Category Archives: Bach B minor Mass in Hebrew

Wrapping up

At one time, music historians believed that J. S. Bach had put together his Mass in B minor as a collection of showpieces, designed to illustrate the different styles of vocal composition that he had mastered. It was to become part of his musical legacy, a summing up of his choral and aria writing. But scholars now agree that he intended it as a unified work, and that he used various methods to bind the individual movements into a musical whole. The key signatures are all closely related, never straying far from B minor and D major. Consecutive movements within a section are often harmonically linked and performed without a pause; to connect the Crucifixus to the Et expecto resurrectionem, Bach composed a special bridge section. In revising his old compositions for use in the Mass, he introduced musical cross-references that link movements dealing with related theological ideas. In his use of different styles, affective tones, rhythms, and scorings, he created a delightful sense of variety within a coherent overall structure. What unifies the Mass most profoundly, however, is the way it brings to life Bach’s own Lutheran faith, and dramatizes the relationship between the Christian worshiper and Christ.

The Ordinary of the Mass, taken as a whole, has a dramatic structure of its own. The Kyrie serves as an introduction, asking Christ for mercy. The Gloria is a hymn of praise to God and the Trinity, with its own plea for mercy. The Credo is a statement of belief in the fundamental tenets of Christianity, as well as an account of the course of human salvation through Christ. The Sanctus, together with the Osanna and Benedictus, is a declaration of the holiness and loftiness of God, and the blessedness of Christ. The Agnus Dei, with the Dona nobis pacem, is a concluding plea for mercy and for peace. In a Catholic Mass service, each part of the Ordinary occupies a specific place. The Kyrie comes right after the Introit, which opens the service; the Gloria follows the Kyrie without pause. The Credo is recited after the Gospel reading and sermon. The Sanctus comes after the Offertory and Preface, and is followed by the Agnus Dei, which is recited during the elevation of the Host, before the taking of Communion.

Bach could have envisioned a concert performance of his entire Mass, although this never occurred during his lifetime. The organization of his manuscript suggests, however, that he thought parts of it could be used as music in a church service. The manuscript is divided into four separate sections, each with its own specified orchestral and choral forces: “Missa” (Kyrie and Gloria) for five-part choir; “Symbolum Nicenum” (Credo) for five-part choir; “Sanctus” for six-part choir; and “Osanna, Benedictus, Agnus Dei et Dona Nobis Pacem” for two four-part choirs. The Missa was presented by Bach to the Saxony Elector in Dresden in July of 1733; the performance parts – which exist only for this section of the Mass – suggest that the Missa was performed on that occasion in one of the Dresden churches. In most Lutheran churches of the time, the Latin Ordinary had long since been replaced by German equivalents. In conservative Leipzig, however, all parts of the Mass were chanted in Latin at one time or another during the year, and polyphonic arrangements of the Kyrie, Gloria and Sanctus would be performed in Latin on various occasions. Other parts of the Latin Ordinary would only have been sung polyphonically in a Catholic service, for example at the Dresden Court.

What can we say about the structure of the Judaized version of Bach’s Mass, which we have presented here as Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor? Is it a unified work? Does it preserve the coherent structure of its Latin model? Is it suitable for performance, in whole or in part, in the concert hall or synagogue? Musically, the Prayer in B minor and the Mass in B minor are identical, except for the fact that here and there, in the vocal parts of the Prayer, in order to accommodate the Hebrew text, it is necessary to modify the phrasing, to tie together two adjacent notes, or to split a note in two; these changes are so obvious that they did not need to be made in the score. Thematically, the Prayer parallels the Mass rather closely; Christian ideas and images are replaced by equivalent Jewish ones, or by contrasting Jewish ones that convey a similar affect. This can be seen by viewing the texts of the Latin Mass and the Hebrew Prayer side by side (click on Text with Mass and Translation).

The Jewish version of the Kyrie still serves as an introductory section; but instead of asking God for mercy, it asks Him to draw near. The intimate Christe eleison addresses Christ; the Jewish version addresses God equally intimately as our King. The language of praise and supplication in the Gloria is for the most part so similar to what we find in Jewish liturgy, that the transformation into Hebrew is quite natural; it requires small changes, with the elimination of references to the Trinity. In the Jewish versions of the Gloria in excelsis and Et in terra pax, the familiar idea of “blessing” replaces the idea of “glory”; and God’s “righteous ones” replace the Christian “men of good will.” In the Jewish version of the Domine Deus, the praise of Jesus Christ, the Son, is replaced by the idea of a renewed promise of redemption by God; and the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei) is replaced by God Himself, using the name associated with His compassion (Ădonai, the Lord). For the Qui sedes, the supplication of the Son, who sits at the right hand of the Father, is replaced by the direct supplication of God, who hears His people’s prayers. And for the Quoniam and Cum Sancto Spiritu, the three persons of the Trinity are replaced by God – the Holy One – and the holiness of His name.

The Credo is the only section of the Mass that had to be changed radically for the Prayer, with the exception of three movements: the first two, asserting belief in one God, Creator of all things; and the last, asserting belief in the resurrection of the dead. The Et in unum Dominum asserts belief in Jesus Christ as eternal Lord, consubstantial with the Father, begotten in the flesh for the salvation of mankind. The Jewish version, by contrast, asserts belief in an indivisible, eternal, non-corporeal, transcendent God, who is First and Last. Whereas the Et incarnatus asserts belief in the Incarnation of Christ by the Holy Spirit, the Jewish version asserts belief in Divine Providence, that God knows our deeds and inner thoughts. The Crucifixus and Et resurrexit assert belief in Christ’s Crucifixion, Resurrection and ascent into heaven; and in his glorious coming again to establish his eternal kingdom. The Jewish counterparts of these two movements assert, instead, belief in Divine Judgment, that God punishes those who violate His commandments and rewards those who observe them; and that only He may be worshipped. The Et in Spiritum Sanctum asserts belief in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is worshiped and glorified together with them, and speaks through the Prophets; and in one holy Church. The Jewish version, for its part, asserts the belief that Moses was the father of the prophets; that the words of the prophets are truth; and that the Torah was given to Moses in its entirety, and shall never be changed or replaced. Finally, the belief in one baptism for the remission of sins, as asserted in the Confiteor, is transformed in the Jewish version into the belief in the coming of the Messiah.

The Jewish versions of the Sanctus and Benedictus simply restore their Hebrew sources from Isaiah and Psalms. In the Jewish Benedictus, it is no longer the blessed Christ who comes in the name of the Lord; it is the victorious Israelite king, or the pilgrim, who enters God’s Sanctuary in blessedness. The Jewish Osanna is roughly equivalent to the Latin, replacing the shout of “Hosanna in the highest!” from the Gospel with idea of God’s glory filling the world, as already expressed in the Sanctus. In the Hebrew Agnus Dei, Lamb of God is replaced by Ădonai, just as in the Domine Deus of the Gloria; and the “qui tollis” part is rendered in the same Hebrew as in the Qui tollis of the Gloria. Finally, Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace) is translated literally into Hebrew as Ṣim ‘alenu shalom.

We can answer our first two questions in the affirmative: the Prayer in B minor is a unified work, with as coherent a structure as the Mass in B minor. The Prayer substitutes Jewish liturgical formulas for Christian ones, but preserves the inner logic of the Mass. Many aspects of the music that symbolize or represent Christian concepts can be successfully reinterpreted as representing Jewish ones. Although the symbolism of the cross is inevitably lost in the Jewish version, Bach’s use of groups of three, symbolizing the Trinity, can be reinterpreted in the Jewish context as an allusion to the three Patriarchs; this is true in particular of the three movements of the Kyrie. Where Bach “paints” or dramatizes the Latin text through musical gestures, or uses musical motives or harmonic relationships to link important theological ideas, it is generally possible to transfer these elements to the Hebrew text in a plausible way. Throughout this blog, I have tried to demonstrate that “Jewish Bach” is possible: that Bach’s musical setting, supplied with Sara Levy’s Hebrew text, can be heard as a Jewish liturgical piece.

Chris Shepard, in his “verba docent” blog, speculated in two consecutive posts about how Bach may have imagined the “large structure” of the Mass in B minor. In the first (Gestalt Theory #1), Shepard speculates that it has the structure of the Tabernacle, as described in the book of Exodus. The Kyrie corresponds to the laver (Exodus 30:17-21), where Aaron and his sons washed their hands and feet before bringing burnt offerings. The Gloria corresponds to the altar (Exodus 27:1-8) where they brought these offerings, which Christianity has replaced by sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving.  The Credo corresponds to the Holy Place and its furniture, representing the future Church; and the concluding portion of the Mass, from the Sanctus to the Dona nobis pacem, corresponds to the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:33-35). In this way Shepard sees Bach’s Mass as reflecting sacred architecture, whose purpose it is to take the congregant into God’s presence. Shepard tells us, in the same post, that Bach’s Credo is itself a musical representation of the Church, “structured architecturally in symmetrical pairs of movements” around the central Crucifixus. But he never completed his detailed analysis of the Mass beyond the Gloria, so we may never know just how he saw the architecture of the Credo!

In the second post (Gestalt Theory #2), Shepard enlarges his theory by suggesting that the structure of Bach’s Mass also mirrors the Trinity and Luther’s Bible. The Kyrie focuses on God the Father, and can be likened to the Old Testament; the Gloria, which explores different aspects of Christ the Son, can be likened to the Gospels; the Credo, which reflects the Church in its structure and codifies the faith inspired by the Holy Spirit, belongs to the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles; and the Sanctus through Dona nobis pacem, in representing the holiness of God’s eternal presence, is tied to the eschatological book of Revelation.

