August 21, 2008
Week 249, Day 4
20 Av 5768

Nisim B'chol Yom Part Four
For Daily Miracles

Mishkan T'filah, p. 204-205
Cantor Kay Greenwald

As Rabbi Sarason has taught us, the blessings “For Daily Miracles” were designed for us to recite upon awakening, at home.  Eventually, the recitation of these blessings was transferred to the synagogue, but the simplicity of their recitation was not modified.  Thus, these blessings are chanted straightforwardly according to the nusach for the morning service. 

Judaism historically has put much emphasis on the sacredness of sound.  The Talmud teaches us that “Whoever sings in this world, will sing also in the next” (Talmud Sanhedrin 9, 1b), and our ancestors took that admonition to heart.  Moreover, in the ancient world sound carried great meaning, and it was not unusual for certain musical patterns to be associated with certain times of the day, or with certain seasons of the year.  Many very old musical systems still carry these time and seasonal associations – for example the ragas of Indian music and the maqamat of Arabic music.  Similarly, the nusach tradition of Judaism is tied to the time of day, the day of the week, and the season of the year. 

In addition to the sacred power that our ancestors attributed to sound, there was the concomitant fact that breath could become sound at all.  In the ancient world the singing voice was considered nothing less than miraculous.  How fitting then, to begin our prayers with simple chant: sounds that remind us not only of the great miracle that waking up and beginning each day actually is, but that also, through our recitation of these miracles, reminds us of the miracle of the breath in our bodies.  As we have seen in earlier prayer essays – for example in the discussion of Elohai Neshmah – this emphasis on breath is an integral part of our morning service preparation.

The chant for the Nissim b’chol yom has kept its simplicity over the years.  The main differences in the recitation of the blessings have to do with whether or not they are being recited during a weekday service, or on a Festival or Shabbat.  If the service falls on a weekday, the nusach for these blessings is traditionally in the Magen Avot mode.  Magen Avot is a mode based on musical patterns in the Natural Minor scale ( Listen.).  The sound reminds us that a normal day is beginning, filled with our routine of work, errands, cooking and cleaning. ( Listen

On Shabbat and Festivals, the nusach for these blessings changes.  Shabbat and Festivals are special times.  Shabbat, our tradition tells us, offers us a taste of the world to come.  Shabbat services should be filled with joy, and our sacred sound transforms accordingly.  Hence, on Shabbat and Festivals, we chant the Nissim b’chol yom in the Adonai Malach mode.  The musical patterns of this mode are based, more or less, on the major scale ( Listen).  The sound of the major scale is “happier” and more upbeat.  Thus, our day begins with a reminder that we are entering a very sacred and joyful time. ( Listen).*

As you attend services in the coming months, think about the sounds that you are hearing.  What can they tell you about the day of the week, the time of the day, and the season of the year?  What can the melodies tell you about the texts of your prayers?  Which prayers are always joyful?  Are any contemplative?  Do any fill you with awe and wonder? 

As we listen together, let us give thanks for the miracles of everyday life – the nissim b’chol yom that allow us to listen at all.


*For further discussion of the Jewish modes see Discovering Jewish Music by Marsha Bryan Edelman, the Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003.

Cantor Kay Greenwald is Cantor Emerita at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, California.  She serves as president of the American Conference of Cantors.

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