Prayer to a Beat
This summer I sat towards the back of a Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Slifka Center at Yale University as an advisor on the Tikvah-Straus High School Summer Program. In front of me stood the opening of a joke: a Roman Catholic, a Lutheran, a Conservative Jew, and an Orthodox Jew following the service together. When we all rose to sing Mizmor le-David to the Carlebach melody, I began to beat box, providing a beat to the tune. This was not the first time I brought some of my own beat to tefillah, and when one of the students turned to me and said, “Gabi, you need to do this for real,” we quickly brainstormed a name. On that Friday evening “Beat-Box Shabbat” was born.
Including song in prayer is not a novel concept—melodies joined Jewish prayer centuries ago. During Yamim Noraim many people cannot fully enjoy a prayer that departs from the tunes of their youth. To paraphrase a friend of mine, “Once you leave your home for Yom Kippur davening it’s not the same, even when you come back.” Many who return from spending a year or two in their yeshiva in Israel have a hard time adjusting from their yeshiva tunes, and will spend time reminiscing with their friends during breaks in the tefillah. A community of sorts results from these traditional tunes, and emphasizes the power tradition has to shape our prayers. For these reasons, I have worries about inserting beat boxing into davening. Granted this innovation might invite some scorn or snickers, but on a more fundamental level there will be confusion and some discomfort with making this addition.
Traditionally, there are two sources for prayer: some claim prayer is meant to reflect the three prayer a day system established by the avot, and others claim tefilllah was instituted as a replacement for the temidim – the daily sacrifices in the temple. While the record on how the avot prayed is limited, there is an argument in Arakhin 11a between R’ Meir and the Hakhamim as to whether the song of the Leviim that accompanies the daily sacrifice is meakev, prevents the sacrifice from being valid. R. Meir claims that music does in fact prevent the validity of the sacrifice, while the Hakhamim do not. Clearly, however, according to all opinions music was an important part of the service, and according to R. Meir, the song was integral enough to invalidate the entire service.
Cantor Sherwood Goffin, a teacher at the Belz School of Jewish Music, expounds on this topic quite extensively in his article, “The Music of the Yamim Noraim.” [i] He quotes a gloss of Rama, Rav Moshe Isserles, saying “One may not change the custom of a community even as to its customary prayer melodies (“Maharil”).[ii] According to the Maharil, not only do tunes simply add a musical atmosphere to tefillah, they also should be considered as sacred as any other community minhag.[iii] Maharil believed the tunes of tefillah to be so important that in his effort to rebuild Jewish communities of Europe he went from town to town determining which melodies were “authentic tradition for each community.”[iv] As he compiled a compendium of melodies, he dubbed them “mi-Sinai,” not literally implying that the tunes actually were revealed at Sinai, but rather that these tunes are important and integral to community prayer. Halakhic sources clearly take to heart issues of changing the tefillah, however the more pertinent question is how and when can changes be made to better serve the community.
Logically, one would presume that some specific tunes from important holidays are considered even more sacred and would require more effort to alter. For example, R. Soloveichik is quoted in Divrei ha-Rav, a book of recollections of the Rav’s Torah and ideas written by R. H. Schacter, as considering the tunes that we use on the Yamim Noraim and other holiday traditional tunes to be an integral part of the Jewish experience. He explains that the Ramban’s interpretation of the requirement to “remember what happened at Sinai” actually relates to more than merely recalling the commandments. Important as well is what he calls the “mesorah of the Jewish experience” that cannot be overlooked and is built into the auditory experience of prayer. These exceptional tunes, such as Kol Nidrei, which we classify as part of this essential mesorah, should remain lynchpins of the holiday service, while other tunes may need to evolve to be more relevant to the prayers, but also need to be revered – a difficult balance to strike when trying to spruce up the prayer service
Based on the multitude of melodies used in batei knesset and batei midrash, in our times few melodies remain immutable. This transition of tradition opens new doors for how a community practices the singing portion of their service. While using new tunes is the common way to make acceptable changes to tefillah, beat boxing would seem to provide an alternative mode of expression and enhancement for tefillah.