When I first read these posts, I was amazed at the boldness of Shepard’s imaginings, and decided that my own blog would not be complete without some ideas about the “large structure” of Sara Levy’s Prayer. The analogy with the Tabernacle might work for the Prayer almost as well as for the Mass, but sacred architecture does not have the same importance in modern Judaism as it does in Christianity. So here are some alternative ways of “wrapping up” the Prayer in a Jewish superstructure:

Holy Books  and Persons. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA (Draw Near, We Pray) corresponds to the book of Genesis, and to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Genesis God reveals himself to the patriarchs as a personal God upon whom they can call, and to whom they can become close through the observance of His covenant with Abraham. We have already seen that each of the three movements of the Ḳ’RĂV-NA corresponds in its character to the life of one of the three patriarchs. The BARUKH HU (Blessed Is He) corresponds to the book of Psalms, and to David, its legendary author. The BARUKH HU praises and implores God in the language of Jewish prayer, which borrows heavily from Psalms. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN (I Believe) corresponds to the books of the Mishnah, and to Maimonides, whose commentary on the Mishnah is the basis for the text of this section of the Prayer. The Mishnah preserves, in condensed form, the Oral Law, which has in Maimonides its greatest interpreter and codifier. The final section of the Prayer, consisting of the Ḳadosh (Holy), K’vodo (His glory), Barukh hăba (Blessed is the one who enters), Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon (Lord, You who forgive sin), and Ṣim shalom (Grant peace), together correspond to the books of the Prophets. These contain visions revealing God’s holy presence, His glory, His blessed abode, and His plan for universal forgiveness and lasting peace. Isaiah is the prophet of holiness par excellence, and his inaugural vision provides the setting for the thrice holy exclamation of the seraphim in the Ḳadosh.

Types of Service. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA reflects ritual sacrifice, the ancient method of approaching God. The BARUKH HU reflects prayer, which replaced the sacrificial cult after the destruction of the Temple. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN reflects the study of the Torah, the most important way of serving God in rabbinic Judaism. The Ḳadosh through Ṣim shalom reflect the practices of Jewish Kabbalah that allow mystical union with God, a symbolic entering into the upper realms.

The Four Worlds. The Ḳ’RĂV-NA and the BARUKH HU together reflect This World, from which we implore and praise God. The ĂNI MĂ’ĂMIN reflects the Resurrection of the Dead, belief in which tests our faith more than any other principle of belief. The ḲadoshK’vodo and Barukh hăba together reflect The World to Come, where we directly experience God’s holiness, His glory, and the blessedness of His heavenly Sanctuary. The Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon and Ṣim shalom together reflect the Days of the Messiah, which will bring the fullness of God’s compassion and His eternal reign of peace.

I have written all that I wish to write about Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor, which, as you know, is my own creation. So with this post I bring the Jewish Bach blog to a close. My original purpose in writing the blog was simply to publicize the Prayer, in the hope that people would get interested in it and want to hear it performed. Then I realized that I also felt the need to justify it to those who might find it unnecessary, unworkable, or objectionable. In the end I came to think of the blog not only as an advertisement and an apology for the Prayer, but also as a kind of mode d’emploi or user’s manual for understanding it. I set out to explain how each part of the Mass in B minor was transformed into its Hebrew counterpart in Sara’s Prayer, and how it worked musically. Along the way I included ideas about the Hebrew language and about Judaism that I thought would be edifying or entertaining. Although I was brought up in a Jewish world, I tried to give Christianity its due. I hoped to vex my very Jewish reader with my sympathy for Christian doctrine; my very Christian reader with my obvious attachment to Jewish doctrine; and both of them with my skepticism.

I would like to acknowledge some of the people who helped me in the creation of the Prayer in B minor and in the writing of this blog.

My old college friend Steve Silberblatt was the first person with whom I discussed my idea for a Jewish B minor Mass; it happened just as I described it in my first blog post. Steve knows the language of the Hebrew Bible and of Jewish prayer, and had sung the B minor Mass in a chorus. Although he was enthusiastic about my idea, he insisted that I not begin my Jewish Kyrie, as I had intended, with the r in răḥem-na ‘alenu (“have mercy on us, we pray”), but with the percussive sound of the k in kyrie. This sent me on a search for Hebrew verbs beginning with the letter ḳof, resulting in the now familiar ḳ’rav-na elenu (“draw near to us, we pray”).

Marvin Wolfthal, my other old friend from college, is to blame for this blog. Marvin is a pianist, conductor, composer and computer maven. When I asked him if he knew a historian of music who might be willing to write a fake article about the discovery of a manuscript of a Hebrew version of Bach’s B minor Mass written by Bach himself, Marvin answered that he did not, but that I could write it myself in the form of a blog. It took me only a few hours to realize that his suggestion was brilliant, and that I was going to have to overcome my total ignorance of blogging. (It took me longer to realize that the person who could have Judaized the B minor Mass in the eighteenth century was not Johann Sebastian Bach, but Sara Itzig Levy.)

My wife Sylvie Weil did not bring me any cups of coffee while I worked on the project, but she suffered through seemingly endless nights and weekends of my “doing syllables” as I typed revised versions of the transliterated Hebrew text of the Prayer into text boxes covering the Latin text of the Mass. She encouraged me, in traditional Weil fashion, with the following declaration: “My poor husband! It pains me to see you spending so much time and effort on a project that the Jews don’t want and the Christians don’t need.” No encouragement could have been more welcome or more effective than this.

In Vermont, Reverend Rob Hamm, a man of God, always cheered me on; Jim Levinson, a man of peace, never missed an opportunity to hum the opening theme of Bach’s Kyrie in my presence, once from afar in a rowboat on the lake while I was on shore; and Kate Judd, soprano and cantor-in-training, helped me more than she knew by telling me that the first version of my Hebrew Laudamus te was all but unsingable, which led me to review the vowel sounds in every melismatic passage.

In France, Marcel Bénabou assured me that my turning a Catholic Mass into a Jewish prayer was altogether in the spirit of Oulipo, and he always approved of the Hebrew formulas I chose as replacements for the Latin. He dispelled any hesitation I may have had about attributing the work to Sara Levy, by pointing out the truly oulipian nature of this claim.

Claude Cazalé gave me as a gift Joseph Modrzejewski’s book, Un peuple de philosophes, on the origins of the Jewish condition. She knew it would be of great interest to me, but did not know that it would allow me to draw a straight line from the Jewish Enlightenment of eighteenth century Prussia to the Jewish reformers of Hellenistic Palestine in the second century before our era.

Leon Balter, my teacher in psychoanalysis since the beginning of my career as a psychiatrist, directed my attention to Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy. It was indispensable to me in clarifying my own feelings about the experience of holiness when I came to analyze the Sanctus.

I am grateful to Professors Menahem Schmelzer and Raymond Scheindlin of the Jewish Theological Seminary for generously taking the time to review my Hebrew text. They found several mistakes, in grammar and style, which I was able to correct.

Without George Stauffer’s superb book, Bach: The Mass in B minor: The Great Catholic Mass, which covers every important aspect of Bach’s masterpiece, I would not have understood the music nearly as well, and this blog would have been much poorer. I used the book as a basic source of information, and frequently cited it in the blog.

Chris Shepard was the first person to take up the cause of my Jewish Bach project in the world of choral music. His fascination with the striking parallels and contrasts between Christian and Jewish theology that were brought out in my Hebrew text inspired me to go beyond the text itself, and to create a Jewish symbolism for the music. In this effort I was greatly helped by his blog, verba docent, which supplemented the information I found in Stauffer’s book. Shepard also rescued me from my doubts about whether the Prayer in B minor would ever be heard in public, and whether it was singable. He conducted the Dessoff Choirs in a lovely performance of selected movements from the Prayer on January 12, 2014, in a sing-in at Congregation Habonim in New York City.

What are my hopes for the future of the Prayer in B minor?

I hope that Chris Shepard and the Dessoff Choirs will perform it someday in its entirety, with an orchestra. I hope that it will go on existing as a “version” of Bach’s Mass in B minor that other groups will consider performing.

I hope that synagogue and church choirs will sing parts of it in services and concerts, although I realize that the technical demands of the music are great. There are movements that are suitable for use in a Jewish service: the Ḳadosh (Sanctus) during the ḳ’dusha of the ‘Ămida prayer; the Năḳdish’kha (Laudamus te), K’vodo (Osanna), and Hu ĕlohenu (Domine Deus) during the ḳ’dusha of the Sabbath or Festival musaf service; the Ṣim shalom (Pacem) at the end of the morning Ămida; and the Barukh hăba (Benedictus) during the Hălel. The three movements of the Ḳ’răv-na (replacing the Kyrie) could be used as an introduction to a Jewish prayer service, although this would be an innovation; and the entire Ăni mă’ămin could be performed on its own, just as Emanuel Bach performed the Credo of the B minor Mass in 1786. There are movements that are so close in meaning to the corresponding movements of Bach’s Mass that they could be used in a church service as alternatives to the Latin originals: the Nodĕ l’kha (Gratias), Noṣe ‘aṿon ṿafĕshă‘ (Qui tollis), Ḳadosh (Sanctus), Barukh hăba (Benedictus), and Ṣim shalom (Pacem).

I hope that someday the text of the Prayer in B minor will be accepted as an authentic Jewish liturgical text, and that contemporary composers will create new musical settings for it. Judaism would then have the beginnings of a musical tradition equivalent to the Mass tradition in Christian music. Someone will come up with a better term than Prayer to describe it; I was not able to.

