Eli Tziyon and music of the Three Weeks


By Moshe Weiss

Issue of August 8, 2008

From cradle to grave, in simcha and tza’ar, for most of us, music is more than just a byway of life. It is a guidepost to stages in the cycle of the Jewish calendar year — a veritable marker, if you will, of the rhythm of Jewish life.

The music of the Three Weeks, the drei vochen as they are known, in many ways exemplifies this. From the lecha dodi chant on the first of the three shabbatot of the period known as bein hametzarim, to the mournful dirges of the kinot, music of the Three Weeks — the melody of Eli Tziyon, in particular — is a keystone of the musical liturgy of the shalosh regalim. More than just an interesting curiosity, though, this carries a powerful message which resonates throughout the year.

It is all but impossible to determine with precision the origin and age of the melody of Eli Tziyon. A text of unknown authorship, some musicologists have described its melody as emanating from southern Germany, dating to the late Middle Ages. Others trace it to the late Renaissance — early Baroque period and of sefardic origin, only later migrating to central Europe. This divergence of opinion may very well explain the two similar, but distinctly different, versions of Eli Tziyon.

In any event, notations of the Eli Tziyon melody are found in Solomon Sulzer’s Schir Zion (1838), Abraham Baer’s Ba’al T’filah (1883) and in a cantorial handschrift of 1743. Inasmuch as those manuscripts reflect a tradition at least three generations old, they attest to at least a half-millennium-year-old tradition of the melody we use for Eli Tziyon today.

More important than from whence the Eli Tziyon melody came, or even how old it is, is where it went, liturgically speaking, and how it is used. Most traditional yod’ay nusach and ba’alei tefillah chant the lecha dodi of shabbat chazon to the melody of Eli Tziyon. As does this writer, it is not uncommon for a variant form of the Eli Tziyon melody to be employed on the first two shabbatot of this period as well.

The profound power of the music of bein hametzarim is no less apparent in kriat hatorah of shabbat chazon. The chant of the Torah verse of the second aliyah, beginning, as it does, with Moses’ cry of Eicha, is changed to the mournful tune of Megillat Eicha, perhaps as a premonition of Tisha B’Av in the following week. In so doing, because tradition frowns on beginning an aliyah on a sad note, the first aliyah is actually reduced by one verse.

Among some communities, not just lecha dodi, but the shir hama’alot of birkat hamazon, too, is recited to the tune of Eli Tziyon. But the impact of the elegiac lament of the Eli Tziyon is even more far-reaching than the liturgy of the drei vochen.

Close your eyes when you next hear the shliach tzibbur chant b’nei vayt’cho, k’vatchilo in the mussaf l’shalosh regalim amidah, and you will be transported to the day which commemorates the destruction of vayt’cho. Allow the shliach tzibbur’s chant of b’chag hamatzot in the same amidah, the amidah that speaks of the worship service in the Holy Temple, to permeate your senses, and you will find yourself yearning for the glory that once was am yisrael in eretz yisrael.

Listen closely to the pre-concluding cadence of the chatzi kaddish which introduces the mussaf amidah, the same sequence of notes with which virtually each paragraph of the mussaf amidah l’shalosh regalim ends, and you will long for the rebuilding of the Beit Mikdash. For in each instance, it is in the melody of Eli Tziyon that those phrases are intoned.

Beyond the hauntingly moving melody of Eli Tziyon itself, then, lies this timeless message. Nothing gives greater expression to the millennia-old dreams of our people than our age-old, traditional melodies.

Preservation of our sacred musical heritage, more than a goal unto itself, is a means to secure perpetuation of our people. With a musical liturgy which spans time and place, its continued expression is vital to our survival. May the songs of lamentation soon yield sounds of jubilation.

Moshe Weiss serves as chazzan of The Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach and teaches music at Rambam Mesivta.