By Matthew Shilat
One voice calls out and everyone in the room responds in unison: “HaShem melekh, HaShem malakh, HaShem yimlokh l’olam va’ed” (The Lord is King, the Lord was King, the Lord will be King forever and ever). Between Rosh Hodesh (the first of the month of the Jewish month) Elul and Yom Kippur, in commemoration of the second 40-day period Moses spent on Mount Sinai, Sephardim (Jews originating from communities located in the Iberian Peninsula) recite Selihot (penitential prayer service) in song from Ben Adam to Shomer Yisrael (one prayer in the Selihot service to another). In Nehemiah 8:9, Nehemiah says to the Jews returning from exile, “This day is holy to the Lord, your God. Do not mourn or weep,” and Sephardim therefore joyously sing the praise of HaShem (God) and fervently request forgiveness for their sins. Before the holiday break, YU held an online event that investigated Sephardic Selihot (the Selihot prayer as traditionally prayed by Sephardim) as a gateway into further understanding Sephardic melodies.
The event was titled “Crisis and Hope: YU Voices Sephardic Melodies for the High Holidays: Selihot”. I had heard of this event from my “Jews of Medieval Spain” class with Professor Ronnie Perelis as well as my “Sephardic Liturgical Music” course with Rabbi Moshe Tessone, director of the Sephardic Programs at Yeshiva University. These two experts on Sephardic history led the event. Professor Perelis initiated dialogue by asking Rabbi Tessone questions on the development of Sephardic tunes and their cantillation style. Rabbi Tessone then elaborated on the history of Sephardic hazzanut (cantorial performance), breaking it down into different subgroups and discussing the variations in maqam (Arabic melodic mode or scale) used for different times of the year. For example, one maqam would be used to inspire feelings of teshuva (repentance), whereas a different, more joyous maqam would be used during times of celebration.
Rabbi Tessone divided Sephardic hazzanut into categories based on cantillation style. These categories were Judeo-Arabic/Oriental (Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Persian, etc.), Judeo-Spanish (Turkish, Greek, Balkan), North African, Western/Occidental Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese), and Yemenite. While many tunes overlap among these styles, the differences in cantillation distinguish between these communities’ musical traditions. Rabbi Tessone further spoke about how the melodies of all these communities were influenced by the surrounding popular music. For instance, Syrian tunes typically sound Arabic, though around the High Holidays they take on a more Spanish sound that has been preserved since the Expulsion of Jews from Spain. Likewise, Moroccan liturgy sounds more Berber, Spanish-Portuguese more European — and he even mentioned a Syrian congregation in Brooklyn that at one point used the tune for “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” after a Mets victory.
Something stood out to me when Rabbi Tessone discussed the development of different cantillations, or te’amim (notes). He quoted Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, who, in his 20th century Jewish liturgical research, pointed out that all the varying cantillation styles share certain characteristics and even a common origin in the Babylonian style. Having been instructed in the Iraqi te’amim style myself, I found this idea personally inspiring. I later asked Professor Perelis why he chose to specifically look into Sephardic Selihot for this event. He responded:
“Our series has tackled challenging issues since we began Crisis and Hope … in June — [covering] race, civil rights, C[OVID-19], [the] Holocaust and [g]enocide — and it was important for us to also create a space for joy and light. The [S]elihot are a testament to the power of the spirit over adversity and of faith over cynicism. Rabbi Tessone is a fantastic guide to the rich and complex history of this precious living musical tradition. It was an honor to have him join us a few days before Yom Kippur and share the stirring melodies and powerful words of the [S]elihot. The musical variation Rabbi Tessone highlighted points to the creativity, diversity and aesthetic power of the wider Sephardic diaspora.”
Learning about the development of Sephardic liturgical music helped me feel more connected to this tradition that I am so proud to carry. I keep telling my Ashkenazi friends that they should experience a Sephardic Selihot service sometime — and that is exactly what Professor Perelis suggested at the conclusion of this event. The Selihot experience is filled with traditional, enthralling songs that span across the centuries. Not only are the tunes enjoyable but joining in with these voices through the ages allows us to become a part of something bigger than ourselves.