Two types of issues will hold back the integration of beat boxing into tefillah. On the one hand there are halakhic sensibilities that need consideration. On the other hand, some spiritual considerations need to be taken into consideration as well if beat boxing is to be properly mixed into tefillah[v].
In the halakhic sphere, a couple of considerations exist. Two separate points of interest come up when considering using songs and tunes in tefillah, which result in two separate points of interest: (1) fitting tunes into the words of prayer and (2) making sure not to repeat words. A classic example where tunes lead to the repetition of words, cited by R. Herschel Schacter, refers us to the pasuk recited while returning the Torah scroll to the ark of “Hadesh yameinu k’kedem,” popularly sung with repetitions as “Hadesh, hadesh yameinu, hadesh yameinu k’kedem[vi].” While popular, R. Schachter explains that these repetitions are inappropriate.[vii] The source for the problem of repetition is at its core based in the Talmudic passages printed in both Megillah 22a and Ta’anit 27b, which state, “Any verse which was not divided by Moses, we may not divide.” The Maharam Schik, a 19th century halakhic scholar, expands on this issue by saying that when one repeats words you make it look like you are changing what the Hakhamim wrote, or that you are making a hefsek in the tefillah.[viii]
The problem of repeating words and the use of melodies that disrupt the actual meaning of pesukim is not a modern phenomenon. Rabbi J.D. Bleich points out how this problem has a long history when it was, “common practice for cantors to embellish the prayers with musical renditions designed to exhibit musical accomplishment,” or more caustically “exhibitions of cantorial vanity.” According to Bleich these acts did not “arouse spiritual fervor,[ix]” and the cantors would butcher pronunciations and readings resulting in the words taking different meanings. Halakhic authorities consider certain embellishments that change the meaning of the words a significant halakhic problem.[x] The earliest appearances of sources prohibiting repeating or changing the meaning of words comes from the Shulhan Arukh, OH 53:11, where 13th century Talmudist Solomon ibn Adret (Rashba) is quoted as the prevailing opinion in terms of the problem of embellishment in the tunes during the prayers – saying it was impermissible.
Tunes in prayer are not just an aesthetic addition; the Magen Avrahram actually considers added tunes without words part of tefillah. The ramification of this opinion is that even at points when other breaks would constitute a hefsek – such as during birkhat kohanim – a tune may be inserted as long as they are not “too long” (the definition of which is found in other sources).[xi] The responsibility of singing in prayer rests on the shaliah tsibor with built in safeguards against one who sings, “because he likes his voice.”[xii] Alternatively, “if the shaliah tsibor sings because it adds to the happiness in his heart when praising God, he should be praised.”[xiii] The leader of the service needs to strike a delicate balance between too much and too little music in the prayer.
Fortunately, my initiative of “Beat Box Shabbat” does not touch on the question of repetition or changing the meaning of words because beat boxing will not change the order or pronunciation that the hazzan uses. The beat boxing provides a backup to the hazzan, much like a choir might provide backup harmony. However, are there halakhic problems with simply making sounds with one’s throat and mouth on Shabbat? A couple of questions similar to this one do arise in halakha. Although whistling on Shabbat also involves possible imitation of a musical instrument, R. Moshe Isserles allows the practice on Shabbat to “call to your friends,” and does not mention any problem of doing it at any other point.[xiv] Based on this source, using your mouth to beat box to add to the prayer service should be allowed as well. Another concept similar to beat boxing actually occurred in Beit ha-Mikdash. In a Talmudic passage from Yoma 38b, we are told that the Leviim would put their thumbs in their mouths to sing. This is probably as close to actual beat boxing as one will find in the Talmud, and it was a common practice of the Leviim in the Beit ha-Mikdash.
