David Giora: Shabbat and Holidays Prayers and Chants

On Fridays and holiday eves, the cantor would stand on the stage and open his prayer with “Lechu and Renana” (Go and rejoice).

The peak of the singing began with the famous piyut “Lecha Dodi”. How many melodies have been composed for this beautiful poem? It’s hard to describe. Each community and each Stiebel would play its version of the melody relating to it or its Hasidic dynasty. In the Great Synagogue, the music was unique as it was made with notes.

The Kabbalat Shabbat was performed by the cantor on stage, and not before the pillar at the foot of the Holy Ark. So that the “Lecha Dodi” prayer together with the cantor created an atmosphere that only a Jewish synagogue could create. At the peak, I think, was the time to play the verse “temple of the king of the royal city.” Here the tune was completely different, and this verse was played by the soloist, a young boy with earthshaking voice. The entire choir would repeat the refrain “Lecha Dodi” and the entire congregation, including me, would sing a course with them together.

Arvit prayer had a special status. For the prayers “Hashem is the king Geut Lovesh” and “Hashkivenu”. What shall I say or rather, what shall I sing? I think that both my brother Rafael and I remember this chapter to this day. On the few occasions we met, we always sang together.

We came to Ma’ariv prayers and by the chapter “Hashkivenu” everything went quiet. The chapter “Hashkivenu” is almost entirely sung. This melody has been replaced only once, and yet I remember its predecessor as well. Before the eighteenth prayer we still heard “And the children of Israel kept the Sabbath”. Here, too, the cantor’s prayer was combined with the chorus of choir. The sounds emanating from the chords of the choir were like those of the Levites at the time of the Temple. Who will describe the feelings of the worshipers, all singing or humming the wonderful melodies, more like operatic works than a common prayer. To experience this was something special.

Usually the evening prayer ends with “We must praise”. Not so in the Great Synagogue. Here comes a prayer, “BeMa Madlikin”, which was a vitally supplement after Arvit. It’s difficult to describe in words the prayer of Cantor Zofobitz, every word uttered rolled like a shiny pearl. It should be noted that in this prayer the choir did not participate at all. Nevertheless, the Cantor created a sensation of hundreds of voices participating with him. And why am I saying that? One looking at this prayer, will find the words “extinguishes the candle etc.”. These words were said in half chanting and over-emphasis. The climax was when he began to make “three reasons for dying at the time of giving birth” and “three things one has to say.” Could anyone imagine a force which could stop the huge crowd from joining the great cantor’s singing? Would anyone have thought of telling each other to deviate from this custom? This was a mighty chorus led by nobody. It broke out from hundreds and perhaps thousands of throats of those present and of those standing at the gates of the synagogue. A tumultuous crowd of different voices, and in the midst – the cantor’s wonderful voice.

Although the worshipers were eager to return home and receive the Sabbath at Kiddush and the festive meal, along with the entire family, no one was in a hurry and no one complained. If it were possible, they would all continue to remain inside the synagogue until morning for it was all worthwhile. Even when you went out into the street, you still heard the tunes that became public.

On Shabbat morning, the prayer began, as in every synagogue, from “How good are your tents, Jacob.” What does it mean, “How good”? The Cantor was slowly coming up the stairs before the ark while the choir sang “How good”. And at the end the cantor would descend softly, softly on the staircase from the Holy Ark into the closed hall, designed for the cantor. Even the “Adon Olam” prayer wasn’t skipped by anyone, and Cantor Zofobitz’s singing was not left alone.

Who allowed him to sing alone? How could one give up and not join this great song? There was silence after the singing. Singing and Rina began to return in “El Adon”. The Cantor had the solo singing, but who had let him sing by himself? This has already been the public singing, everyone sings, and how they sang.

Silence would fall when Cantor came to rule “with Israel” and so on. How many frills passed before the cantor reached the holy prayer “We will sanctify your name” (in the Great Synagogue they prayed according to the Ashkenazic version). Here the choir entered full force into the singing. Peak reached the solo singing of “He is our Lord”. Could it be a solo singing? Would no one sing after the others’ pleas and requests? All looked at each other, secretly singing the wonderful melody. I say a wonderful melody. After all, every word and verse, not only was sacred, but a continuous melody.

Who will recite the Song of Israel in prayers and liturgy, on Sabbaths and holidays? If there are holidays, there are two prayers here, for which there was no substitute. The first was the “Halel”. It’s hard to explain in simple words. Oratorio is nothing compared to the abundance of diverse voices of this work. (I will try to record in my humble voice what I remember from these works).

Second important prayer was “And because of our sins”, in Musaf. There is, of course, no need to detract from the importance of the holy prayer, which was not less merciful than that of the morning prayers. The most beautiful passage in the prayer “and our sins” was “Avinu Malkinu”. The soloists, the entire choir, the cantor and the large crowd formed one huge choir, which was heard far and wide.

Hebrew version written by David Giora.
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.