Repetition vs Addition: Melody of M’chal in the Yom Kippur Amidah

By Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky

There may be no better day than Yom Kippur to observe the emphasis achieved by repetition of prayer. Our siddur provides many opportunities throughout the year to highlight unique aspects of the day by adding prayers or changing melodies, such as singing the V’shamru on Shabbat or using a special melody to light the Chanukkiah. The majority of the remaining time, however, is spent repeating liturgy we see again and again. The central section of our prayer service, the Amidah, serves both functions.

Most of the thematic individual prayers within the Amidah are proscribed for recitation, with certain variations for morning or evening prayer (e.g. our prayer for peace, Sim Shalom, is recited in the morning, but another prayer on the theme of peace, Shalom Rav, takes its place in the evening). On holidays, however, there are additional prayers to be inserted. Our prayerbooks include the additions in a smaller font with instructions, for example, “OnChanukkah, add…” During the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days in between), special insertions are made within the Amidah at every prayer service, such as the Zochreinu within the Avot v’Imahot. Even though we have the opportunity to pray three times each day (yes, even Liberal/Progressive Jews may pray multiple times per day), most of us are not accustomed to spending quite that much time in prayer – that is, with the exception of Yom Kippur.

On Yom Kippur we have the opportunity (if not obligation) to pray all day, and repeat certain prayers again and again, as though we drill into our own heads the reminder of how penitent we are, and how we must try better in the coming year. Each time I prepare to commence the reciting of the Amidah on Yom Kippur, I anticipate its many blessings. Some may find the repetition burdensome, and I will not exclude myself from that group, but if there is any day to keep going over and over our intentions and actions, Yom Kippur is it. After all, Yom Kippur is our holiest, most sacred day of the year – a Sabbath of Sabbaths – so it is not too surprising that it requires yet another special prayer. That prayer is the one referred to as ” M’chal.”

Not to be confused with “M’loch” (an Amidah insertion for Rosh Hashanah with the theme of God’s majesty), “M’chal” takes its place on Yom Kippur. Its text focuses on the theme of God’s pardoning transgressors. (The full proper title for the prayer would be” Eloheinu Veilohei Avoteinu, M’chal La’avonoteinu,” which is a bit verbose, hence its “nickname.”) It is a hopeful prayer, one which begins by referring to God as “Our God, and God of our ancestors,” and then harks back to a time we had already returned, been forgiven, and been pardoned. By reminding us of the past, of our forbears who had transgressed yet were pardoned, and the hope they had, our hope grows, and we pray even harder for God to pardon us yet again.

In this traditional setting of M’chal, by Hazzan Israel Alter, the unaccompanied voice begins alone and somber. The careful listener might note the wordplay of the liturgists in the similarity between the word, “avoteinu,” (our fathers) and the word “avonoteinu” (our iniquities/sins). The voice rises in pitch to name the Atonement Day of Yom HaKippurim, and then accelerates upon the request to “blot out and remove our transgressions and sins from Your sight.” It is a desperate plea on the most important day for forgiveness. (LISTEN) The prayer now begins to quote from earlier passages, as though to remind God of times in the past when God forgave us: “It is I who blot out your transgressions, for my sake; I will remember your sins no more.” (LISTEN) Again, the cantor’s voice rises to a climax on God’s urgent instructions: “Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.” (LISTEN)

M’chal was given a piano accompaniment in this setting by Cantor Edward Josef Stark. (LISTEN) Stark’s father was a Viennese cantor who was trained by the great “Oberkantor” Salomon Sulzer (of “Sh’ma” fame). Stark takes the traditional sound of the M’chal he heard from his father and updated it to the more popular style of his day, that is, akin to a classical composition. Listen for snippets of themes from Kol Nidre and the way the quote of God’s words, “It is I who blot out your transgressions, for my sake,” changes the sound completely.

As a child, I found liturgical holiday insertions to be a distraction, as the skipping around made it difficult to keep my place. Looking back at those moments from an adult perspective, though, makes me consider the value of those insertions as reminders: It’s not Chanukkah yet, but it soon will be! Even when our prayerbook doesn’t intend upon foreshadowing, it still has that ability. By reciting the prayers over and over again, we remain connected to the cycle of the Jewish year. Yet by using special liturgy and music, we make each step of that cycle something unique. May the quickly approaching Days of Awe return us all to holiness, and may the coming year bring us blessings. Shanah Tovah u’Metukah – A Good and Sweet New Year.

Hayley Kobilinsky is beginning her ninth year as Cantor of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where she teaches a workshop on music for the Three Festivals, and coaches for the Cantorial Certification Program.

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