I have a fantasy that far off in the future, perhaps after some fourth or fifth Vatican Council, the Mass will disappear from Catholic worship, having been replaced by a more modern form of divine liturgy. It will be remembered mainly by music historians and by experts in the history of the Church. It will continue to be recited only in a handful of conservative Eastern Orthodox and Lutheran congregations. But throughout the world, in liberal Jewish congregations, Jews will sing Sara Levy’s Hebrew Prayer; and people will wonder at the small pockets of Christians who seem to have taken it as a model for Christian worship.

Dona nobis pacem / Ṣim ‘alenu shalom

Sebastian Bach was in the last year of his life when he began writing the Dona nobis pacem, the final movement of his monumental Mass in B minor. He was weak, his eyesight was failing, and he no longer had a fluid hand. Almost all of the other movements of the Mass were reworked versions, or “parodies,” of earlier compositions; and these reworkings were the occasion for brilliant revisions and improvements, so that the new music was well adapted to the Latin text, and to the spirit of the piece. In the case of the Pacem, however, Bach decided to rework a movement from the Gloria of the Mass — the Gratias agimus tibi, itself a parody of a movement from one of his cantatas — and to rework it with hardly any changes in the music, despite the fact that he had trouble adapting it to the new text. Bach may have appropriated the Gratias in this way because he felt he was running out of time, or he may have been motivated by aesthetic or theological considerations. Despite the difficulties, he managed to create a dignified ending for his “Great Catholic Mass.”

Like the Gratias, the Pacem is constructed as a double fugue, in the key of D major. It is clear from Bach’s manuscript that he wanted the four-part chorus of the Gratias to be doubled for the Pacem, with two choirs singing in unison, so that the vocal forces would be as large as they were for the Osanna. He used the same instrumental forces as for the Gratias — trumpets, flutes, oboes, strings, and continuo — but without the bassoon. The trouble for Bach was to extract suitable phrases for the two fugue subjects from the words of the Pacem:

Dona nobis pacem. (Grant us peace.)

In the first fugue subject, “Gratias agimus tibi” (eight syllables) becomes “Dona nobis pacem” (six syllables); this is easily accomplished by redistributing some notes and repeating the word “pacem.” In the second fugue subject, “propter magnam gloriam tuam” (nine syllables) becomes “pacem dona nobis” (six syllables); this is accomplished by stretching some syllables, so that “pacem” corresponds to “propter magnam,” and “gloriam” corresponds to “dona.” But why does Bach reverse the order of “dona nobis” and “pacem” in the second subject? According to Stauffer (The Mass in B minor, p. 170), the obvious reason is that he wanted to avoid having the word “pacem” fall on the long melisma which so nicely paints the word “gloriam”; this would have ill represented the meaning of “pacem,” which is “peace.” The result is a bit clumsy, but it works well enough.

When Sara Levy came to render “Dona nobis pacem” in Hebrew, she was fortunate to be able to extract from the traditional Prayer Book an equivalent phrase:

Ṣim ‘alenu shalom. (Grant us peace.)

The literal meaning of “ṣim ‘alenu shalom” is “set peace upon us”; but it can be translated, just like the Latin “dona nobis pacem,” as “grant us peace.” The formula comes from the final blessing of the morning ‘Amida prayer, which is primarily a prayer for peace:

Grant peace [ṢIM SHALOM], goodness and blessing, graciousness and kindness and compassion, upon us [‘ALENU] and upon all of Your people Israel…. Blessed are You, Lord, who blesses His people Israel with peace.

The first two words of the blessing — “ṣim shalom” — are such a familiar part of Jewish liturgy that they have been adopted as the name of the official Prayer Book of Conservative Judaism. Indeed, ṣim shalom ‘alenu is more natural as a Jewish liturgical formula than ṣim ‘alenu shalom; but they are both correct Hebrew, and there is no disputing that Sara’s Prayer in B minor can only end with the word SHALOM, just as Bach’s Mass in B minor ends with PACEM.

But as Bach had trouble adapting the words of the Dona nobis pacem to the music of the Gratias agimus tibi, so Sara had trouble substituting the Hebrew phrase “ṣim ‘alenu shalom” for the Latin “dona nobis pacem.” Each has six syllables; and though the word “shalom” is accented on the final syllable, while “pacem” is accented on the first, the substitution of “shalom” for “pacem” works well. However, “ṣim ‘alenu” could not be directly substituted for “dona nobis” for two reasons: the individual Hebrew and Latin words do not have the same number of syllables; and in the second fugue subject such a procedure would have caused the word “ṣim” to fall on the long melisma of the “do-” in “dona,” giving the melisma an ugly sound and rendering it all but unsingable. In order to get around these difficulties, and to avoid having the word “shalom” fall on the melisma, in the second fugue subject Sara placed the “‘a-” in “‘alenu” on the melisma, and shifted syllables around as needed in the working out of the double fugue.

Ṣim shalom mm. 1-5Ṣim shalom mm. 6-9

In biblical Hebrew, the verb shalem means to be complete, whole, or sound. As an adjective, shalem means complete, safe, full, perfect, or at peace. The noun shalom means completeness, soundness, welfare, or peace. The city of Jerusalem is linked in the Jewish imagination with the idea of peace. Although its name — Y’rushalăyim in Hebrew — has the etymological meaning “founded by Shalem” or “foundation of peace,” it is most often translated “city of peace.” So it is only fitting that in completing our discussion of Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor, which ends with a prayer for peace, and with the Hebrew word shalom, we bring forth sayings of the rabbis on the greatness of peace, and the peace of Jerusalem:

Bar Kappara said: Great is peace; for even the upper realms are in need of peace, as it is written, “He makes peace in His heights (‘oṣĕ shalom bim’romaṿ).” (Job 25:2) And we can make the following a fortiori argument: If peace is needed in the upper realms, where there is no malice, no hatred, no envy, no rivalry, and no evil eye; how much more is it needed among men, where all these qualities are present!

Rabbi Joshua said: Great indeed is peace; for the very name of the Holy One, Blessed is He, is called Peace, as it is written, “And he [Gideon] called it [his altar] ‘Ădonai [the Tetragrammaton] is Peace.'” (Judges 6:24)

Rabbi Il‘ai said in the name of Rabbi El‘azar son of Rabbi Shim‘on: It is permissible for a person to alter [the truth of] something for the sake of peace, as it is written (Genesis 50:16-17), “Your father [Jacob] gave an instruction before his death, saying, ‘Thus shall you say to Joseph: “I pray you, forgive the iniquity of your brothers and their sin, for they have done evil to you.”‘” Rabbi Shim‘on ben Gamliel commented: See how much ink has been poured, how many quills broken, how many animal skins prepared, how many children whipped, to learn in the Torah about something [Jacob's instruction] that never happened; see how great is the power of peace!

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Israel, “You brought about the destruction of my Temple and the exile of my children; ask after the peace [or welfare] of Jerusalem and I will grant you peace.” (Bialik and Ravnitsky, Sefer Ha’ăgada, Book 5, ch. 4, § 1 and Book 3, ch. 2, § 8; my translations)

We have completed our discussion of the individual movements of the Prayer in B minor. It only remains for us to take a final look at the overall structure of the Prayer, in comparison with the Mass in B minor; and this I hope we will accomplish next time, in what will be the final post in this blog.

But for now, nothing should prevent you from savoring the restful beauty of the Dona nobis pacem while listening to it on a recording. In measure 15, and again in measure 26, you hear a first trumpet enter, doubling the Soprano voice, and announcing the presence of royalty. In measures 31 through 38, as the tension mounts, three trumpets enter as independent voices, along with the timpani, thickening the counterpoint and heightening the sense of arousal. In the final measures, 41 through 46, the trumpets and timpani make a glorious return, bringing the piece to a stirring close.

Why does Bach score three trumpets for the Gratias and for the Pacem? You know the obvious reason: it is to represent the three persons of the Trinity. So if you are listening in Latin, you can imagine Christ the king, accompanied by God the Father and the Holy Spirit, returning in glory to inaugurate a reign of eternal peace.

But if you listen in Hebrew, you can imagine the Holy One, Blessed is He, in His glory, through no intermediary, revealing Himself at the moment of the final redemption. The three trumpets now represent the three patriarchs, upon whose merit the kingdom of heaven is founded, and whose closeness to God has already been intimated in the three introductory movements of the Prayer. The trumpets announce the coming of an earthly king who shall establish universal peace, the Messiah from the house of David, may he come quickly in our lifetime!

As you listen in Hebrew, you may follow the score of Sara Levy’s Ṣim ‘alenu shalom. For a satisfying performance of the Latin, with Roman Válek conducting the Ars Brunensis Chorus, click on Dona nobis pacem.

Agnus Dei / Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon

We have arrived at the culmination of the Mass, the breaking of the bread of the Eucharist; it is the symbolic sharing of Christ’s body with his disciples, which is enacted during the chanting of the Agnus Dei, a three-fold supplication of Christ:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem. (Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, who takest away  the sins of the world, have mercy upon us. Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant us peace.)

Following a well-established custom, Bach, in his Mass in B minor, separates off the Dona nobis pacem as a final choral movement. For the Agnus Dei, he reserves his most emotionally wrenching aria writing, combining a sense of mourning for the crucified Christ, the Lamb of God, with an intense longing for Christ’s mercy. We will first look at how Bach achieves this musically, and then see to what extent Sara Levy, in her Hebrew Prayer in B minor, is able to create a Jewish equivalent of the Agnus Dei.

