Mishkan T'filah, p.196-197
Cantor David E. Reinwald
The prayer Elohai N’shamah is written with a unique element that has always been a favorite of mine. A rare dageish (dot within the letter) appears at the end of each of the words “v’ratah,” “y’tzartah,” “n’fachtah,” and “m’shamrah” notably in the Heh, a letter not generally prone to receiving this diacritical mark. Linguistically, this changes the Heh from a silent letter at the end of the word to one that is vocalized by an exhaling breath. In a prayer that is essentially about the breath given to and within us all, this daghesh makes the prayer practically interpret itself. There is nothing more calming than taking and releasing a deep breath, and here that breathing is built right into the text. The idea of release and rejuvenation is the essential idea for all of us stemming from Elohai N’shamah and the mood its musical settings create for us.
Elohai Neshamah happens to be one of my favorite prayers among those that comprise the morning blessings. There is something incredibly refreshing about this prayer, and this freshness is well represented in many of its musical settings. There are three settings that I use quite often. They are by Cantor Eliyahu Schleifer, Debbie Friedman, and Rabbi Shefa Gold.
Cantor Schleifer, my esteemed teacher and teacher to generations of cantors, wrote his setting in 1988. This setting of the prayer sets the entire text of the prayer through its chatimah. The setting opens with a cantorial solo, which upon reaching the text “atah v’ratah, atah y’tzartah, atah n’fachtah bi” builds to greater intensity on each “atah” phrase. We hear the notes get higher and we too are lifted in sensibility as the text speaks of God’s nurturing of our souls: “You created it. You shaped it, You breathed it into me…” The melody then concludes itself modestly in the final phrase, “V’atah m’sham’rah b’kirbi,”—“and You protect it within me.” Cantor Schleifer’s setting of the text invites the congregation to join in a rhythmic response on “Modeh/Modah ani l’faneicha . . .” as all who are present proclaim together their thanks for this divine gift. The setting then returns to the cantorial solo to conclude the piece, containing an equal balance of artistic and dramatic rendering of the text alongside congregational participation. Listen.
Noted singer and songwriter Debbie Friedman has set this text beautifully as well. Her melody, also composed in 1988, is incredibly relaxing, clearly deriving its inspiration directly from this remarkable prayer. While her setting only includes the text through “m’sham’rah b’kirbi,” Friedman has similarly set the “atah” phrases, so that each one builds on the next. Where she differs from Schleifer is that the final phrase receives the highest notes in the line, and concludes as the pinnacle point before returning to the opening chorus. The melody really draws one in to join in singing, as it calmly captivates. Listen.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a rabbi in the Renewal movement, has composed many modern chants for prayers, and it is with her chant for Elohai N’shamah that I end. Of the three melodies I have discussed, hers uses the most simplified selection of text—only the very first line. The two part chant is simple, and yet sounds incredibly intricate when the parts are sung against each other. The parts complement each other melodically and harmonically. The simple ability to sing a melody for a chant like this allows one’s mind to quickly use the music to arrive at a place of focused meditation on the text. Listen.
Through these three different settings of the same prayer, we can clearly see that it is possible to arrive at a meditative and prayerful place through singing something simply as an entire congregation, or by being shown the way as we listen intently to the artistry of the cantor.
Cantor David E. Reinwald served Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, TX, and now servse Temple Anshe Sholom in Olympia Fields, IL.
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