Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Shema was composed? Really?

I just read that the melody for the shema I recite daily was composed less than 200 years ago. That might seem like a long time ago, but compared to the thousands of years of Judaism, it feels like yesterday.

I grew up attending a Conservative shul in Connecticut and learned a set of traditional nusach (liturgical melodies). Other than a few of the goofier melodies for Adon Olam (theme from Gilligan's Island, anyone?) it never occurred to me to wonder where the melodies came from. Each had, to me, a timeless quality. To the degree I thought about it, I imagined my grandfather singing the same melodies and his grandfather and his. All the way back to the Temple? Who knew. But definitely old.

I guess I was wrong.

The book I'm reading is Marsha Edelman's excellent Discovering Jewish Music. In it, she describes how the 19th century composer Solomon Sulzer "abandoned traditional nusach and wrote in the style of his times." The result was Shir Zion, a Torah service for festivals. It included a melody for Shema Yisrael and Ki mi-Tziyon. This is the melody I'm teaching my daughters.

I'm glad to be reminded that Judaism is a living tradition and I'm happy to know more of the details about how innovations in the tradition happened. It's just that, no matter how often it happens, it's always a strange thing to realize that things aren't as simple as you once thought.

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There's an Amazon song sample of the Sulzer Shema recorded for the "Thank God It's Friday!: The Music of Shabbat." I'm not so fond of the organ in the clip, but the melody is right.

Wikipedia and the Jewish Encylopedia have more about the history of synagogue music.

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