However, even if the halakhic issues surrounding beat boxing could be resolved, hashkhafic caveats may still remain. R. Bleich points out the need for solemnity in prayer and regards certain types of music inserted in tefillah as a “marring” of the service with tunes that generate, “an aura of a concert performance rather than of divine worship.” [xv] What, however, is the source for the concept of the need for “solemnity of prayer?” In Orakh Hayim Hilkhot Tefillah we are advised on how to properly compose oneself during Shemoneh Esrei – “one should stand for tefillah in fear and submission, not in laughter and levity and busy with meaningless chatter and not in anger, rather in a state of joy.”[xvi] The emphasis on focus recurs in the discussion about one’s mental state during prayer as “in front of the shehinah” and one must, “remove all thoughts that ruin his concentration so he can properly pray.”[xvii] One obligation for prayer is focus, while one must also be moved in his prayer and interested in participating. The melodies used in tefillah serve the purpose of moving one through prayer and keeping him focused. I believe beat boxing could add to participants’ focus by adding rhythm to the service so it is not just the melodically inclined who enjoy the prayer.
The same folio in Arakhin mentioned above in reference to song during the bringing of sacrifices mentions the importance of simha when involved in the avodah, the sacrificial service, the simha here referring to the songs the Leviim sang during the sacrifices. Interestingly, we see that during this avodah, the way simha is aroused is through song. The place of song in the house of worship is a common theme in Tanakh as well and is implicit in our tradition. At times embracing song during tefillah may remove some of the solemnity associated with asking for something from or singing praise to God. However, what does the prayer serve if a connection cannot be forged between man and his maker? It only creates a service of distance, which is not conducive to a strong connection between man and God. I believe that adding beat boxing into tefillah will enhance people’s prayer even if some may see it as a frivolous practice. While it may not be appreciated in certain environments, there are other places of worship that would appreciate a beat-centered addition.
R. Bleich compares the traditional hazzan to one who makes prayer into a concert; however, I believe not all concerts present the same feeling or outcome. In the case of the hazzan where embellishment and showmanship takes center-stage, the participants in the prayer remain on the sidelines as ancillary parts of the service, and this produces a dry experience for many. This is reminiscent of a classical music concert, where the audience only rises at the end to appreciate the beauty and remains apart the rest of the show. Alternatively, when adding a beat to the music, the beit knesset can attain a sense of a participatory concert, in which the community sings along like a group at a concert where everyone knows the songs and stands from start to finish – for those who know, a truly invigorating experience.
Beat box Shabbat lends itself to group participation, and should serve a usually marginalized demographic and interest group. Perhaps it will open people up to a new and reinvigorating mode of prayer. Perhaps tefillah with beat boxing can help change the vibes to rock the beit tefillah.
Gabi is a senior at YC majoring in English, and recently started studying Semikha at RIETS.
[i] Goffin, Sherwood; The Music of the Yamim Noraim, YU Rosh Hashana To-Go Tishrei 5769.
[ii] Shulhan Arukh; Orakh Hayyim, 619:1
[iii] Yaakov Molin; Sefer MaHaril, page 339 se’if 11
[iv] As quoted by Goffin, ibid.
[v] This is not to say all prayer services need beat boxing, rather, if beat boxing can be ruled as halakhically permissible, it would make sense to utilize it in communities that would benefit from its integration into prayer.
[vi] Lamentations 5:21
[vii] Schacter, Hershel; Jubilee Celebration edition of the Belz School
[viii] Maharam Schik, Orakh Hayyim Siman 31
[ix] Bleich, J.D, Contemporary Halakhic Problems (2), 34
[x] For example dragging out the word Amen leads to incorrect pronunciation of the word. Another common context for this mistake is when cantors put the emphasis on the beginning versus the end of the word (mi-leail and mil-ra), which changes the meaning of the words.
[xi] Magen Avraham 124:14
[xiii] Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim 53:11
[xiv] Rama, Orakh Hayyim 338:1
[xv] Bleich, J.D ibid.
[xvi] Shulhan Arukh, Orakh Hayyim, 93:2
[xvii] Ibid. 98:1