In the previous post, “nusach” or “nusach ha-t’fillah” was partly defined as a “mode,” or scale. In (Ashkenazic) Orthodox and Conservative services, different modes are used at different times. For example, there’s a “weekday nusach or mode,” another nusach for Shabbat; yet another for Rosh Ha-Shanah; etc. Hasidic services have their own nusach; Reform services don’t have “nusach” per se (to my knowledge. I’m willing to be corrected).
What is “nusach” or mode? It’s a musical scale. It can also mean certain musical motifs (short musical phrases, not comprising an entire melody) constructed within a particular mode. For example, On Pesach (or Sh’vuot or Sukkot), a specific motif is used at the end of each blessing of the Amidah; a motif not used at other times of the year.
We’re all familiar with the “major” and “minor” scales on which almost all Western music — classical or pop — is based. The main difference between the two scales is the 3rd note.
In a major scale, the 3rd note is two whole steps from the first note in the scale. For example, if the first note is “C,” the next two are “D” and “E.”
In a minor scale, the 3rd step is lowered slightly; e.g. “E” becomes “E-flat.” A minor scale could therefore begin with “C, D, E-flat…”
Modes can be like scales, but there are many more types than just “major” or “minor.” Notes in the scale other than the 3rd can be raised or lowered, too.
The “major” scale (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) has come to be associated culturally with happiness, triumph, etc. Think of Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus,” Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The “minor scale” (think of “Sixteen Tons,” “My Funny Valentine”) is usually associated with sadness, depression, blues, etc.
This cultural association isn’t present in Jewish music. Torah is chanted with a “major” mode; haftarah with a “minor” mode — but there’s nothing sadder about a haftarah than a Torah-reading. “Hava Nagilah,” in a “minor” mode, is decidedly joyous (as with much Hasidic music: minor mode, but joyous); “Tumbalalaika,” also in a minor mode or scale, is a happy, if somewhat wistful, song.
Yet, is the effect of nusach culturally determined, or is it more “absolute?” In yogic tradition, for example, mantras are sounds that are said to produce effects on the individual nervous system independent of culture, ethnicity, familiarity, etc.
In Ashkenazic tradition, different modes mark off different services. Sephardic tradition has other ways of doing so. In fact, there are different branches of Sephardic musical tradition: e.g. The musical system of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue differs from that of a Syrian congregation (which uses the maqamat/Middle Eastern classical system).
The “modal” or “nusach” system is similar in structure to Indian classical music, in which certain modes (ragas) are used at certain times of day; for example, melodies written to be played or sung in the morning might differ from each other, but all will use the same mode or scale (or “modes or scales.” There are multiple ragas for each time of day). Arabic and other Middle-Eastern classical music (maqamat) is similarly structured.
Much more can be said about this. For further information, see:
Rabbi Andrew Hahn, “The Kirtan Rabbi,” has been experimenting (more or less successfully, from the endorsements) with combining yogic singing (kirtan) and nusach. See:
When I was in training as a cantor, “nusach” was presented as being of absolute, primary importance. The fact that there were many people doing cantorial work who hadn’t been formally trained and who didn’t know or understand nusach, was considered shameful. Further, that many members of congregations don’t know nusach well enough to hear whether the correct or incorrect one is being used, was considered even more problematic.
For myself, I didn’t find that nusach is absolutely necessary for “Ahavat Ha-Shem:” Love of G-d, or devotion to G-d, especially in prayer. Unlike yogic postures or breathing, which create specific physiological effects, I didn’t experience or observe nusach as doing the same. Nor did I find that a greater knowledge of nusach necessarily increased my devotion in prayer.
For example, in my first year doing cantorial work, I recited Keil Malei Rachamim/Yizkor fairly straight-forwardly. I was aiming for a “chant-like,” sort of unemotional presentation. It didn’t seem to have the effect I wanted. By the second year, to conjure up the appropriate feelings in myself, I thought of the Warsaw ghetto as I was singing the service. I’ve always been deeply saddened by the tragic thought of people facing imminent death with no help from outside. Thinking of that during the recitation, I could feel the difference; everyone seemed involved in the feeling with me. Afterwards, people came up to me expressing appreciation. The point is — it wasn’t the nusach per se (or even at all) that made the difference; it was the manner in which I did it.
Still, I recognize the value of some degree of uniformity from one congregation to another. Once you know the service in one place, it’s fairly easy to attend a service in another synagogue (at least, another in the same branch of Judaism) without feeling too unfamiliar with what’s going on. I also recognize that nusach creates a musical space in which each generation shares evenly. When a parent and child share a knowledge of nusach in synagogue services, it can become a unifying experience for them. The alternative could be a congregation in which the musical tastes of one generation are in discord with those of another.
I also recognize the value of using the same melodies over time. The increasing familiarity allows for a deeper experience as you “relax” into it. Constantly introducing new melodies can enliven a service in its own way, but it disallows any melody from taking deeper hold of a person’s attention (let alone their heart). The melody can’t aquire personal meaning, which can only happen over time.
When I lead High Holiday services, I’m always particularly moved the first time I chant “Bar’chu” with the High Holiday nusach on Rosh Ha-Shanah. It intensifies the solemn joy I associate with that day and with the entire period. I feel something similar about the nusach for the “Shalosh R’galim” (3 pilgrimage festivals: Pesach, Sh’vuot and Sukkot). Being different from the regular weekday or Shabbat nusach, it has particular connotations for me as being in a sort of “religious retreat,” separate from other periods of activity.
So, nusach can be helpful to prayer for someone who’s attending services regularly — especially for someone who attends multiple times each day. It provides some variety while at the same time providing some consistency.
Further, it maintains a uniformity in Jewish tradition. Replacing nusach in any one generation might seem utilitarian, but it opens up other problems of cultural transmission over multiple generations.
I don’t see nusach as “absolute” in its effects. Much depends on who’s performing it and their own state of mind. Much also depends on familiarity and the cultural associations that congregational members have with it.
True prayer needs only simplicity, sincerity and a willingness to be aware, in your heart, of the possibility of G-d’s Presence and Goodness. If nusach helps you with that, Baruch H”. But I’m not sure that it’s essential.