The Agnus Dei is written for solo Alto voice, accompanied by two violins, playing in unison, and continuo. The Christe eleison, also a plea for Christ’s mercy, has the same instrumentation accompanying its two Soprano voices, and this may be deliberate on Bach’s part. But while the Christe eleison addresses Christ in a familiar, light-hearted way, the Agnus Dei addresses him in a tone of anguish and remorse, from the position of a sinner who is uncertain about reaching the source of salvation. The key is G minor; this is the only flat key movement in the entire Mass. This links the Agnus Dei with the flat key excursions in the Et in unum Dominum and the Et expecto bridge, passages that are associated with Christ’s Incarnation and with the expectation of eternal life.

In the opening ritornello, Bach establishes a plaintive mood with a sighing continuo of punctuated eighth notes. The violins enter with jagged leaps of highly dissonant intervals, and slurred minor seconds, heightening the sense of lamentation.

Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon mm. 1-22

The slurred minor seconds are reminiscent of the frist Kyrie eleison, where they function as an “expressive sigh”; they also appear in the Qui tollis, the Et incarnatus, and the Crucifixus, movements that deal with mercy or salvation. (See Stauffer, Bach: The Mass in B minor, pp. 55, 164-167.) With the entrance of the Alto, the voice and violin lines mirror one another in loose canonic fashion, creating a sense of excruciating longing and exquisite beauty.

It is impossible for us to know how Sara Levy felt when she confronted the Agnus Dei as a movement of Bach’s Mass in search of a Jewish identity. Sara came from a traditional Jewish family, but one that was highly assimilated. What was her relationship with Christianity? How deeply Jewish was she? Was she moved by the image of Christ on the cross? Did she share the Christian feeling of mourning for the Lamb of God?

There is no image in Judaism as emotionally powerful as the image of Christ on the cross; and there is no idea in Judaism that evokes the same mixture of pity and moral exaltation as the Lamb of God. So it is likely that this element of Christian belief would have had an attraction for Sara. Taking myself as a modern specimen of a deeply Jewish person (although it requires a large leap of faith to believe that I satisfy the orthodox criteria for Jewishness — acquired either through conversion or by being born to a Jewish woman — considering the amount of false conversion and hidden intermarriage that must have occurred among my European ancestors), I can give three proofs of my attraction to products of the Christian imagination. First, there is my fascination with the Mass tradition in Western music, especially with the B minor Mass. Second, there is the fact that I have spent many hours at a time standing in front of the Isenheim Altarpiece, looking at Grünewald’s painting of the Crucifixion, which moves me more than any other work of art. And third, there is the way I reacted to my mother’s death, which left me feeling that Judaism did not have a concrete image that could serve as a mirror for her suffering, and that the image of Christ on the cross would have provided me with solace were I a Christian. But I am not a Christian; and though it is undoubtedly comforting to believe in a God who becomes man and suffers for our sins, I could never accept such a belief. The idea that Christ died in order to take away the sins of the world has always struck me as a morally dangerous one, providing much too easy a way of disposing of human guilt.

So what can we learn from Sara’s choice of a Jewish equivalent for the Agnus Dei? Unfortunately, her choice sheds no light on her feelings about the complex and troubling differences between Judaism and Christianity. The fact is, she did not have much maneuvering room in recasting the Agnus Dei in Hebrew. Recall that the expression “Agnus Dei” already occurs in the Gloria, in the Domine Deus, where Sara replaces it with Ădonai (Lord); and that “Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis” already occurs in the Qui tollis of the Gloria, where it is transformed into Noṣe ‘aṿon ṿafĕshă‘, răḥem-na ‘alenu (You who forgive sin and iniquity, have mercy on us, we pray). In order to maintain the cohesive structure of the Hebrew version of the Mass, Sara follows the best procedure, which is to use these same Hebrew expressions for the Jewish Agnus Dei:

Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon ṿafĕshă‘, răḥem-na ‘alenu. (Lord, You who forgive sin and iniquity, have mercy on us, we pray.)

From the point of view of sound, the Hebrew Ădonai provides an adequate substitute for the Latin “Agnus Dei”; they both begin with an open “a” sound, and the Hebrew diphthong “ai” in Ădonai is a reasonable substitute for the two consecutive vowels “e” and “i” in the Latin “Dei.” And the “Qui tollis” part works just as well here as it does in the Qui tollis of the Gloria.

From the point of view of Affekt, or emotional tone, I do not think there was any way Sara could have created a Jewish formula quite worthy of the combination of anguish, sorrow, and supplication expressed in the music of Bach’s Agnus Dei. But since Ădonai (usually a substitute for the Tetragrammaton, which is not vocalized by orthodox Jews at all, or by any Jews during prayer) is the name of God traditionally associated with His attribute of mercy, it is a logical replacement for “Agnus Dei.”

In the overall structure of the Prayer, this movement comes as a final supplication of God for mercy. It is the culmination of the movements that precede it, first imploring God to come near, then praising Him and asking for His mercy, professing belief in Him and His prophets, and declaring His holiness and glory. So there has been a sufficient buildup of tension to justify a final expression of anguish and remorse over our sins, and longing for mercy, even if the musical effect is less poignant than it is in the Mass.

Has Sara given us a satisfactory Jewish equivalent of the Agnus Dei in her Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon? I will not answer the question; rather, I will invoke the well-known Aramaic formula of the rabbis of the Talmud: “Teḳu! (Let it stand!)” While we wait for the prophet Elijah to come to us with the answer, we can listen to a recording of the Agnus Dei while following along in Sara’s score of the Ădonai, noṣe ‘aṿon. For an amazingly beautiful performance by Anne Sofie von Otter, click on Agnus Dei.

Benedictus qui venit / Barukh hăba

It was not difficult for Sara Levy to transpose the Benedictus of Bach’s B minor Mass into Hebrew; all she had to do was replace it by its biblical source in Psalms 118, the first half of verse 26. Fortunately, there was not much of a problem with the rhythm, even though the Hebrew version has only nine syllables to the Latin’s fourteen. Here is the Latin:

Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini. (Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.)

compared to the Hebrew:

Barukh hăba b’shem Ădonai. (Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.)

The syllables in the Latin and Hebrew are made to correspond as follows:

Bene – dictus   qui   venit   in   nomine   Do – mi – ni.

Ba    –    rukh      hă  –  ba      b’  –  shem      Ă –  do – nai.

The Latin and Hebrew sentences have the same syntax, and the Hebrew parts of speech correspond precisely in meaning to their Latin counterparts. The stretching of barukh, ba, and shem does not interfere much with the cadence of the musical line.

The more difficult problem facing Sara was to explain why this phrase from the Psalms appears in the middle of a Jewish “Sanctus,” or ḳ’dusha, where it seems out of place. There is no difficulty in understanding its place in the Mass; the Gospels (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, Luke 19:38, John 12:13) appropriate the words of the Benedictus from the Psalms, and use them as a cry welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem; he becomes the blessed one who comes (or, more accurately, “enters”) in the name of the Lord.

It will be easier to solve this puzzle if we first look at the music, and see how Bach may have understood the place of this movement in his Mass. The Benedictus is an aria for tenor solo, obbligato flute (or violin), and continuo. As explained by Stauffer in Bach: The Mass in B minor (pp. 161-162), the style of the Benedictus is unique among the arias of the B minor Mass. The solo instrumental line is rich in figuration; the tenor line is discontinuous, with short phrases separated by rests; and the tenor echoes the solo instrument in an “inexact” way, in the manner of a “reminiscence,” creating a “faintly halting effect.”

Barukh hăba mm. 0-16Barukh hăba mm. 17-34

In place of the triumphant tone of the Gospel account, Bach creates a somber mood, which he may have considered more appropriate as part of the Preface to the sacrament of Communion. He contrasts the maximal choral and orchestral forces of the Osanna – a public, dance-like exclamation of God’s glory –  with the minimal forces of the Benedictus, a “solitary, almost mystical reflection” on Christ’s blessedness.

But what is the place of the Barukh hăba in its original context, the Hebrew Bible? Psalm 118 is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from one’s enemies. The entire Psalm can be read as the account of a king, victorious in battle, who enters Jerusalem in a military procession, then enters the Holy Temple to give thanks to God and rejoice in His salvation. The worshipers cry out (verses 25-27): “We beseech you, O Lord, save us, we pray (hoshi‘a na)! We beseech you, O Lord, give us success, we pray! Blessed be he [the king] who enters in the name of the Lord; we bless you in the house of the Lord! El, the Lord, has surely shone upon us! Join [bind?] the festal procession [the sacrifice?] with branches [thick cords?] up to the horns of the altar!” It is not surprising that these verses from Psalms were adapted by the Evangelists for the scene of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He also comes as a king, in the name of the Lord. The cry of hoshi‘a na! (save, we pray!) becomes hoshă‘na!, its contracted form. And the possible reference to branches may have suggested the image of the crowd spreading cut branches on the road (Matthew 21:8, Mark 11:8) or holding palm branches (John 12:13).

The Barukh hăba is familiar from Jewish liturgy as a prominent part of the Hălel, which consists of Psalms 113 through 118, and is chanted after the morning ‘Ămida on festival days.  Verse 25 of Psalm 118, which includes hoshi‘a na!, is chanted responsively; and verse 26 – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; we bless you from the house of the Lord” – is chanted twice, as are verses 27 through 29.

