Composition and audio © Alexander Massey 23 Oct 2016
Two part round in 10/8 (patterns of 3-3-2-2)
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “in prayer, words are commitments. … [P]rayer is meaningless unless we stand for what we utter, unless we feel what we accept. A word of prayer is a word of honour given to God.” (‘The Spirit of Jewish Prayer’, 53rd Annual Convention of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, June 1953, p.170).
Ein Keiloheinu is a potent, emphatic affirmation of God. In this prayer, we declare that there is none (ein) like God, and we ask who (mi) could possibly be like our God (the implied answer being ‘no one’); we thank (nodeh) God, and we bless (baruch) God; and then we address God directly (‘You’ atah). In each verse, we affirm four aspects of God; these four God-names appear in the poem in the same order that they first appear in the Torah:
- Elohim – Gen. 1:1 – the sole Creative Force
- Adon – Gen. 15:2 – God as Revealed Master of all Creation – to whom Abram (soon to become Abraham) addresses himself
- Melech – Ex 15:18 – the Ruler to whom the Israelites first pledged loyalty as a people, after crossing the Sea of Reeds during the flight from Egypt
- Moshia – Deut. 33:29 – the Redeemer / Saviour of the Jewish people
Creation, Revelation and Redemption are recurring themes in Jewish thought. We address these aspects if God in our liturgy in the two blessings before the Sh’ma, and the first blessing after it. We also address God as Ruler, in our prayers, and in the great poem Adon Olam.
The first three verses begin respectively with the letters aleph, mem, and nun. Together, these spell the word amein. So singing this prayer can act as a great ‘amen!’ to all the prayers that we have said through the Shabbat morning service. The next two verses of Ein Keiloheinu begin respectively with the letters beit and aleph; these can begin the phrase baruch atah ‘blessed are You’, so that we bless God.
About the music
The prayer makes reference to four different names of God. This also reflects the four worlds taught in the Jewish mystical system of kabbalah. Four in Hebrew is the letter Dalet, which means ‘door’, and can symbolise a doorway to God. The music of this setting echoes the patterns of four: each musical line is four bars long; the first half of each verse climbs through the four steps of an arpeggio (the four notes of a chord), starting each phrase on the next step (1-3-5-8). The letter yud can also be a shorthand reference to God; it stands for the number ten. Within kabbalah, ten represents the number of sephirot (spheres) on the Tree of Life, and represents ten core aspects of God. To echo this, the rhythmic patterning of each bar of music incorporates 10 quavers (fast rhythmic sub-divisions).
In writing this, I wanted to experiment with sounds evocative of Sephardi Jewish tradition. The rhythms are based on patterns of 3-3-2-2, and the melodic shapes use a 1-2-3-4-5-flat_7-8 scale. I had originally hoped that I could write something that congregations would feel able to sing. However, I think these intricate rhythms (even without singing the round, or adding the bottom part) are a little tricky unless you are used to these kinds of rhythms!
A version of Ein Keiloheinu has been found in a prayer book (siddur) as early as the 9th century, the 11th century prayer books of Machzor Vitry and Rashi, and in Maimonides’ 12th century writings. In singing this prayer, we connect to our history and our theology. There are versions that include a final verse about the incense used in the Temple. Jews who do not pray for the restoration of the Temple or its practices usually omit this verse. The first verse (Ein keiloheniu…) is often repeated at the end.
The Rabbis of the Talmud instituted a practice of reciting 100 blessings per day. 57 of these are spoken in the Amidahin the three daily services on weekdays (3 x 19 blessings). But with fewer Amidah blessings on Shabbat, singing Ein Keiloheinu at the end of Shabbat morning helps make up the shortfall; each phrase in Ein Keiloheinu is considered to count as a blessing.
For more information on Ein keloheinu, see Wikipedia.
Possible ways to use this prayer-song
The prayer can be sung as a single, unaccompanied line (if people are musically confident enough!), but it raises the spirits if people can add either the bottom voice (repeating Amein, baruch atah …), and/or sing the main line as a two part round.