Oseh Shalom No. 2 – Composition and audio © Alexander Massey, 12 Sept 2012
I wrote this piece originally for the Yom Kippur Musaf service. This melody is based on musical motifs from the Hin’ni ‘Here I stand’ solo prayer sung by the shliach tzibbur (representative of the community) at Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Hin’ni is a prayer that stresses the honour and the awe the shliach tzibbur feels at the responsibility of being the community’s representative, and the fervent hope that the prayers will be accepted. These musical motifs date back to the Mi Sinai melodies of 11th century Germany, the oldest known Jewish melodies. The Musaf service in the UK Liberal Machzor (prayerbook for High Holy Days, including Yom Kippur) does not include the Hin’ni prayer, but begins with a section exploring the essence of t’fillah (prayer). Oseh Shalom No. 2 is a piece for everyone to sing, echoing the music, and therefore the sentiments of the ancient Hin’ni prayer that builds the kavanah (intention) for the great High Holy Days prayer – Un’taneh Tokef – that immediately follows.
The text of Oseh Shalom is often used by itself, but originates as the final section of the Kaddish, an important prayer praising God, used to punctuate different sections of regular services, but also, in one version, as the traditional prayer recited by mourners (mentioned in a 13th century legal work – Or Zarua – by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna as consoling people in troubled times in Central Europe in the Middle Ages). The original text (beginning with oseh shalom bimromav from Job 25:2) ends with hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael ‘who makes peace for us [i.e. this current gathering of people], and all Israel [the Jewish people]’. In 1967, the UK Liberal movement added the words v’al kol b’nei adam ‘and all the children of Adam [i.e. all humanity]’. This has been taken up in many places, including the Reform movement in the USA. This extension of the prayer is in keeping with Jewish ethical and inclusive thinking. The Bible begins with the creation of humanity, and then focuses on a story of a particular people, the Jews. But Jewish teaching urges us to extend love to all people, so it is fitting that the modern wording has been widely adopted. In more recent years, another variant (of uncertain origin) has appeared: v’al kol yoshvei teivel ‘and all who dwell on Earth’. I like that this includes not just humanity, but all life – and so reminds us of our connection and responsibility to live in sustainable harmony with all life. Modern day liturgy has also included a fourth alternative: v’al kol ha’olam – ‘and the whole world / universe’.
It’s also worth knowing something about the Hebrew word shalom. It is usually translated ‘peace’. However, it is different from the conventional meaning of the word, which means ‘cessation or absence of war’ (from the Latin pax). The Hebrew word shalom is connected to shleimut, meaning completeness or wholeness. Do we ever reach such a place? Perhaps not. But it makes a difference to aspire to such a state, and to take what action may take us closer to it. I like to think that the time we are given in this life can be dedicated to a continuous process ‘shalom-ing’ as much as we can.
In Psalm 34:15, there is the phrase “seek shalom [peace] and pursue it”. The traditional Jewish commentary on this (in the ancient Rabbinical text, Leviticus Rabah 9:9), says: ‘seek it in your own place, and pursue it even to another place as well.” And that means that it is not enough just to solve the conflicts, wounds and problems that arise in our own lives and immediate environment – important though that is. How can we be at peace if others are not? How can we be whole, when the world is still broken? There can be no shalom for anyone until there is shalom for everyone. The Rabbis taught that this psalm verse highlights a moral imperative to look beyond what we immediately see and know, to discover where else we could contribute to the ‘shalom-ing’ of the world. In Judaism, we call this the human obligation toward tikkun olam, the healing of the world.
- It is unlikely to be appropriate or necessary to sing all the verses in one rendition. Choose only those verses that you need for the occasion.
- This can also be sung as a meditative nigun.
- Because of the association of the musical motifs (nusach) in this piece, you may want to reserve this for the High Holy Days; however, it can be sung at other times as well.