Rashi, in his Bible commentary, interprets Psalm 118 as a personal prayer of thanksgiving which makes reference, beginning in verse 10 (“All nations surrounded me,” etc.) to the apocalyptic War of Gog and Magog, in which God’s salvation will cause the Israelites to be victorious, leading to their final redemption. He interprets verse 26 (“Blessed is he who enters,” etc.) as a blessing of welcome to those who came to Jerusalem bearing first-fruits, or offerings for the three pilgrim festivals. Rashi allows, however, that the end of the psalm, beginning with verse 17 (“I did not die, but lived,” etc.), may be interpreted as referring to David himself, the traditional author of the Psalms, who was severely punished for his sin in relation to Bath Sheba, but was allowed to live (2 Samuel 12). Following a midrash in the Babylonian Talmud brought in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan (Pesaḥim 119a), Rashi imagines verses 21 through 29 as a dramatic reading by King David, his brothers, his father Jesse, and the prophet Samuel:

DAVID: I thank You because You answered me, and became my salvation.

JESSE: The stone that the builders rejected became the cornerstone.

DAVID’S BROTHERS: From the Lord this has come to pass; it is wondrous in our eyes.

SAMUEL: This is the day the Lord acted, let us rejoice and be glad in Him.

DAVID’S BROTHERS: We beseech You, O Lord, save, we pray!

DAVID: I beseech You, O Lord, grant success, I pray!

JESSE: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

SAMUEL: We bless you from the house of the Lord.

ALL: El, the Lord, has surely shone upon us.

SAMUEL: Bind the sacrifice with thick cords, up to the horns of the altar.

DAVID: You are my God, and I give You thanks.

ALL: Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His kindness is eternal!

Did the rabbis hear the last nine verses of this Psalm as a hodgepodge of pronouncements that only made sense if assigned to different biblical voices? Perhaps; but this kind of imaginative reconstruction is also a typical expression of the playfulness of the rabbis as they fitted the words of the Bible into scenes that were familiar in their own times, like the responsive reading in a congregation. Or perhaps Rabbi Yoḥanan was secretly going to the theater, or reading Aeschylus!

We may now speculate about how Sara Levy understood her Jewish version of the Benedictus. She was sufficiently familiar with the Psalms to appreciate the ancient Jewish longing to be in God’s presence: in His holy city, Jerusalem; in His earthly Sanctuary; and in His heavenly Temple. The same blessedness is sought by the victorious king entering Jerusalem, the ordinary Israelite pilgrim making an offering in the Holy Temple, and the righteous person hoping for eternal life in the house of the Lord. Although the relationship of the Christian worshiper to God is displaced onto the person of Christ, the experience of God’s holiness and glory, and the longing for His blessed presence, are not very different from those of the Jewish worshiper. Whereas the Christian Mass in B minor moves from the heavenly realm of the Sanctus to the earthly encounter with the blessed Son of God in the Osanna and Benedictus, the Jewish Prayer in B minor lingers in the celestial realm for the Ḳadosh (“Holy!”) and the K’vodo male ‘olam (“His glory fills the world!”), and descends briefly into the earthly blessedness of the Sanctuary for the Barukh hăba.

If you listen to a recording of Bach’s Benedictus (or click on Benedictus and listen to a lovely performance by Christoph Genz) while following the score of Sara Levy’s Barukh hăba, you will see that they both provide a moment of inner reflection and blessedness, each with its own theological flavor.

Osanna / K’vodo

I have been delayed in continuing my blog on the Prayer in B minor, Sara Levy’s Jewish version of Bach’s Mass in B minor. After discussing her Hebrew Sanctus, and then the meaning of holiness, I was hoping to proceed directly to the Osanna in excelsis. I know you will forgive me for the delay, as it was caused by a combination of my going on a trip, and then having to prepare for a rather extraordinary event: on January 12, 2014, Christopher Shepard and the Dessoff Choirs led a Sing-In of selected movements from the Prayer in B minor at Congregation Habonim in New York City. It was the first time any of the Prayer had been heard in public, and the singing was beautiful and inspiring. However, at the Sing-In I was revealed as the author of the Prayer, and this made me worry again about Robert.

Remember Robert? He is my old friend, the one who discovered and still owns Sara Levy’s manuscript of the Hebrew version of Bach’s B minor Mass. He spent years editing the manuscript, and charged me with publicizing it. His greatest desire was to have it performed one day.  Understandably, he was very upset at the original announcement of the Sing-In, which mentioned me as author of the Prayer. At the event, I felt his presence in the room, though I could not find him. Finally he wrote me the following letter, which I have only just received:

Dear Eric,

Of course I am very pleased that Sara Levy’s Prayer in B minor will be presented publicly for the first time today, and that you will be there to hear it. But you can imagine how I have been struggling to reconcile myself with the idea that you are the one who created it, given the facts as I know them. As chance would have it, I have recently stumbled across something which allows me to make perfect sense of this seemingly paradoxical situation.

I have been reading a charming and erudite book, in French, called Le Voyage d’hiver & ses suites (Winter’s Journey and its Sequels). It is a kind of collective “novel” written by various members of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who have discovered that all of literature can be mathematically generated from certain basic elements. The book (which has been translated into English as Winter Journeys, published in 2013 by Atlas Press) begins with the short story by Georges Perec, Le Voyage d’hiver (Winter’s Journey), which has every appearance of being a truthful account of an astounding discovery: a volume of mysterious writings, published in 1864 by an obscure French poet, Hugo Vernier, who “quotes” in his verses the great French poets of the late nineteenth century who came after him. In order to explain this, the oulipian writers invoke the concept of “plagiarism by anticipation.” According to this principle, literary forms and ideas are anticipated by writers of the past, and then “stolen” by future generations. In one chapter of the book, it is shown that the same principle applies to music. A certain Ugo Wernier is discovered to have published a lost volume of secular cantatas, of which only a fragment of the preface survives; here Wernier outlines the future musical projects of Bach, Beethoven and Wagner. And why did Wernier’s work not survive? Because Bach purchased every printed copy of Wernier’s cantatas and, in 1717, burnt them all!

I am now convinced that your Prayer in B minor was “plagiarized” by SL. Probably the idea for a Jewish version of Bach’s “Great Catholic Mass” came to her in 1780, exactly 225 years before you conceived of it. One must also suspect the existence of a preexisting version created around the year 1555 by a Hebrew author whose initials were WH (Waw He); it cannot be an accident that these two letters form the second half of the Tetragrammaton. It may even turn out that the Ordinary of the Mass was “plagiarized” by the Men of the Great Assembly; that they created a Jewish prayer which was lost, but resurfaced in Christianized form in Greek and Latin, only later to reappear as the Hebrew text of the Prayer in B minor. If that were the case, it would not be impossible that an early Hebrew or Greek version of the Prayer would have been known to the great Jewish apostate Elisha ben Abuya, also known as Aḥer (“The Other One”).  If I am not mistaken, there is a member of Oulipo who is his descendent, and may know more about “Aḥer’s Journey” than he is ready to tell.  Unfortunately, I can neither grasp the details of these historical links, nor prove their validity. I can only hope that some member of Oulipo will take an interest in my speculations and pursue them along proper lines.

With warm wishes for continued success with the Prayer,

Robert

Jerusalem, January 12, 2014

I am very relieved that Robert has found a way to regain his mental equilibrium, and to accept my new position as both author and publicizer of Sara Levy’s work. And I have no desire to destroy the evidence of Sara’s priority over me in this collective achievement.

But it is high time we return to the music!

The Sanctus of the Mass is followed by the Osanna, the Benedictus, and a repetition of the Osanna.  This reflects the Gospel account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, as recounted in Matthew 21:6-9: “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.  A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest heaven!'”  The Hebrew cry of Hosha‘na! — “Hosanna!” in English, “Osanna!” in Latin — means “Save, we pray!”  Like the palm branches in the parallel account in the Gospel of John (12:13), the “Hosanna!” is connected with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles.  In the Gospels, however, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem takes place at the approach of Passover; and the “Hosanna!” takes on a different meaning, that of an exclamation of praise or adoration.

In the context of the Mass, the Sanctus, Osanna and Benedictus constitute an acclamation of the glory of God and the sovereignty of Christ, leading up to the mystery of the Eucharist which is accomplished during the Agnus Dei.  In Sara’s Jewish version, the phrase “Hosanna in the highest” is replaced by the phrase which directly follows the “Holy, holy, holy” in the ḳ’dusha of the Sabbath and festival musaf service: “His glory fills the world.”  Of course this is just a restatement, in Hebrew, of the Pleni sunt coeli  which comes right before it; but it continues the theme of God’s heavenly and earthly glory, and sounds very natural as Jewish liturgy because of its place in the traditional Prayer Book.

Compare the Latin text:

Osanna in excelsis. (Hosanna in the highest.)

with the Hebrew:

K’vodo male ‘olam. (His glory fills the world.)

Notice that the Latin and Hebrew phrases have the same number of syllables. The rhythm of the Hebrew is not identical with the Latin, since the words k’vodo and ‘olam are both accented on the final syllable; nonetheless the Hebrew fits very well into Bach’s music.

The Osanna in excelsis continues the D major key, triple meter, and jubilant mood of the Pleni sunt coeli. For the Osanna, the choral forces split into two four-part choirs, and the instrumental forces match those of the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo. The movement begins with the word “Osanna” sung in unison by both choirs on a fanfare-like motive, and in measure 15 there develops an imitative sequence in choir 1, while choir 2 reiterates the fanfare-like motive.

Osanna 1Osanna 2Osanna 3Osanna 4

The two choirs then switch roles, after which the fanfare-like motive and imitative sequence are developed in increasingly complex combinations by both choirs, creating a mounting feeling of joy.

