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Hayom Harat Olam

by Cantor Jordan S. Franzel

I’ll never forget the first few months I spent in Israel, at the beginning of my cantorial studies. Along with the thrill of living in Jerusalem came the reason I wanted to be a cantor, to learn a spiritual system of singing and chanting prayers in their ancient language. I admit I knew almost nothing about nusach or trop (traditional chant for prayer and reading scripture) so every experience with Jewish music was completely eye and ear opening. I remember the panic I felt when Cantor Eliyahu Schleifer, the director of the HUC Jerusalem School of Sacred Music, handed me the first piece of chazzanut (traditional cantorial chant) that I would learn on my own. It was Cantor Israel Alter’s setting of Hayom Harat Olam. It was exotic and weird but I knew that there was something very deep in Alter’s setting and I knew it must be speaking the text with care and dignity. On Rosh Hashanah that year I sang Hayom Harat Olam and felt the reverence of the liturgical moment immediately following the blasts of the Shofar.

Watch a Video of Hayom Harat Olam

Jumping ahead 22 years, I was extraordinarily honored when representatives of the American Conference of Cantors asked me to be a part of an amazing project. It was to be a compendium musical volume to the new Central Conference of American Rabbis’ machzor and would feature 25 new settings of High Holy Day liturgy, both new and creative prayers, as well as some traditional texts. The spirit of the project was to inject new soul into our Holy Days. And the prayer that I was commissioned to compose was, Hayom Harat Olam! Coincidence or not the experience brought me even closer to the depth of that text and I welcomed the challenge. I was also asked to compose a setting for the next liturgical moment, Areshet S’fateinu. Of course, these prayers only take place on Rosh Hashanah.

The concept for my setting of Hayom Harat Olam came from the fact that after each series of blasts from the shofar my congregation would immediately start talking, in effect drowning out that liturgy. I chose to include percussion as a means to regain the congregation’s attention in addition to using a brighter major key. In imitation of the shofar, I used the interval of the perfect fifth in many places, especially in the words, “hayom and t’kiateinu.” I also included the opening notes of the Malchuyot Aleinu. And the melody for the words “Areshet S’fateinu” is borrowed from the Ashkenazic, nusachic Shofar blessing, the words “Melech HaOlam..” My intention was that the two parts of my setting can be done together or separately, however it fits in one’s order of service.

Watch a Video of the Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh version

There are at least two opinions about what Rosh HaShanah is. Yes, we know it is Yom HaDin, the day of Judgement, and we know that is called Yom T’rua, the Day of the Shofar Blast. We also call Rosh HaShanah Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Memory, but it is the name HaYom Harat Olam that is the cause of controversy. We have all read in machzorim that the name of the prayer, HaYom Harat Olam, referring to the day of Rosh Hashanah, is usually translated as the “Day of the World’s Birth.” Certainly we tell our youngest students that Rosh Hashanah is the Birthday of the World, something to which they can relate. But another opinion is that the world’s birth was in the month of Nissan, six months later. (Rabbi Joshua, Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a) If this is so, than it is a misconception that our new calendar year, Rosh Hashanah, is synonymous with the end of gestation. In truth, it is the beginning of gestation; it is conception.

Conception in terms of animal anatomy is understood to be that moment when both seed and egg are united. It is the moment that begins the cycle of cell generation that will eventually become a baby human, or giraffe, or whale, etc. and as it is the very beginning of a creature’s path to birth, it literally has more than its whole life ahead of it. We call this potential and at the world’s conception, Rosh Hashanah, certainly we are all given the opportunity to start the year with a clean slate as if we too had more than our whole lives ahead of us. At this point we are on the level of being a part of God’s blueprint; the actual construction hasn’t happened yet. This conceptual phase has even more potential than the moment of birth. In terms of spirituality, this potential only exists if we have faith that the work of creation is ongoing and that the new year is an original conception and is revealing an entirely new 365 days ahead of us. If we believe that the work of creation had already taken place, that it was already born, than we become fatalists with no hope for guiding our destiny.

This system of conception and birth also takes place on an artistic level. In music, before any arrangement of pitch, duration, and velocity is even a concept, it exists in the realm of nothingness, ayin. When an artist somehow communes with ayin, consciously or not, it is then that a seminal idea, a thought in its potential form, can be apprehended and then germinated. This is a dynamic process known in Kabbalah as “Min ha-ko-ach el ha-po-al” or “from the potential to the actual.” The process continues throughout the creation of the score or lead sheet. But the written score is still not the finished product, it is the blueprint. The actualization of the composer’s concept is in the expression of the music. It is only when we, our choir members, our accompanists & instrumentalists breathe life into the notes that we make the music an actuality; potential turns to actual.

Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh is an extraordinary collection of 25 new musical offerings. Each setting was written with respect for our liturgical tradition and with honor to the spirit of creativity. It is the perfect complement to our movement’s new machzor. As with any new prayer book comes a new interpretation and expression of ancient words and ideas. This is true of our musical expression as well. When we bring new life to the words of our prayers while honoring our ancient traditions we elevate our communities and perhaps help to give them a glimpse of the divine.

As we hear the sounds of the shofar may we understand them to be a call to the openness of our true potential. And as we stand before our Creator may we not be burdened by judgement but may we be amazed at the possibilities and opportunities that exists ahead of us in this brand new year.

CANTOR JORDAN S. FRANZEL serves Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, PA. He received his Masters of Sacred Music from HUC - JIR - Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music and was ordained as a Cantor in 1996. Prior to his pulpit in Pennsylvania, Cantor Franzel served as Senior Cantor of Central Synagogue in New York City and the Touro Synagogue in New Orleans, Louisiana. He has been on the faculty of the URJ summer Kallah, has been a guest faculty of the Hava Nashira Institute for Jewish musicians, and has served on the editorial board for the Union songbook, Shireinu. Cantor Franzel can be heard on two CD's of Danny Maseng's liturgical music: "Soul On Fire," and "Labor of Love," as well as demo CD’s of 37 of his own compositions, “Experiments in/out Nusach Volumes 1 & 2.” Cantor Franzel’s music has been utilized at Hebrew Union College, various congregations and camps, and most recently at a URJ biennial. A number of  his liturgical settings have been published in several volumes of the Shabbat Anthology. Cantor Franzel is a member of the American Conference of Cantors, is a fellow of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, and is a serious and longtime devotee of Kabbalah especially as expressed through the writings and teachings of Rabbi Moshe Cordovero and Rebbe Nachman.