It’s the most solemn day in the Jewish calendar, when God seals the Books of Life and Death for the coming year and when Jews make their final confessions of the sins of the past year and atone for their transgressions.
Yom Kippur, which begins this year at sundown on Friday, Oct. 7, is traditionally marked by strict fasting (no food or water for 25 hours), wearing white clothes and refraining from wearing leather, sexual relations and washing. During penitential prayers, people lightly beat their chests with their fists as they admit to immorality, hurting friends, scorn, improper speech, arrogance and jealousy, among other mistakes.
And yet, despite this austere description, Yom Kippur also includes some of the most operatic and poignant music in the entire Jewish liturgy, as though to rouse people from their complacency and toward action and improvement. Into adulthood and old age, people remember what it was like as a child, standing next to a parent, not fully knowing the words of the ancient texts but quietly humming along with the music. These tunes, written hundreds of years ago, manage to be both remorseful and hopeful.
At synagogues throughout the Morris County area and around the world, it is the job of the chazzan, or cantor, to lead the congregation through the memorable tunes of the holiday’s powerful prayers and hymns, heavy with symbolic words and full of supplications for Divine forgiveness.
“Song and music are a very important part of any service as they create the proper mood and are emotional to the listener,” said Cantor Jack Korbman of Adath Shalom Synagogue in Morris Plains. “Certain melodies evoke memories of the past traditions.”
Of all the different components of Yom Kippur, perhaps the best-known and most expressive comes at the beginning of the holiday, just as the sun is setting. Kol Nidre (translated as “All Vows”) is actually not a prayer but a legal text written in Aramaic between 589 and 1038 B.C.E. in which all religious vows made in the coming year are declared to be null and void. During Kol Nidre, the Torah scrolls are held on the bima (raised platform usually at the front of the synagogue) and everyone in the congregation stands as the cantor chants the haunting melody three times.
With that dramatic opening, the most arduous day in the cantor’s professional life begins.
”It is very difficult to be without water or food for 25 hours, but as long as I am busy, I do not think about it,” Cantor Korbman said. “Of course, singing for such a period of time does put an enormous strain on the vocal chords.”
For other cantors, the challenge comes less in the day itself and more from all the preparation.
“Singing in front of the congregation and representing people is both a great responsibility and a great honor, but it is also a hardship,” said Cantor Galit Dadoun-Cohen, of in Morristown. “Not in the holiday itself but in the lead-up to it with coordinating the choir, instrumentalists, Torah chanters, rehearsals–it's a lot of work.”
The music of Yom Kippur includes challenging and demanding tunes and the cantor must infuse every prayer with the proper amount of emotion, while still finding a way to atone for his or her past sins and to mark the holiday.
“It's important that I find a silent, private place for my own reflection and repentance,” Cantor Dadoun-Cohen said. “How can I represent others and be the voice of the congregation if I haven't done my own atonement? When I am in front of the congregation on the bima (platform), I try to be as ready as I can be.”
With another sunset, Yom Kippur ends and again music and symbolism play a critical role. During the final Neilah (translated as “closing the gate”) service, the entire congregation stands once more and declares the sanctity and unity of God as together they resolve to live better in the coming year.