In the Latin Osanna, what is represented in the music is the joy of the crowd as they escort their Saviour into Jerusalem. In Sara’s Hebrew K’vodo, it is the joy of God’s ministering angels, and His worshipers, as they experience the fullness of His glory. You can feel it as you listen to the music, while following the score of the K’vodo. For a crisp performance by Irina Bogdanovich leading the University of Warsaw Choir, click on Osanna.

Against holiness

What does it mean for something to be holy, hallowed, sanctified, or sacred? I have used the concept of holiness at various times in this blog, without inquiring into its meaning. And yet, it is a concept that has long made me uncomfortable, and whose validity I question. As a Hebrew school student, I was taught that holy meant separated off from and elevated above what was ordinary; the designation of holiness could apply to persons, places, times, and objects. This definition was unsatisfying even for a schoolboy.  It failed to explain the way in which something acquired its separate and elevated status; the numerous manifestations of holiness, its gradations and transformations; and how holiness was connected with ritual, morality, and God, the ultimate source of holiness.

As I got older, I found that things were called sacred even outside the realm of religion.  In Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, Hunding welcomes Siegmund as his guest with the words, “Heilig ist mein Herd; heilig sei dir mein Haus!” (“My hearth is holy; let my house be holy to you!”) Simone de Beauvoir, in tracing the history of women in society, tells us that in primitive societies, the male hunting expedition was a creative, life-sustaining act, and therefore sacred; that the function of maternity was sacred in agricultural society; and that the marriage bond in ancient Roman society was sacred, and therefore unbreakable, because of the importance of the wife’s role in running the household (Le deuxième sexe, Vol. I, Gallimard, pp. 111, 114, and 149). After the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Center, the site was considered sacred ground, regardless of the religious beliefs of the victims or their loved ones.

The original idea conveyed by the Hebrew stem -d-sh is that of “separation” or “withdrawal”; the trilateral stem may derive from a bilateral root ḳ-d meaning to “cut.” It is related to the Akkadian ḳadâšu, to be “clean” or “free of claims”; and ḳudušu, to “clean” or “purify.” Alternatively, there may be a primary derivation from the Akkadian ḳudušu meaning “bright.”

In searching the Hebrew biblical lexicon, we find that the idea of holiness had a wide application in the ancient Israelite world. The adjective ḳadosh means “sacred” or “holy”; the intransitive verb ḳadăsh means to be holy, set apart, consecrated, removed from common use, subject to special treatment, or forfeit to the Sanctuary; the transitive verb ḳidăsh can mean to set apart or honor as sacred, to consecrate, to dedicate a place, person, object or time. The noun ḳodĕsh means apartness or sacredness, and miḳdash means a sacred place or sanctuary. The concept of holiness applies to God as exalted, majestic, inviolable, or separate from human imperfection; to God’s name; to His holy spirit; to angels; to sacred or holy places; to holy persons, such as priests, Levites, prophets, Nazirites and saints; to Israel as a people; to God’s covenant with Israel; to the firstborn of Israel; to sacrificial offerings, the altar, and anything that touches the altar; to priestly garments and cult objects; to water; to war; to soldiers on an expedition; to the Sabbath and other special days. The idea that God keeps His people pure and sacred is expressed in the verse from Leviticus (20:8): “I the Lord make you holy (m’ḳădish’khĕm).”

The article in The Jewish Encyclopedia on “Holiness” (Volume 6, pp. 439-442) traces for us the development of the concept in Judaism. God first manifests Himself to Moses and Israel in a “flame of fire” as an unapproachable deity; He speaks to Moses from a burning bush, and declares the ground upon which Moses is standing to be holy (Exodus 3:2-5). When God reveals Himself at Mount Sinai, He descends upon the mountain in fire and has Moses warn the people not to come too close, lest they perish; the mountain is set off by bounds and consecrated (Exodus 19:18-23). God continues to reveal Himself to Israel in the form of fire: “The appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses descends from the mountain, the skin of his face radiates light from his speaking with God, and the people are afraid to approach him (Exodus 34:29-30).

Isaiah, in his inaugural vision, sees the Lord surrounded by fiery angels who cover their faces so they cannot gaze upon Him; their cry of “Holy! Holy! Holy!” signifies that He is utterly unapproachable (Isaiah 6:1-3). In Isaiah, as in all the prophetic writings, God’s elemental holiness, His fiery unapproachability, is transformed into “a spiritual power for righteousness, a fire devouring wrong-doing and injustice, and purifying the doers of evil.”

In the Mosaic system, God’s holiness renders persons and things holy; some are made holy by God Himself, while others must be declared holy by men. Israel is “a holy nation” because it has been separated from the other nations; Israelites remain holy by abstaining from unclean meat, intermarriage with idolatrous nations, and heathen modes of disfigurement. More and more, the inherent holiness of the nation Israel, and of the land of Israel, develops into an ethical obligation and a state of moral perfection, to be attained through piety. In post-exilic Judaism, the emphasis of the Sadducees on “external sanctity in all its gradations and ramifications” continued; but more and more the rabbis made “inner holiness” the aim of life. In their battle against idolatry and Jewish apostasy, the ancient sages enjoined the people to remain holy by separating themselves from the other nations, and by imitating the priests and the angels in bodily holiness.

In rabbinical Judaism, the highest ethical ideal is holiness.  True holiness, an ideal state of perfection, is attained only by God.  But the system of Jewish law has as its aim the hallowing of life through good works, observance of the Sabbath and other holy days, and through martyrdom, which is called “the sanctification of the name [of God] (idush hăshem).” “Holiness” becomes synonymous with purity of action, purity of thought, purity of moral conduct, and purity of sexual relations in marriage.  In modern Jewish parlance, the blessing that sanctifies the Sabbath or a holy day is the ḳidush (“sanctification”); the prayer which glorifies and sanctifies God is the ḳădish (“holy” in Aramaic); and the laws of conjugal purity are subsumed under the category of ḳ’dusha, the late Hebrew word for “holiness.”

J. Skinner, in his introduction to his commentary on Isaiah (The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges: The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Chapters I-XXXIX, Cambridge University Press, 1958, pp. xlviii-liii), analyzes the special contribution of the prophet Isaiah to the development of the concept of holiness in ancient Israelite religion, beginning with Isaiah’s inaugural vision.

Throughout the ancient Semitic world, says Skinner, the term “holiness” was used as “the most comprehensive predicate of deity.” If, as many writers believed, it derived from a root signifying ‘”separation” or “distance,” It would embody “the notion of the contrast between the divine and the human” which was characteristic of the conception of God common to the Semitic peoples. “Holiness” did not express “any special attribute of the divine nature but rather the general notion of godhead, as distinguished from every other form of existence.” For Isaiah, on the other hand, there is “but one divine Being”; in his vision of the Godhead (Isaiah 6) he experiences “the overwhelming and awe-inspiring majesty” of the Holy One of Israel, the “transcendently glorious Being, in whose awful presence no unconsecrated mortal can stand,” the absolute, universal King “whose glory is the fulness of the whole earth.” Whereas the pagan notion of holiness was divorced from notions of purity or morality (Skinner, in a footnote, supports this claim by reminding us of the existence of “sacred prostitutes” in the Canaanite religion), Isaiah’s conception of God’s holiness includes the idea of His moral perfectness. It is not explicit, but “appears in the sense of sin which the vision of God awakened within him. ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.'” Implied is the conception of God as “a Being of spotless purity, separated not only from nature, but from all that is imperfect and sinful.” This is the prophetic doctrine of God, announced in quintessential form by Isaiah.

In the chant of the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision, the word “holy” (ḳadosh) expresses what God is “in Himself”; while the word “glory” (kavod) “appears to denote,” according to Skinner, “an aspect of His Godhead which is reflected in the world.” In the Hebrew Bible, the word “glory” usually denotes the “external manifestation of power or greatness” of a king, a nation, an individual, or humanity as such.  The “glory of God” mainly has one of two meanings: “the honor and praise due to Him,” or “the dazzling brightness in which He arrays Himself when He supernaturally manifests Himself on earth.” Skinner does not think that either of these meanings suits the use of the term by the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision.  Their cry, literally translated, reads: “The filling of the whole earth is His glory.” This “glory” is “something objective, as distinct from the glory ascribed to God in the praises of His creatures”; it is something “far more deeply interfused with nature” than the supernatural fire and smoke in the vision. Skinner concludes, “The general idea must be that all which the world contains, all that is sublime and powerful in nature, is the outward expression and symbol of the majesty which belongs to Him as the God of all the earth.”

The German theologian Rudolf Otto sought to delineate the rational and non-rational elements in the experience of the holy. His book, The Idea of the Holy (second edition of the English translation by John W. Harvey, Oxford University Press, 1950), was first published in German as Das Heilige in 1917. It grew out of a long journey, in 1910 and 1911, that took Otto to North Africa, Egypt, Palestine, India, China and Japan, allowing him to appreciate first hand what was common to the religious experience in Christianity, Judaism, and the great religions of the East. In one respect his book points in the direction of a psychology of religious experience; but he does not see the experience of the holy as only subjective, and his point of view remains firmly theological and Christocentric. I will summarize what I can of it, including what he says about the communication of holiness in Bach’s Mass in B minor.

