Yism’chu B’Malchut’cha

Music and Audio © Alexander Massey 26 May 2019

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יִשְׂמְחוּ בְמַלְכוּתְך שׁוֹמְרֵי שַׁבָּת וְקֽוֹרְאֵי עֹֽנֶג

עַם מְקַדְּשֵׁי שְׁבִיעִי כֻּלָּם יִשְׂבְּעוּ וְיִתְעַנְּגוּ מִטּוּבֶֽךָ

וּבַשְּׁבִיעִי רָצִֽיתָ בּוֹ וְקִדַּשְׁתּוֹ חֶמְדַּת יָמִים אוֹתוֹ קָרָֽאתָ זֵֽכֶר לְמַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

They shall rejoice in Your kingdom, those who keep Shabbat and call it a delight;

The people who sanctify the seventh day, will all be fulfilled and delighted with Your goodness;

And You found pleasure in the seventh day and sanctified it, the most precious of days, You called it, in commemoration of the work of Creation.

There are several popular tunes that people sing to this text on Shabbat, all of them lively and rhythmic. And to fit the irregular line lengths and non-metrical phrases into the metrical musical patterns, words and phrases sometimes land awkwardly, with the wrong syllabic emphasis, or are arbitrarily repeated or disconnected from their grammatical context. As a result, for all the vigour of the music, the meaning and spirit of the actual text can become obscured.

Given that the prayer comes during the Amidah, the intense, intimate sequence of prayers that form a spiritual point of gravity in the morning service, I wanted to explore creating a more introspective musical setting. This also provided an opportunity to bring out some of the yearning that we can feel at Shabbat. Feeling, or generating, unconditional joy or gratitude does not always come easily; it can even seem naïve or insincere in the face of one’s own life challenges or the troubles in the wider world of which we are all too well aware.

So this musical setting reflects some of this ambivalence. The opening words, used as a recurring chorus, have music that gently searches and resists resolution until the final word oneg (‘joy’). I have partitioned the remaining text into two sections. The 2nd section focuses on what the people might do and feel, and what the day might mean to them. The 3rd section (“And You found pleasure …”) focuses on what God has done and feels, and what the day means to God. The music for these two sections is harmonically simpler and more settled than the chorus – offering a musical parallel for how surrendering into the wisdom and practice of Shabbat can be nourishing and restorative. The 3rd section neatly fits extra syllables to the same music as section two, the increase in pace subtly encouraging a greater sense of engagement and optimism.

In the shabbat poem/prayer/song L’chah Dodi is the phrase shamor v’zachor – ‘guard’ and ‘be mindful’ of Shabbat. This draws on the two different versions of the ten commandments. In Ex. 30:7, we are told to ‘be mindful’ (zachor) of Shabbat in remembrance (zecher) of God’s completion of Creation. In Deut. 5:11, we are told to ‘keep/guard’ (shomeir) Shabbat. Yism’chu also uses both words. The original text of Yism’chu has the phrase shom’rei shabbat in the first line. My friend Rabbi Sandra Kviat made two observations about my musical setting. First, the melody in the chorus draws attention to ‘shom’rei’. Second, repeating that in a recurring chorus might put heavy emphasis on the ‘shom’rei’ aspect of Shabbat, to the detriment of the ‘zecher’ aspect, and Sandra pointed me to a wonderful article by Michael Wegier, ‘I am a Zachor Jew – How about you?’. I will explain later in this article how this influenced my compositional decision-making.

Wegier suggests that to identify as ‘shomeir shabbat’ brings strong associations with strict and orthodox observance of Shabbat, with a defining paradigm of halachah (Jewish law) and a rule-bound approach, with a leaning towards imbalance/asymmetry of genders (and other core identifiers, e.g. LGBT), that does not necessarily speak to many Jews who are nevertheless religiously engaged, and committed to Jewish values, life and tradition. Wegier is deeply inclusive of those who wish to identify that way, while offering equal space to those who might prefer to think of themselves as ‘zecher shabbat’. To be a Zachor (‘memory’) Jew, according to Wegier, is to be “deeply embedded in Jewish culture and tradition” (such as following and commemorating the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, and studying ancient and modern Jewish texts), and to be “fundamentally committed to being Jewish”… “without being required to either adhere to, or reject, a religious/halachic paradigm”. It requires remembering “what Judaism and Jews stood for in earlier times … [using] this heritage to maximise our impact on Jewish civilisation and the wider world today … [and ensuring] “that the next generation will have the tools and resources to inherit and transform Jewish life in their own time and place.” I realise now that I, too, am a Zachor Jew.

I find this hugely exciting and liberating. It offers a way – and a vocabulary – to draw deeply on the Jewish history and tradition, and to renew that tradition. Isaac re-dug his father Abraham’s wells to re-open them, but also dug new wells. That is what the non-denominational, post-denominational, Jewish Renewal movement is all about.

So, back to the text and music of Yism’chu. There are three ways we can approach Shabbat: guarding (shom’rei), sanctifying (m’kad’shei) and being mindful (zoch’rei) mark the three sections of the text. My rabbi friend’s insights have led me to make a minor change to the text in the returning chorus, representing a major change in the direction and possibilities for how this setting can be used and experienced. When the chorus music returns, I have replaced the word shom’rei first with m’kad’shei, and finally with zoch’rei. The original shom’rei is retained and honoured in the first chorus, while the prayer and singing of Yism’chu are now opened up to include those with alternative Jewish perspectives.

One final comment – I find it hard to resist including puzzles and allusions in my compositions. The three sections comprise a total of 24 bars (measures) of music, a parallel to the 24 words of the Yism’chu text, and the minimum number of hours of Shabbat! [1]

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[1] In practice, many begin Shabbat just before sundown on Friday,and end it just after sundown on Saturday, therefore expanding into a 25-hour period.