The Neila Niggun

Our Chazan Samuel Klein reflects on themes of connection, mystery and empowered Judaism that he hopes will shape our experience of the Day of Awe …

It’s a grey, damp, early morning and the train is filled with unsmiling, unyielding faces – sour-faced commuters suffering stoically the imposition of sharing the cramped morning’s journey with perfect strangers.

Suddenly, the unexpected arrival of a close friend on the carriage animates the face of the person next to me, only seconds ago impassively cocooned in their internal reverie. As they emerge from indifference to connectedness, a broad smile passes across their face and propels them forward into close conversation…

Witnessing this exchange, I am reminded of the phrase from Pirkei Avot (1:15) that, no matter how difficult, or seemingly trivial, we should care enough to greet fellow commuters with a warm, open face and a pleasant smile. Not just those we know….

For a brief period – the Yomim Nora’im – we are thrown together with many others in extended community prayer. The experience can be as if on that train carriage, surrounded by indifference and locked out of any authentic engagement with those around us. Many have felt this: wanting to connect with the liturgy, seeking to make contact with others, but finding themselves left cold by melodies that do not stir the soul, a format of service that is disparate and un-engaging, and – unfortunately, in some shuls – unfriendly, unsmiling faces.

In blessing our children, Jewish parents say: “May Hashem turn his countenance towards you and grant you peace”. One of the challenges for those leading the service is that with their faces often obscured they become disembodied voices and their smile – their ‘panim yafot’ – is hidden from view. This is why I would encourage a baal-tefillah to turn and face the kehillah whenever their spirit motivates them to do so. Bestowing blessing through song, this quality of ‘turning towards’ can add much to the connection between shluchei tzibbur and the kehillah.

Sitting in shul on a Shabbat morning, I am sometimes reminded of psychologist Scott M. Peck’s observation: “…There are some who are attracted to religion in order to approach mystery, while there are others who are attracted to religion in order to escape from mystery.”

Our hope – to approach mystery – lies behind the haunting and poignant phrase from the Neilah Prayer: “Open up for us a portal, at the time of the gates closing; for the day is receding”.

As we move into the twilight hours of the Yomim Nora’im, rote-repetition can give way to mystery. Because it is then, towards the close of our spiritual exertions, when we might most keenly appreciate the process wherein the sounds of our prayers are moulded and shaped.

We have chanted these tefillot many times over, now we can liberate ourselves from the text and allow the meaning inherent in those prayers to lift us further.

Sometimes I think to myself; ‘if only Neilah was one long Niggun!’ – because the niggun is one of our special keys to unlocking this Mystery. It is like that warm, open smile that we can offer to those surrounding us in community; both friends and strangers alike. It requires no prior knowledge or a distinctive voice and can be accessed by all.

Writing on the CD released by his ‘Spontaneous Jewish Choir’, musician Joey Weisenberg notes:

“…The melodies are set, but the musical arrangements are created in the moment, as a result of a careful process of the singers listening and responding to each other. You’ll hear us taking musical risks, which sometimes result in unscripted moments of serene harmony or mini train-wrecks, but either way, it’s compellingly, undeniably real.”

As davenners, how can we sing niggunim that are ‘compellingly, undeniably real’?

Only if we remember that the careful and empathetic process of ‘feeling-into’ prayer – what philosopher Martin Buber called “Einfühlung” – is a central part of the art form of facilitating services on the Yomim Noraim.

Only if we drink in deeply the words of the tefillah we are singing; letting our ears be sensitive to the sounds, to the rhythm, to the moulding of the words, and giving them expression with whole-hearted commitment.

And only if we remember that the mini train-wrecks are as real as the moments of sublime harmony, that they are both equally important a part of the process of a community ‘feeling-into’ prayer together.

This, I believe, is the meaning of the words from the selichot service:   ‘ […] Lishmo’ah El Harinah Ve’el Hatefillah’ – “ […] to ‘feel-into’ the melody and the prayer.”

‘Hearing’ in this sense is not a passive state but has an active and participatory quality that requires full-bodied and full-hearted commitment.

I learnt this from my rebbe and mentor – Rabbi Mickey Rosen of YAKAR, Jerusalem, who sadly passed away at a young age in 2008. He was a great teacher and a friend.

From Mickey, I learnt the value of melody to permeate boundaries both perceived and actual. Mickey was a ‘baal-niggun’ – a master of tempo, rhythm and cadence, and his shul in Jerusalem on Fridaynight was renowned for it’s beautiful tefillah.

As twilight approached on Shabbat afternoon, Mickey would usher us upstairs for his – now famous – Seuda Shlishit at Yakar. He would sing Shlomo Carlebach’s Mimkomecha -“the proper one!” he would always exclaim, referring to the lesser-known earlier version. As the sun sank softly behind the houses in the Old Katamon, and the passionate faces round the table slowly receded into shadow, for one special hour all would be well in the world. This was my weekly ‘me’ein olam habah’ moment: Mickey singing tenderly in four-part harmony with those gathered in the fading light. It was magical.

On Yom Kippur – the ultimate Sabbath, a Shabbat Shabbaton – with the onset of darkness, at the day’s end, may our niggun lift us ever higher towards those receding gates; swaying, clapping, crying, jubilant and enriched; our voices melding with others in well-known rhapsody.

Our niggun could be compared to a solitary bird skimming the surface of dark waters before sundown; at first fragile, distant and ephemeral  – dipping; half-silhouetted – but then soaring back on the wind thermals towards the flock emerging overhead, caught in the interplay of light and the approach of the shadow-world.

Yehi Ratzon, Shetizku Lishmoah El Harinah Vel Hatefilah. May it be, that this Rosh Hashanah we merit to truly feel-into our melodies and prayers.

Grassroots Shira

Aleinu — Ein Od

[audio|titles=Ein Od]

Chamul Al-Ma’asecha


Grassroots Medley


Grassroots Niggun


Or Zarua

[audio|titles=Or Zarua]

Or Zarua Rabbati

[audio|titles=Or Zarua]

Shema Koleinu

[audio|titles=Shema Koleinu]



To download each of the recordings, please right-click and save as mp3 files:

Aleinu – Ein Od
Chamul Al-Ma’asecha
Grassroots Medley
Grassroots Niggun
Or Zarua
Or Zarua Rabbati
Shema Koleinu

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