The Music of N’ilah - Part Two

Inside Leadership

The Music of N’ilah - Part Two

By Cantor Barbara R. Finn

Last week, in my discussion of the beginnings of the N’ilah service, I reflected upon the contemplative nature of the concluding service for Yom Kippur. The music of the actual conclusion imparts additional urgency in our pleas for forgiveness as the “gates are closing.” There are many interpretations of when the gates actually close: at the closing of the ark after N’ilah, at the end of Simchat Torah, or the particularly appealing idea that in fact the Gates of Heaven are always open. Beth Schafer expresses this sentiment in her beautiful arrangement of Psalm 118, “Open the Gates,” offering a thoughtful and soulful musical texture. Beth shares that she “wanted to capture the personal heartfelt plea that comes as N’ilah comes to a close. Assuming the submissive pose of head bowed and knee bent (or body prostrated), asking for God’s forgiveness as the last slivers of sunlight fade from view, is an awesome moment. From that most vulnerable position, we have a chance to offer our humblest prayer and feel the magnitude of what it means to be worthy of forgiveness.” LISTEN

P’tach Lanu Sha’ar follows the idea that even as the gates are symbolically closing we once again ask for them to be opened. Even as the sun is setting on this holiest of days we plead with the Holy One to enter. If indeed the gates always remain open perhaps it is for those who keep them open through their sincerity and their deeds. This arrangement by Herbert Fromm reflects musically this simple and humble request. LISTEN

As I was growing up, our Orthodox/traditional congregation’s N’ilah was sadly torturous. It spanned an hour of standing at the end of a very long day; it was filled with the smells of bad breath, breath spray and smelling salts.  It seemed everyone but my father and grandfather couldn’t wait to be finished. The music was the only thing to carry us through. I remember singing Samuel Naumberg’s Seu Sh’arim at the top of my voice from my place in the congregation while the all-male choir and the cantor broke into what seemed to be twelve-part harmony. My father would harmonize as I sailed the glorious high notes at the end. Long before I knew the meaning of the text, I could sing the music. To this day that urgent and resolute arrangement along with the beautifully comparable arrangement by Louis Lewandowski seem to be ever-present musical “calls to action.” LISTEN Music moves and elevates the soul even if the text isn’t fully understood, thereby creating additional opportunities for congregational musical moments.

The Chassidic version of Kaddish Shaleim expresses musically the spiritual and communal joy as we build to the conclusion of the day. For some, Kaddish Shaleim represents a type of race to the end: an ultimate crescendo in both volume and tempo. This example, attributed to the great cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, regains the fervor of the congregation along with the worship leaders. LISTEN

Kaddish Shaleim builds us up to the big juncture: that special musical moment where all come together as one voice singing the text that is familiar to everyone present. Sh’ma, Baruch Shem and Adonai Hu HaElohim are meant to be sung as a huge musical conclusion. Which melody is chosen is not nearly as important as making sure that melody is accessible to all present. We build from a bold Sh’ma to a greater and greater sound with each repetition of the text. Familiar melodies increase participatory comfort. This perhaps unfamiliar version of Baruch Shem K’vod by Zoltan Kodaly displays a beautiful and soaring sound in the attempt to connect with others and with God. LISTEN The final shofar blast is our musical reminder of “l’dor vador:” from generation to generation. We reflect on the sound as a connection to our ancestors marking the most significant moments in our tradition.

Havdalah has become a moving and meaningful part of the conclusion of the service. Congregations sway to one of the many moving melodies composed in recent years and observe the ritual of the twisted candle, wine, spices (if on Shabbat) and separation. To return for a moment to my childhood congregation, as we finished Adonai Hu HaElohim, it became a race to see who could get to the parking lot first. Nobody seemed to care that the rabbi and cantor and the few others on the bimah were continuing with Havdalah. Most didn’t stay; it was time to break the fast. To my delight I feel so different about it today. Havdalah has become an uplifting communal moment in our congregations. The music draws us in; standing with our congregational community, Havdalah becomes the joyous spiritual conclusion filled with ruach (spirit), supporting a hungry body and a soul tired from a long introspective day. It is especially moving to me even as I have been standing and singing for nearly 10 hours straight. LISTEN Debbie Friedman’s (z”l) melody is so familiar and comforting that it is included here and I urge you to listen to some of the other contemporary options including those by Rick Recht and Dan Nichols.

There is an extraordinary variety of musical settings to the incredible amount of text in the liturgy of not only N’ilah but all of Yom Kippur. The compositions incorporate all facets of traditional, Classical Reform and contemporary Jewish music. Whether composed specifically for a N’ilah service or other occasions, musical interpretation allows us the opportunity to reflect and renew not only in the season of forgiveness and return, but at all times. May the ever present emotional connection of the music always stir our souls.


Open the Gates. By Beth Schafer. From Raise It Up Bring It Down.

P’tach Lanu Sha’ar. By Herbert Fromm. From Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe. Transcontinental Music Publications.

Seu Sh’arim. By Louis Lewandowski. From Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe. Transcontinental Music Publications.

Chassidic Kaddish Shaleim. Attributed to Yossele Rosenblatt. From Gems of the High Holy Days. Sung by Cantor Lisa Levine.

Baruch Shem Kavod. By Zoltan Kodaly.

Havdalah. By Debbie Friedman. From Songs of the Spirit: The Debbie Friedman Anthology. Jewish Music Group.

Barbara R. Finn, R.J.E. serves as Cantor of Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a member of the American Conference of Cantors and currently serves as President of the Rabbinical and Cantorial Association of Albuquerque.

Find More in The Tent

Learn more about this exciting new platform, where Reform congregational leaders connect with colleagues and peers who have similar concerns, interests and responsibilities.