Otto argues that when we use the words “holy” or “sacred” as moral terms — denoting what is absolutely or consummately good — we are using them in a derivative sense. To convey the original idea of what is holy or sacred, Otto coined the term numinous from the Latin numen (by analogy with the formation of the word ominous from the Latin omen).  A “numen” is a divinity, divine spirit, or divine force; “numinous” is the state of mind experienced when one encounters the holy. Otto then breaks down the numinous quality into its elements, taking as his starting point what one experiences in “a moment of deeply-felt religious experience.”

First there is what Otto calls “creature-feeling,” the feeling of utter dependence, of “submergence into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might of some kind.” Second there is the sense of the “mysterium tremendum,” the feeling of being in the presence of a mystery which is “inexpressible and above all creatures.” The “tremendum” includes emotions of fear (tremor), dread, and awe; it can have a primitive demonic quality, or one of exaltedness and sublimity. Even in the purest worship of God, the quality of the uncanny reappears in an ennobled form, “where the soul, held speechless, trembles inwardly to the farthest fibre of its being.” It “invades the mind mightily in Christian worship with the words: ‘Holy, Holy, holy'” and is present in states of “mystical awe.” Also implied in the “tremendum” is the feeling of being overpowered by an awful majesty, imparting a sense of absolute unapproachability. In addition to awfulness and majesty, there is in the “tremendum” a sense of “urgency” or “energy” in the numinous object. This may clothe itself in “symbolical expressions — vitality, passion, emotional temper, will, force, movement, excitement, activity, impetus.” It is perceptible in the wrathful quality of the “living God” of Judaism and Christianity, a quality which is absent from the purely rational God of the philosophers.

The “mysterium” of the “mysterium tremendum” is that which is experienced as “wholly other,” as “beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible, the familiar”; it fills the mind with “blank wonder and astonishment,” akin to a state of stupor, and gives rise to a positive feeling of the “supernatural” and the “transcendent.” Mysticism carries to an extreme the contrast between the numinous object as “wholly other” and objects of ordinary experience; it concludes by contrasting the numen with Being itself and calling it “that which is nothing,” while retaining, paradoxically, the positive quality of the “wholly other” as “a very living factor in its overbrimming religious emotion.” The “nothingness” of Christian mystics corresponds to the “void” (sūnyam) and “emptiness” (sūnyatā) of the Buddhist mystics, representing for them the “wholly other” to which they aspire.

The final aspect of the numinous experience that Otto describes is the element of “fascination” (fascinans); in addition to the “daunting ‘awfulness’ and ‘majesty'” there is “something uniquely attractive and fascinating” in it. The creature who trembles before it feels at the same time “the impulse to turn to it, nay even to make it somehow his own”; he is charmed, entranced, something “captivates him and transports him with a strange ravishment.” This non-rational element of fascination gives rise to the feelings of bliss, beatitude, wonderfulness, and rapture that are part of the experience of deity. According to Otto, the element of fascination is present not only in the religious feeling of longing, but also in “the moment of ‘solemnity'” in “the gathered concentration and humble submergence of private devotion, when the mind is exalted to the holy, and in the common worship of the congregation, where this is practised with earnestness and deep sincerity.” When raised to a high point of stress, the non-rational element of fascination leads, in Christianity, to experiences of grace, salvation, conversion, second birth and overabounding, exuberant mysticism. Otto tells the following story as an illustration of the strong positive quality of the rapture of Nirvana, which is a negative state only in appearance, and which exercises a powerful fascination: “I recall vividly a conversation I had with a Buddhist monk. He had been putting before me methodically and pertinaciously the arguments for the Buddhist ‘theology of negation’, the doctrine of Anātman and ‘entire emptiness’. When he had made an end, I asked him, what then Nirvana itself is; and after a long pause came at last the single answer, low and restrained: ‘Bliss — unspeakable’. And the hushed restraint of that answer, the solemnity of his voice, demeanour, and gesture, made more clear what was meant than the words themselves.” (p. 39)

In the chapter of his book entitled “Means of Expression of the Numinous,” Otto states that in art the numinous can be represented indirectly by the sublime and the magical, but in a direct way only negatively, by darknesssilence, and emptiness. Not even music, he says, can positively express “the holy.” In his comments on musical settings of the Mass, he discusses the B minor Mass, and the extent to which it succeeds in conveying the numinous quality of holiness:

“Even the most consummate Mass-music can only give utterance to the holiest, most numinous moment in the Mass — the moment of transubstantiation — by sinking into stillness: no mere momentary pause, but an absolute cessation of sound long enough for us to ‘hear the silence’ itself; and no devotional moment in the whole Mass approximates in impressiveness to this ‘keeping silence before the Lord’. It is instructive to submit Bach’s Mass in B minor to the test in this matter. Its most mystical portion is the ‘Incarnatus’ in the ‘Credo’, and there the effect is due to the faint, whispering, lingering sequence in the fugue structure, dying away pianissimo. The held breath and hushed sound of the passage, its weird cadences, sinking away in lessened thirds, its pauses and syncopations, and its rise and fall in astounding semi-tones, which render so well the sense of awe-struck wonder — all this serves to express the mysterium by way of intimation, rather than in forthright utterance.  And by this means Bach attains his aim here far better than in the ‘Sanctus’. This latter is, indeed, an incomparably successful expression of Him, whose is ‘the power and the glory’, an enraptured and triumphant choric hymn to perfect and absolute sovereignty.  But it is very far distant from the mood of the text that accompanies the music, which is taken from Isa. vi, and which the composer should have interpreted in accordance with that passage as a whole. No one would gather from this magnificent chorus that the Seraphim covered their faces with two of their wings.” (p. 70)

In discussing the Et incarnatus in a  previous post, I used the words “mystery” and “miraculousness” to describe the atmosphere created by the music. I had not yet read Otto’s book when I wrote this; evidently I sensed the numinous quality that he identifies in this movement.  And Otto is right in noting that, ironically, the music of the Sanctus fails to capture the numinous aspects of Isaiah’s vision: the Lord sitting on an exalted throne; the seraphim covering their faces and feet; the trembling of the foundations; the filling of the house with smoke; the prophet’s feeling of imminent death and of sinfulness in the presence of a Being of absolute purity.

According to Otto (p. 75), it is only in the Prophets and in the Gospels that the numinous concept of God becomes “charged with ethical import” and “holy” in the fullest sense; only in Christianity does he find the ideal balance of rational and non-rational elements. He asserts the superiority of Christianity over Islam, in which Allah is “a mere ‘numen'” and the rational element is relatively lacking. Although I am not very knowledgeable about Islam, I find Otto’s assertion in this regard suspect, considering the historic richness of Islam in jurisprudence (kalâm), metaphysics (al-Kindî, al-Fârâbî, Avicenna, Averroës, Ibn Arabî and others), and mysticism (Sufism, and bâtin, the esoteric dimension of Islam in Shî’ism; see Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, Vol. 3, ch. 35, “Muslim Theologies and Mystical Traditions”).

Otto goes on to outline the development of religion as the process of “rationalization and moralization of the numinous” (p. 111) that culminates in the idea of “salvation” which is central to all great religions (p. 166). In Kantian fashion, he develops the idea of “the holy” as an a priori category. Finally, he arrives at the idea that religious natures can develop a faculty capable of “genuinely cognizing and recognizing the holy in its appearances”; he calls it  the “faculty of divination” (p. 144). This implies, for Otto, that the holy is objectively grasped during the “peculiar experience of spontaneous insight that here is something holy made manifest” (p. 156). He gives as an example the apprehension of Christ’s divinity by the early Christians: “We have heard him ourselves and know that this is indeed the Christ” (John 4:42). The validity of such “religious intuitions of pure feeling” cannot, according to Otto, be challenged by “a person who is not prepared to take the religious consciousness itself for granted”; they are “immune from rational criticism” because they spring from “first-hand personal divination“(pp. 173-174). And yet, I cannot help challenging their validity, not as feelings, but as intuitions of objective manifestations of deity.

I am reminded of my reaction to Kant’s discussion of religious concepts in his Critique of Practical Reason. Having demonstrated in the Critique of Pure Reason that the existence of free will, the immortality of the soul, and the existence of God cannot be proved or disproved by pure speculative reason, Kant argues that pure practical reason requires the supposition of the soul’s immortality and the existence of a cause that is adequate to our will to bring about the highest good, namely God, even though the duty to follow the “holy” moral law within us is determined by speculative reason alone, and is not at all dependent on the existence of God (Critique of Practical Reason, Part I, Book II, Chapter II, §§IV-V). I felt let down by Kant; I could not help feeling that his idea that reason requires us to presuppose something we cannot prove, for the sole reason of maintaining the possibility of human happiness and moral fulfillment, is a cowardly one. Is it not intellectually more honest, and morally higher, to believe in and to follow a moral imperative without any presupposition about the eternity of the soul or the existence of a morally perfect being outside of nature? Even higher would be the sense of obligation to follow an inner moral law, in the face of a conviction that the objective existence of a deity is impossible. I prefer the point of view of John Dewey, who argues that a true religious attitude, an allegiance and adherence to a morally elevated ideal, is undermined by reliance on a belief in an “antecedent reality” or in the supernatural (John Dewey, A Common Faith, 1934, Yale University Press).

