Vidui: Atonement through A-tune-ment
By Cantor Daniel Singer
Thanks to the creative team at G-dcast, when we arrive at the Vidui section of the High Holidaymachzor, we can truly say “there’s an app for that!” The world now has access to atonement by way of a web application called eScapegoat. That’s right – just confess your sins anonymously online to an animated goat with the click of one button. If only it were that simple.
For Jews, atonement is a process. It involves not merely confessing one’s sins anonymously, but requires actually approaching the individual who was wronged and asking for forgiveness directly from them. In addition, there are a series of prayers that are recited as a part of our High Holy Day liturgy, not only as a form of public confession, but as a form of personal confession to God. Our customs of wearing white robes (kittels) and dressing the Torah scrolls in white mantles share symbolism with theVidui, or confession section of our prayers; they represent an opportunity to wipe clean our slate and return to a spiritual state of purity. If white may be seen by some to be the color of confession, then what is the tone of atonement?
The Reform machzor, Gates of Repentance, begins the Vidui section with a prayer called Tavo l’fanecha, which is an invocation that precedes the short and long versions of the confessions. Ashamnu is the short confession and Al Cheit is the long one and both of them contain alphabetical acrostics. In this article we explore some examples of all three of these prayers and how variations on each of the prayers have evolved over time.
However, before getting into the actual prayers, we begin with a gorgeous instrumental piece for violin. Aptly named, this contemplative composition evokes the emotion of personal confession. Many people are familiar with Max Bruch’s famous setting of Kol Nidre for cello, but far fewer people are likely aware of Ernest Bloch’s setting of Vidui and Nigun from the Baal Shem: Three Pictures of Chassidic Life. Considered one of its greatest recordings, this selection features Isaac Stern on the violin and Alexander Zakin on the piano.
Max Janowski composed a beautiful rendition of Tavo l’fanecha in the early 20th century, most likely in the late 1930s. It is set in a minor key with a slow moving and plaintive melody, including sustained notes accented by some triplet figures common to Janowski’s compositional style, somewhat reminiscent of his very famous Avinu Malkeinu. A brief reminder of the Kol Nidremotif is heard distinctly on the repeated word in the very emotional phrase towards the end – “aval, aval…anachnu chatanu,” meaning “however, however, we have sinned.” This recording from the Shirei T’shuvah: Songs of Repentance High Holiday collection, published by Transcontinental Music Publications, is sung by Cantor Bruce L. Ruben, Ph.D. LISTEN
And now for something entirely different… Charles Davidson wrote a contemporary jazz setting of the Vidui prayer includingTavo L’fanecha in his service for Selichot, The Hush of Midnight, for band, choir, and cantor. Here’s an excerpt of Davidson’s Tavo L’fanecha taken from The Milken Archives. LISTEN
The Ashamnu is the first short form of confession found in the Vidui. It features an alphabetical acrostic that is meant to symbolize an “alphabet of woe,” or a list of the many sins that are possible for us as a community. It is also intended to provide an opportunity to add one’s personal confessions of sin and serves as a mnemonic way to help recall the order of the prayer’s list of sins. The musical irony of this prayer is that the traditional melody most Ashkenazim use is often thought to be a bit cheerful for a confession of having done some very bad things. It is sung in a major key with a rising and then falling call and response section followed by “ai, yai, yai, yai, yai…” that rises and falls in a simple major scalar pattern somewhat similar to the melody we use for Shirat HaYam (the Song of the Sea). LISTEN
The metaphorical association between the Song of the Sea and the Ashamnu melodies on the High Holidays is a very powerful one for me. On Passover, when we feature the chanting of the Song of the Sea in remembrance of our deliverance from slavery to freedom, we clean our homes and our stomachs of chametz (leavened food). Similarly, on Yom Kippur, we clean ourselves of “cheit” (sin, or unintentional sin) and are freeing ourselves spiritually from the negative energy we may have experienced in our past. Furthermore, the image of throwing bread into the water at the end of Rosh HaShanah as a symbol of casting away our sins reminds me of the custom on Passover of removing all leavened bread from our midst. Even the sound of the two words –chametz and cheit(s) – though they are not at all related to one another, add to my association between these two holidays. To me, it makes perfect sense to somehow melodically associate the confession of our sins during the High Holiday season with our journey to freedom and redemption on Passover. After all, Passover and Rosh HaShanah are both considered to be kinds of New Year celebrations; Rosh HaShanah being a start to our religious cycle of observance and Passover marking the beginning of an ancient agricultural cycle of holidays. And with “Chad Gadya” sung on Passover, thankfully even the animated atonement goat from eScapegoat has a friend to approach to ask for t’shuvah (repentance).
There are various ways in which the Ashamnu has been musically set, sometimes to emphasize the joy of having overcome the sins, or alternatively to emphasize the grief felt by the sinner. One possible musical compromise between these two emotions is demonstrated in this arrangement by Cantor Don Gurney and Mary Feinsinger and published in Shirei T’shuvah. The arrangement has the melodic refrain still in the major key, but the harmonization beneath it is in a minor key. LISTEN While the concept may make sense to those wanting to find a point of sorrow in this traditional melody, the minor harmonization is a bit distracting to my ears and unfortunately doesn’t offer quite the same resolution that the simple melody does in a major key. (It is interesting to note that the above example alters the very end of the melody; compare the end of this YouTube clip of the same piece, including a lowered 2nd scale degree on “titanu,” an interesting and effective way to end the otherwise joyous melody in a mournful way.)
As a part of the same Tavo L’fanecha composition included above, Charles Davidson includes his unique take on Ashamnu for The Hush of Midnight. LISTEN
There have been other ways of contemporizing the Ashamnu prayer, including simply changing the rhythm with a contemporary guitar and band accompaniment and an alternative choral harmonization. Beth Schafer did just that in this YouTube video.
There are many more versions of the Al Cheit prayer available on recordings in a wide variety of settings. Let’s begin with an excerpt ofAl Cheit in Yiddish, taken from a very rare 78 Victor record from 1921. Mordechay Hershman sings this arrangement by Nathaniel Shlikret. LISTEN
Shifting gears to a Classical Reform setting, the setting of Al Cheit by Fredrick Piket for cantor and choir features a series of intense modulations along with a rising declamatory vocal line that that adds a great deal of drama and suspense to the text. This recording is from Transcontinental Music Publications’ Yamim Noraim: Days of Awe. LISTEN
Here is a congregational version of Al Cheit from Shirei T’shuvah that is easy for a congregation to follow. It is also in a minor key and was set by Cantor Bruce L. Ruben, Ph.D. LISTEN
Meir Finkelstein also contemporized the Al Cheit prayer. Here is a jazzy excerpt of his setting as sung by Udi and Varna Spielman. LISTEN
Let us not forget the children! Shouldn’t they too have an opportunity to make amends on Yom Kippur? Eric Komar used a combination of Hebrew and English with an easy melody to make the concept of t’shuvah teachable to young children (and fun to sing). He wrote “We Are Sorry for These Things (The Childrens’ Al Cheit).” I include it in my Yom Kippur family services that include younger children. LISTEN
The concept of atonement has not changed much in modern times, but the musical renditions are certainly increasingly diverse with new variations continually evolving on this ancient theme. We have yet to hear a goat’s version of the Vidui, but I am guessing someone is probably already working on an app for that too… Right, eScapegoat? Yeah, I thought so.
Daniel Singer has been Cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City since 2006, and is a recently appointed Executive Board member of the American Conference of Cantors. His original musical compositions have been published by Transcontinental Music, and he sings with the Jewish pop acapella group SIX13.