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  • Jaclyn Chernett

Melodies from Sinai

There is a category of synagogue music known as “Mi-sinai Tunes” - Melodies from Mount Sinai. That’s an extraordinary thought. Can we really trace our liturgical melodies that far back?

The Jewish musicologist Eric Werner, in “A Voice Still Heard – the Sacred Songs of the Ashkenazic Jews”* traced the origin of these tunes as generally having been composed in the Rhineland during the Crusades (1096 – 14th century). As a result of the devastation two kinds of poetry emerged – laments of Jewish martyrology and hymns of God’s unity and glory, many of which have been long forgotten. But some of the tunes have remained and, remarkably, are still used as settings for the traditional prayers of the High Holydays and Pilgrim Festivals. The term “Mi-sinai” was mentioned in the Sefer Hasidim, a moralistic book written by R. Shmuel Hechasid and his son R. Judah in reaction to the massacres during the first Crusades. They also warned against the use of foreign or non-Jewish (particularly Christian) tunes in the synagogue. By calling the melodies “Mi-sinai” they venerated those tunes that were seemingly too old to source. They were literally “as old as the hills” and steeped in sanctity.

The melodies are mostly those for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur – for example, the Musaf Amidah, Shema, Bar’chu, Alenu, Unetaneh Tokef, Ochila La’el, Kol Nidre. They also include prayers for the Shalosh Regalim, such as Tal (Dew) on Pesach and Geshem (Rain) on Sh’mini Atzeret. The tunes would seem to have little to do with each other, until one comes to realise that there are cross-migrations of motifs from prayer to prayer and festival to festival. Biblical cantillation motifs can also be found in them. For instance, the motifs for the High Holydays morning service (Hamelech, Misod Chachamim and others), and also a motif from Kol Nidre, are combined in the exquisite melody ofOchila La’el.

Linkage by cross-migration of musical motifs brings the unity of the Yamim Noraim together. The opening of the Musaf Kaddish on Yom Kippur alludes to Kol Nidre. As another of the many examples, the end of the first blessing of the Amidah (L’ma’an sh’mo b’ahava) is the coda of Kol Nidre.

There is much evidence that the warning by the Sefer Hasidim and others against the use of ‘foreign’ music was ignored. Scholars have found many contemporary Christian hymns and ballads within the Hebrew melodies and vice-versa.

The “Mi-sinai” melodies can be heard as major or minor in their general tonalities and lack the mode or ‘scale’ known as “Ahava Rabba” (which we can easily detect as providing the opening motif of Hava Nagila). The texts of Hamelech, Alenu and many others are still chanted to the same “Mi-sinai” tunes in both the German and Eastern European traditions. This renders them as having been composed earlier than the migration of Jews to Eastern Europe where the more exotic “Ahava Rabba” mode took on great popularity - but that’s another story!

*Eric Werner: A Voice Still Heard – The Sacred Songs of the Ashkenazic Jews, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

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