Of course Otto appeals not to reason, but to the direct experience of holiness by persons with a more or less developed faculty of divination. However, there are problems with Otto’s notion. The apperception of the divine has such a large subjective component, and is fully developed in so few people, that there is a danger of exclusivity and particularity in any such judgment. One person’s holiness is another’s desecration. What was holy to the Canaanites, whose sacred objects can still be admired for their gentle beauty, was an abomination to the ancient Israelites, and supposedly to God. Those who fall in battle are sacred to one side, not to the other. The holiness often attributed to the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis poses special problems. In modern Hebrew the mass slaughter of Jews during the second World War is referred to as the Shoah, which means “destruction” or “disaster”; the Yiddish term Khurbm comes from the Hebrew ḥurban (“destruction”) and has the same meaning. For some reason, in the English-speaking world it is referred to as the Holocaust. The word “holocaust” is the Greek term that was used to translate the biblical ḳŏrbăn ‘ola, a sacrifice which “goes up” to God because it is completely consumed by fire, the so-called “burnt offering.” The use of this term suggests that those who perished in the Shoah were holy sacrifices rather than victims of mass murder. Another common suggestion is that the Jewish victims of the Shoah died ‘ăl ḳidush hăshem — in order to sanctify God’s name. There were certainly Jews who died in this way during the Shoah, willingly choosing death over the forced violation of their faith.  But it is equally certain that the vast majority did not die in this way; they were slaughtered without regard to their Jewish beliefs or practices. Perhaps I should be more forgiving of the understandable human need to make sense of a tragedy that is too painful to bear: to sanctify, or set apart as holy, the memory of its victims. But on the one hand I cannot go along with the blatant misuse of language; and on the other hand I am suspicious of the “antecedent reality” or supernatural element that is invoked to explain a complex and troubling reality in a simplistic way.

I am against holiness in its usual religious sense; I would like it to be reconceptualized in such a way that it does not depend on subjective judgements or on adherence to a particular religion. Kant’s moral use of the term is intended to be purely rational, but is still not divorced from Christian preconceptions. The way we call something holy in everyday language, indicating that the thing is being cherished, or set apart, or kept at a distance, is inoffensive; but it remains tainted with the supernatural. Is it possible to have a concept of the holy which encompasses its rational and non-rational elements, but which does not presuppose a supernatural or divine realm? I have no answer; so for the time being I will participate in the widespread assumption that what inspires us with a sense of awe, mystery, and majesty is a manifestation of deity. This will allow me to go on, in my next post, to discuss the Hebrew version of the movement of Bach’s Mass in B minor that follows the Sanctus: the glorious Osanna.

Sanctus / Ḳadosh

The day Sara Levy finished sketching out her Hebrew versions of the Kyrie, Gloria, and Credo of Bach’s B minor Mass, she breathed a sigh of relief. Why am I sure of this? Because I know, as she knew on that day in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, that the most difficult part of her task was behind her. Transposing the remaining movements of the Mass into Hebrew was, as her brother-in-law David Friedländer might have said, a piece of kugel. The Sanctus, from the Book of Isaiah, and the Benedictus, from the Psalms, fell easily back into their original Hebrew. The Osanna defied translation, but Sara found its Hebrew equivalent ready-to-hand in the Prayer Book. The Agnus Dei could not be duplicated in a Jewish version without losing some of its pathos, but it yielded to a simple solution.  And the Dona nobis pacem turned out to be a condensed Latin version of the familiar blessing of peace in the Ămida prayer. Child’s play! So let’s begin the homestretch with the Sanctus:

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Domine Deus Sabaoth. Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus. (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with His glory.)

The Jewish version is the original Hebrew text from Isaiah 6:3, which is almost identical with  the Latin:

Ḳadosh, ḳadosh, ḳadosh Ădonai Ts’va’ot, m’lo khŏl-ha’arĕts k’vodo. (Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, all the earth is filled with His glory.)

The thrice exclaimed “holy” has been part of both Jewish and Christian liturgy since the early Christian period. It is a constant feature of the ḳ’dusha, the blessing of sanctification, in the repetition of the Ămida, the main prayer in the Jewish service. In both the Catholic and the Lutheran Mass, the Sanctus is part of the preparation for the breaking of the bread of the Eucharist, which is accompanied by the Agnus Dei. As we have seen, two movements from the Gloria — the Laudamus te and Domine Deus — strongly resemble parts of the ḳ’dusha. Stauffer (The Mass in B minor, p. 147) gives a version of the proclamation immediately preceding the Sanctus in the Lutheran rite, as it commonly appeared in the Leipzig hymnal of Bach’s time; it is so strikingly reminiscent of the Jewish Prayer Book that I will quote it here:

Therefore with Angels and Archangels, with the Enthroned and Those in Power, and with the Company of Heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious Name, evermore praising Thee, and saying: “Holy, holy, holy etc.”

Compare this with Ashkenazic version of the ḳ’dusha in the Sabbath musaf service:

We revere Thee and sanctify Thee according to the spoken counsel of the holy seraphim, who sanctify Thy name in holiness, as it is written by Thy prophet, “And one cried to another, and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy etc.'”

These liturgical passages are inspired by the scene of Isaiah’s inaugural vision : “In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly.  And one cried out to another, and said, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him that cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.” (Isaiah 6:1-4)

For the music of the Sanctus, Bach increased the vocal and orchestral forces from what he used in the previous sections of the Mass. He added a second Alto voice, to form a chorus of six voices: two Soprano, two Alto, Tenor and Bass. He increased the oboes from two to three, and divided the performing forces into five contrasting groups: a trumpet choir with timpani, an oboe choir, a string choir, and two vocal choirs of constantly changing composition. The movement consists of two sections: a stately choral setting for the first phrase, “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Domine Deus Sabaoth”; followed by a spirited fugue in triple meter for the second phrase, “Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria ejus.” In the first section, the phrase “sanctus, sanctus, sanctus” is intoned by different combinations of voices, in different forms, with different combinations of instrumental accompaniments. Bach’s choice of six voices for the chorus may have been inspired by the seraphim with six wings; and the undulating eighth note triplets that recur in the chorus and instrumental groups may represent the motion of their middle wings.

Ḳadosh 1Ḳadosh 2

The music darkens briefly, modulating from tonic D major into F sharp minor.  Suddenly the words “Pleni sunt coeli” burst out in the Tenor voice, back in D major, to initiate the fugue, which vividly depicts the mounting excitement among the angels as they proclaim God’s glory. The word “coeli” (heaven) is marked by an upward leap of a sixth, “terra” (earth) by a downward leap of a fifth; and “gloria” (glory) is set to floridly drawn out melismatic figures.

How well does the music of the Sanctus work with the Hebrew text of Sara’s version? Fairly well, I think. The words “sanctus” and “ḳadosh” both have two syllables and begin with a long “a” sound. “Domine Deus” (Lord God) has five syllables, whereas “Ădonai” (Lord) has only three, but the word “Ădonai” is stretched to fit the music. The Latin “sabaoth” comes from the Hebrew “ts’va’ot” (armies or hosts; probably by way of the Greek σαβαωθ of the Septuagint), and is close to it in sound. The syntax of the Hebrew “ḳadosh Ădonai Ts’va’ot” (holy is the Lord of Hosts) is similar to the Latin “sanctus Domine Deus Sabaoth.” In the original biblical Hebrew, the Lord’s glory is not said to fill “heaven and earth” (coeli et terra), but only “the earth” (ha’arĕts); and the Latin “gloria ejus” (His glory) has five syllables, as opposed to the three syllables of its Hebrew equivalent, “k’vodo.” To compensate for these differences, Sara repeats the phrase “m’lo khŏl-ha’arĕts” and plays with the mobile schwa in the word m’lo, sometimes slurring it so that the word is pronounced as if it had only one syllable, at other times vocalizing it as a separate syllable. The meaning of m’lo is “fullness” or “that which fills”; a literal translation of the second half of the verse from Isaiah would be something like, “that which fills the whole earth is His glory,” or “His glory is the fullness of the whole earth.” In comparing the Latin with Sara’s Hebrew, there is a rough equivalence between “pleni” and “m’lo“; between “pleni sunt coeli” and “m’lo khŏl-ha’arĕts“; and between “gloria ejus” and “ha’arĕts k’vodo.” Sara transfers the long melismas on the “glo-” of “gloria” to the definite article “ha-” in “ha’arĕts,” and inserts the extra “-a-” in various figures that precede the syllable “-rĕts,” which replaces the “-ri” in “gloria.”

In the Hebrew version, the painting of “heaven”  and “earth” by upward and downward leaps is lost. But the long melismas, while no longer serving to adorn the word “glory,” now paint the “fullness of the whole earth”; and the noble, emphatic figuration of the possessive pronoun “ejus” (“His”) in the Latin, seems more fitting as a representation of k’vodo (“His glory”) in the Hebrew.

If you look closely at Sara’s score of the Pleni sunt coeli section, you will see that she strictly follows the mathematical pattern of Bach’s fugue whenever possible, deviating from it only when required by the sound or syntax of the Hebrew. In just one place is there a real surprise: near the end of the movement, in measures 157 and 158, in the Bass voice. Here, instead of replacing “gloria” (glory) with the expected “ha’arĕts” (the earth), she gives us “k’vodo” (His glory).

Ḳadosh mm. 150-158Ḳadosh mm. 159-168

In so doing she achieves three things: she avoids using “ha’arĕts” for the third time consecutively, in a passage where there is no such repetition in the Latin; she supplies the upward motion of the music with a suitably elevated idea; and she brings about, for the first and only time in the movement, an identity between the words “gloria” and “k’vodo,” both of which refer to God’s glory.

I did not want to end our discussion of the Sanctus without trying to understand the concept of holiness. However, when I started composing my thoughts on the subject, I realized it would take some doing to organize them; so I will take up this task in my next post. In the meantime, I offer you the score of Sara’s Ḳadosh; and a very pretty performance of the Sanctus by the Dunedin Consort Players, with John Butt conducting.