Shabbat Shira: A Living Prayer

As a cantor, I have always loved Jewish liturgical music – of various traditions. I grew up listening to a unique service at the Montreal Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue, Canada’s first congregation (est. 1768). The music was a combination of traditions: Spanish & Portuguese Dutch & British, Moroccan, Ashkenazi, and original melodies composed by cantors of the synagogue over the years. Since then, I’ve worked in various Ashkenazi synagogues as a musical director and now as a cantor at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario.

Throughout, I have heard the constant demand to sing “traditional” songs. Of course, I do. But what do people mean when they say that? The truth is, they generally have little idea as to what “traditional” melodies are. Much of what they want, particularly in Ashkenazi synagogues, actually turns out to be music that was composed between the 1950s and the 1980s. These would include compositions by Goldfarb, Carlebach, Finkelstein, Friedman, Zim, and others.

I love singing great songs from the past. I love singing Meir Finkelstein’s L’dor Vador, Sol Zim’s Avinu Shebashamayim, Nurit Hirsh’s Oseh Shalom, and melodies by 19th Century composers like Sulzer, Mombach, Lewandowski, and Naumbourg. I love singing traditional Moroccan tunes that date back hundreds of years, like El Nora Alila and Ahot Ketana. Same with songs from the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue that date back one hundred to three or four hundred years. One of these melodies is the Shira, the Song of the Sea.

Shabbat Shira

This coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira (Sabbath of Song) because the Torah portion, Beshalach, includes the Song of the Sea. After they successfully crossed the Sea of Reeds, escaping the powerful Egyptian army, Moses and the Israelites sang this triumphant and thankful poem to God.

Az yashir Moshe uv’nei Yisrael et ha’shira ha’zot…

Then Moses and the Israelites sand this song to the Lord.
Exodus 15:1

What greater expression of thanks could Moses and the people give than to sing? What greater expression of praise could they give than to sing a new song? They did not choose a melody that they had grown up with. They did not sing a traditional or ancestral song. They elected to sing a new song.

A Living Culture

A culture is a living culture when it welcomes new works of art. If it only celebrates its past, it is a museum or an archive. Judaism is both an ancient religion and civilization as well as progressive and modern religion and civilization. It is a balance of the old and the new. The art of our people should, and generally does, reflect that.

In today’s age of social media, probably the most popular Jewish music is actually not Jewish music. Because success is measured by the number of views of a YouTube video, talented Jewish musical artists often record Jewish parodies (comical or serious) of secular popular songs. We end up giving the most attention and the greatest praise to derivative works. Yes, they may well be clever and entertaining, but they are, by definition, derivative.

I once recorded a Hanukkah parody of Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus entitled Rock Me Maccabeus. I think it’s fun. People get a kick out of it – kids and adults alike. Nevertheless, it’s derivative. No matter how entertaining it may be, it will not contribute to moving Jewish culture forward.

If our community were to look to our tradition, they would see that our tradition is not about staying put, but about cultural vibrancy. It is about creativity. It is about originality. New words in poetry or prose, new visual arts, new movements in dance, and new musical compositions all convey new thoughts, new emotions. They announce to ourselves and to others that the subjects we are dealing with are very much alive in our hearts and our souls.

A Living Prayer

When Moses and the Israelites sang a new song, they were making prayer new, relevant, and personal. When we look at our prayer books, our siddurim, we look at the same words day to day, week to week, year to year. Nothing changes.

When we set these age-old texts to a new melody, we are making these words of reflection and praise new, relevant, and personal. Old melodies connect us to the past – and so, we must hold on to them as much as we can. Holding on to them forges a deep connection to our heritage. New melodies, however, make prayer current and alive. New melodies imbue these ancient texts with new thoughts, new emotions, and new approaches.

And so we must, like Moses and the Israelites, find occasion to sing new songs and to make each Shabbat a Shabbat Shira, a Sabbath of Song. This way, we can contribute to making our culture a living culture and to making our prayer a living prayer.

About the Author
Eyal Bitton is a cantor and composer who has penned several musicals and oratorios. His theatrical works have been produced in the US, Canada, Kenya, and China. He has directed choirs in Montreal and Toronto and is the Musical Director of Toronto's Zimriyah, a children's choral festival. As a cantor, he combines Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions along with his own original pieces at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
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