The High Holidays, or Days of Awe, appeal to each of our senses in a unique way. There are the familiar sights of the holidays: the people and Torah scrolls all dressed in white to symbolize purity, and the round challot that represent the cycle of the year. The feel of new clothes on one’s skin or new shoes on one’s feet reminds the wearer that this time of year is special. Walking to shul, fall is upon us with a newfound crispness to the air and the feel of leaves crunching underfoot. Then there is the distinctive weight and smell of the machzorim, holiday prayer books, used but once a year. As with every Jewish holiday, food is key. As we prepare for the upcoming days of feasting, the aromas of challah, brisket, chicken soup and cakes mingle in such a mouthwatering onslaught of anticipation that we wish the High Holidays were already upon us. The seasonal fruits of apples and pomegranates feature prominently in our holiday menus, and the taste of honey abounds, at once a celebration of the present and a wish for a sweet year ahead.
All of our senses combine to remind us that the Days of Awe are here, but none is so important to me as that of hearing. Perhaps this is because I am a musician, but I believe the true holiness of this unique time of year is evoked mostly through sound. The special sounds of the High Holidays immediately transport me to that incomparable feeling of piety, of oneness with my Creator and with my fellow Jews, even as we celebrate and observe in such diverse ways. I love that many of these tunes are nearly universal. I remember the first time I walked into my husband’s grandfather’s shul in Nof Yam, Israel, where I was elated to discover the congregation singing the same tunes I had heard as a child when visiting my grandparents in Bangor, Maine.
The High Holiday prayers are accompanied by melodies reserved for this season, perhaps the most iconic of which would be Kol Nidrei, sung on the eve of Yom Kippur and so widely known that it was turned into a mainstay of the solo cello repertoire by composer Max Bruch, a non-Jew, toward the end of the 19th century. Some of these melodies accompany prayer texts unique to this time of the year; but sometimes more striking are the ones set to prayers we recite year-round, such as the Amidah or the different versions of the Kaddish, used to heighten the listener’s experience, to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. It’s not just that these tunes are distinct from the ones we are accustomed to hearing; there is something markedly different about their musical construction.
During the remainder of the year, each prayer generally sits squarely within one key, either major (usually considered “happy”) or minor (“sad”), while the music of the High Holidays seamlessly travels between major and minor keys within a single prayer. Rather than evoking the usual connotations of these keys, minor in this case has to do with the serious and the somber, but it is quickly followed by turns to major, of hopefulness and future redemption. This device instills awe within us, lending a gravitas appropriate to the situation. Listen for this in Kol Nidrei, where the relatively abrupt juxtaposition of major and minor keys calls on the congregant to wake up, just as the shofar does.
In the most carefully crafted service, even the brachot recited by the tokea, shofar blower, immediately preceding the shofar blasts are used to increase suspense for the grand, revealing moment to come. This is achieved between two brachot through a half-step modulation, a device ubiquitous in popular music for its power in creating an immediate uplifting sensation in the listener. Then, of course, there are the blasts themselves. As powerful as the 100 blasts we hear on each day of Rosh Hashanah may be, their cumulative effect is not as great as the long, single blast sounded as the gates of heaven come to a close when finishing the Neilah service at the very end of Yom Kippur. At the conclusion of a long fast, when at my most vulnerable, the sound of the shofar pierces deep into my soul. I close my eyes and let it wash over me, crying at the beauty of its supplication. I cannot help but acknowledge the sealing of my fate.
The sounds of the Days of Awe are the ultimate in mood music with the power to set the appropriate tone, to evoke memory and to transform. As we approach the High Holidays, may we all be transported to a spiritual place, with the sights, smells, tastes and feel of the season, but most especially through its music.
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