Office of the Chief Rabbi

Pause for Thought: Music for the soul

Music and song is an intrinsic part of Jewish tradition, says the Chief Rabbi in his latest Pause for Thought for BBC Radio 2, with the melodies that accompany daily services, festivals and Shabbat meals possessing a healing power that lifts the soul and encourages appreciation for God.

“Last month, in the middle of the night, along with a thousand other people, I sang at a moving prayer service which we call Midnight Selichot. As the Jewish New Year approached, we needed a channel for our spiritual energy. We found it through song.

The midnight service creates a life-shaping environment for reflection and renewal. To achieve this we rely on the healing power of music. Deeply embedded in Jewish tradition we find a respect for the powers of the mind, a robust appreciation of the pleasures of the human body, and an unceasing quest to improve and ennoble the spirit. Kabbala, or Jewish mysticism, teaches us that music is the language of the soul.

Our sacred text, the Torah, describes itself as a song. Our ultimate guide to life is akin to a joyful melody that shapes the mind and the spirit. And, in a poignant passage, the Bible describes how King Saul’s tormented mind was calmed whenever David played the harp for him.

Jewish music is usually intimately tied up with words. Our songs and daily prayers quote extensively from the Psalms, which were sung by the Levites in the Temple. We sing portions of the Torah aloud in public. Our Sabbath meals bond families together through melodies for grace after meals.

‘Our ultimate guide to life is akin to a joyful melody that shapes the mind and the spirit’

In some Synagogues you can hear performances of cantors and choirs which are almost operatic! Over the ages, popular Jewish movements have sought to make worship and spirituality accessible to everyone, even the unlettered, through song. For example, many of the intense wordless chants of Chasidim are haunting, hypnotic, and profoundly beautiful. Some are joyous and inspiring, summoning up enthusiasm and appreciation of the wonders of God’s world. Others are mournful, drawing upon our tragic history of dispersion and loss, expressing “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” as Wordsworth so eloquently put it.

In Jewish tradition, we chant Psalms when people are ill. And the Book of Psalms concludes with a tribute to the role of music in prayer: Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, the harp and lyre, praise him with tambourine and dancing, with the strings and pipe and with the clash of cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Words provide inspiration, but music lifts the soul.”

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