Origin of "Misinai" Tunes

Cantor David Bentley of Brisbane Progressive Jewish Congregation shares his article exploring the origin of  "Misinai" tunes.

The music for the High Holy Days includes a group of chants known collectively as the "Misinai" tunes. This practice goes back at least several hundred years and exists throughout the Ashkenazi world. The term "Misinai", meaning "from Sinai" does not mean that these tunes literally date back to Biblical times. Rather, it indicates the veneration and esteem in which they are held.

The Misinai tunes are not strictly tunes in the sense that, say, a particular melody for Adon Olam is a tune or 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' is a tune. Rather, they are a collection of short melodies that are woven together in a kind of musical tapestry to provide a longer, continuous chant. While much the same could be said of nusach (the various musical motifs of worship services) generally, the Misinai tunes tend to be somewhat more fixed. Indeed one of the older names for this practice, "scarbove" (from the Latin sacra, or holy) refers to their "official" nature. That is to say particular tunes are used at particular places and to do otherwise would be stepping out of line.

The Misinai tunes are primarily associated with a small but important list of prayers. They are mostly prayers where the congregation rises to its feet, reinforcing the liturgical and/or theological importance of these moments. Because these tunes are reserved for these prayers on these special days, we become conditioned to associating them with the themes of the day. In the same way that the joyous tunes of a regular Shabbat service help us to find the appropriate feelings of joy for that weekly festival, so hearing the plaintive chant of Kol Nidre helps us find the right mood for atonement and forgiveness. In this way the tunes of the High Holy Days, and especially the Misinai tunes, work much the same as nusach and to the extent that they are part of the "right" practice, are considered part of the nusach for these services.

These are the prayers where the Misinai tunes have their chief occurrences: Kol Nidre (the prayer, not the entire service),Barchu where it appears in the lead-up to the Sh'ma (which can also be, but isn't always, sung to a Misinai tune), Avot v'Imahot (the opening paragraph of the T'filah), HaMelech which appears fairly early in the morning service of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Great Aleinu which appears during the Shofar service, Chatsi Kaddish (or "Reader's Kaddish") which appears in several different services throughout the High Holy Days, and V'haKohanim, the description of the ritual of the High Priest seeking forgiveness in the Holy of Holies when the Temple stood in Jerusalem. There is also limited use of Misinai tunes during the services for the Three Festivals, but it is at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that they are prevalent to the point of being a major contributor to the musical "feel" of the liturgy on these days.

As the tunes are constructed by weaving together a number of themes and motifs, these smaller elements can also be used in other places as an element of the High Holy Day nusach. So we often find the tune for Bar'chu being used also for Mi Chamocha and short but easily recognizable phrases from it being sung in other passages during the evening. This helps provide musical cohesion as well as further setting apart these services from the rest of the year.

There is an interesting theological confluence with the prayers listed above. They all deal, in one way or another, with the nature of our relationship to God: the various Kaddish prayers praise the greatness of God, the Barchu as the call to prayer, is a short but grand statement that God is The Blessed One, HaMelech includes imagery of God sitting on the Heavenly Throne, and the Avot v'Imahot prayer reminds us that our biblical ancestors recognized one God. V'haKohanim recalls the grandeur of Temple ritual in that bygone age when the entire nation supported a large, full-time priesthood dedicated to the worship of God. The Great Aleinu references a future day when God's sovereignty will be recognized by all, and of course the Sh'ma is Judaism's central statement of faith in one indivisible God.

Possibly the most famous of our prayers, Kol Nidre, in its original Aramaic does not mention God at all. Every word and breath of this moving declaration, however, is predicated on our determination to acknowledge one God, notwithstanding any oaths we've been forced to make to the contrary.

The practice of using Misinai tunes not only helps us feel the unique character of the Days of Awe, but also, by highlighting certain key sections of the liturgy, helps us focus on our relationship with God, the Heavenly Ruler who judges in righteousness and love.

David Bentley is Cantor and Spiritual Leader of Australia's Brisbane Progressive Jewish Congregation, an affiliate of the Union for Progressive Judaism. He was the first Australian graduate of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, in May, 2000, for which he wrote a thesis on the topic of Misinai Tunes.

 reprinted with permission from Reform.Judaism.org

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