The Music of N’ilah – Part One

January 30, 2014Cantor Barbara R. Finn, R.J.E.

By Cantor Barbara R. Finn

Yom Kippur is bookended by music and liturgy that speak to us on an emotional level.  We often cannot explain it; it is simple yet powerfully spiritual, reaching into our souls with a fervor that would leave us empty were we to miss those elements of the service. In her article about Kol Nidre, Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky says, "There is an intangible, lasting power to the Kol Nidre, and that power does not emanate from its text, but rather its melody."  Ritual observance or non-observance, belief or non-belief in the Holy One does not affect how the music stirs our souls. 

In words from the book, Imperfect Harmony by Stacy Horn, "words that tell an emotional story, set to appropriate music, burn into the soul." The N’ilah liturgy begins with a lingering contemplative feeling.  The introspection of the day as well as the transition from the Yizkor service moves slowly and meditatively. The N’ilah Kaddish sung to the traditional nusach (prayer melody) is both haunting and beautiful, demonstrating in the melody the contemplative and reflective nature of the beginning of the conclusion.

LISTEN This transition provides the momentum we need to continue through the last T’filah of the day by sustaining the nusach from the N’ilah Kaddish.  The familiar liturgical text enables us to continue our contemplation and at the same time return to our communal engagement in prayer. Eil Norah Alilah begins the change in urgency toward the image of closing gates.  The urgency in these musical examples is not shown in increased tempo but rather in the musical motif in relation to the text.  Simon Sargon uses the grandeur of the full choir as well as variations in dynamics to illustrate urgency and reflection in his version of this piece.

LISTEN Rabbi Joe Black’s arrangement of this text in his piece, Let God In, combines the communal and personal aspects of finding God in our lives: how we must act and reflect.  Eil Norah Alilah, ham’tzei lanu m’chila, bishat ha’n’ilah; God of awesome deeds, grant us pardon, as the gates begin to close. "Where is God? Whenever we let God in." 

LISTEN The text of Dark’cha is a plea before the ultimate Sovereign for patience with humanity to continue God’s work.  An arrangement of this piece by Max Janowski reflects this simple yet sacred plea with its use of the traditional nusach and very little embellishment.  Max Janowski is the composer of the well-known Avinu Malkeinu melody which has become a Misinai1 tune to this generation. An arrangement by Israel Alter is similar in nature to the Janowski version following the traditional nusach and emphasizing through music our plea to God.  Louis Lewandowski’s arrangement in some ways represents a move away from individuality with the music returning to a feeling of communal prayer through song.

LISTEN With the hunger from fasting beginning to subside, the intensity of the liturgy and music move us toward renewal of spiritual strength. The physical and spiritual surroundings stimulate a greater awareness of community; our attention toward hunger and individuality wanes.  The ark remains open symbolizing our additional personal and communal effort as the music swells within, and without adding a feeling of urgency, transition and transformation.

Sources: Eil Nora Alilah by Simon Sargon. Transcontinental Music Publishers. Let God In by Rabbi Joe Black N'ilah Kaddish and Dark'cha, by Hazzan Israel Alter. The High Holy Day Service, Cantors Assembly, Inc. 1971. Sung by H. Kobilinsky

  1. Misinai tunes as defined by Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky "are melodies which seem so old, authentic and universal they are attributed to having been given along with the tablets at Mount Sinai."

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