This Shabbat, we read from the portion called Beshallach. Among other things, the portion is notable for the presence in it of the Song of the Sea (at Exodus 15:1-18), the song (or poem; it’s the same word in Hebrew) that Moses sings after the redemption at the Sea of Reeds. The text is laid out in a special way, and it is one of the very easy sections to find in the Torah because of the distinctive crosshatched layout of the Hebrew text. The Song is one of the two places in Torah where the text is laid out differently than the normal two-column layout (the other is Moses’ song at the end of Deuteronomy) and this one is unique in that it is appears like bricks in a wall. It is said that it looks like a representation of the procession of the Children of Israel moving forward between the walls of the water as they part to let them through. In the Ashkenazic chanting tradition, there is a special tune to the parts of this poem that are attributed directly to Moses. So dramatic is the text and its layout as a significant song and poem that one would imagine this to be the source of Jewish music. But it is not: this special musical treatment of the Song of the Sea – a triumphant song celebrating a national victory – is the road not taken. Jewish music followed a different path.
Music is central to Jewish worship, ritual and community, and Jewish music is significantly different from the music that surrounds us in the wider culture. For instance, there are two musical forms that we take for granted in Western music which were seldom found in Jewish music until very recently: counterpoint, and strophic song. Counterpoint is the combining of melodies. A simple form of it is a round or canon, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” but it includes much more sophisticated versions, which we hear most prominently in music from the Baroque era onwards. Counterpoint is the relationship between voices that harmonize with one another, but are independent in rhythm and melodic shape. The second form, strophic song, is what our most familiar folk music is like: songs in which all the verses or stanzas of the text are sung to the same music. Without these forms, Western music would be unrecognizably different. And yet, Jewish music didn’t develop either of them independently. And the reason for that can be found in the traditions surrounding the preservation of the text of the Torah.
The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible includes a sophisticated system of diacritical marks, special signs or marks printed in the text of the Hebrew Bible to complement the letters and vowel points. These marks are known in English as accents and in Hebrew as ta`amei ha-mikra or just te`amim. They provide grammatical information about the text, without which the Hebrew Bible cannot be fully understood. Because the Torah and other books of the Hebrew Bible were chanted publicly from very early in our history, the te’amim are the basis for the rules of the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue services. Virtually every word in the Hebrew Bible has a symbol associated with it that indicates (among other things) how it is to be chanted. Each word has its little melody, usually just a few notes, and each sentence is composed of a largely unpredictable passage of them, following the grammar of the text. So no sentence has the same melody as the one before or after it, which means that the notion of a tune that repeats with different text doesn’t arise naturally out of our earliest traditions. While it is certainly true that the music in the Temple in Jerusalem is described as having been glorious and majestic, that tradition also did not prevail in the long run of Jewish music history. In the millennia-old rivalry between text and melody, between the words and the music, in the Jewish world, the text is the hands-down winner. Similarly foreign to our Jewish focus on the text and its meaning, is the looping and intertwining of complex melodies in counterpoint. Musically speaking, the word-dominated chanting of the Torah led to the equally word-dominated system of the chanting of prayer, called in Hebrew nusach. Services are traditionally chanted rather than either read in normal speech or sung to a rhythmical tune. The chanting follows a system of musical modes, (which are not the same as the system of modes that the Catholic world developed;) it’s actually closer to a form of Arabic music called maqamat. In Ashkenazi cantorial practice, there are number of scales, or steiger, named after the prayers that they are most prominently used for. The scales used vary both with the particular prayer and with the season. There are special modes for the High Holy Days, the Festivals, the Sabbath and weekdays, and the modes change depending upon which service it is within those observances, such as the Ma’ariv (evening), Shacharit (morning), and Minchah (afternoon) services. Jewish musical creativity found its outlet not (as in Western church music) in beautiful melodies and sophisticated counterpoint, but rather in the improvisational working out of the rules of nusach in the prayers.
The Song of the Sea in this week’s portion and Moses’ song at the end of Deuteronomy are the only places in the Torah where the music appears to dominate over the text. The melody is lost to history, but the tradition that led to the word-dominated art of Jewish music lives on. Only in the last century and a half have Jews adopted elements of Western musical traditions, and even when we did so, we never lost sight of the importance of the word. There is a message in the music that links us to our ancient tradition, and it is one that we should treasure.
Rabbinic student Leo Baeck College
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.