congregation in prayer? Learning at least to recognize and appreciate the proper nusach is still worthwhile because it will give the serivces much greater meaning. It has one drawback, though: you will be annoyed when you hear the wrong nusach. Sometimes. ignorance is bliss.

Ulitmately, though, as any good tax lawyer will tell you, although one is stuck with the form one has chosen for a transaction, High Authorities may look at the substance through the form. So correct nusach and beautiful singing are never substitutes for meaningful prayer. As ?Ne'lah in Gehenna? concludes:

Thereafter there remained in Gehenna only the fiends of hell and the cantor. He did not leave. True, in Gehenna he had brought. as he had on earth, his congregation to repentance, but he himself had not known real repentance. That unsaid vidui . . . that matter of suicide?

In the course of time Gehenna was filled again, and although additional quarters were built, it still remains crowded.

Orrin E. Tilevitz is a tax lawyer in Brooklyn.



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