Torah Portion: BEHAR The Significance of Nusach May 17, 2003 By Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum
You have heard the word Nusach? Nusach is the style of the melodious sounds we make while we are praying. If you enter into a house of worship anywhere in the world, you will hear different melodies for different prayers. You might think that since it is true that God listens to all of our prayers, music is not really necessary. However, there is no doubt that when we sing our prayers, there is something added to what we are saying.
In numerous places the Bible, speaks of the importance of music and melody. Take for example the story of Joseph and Jacob. It is written that when Joseph wanted to convince his father that he was alive, he sent his brothers back with a special message. The rabbis tell us that he taught his brothers the special melody that he and his father used to sing before he left home. When the father heard the melody of this message, he knew that his son was still alive.
Moreover it is written that when Saul and David wanted inspiration, they requested music in order to concentrate and meditate. Only then were they focused enough to receive a special message from God. There is no doubt about the connection between prayer and music. Nusach means the different melodies for different prayers, for example,Nusach for High Holidays, for European Jews, African Jews. There is a beauty in all of this.
If you look back at our history we know there was a special melody for each prayer. Levites in the Temple had a very large choir, and they sang a specific song for each day. When Shabbat arrived, they sang a special song. They chanted for the holidays and high holidays, making the prayers even more memorable. At that time, the twelve tribes were together, so the melodies were all known and recognized by all the Israelites.
Unfortunately, as a result of the destruction of the Temple, and the Diaspora, what happened? There were positive and negative outcomes from these historical events. The good news is that after 2,000 years, we are witnessing the result of Isaiah’s prophecy in the 2nd Chapter of Isaiah, "At the end of the day, all the Jewish people will gather together from all four corners of the world, and it will be a great day for all of Israel." It has been incredible to see that Jewish people have gathered together. There is now one single Jewish nation. For so many generations, the tribes were separated, but now we still have the same Torah and are unified, for the most part, in this modern, global society.
The basic prayers, like the prayer of Shemah, "Hear, O Israel," the Amidah prayer is the same as they were long ago. So what differences are felt after the many years of separation? The primary difference is that the unique Nusach, or melody, has changed and metamorphosed. As the tribes assimilated into each culture where they settled, their melodies were also affected. Even then they segregated themselves. For example, Jews that lived in Europe and Jews that lived in Arab countries were each greatly influenced by that culture’s music and melodies. Now, when they gather together they use one single prayer book. But how do they choose the Nusach? Not one single person in the world knows which Nusach was used 2,000 years ago in the Temple.
So, who is right? The Yemenite Nusach, or the European Nusach? No one knows for sure and because of this, a cantor has an important job. When he walks into the synagogue he should look around to see what kind of crowd he has…for example, if he has a lot of German Jews, he will sing in that Nusach. But if you have a variety, like Jews from Yemen, Morocco, Europe, the cantor will take the prayer and combine the various Nusachs to try to please the soul of every attendant so they feel connected.
The Nusach is an important part of our prayers. It is necessary, especially in this day because many people aren’t proficient in Hebrew. When they hear and recognize the melody of the Nusach and the prayer they will be able to close their eyes, meditate and pray. The congregant will feel connected and the service is then more meaningful and enjoyable.
Since the Torah was given at "Behar-Sinai" which means that all Jews received one single Nusach therefore, what we learned today is the purpose of Nusach and that the gate of music is connected to the gate of prayer. We know that all prayers are acceptable. But no one knows until the Messiah will come which was the original Nusach at the Holy Temple. We must assimilate and combine all the Nusachs so everyone feels connected and we can all open the gates of prayer together.