Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, established in 1846 and the oldest and largest traditional Ashkenazic congregation in Canada, is one of the last vestiges of the European Choral Synagogue tradition. Music has always played a key role in the life and identity of the Congregation. Indeed, one of the major reasons for establishing Congregation Shaar Hashomayim was the yearning of its founding members – a group of English, German and Polish Jews – for an Ashkenazic service that included the melodies with which they were familiar. The Congregation established an all-male a cappella choir in 1887. Today, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim is one of only a few synagogues left in the world whose services are led every week by Cantor and male-choir.
At Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, music is seen as an extremely powerful force in the act of prayer. It is considered the cornerstone of the service, and not a luxury. The music dignifies and beautifies the prayers and imbues the liturgy with appropriate meaning and reverence. A special environment and ambience is created that is conducive to a refined and elegant prayer experience.
The goal is to deliver the words in order to convey their meaning, and in a manner aligned with their mood and character. In fact, The Shaar’s music even includes a translation of the text being sung. The goal is also to provide variety, to imbue the liturgy with a sense of freshness and make special effort to prevent the same text being mechanically reproduced from week to week. Congregational participation is encouraged, but is not measured only in the conventional sense. It also includes intellectual, emotional and spiritual participation. There are moments during the services where the congregation is intensely engaged, yet is completely silent. This level of concentration on the part of the congregation is both palpable and visible.
A number of elements are intrinsic to the music of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim:
The foundation of the cantor’s singing is Nusach Hat’filah, the traditional prayer modes which are associated with a particular time of day and whether the service is being held on a weekday, Shabbat, Festival or High Holy Day. Special care is taken regarding correct pronunciation and consistent, proper accentuation of the Hebrew text. In addition, the delivery of the words (volume, character and so on) is always dictated by their meaning.
Much attention is paid to blend and balance, creating an especially elegant choral sound. In addition, all the vocal arrangements are crafted specifically for the male-voice group. The method of arrangement and broad harmonic palette, combined with the style of singing, produces a very distinctive sound. While the choir does sing compositions on its own, much of the time it provides a sophisticated a cappella harmonic accompaniment to the Cantor’s vocal line.
The repertoire of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim reflects its long and distinguished history. It includes traditional melodies sung the world over, classic pieces for cantor and choir, signature choral pieces and compositions by former cantors and choir directors, and there are many different settings of the same text. What is particularly striking about the service is that the music ranges from the most traditional to the more contemporary.
The choice of music is strongly driven by a desire to bring beauty and dignity to the service. Many of the pieces are sophisticated in nature, but the repertoire also includes so-called “toe-tapping” congregational melodies. The challenge is the fact that much of the text does not call for these more simple tunes. At Shaar Hashomayim, experience has shown that melodies do not necessarily have to be simple for people to learn them, love them, and join in with them.
The Music of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Volume I, includes some of the most impressive compositions in the Congregation’s repertoire and this recording captures the aura and majesty of the Shaar Hashomayim prayer experience.
1) SHEHECHEYANU, Ralph Schlossberg arr. Stephen Glass
"Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this
This lyrical setting of the familiar blessing has become a permanent fixture of the Kol Nidrei Service at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. The Cantor introduces the main theme and then sings a gentle descant while the melody is adopted by the choir.
2) L’DOR VADOR, Meir Finkelstein arr. Stephen Glass
"From generation to generation we shall relate Your greatness, and for infinite eternities we shall proclaim Your holiness. Your praise, our God, shall not leave our mouth forever and ever, for You, O God, are a great and holy King."
Firmly established as one of the favourites of the Shaar Hashomayim Shabbat repertoire, this composition, sung the world over, was a favourite of the late Mildred Lande, to whom this recording is dedicated.
3) BIRKAT HACHODESH, Meir Finkelstein arr. Stephen Glass
"May it be your will, Lord our God and the God of our forefathers, that You inaugurate this month upon us for goodness and for blessing. May You give us long life – a life of peace, a life of goodness, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of physical health, a life in which there is fear of heaven and fear of sin, a life in which there is no shame nor humiliation, a life of wealth and honour, a life in which we will have love of Torah and fear of heaven, a life in which our heartfelt desires will be fulfilled for the good. Amen, Selah."
This setting of the text of the Prayer for the New Month has a number of interesting features: the optimism implicit in the harmonies as the Cantor expresses his wish for the coming month, “hachodesh hazeh”; the lyrical melody sung first by the Cantor as he prays for a long and peaceful life: “v’titen lanu chayim aruchim, chayim shel shalom” which is then taken over by the choir, before the Cantor makes a surprising entry at “chayim shel parnasa”; the harmonic word painting as the Cantor sings of the fear of heaven and fear of sin: “yirat shamayim v’yirat cheit”; the opening motifs of the song reappear at “chayim shel osher v’chavod” – “a life of wealth and honour”; the mood of anticipation and expectation at “chayim sheyimal’u mishalot libeinu l’tovah” – “a month in which our heartfelt desires will be fulfilled for the good”; a triumphal and optimistic “Amen, Selah”.
4) EITZ CHAYIM HI, Tanchum Portnoy arr. Stephen Glass
"It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. Bring us back to You, God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old.
One of many compositions sung at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim for returning the Torah scrolls to the ark."
5) UVNUCHO YOMAR, Louis Lewandowski arr. Stephen Glass
“Return, God, to the myriad thousands of Israel. Arise, God, to Your resting place, You and the ark of Your strength. Let Your priests be clothed in righteousness, and Your devout ones will sing joyously. For the sake of David, Your servant, turn not away the face of Your annointed. For I have given you a good teaching, do not forsake My Torah. It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. Bring us back to You, God, and we shall return; renew our days as of old."
This setting of the text by Louis Lewandowski contains a number of operatic elements. After an opening which contains many Lewandowski trademarks, the choir leads us through the words of “ba’avur David avdecha” – “for the sake of David, Your servant” finally stopping on the dominant, priming the listener for the sweeping melody introduced at “ki lekach tov” – “for I have given you a good teaching”. The choir makes a heartfelt plea at “chadeish yameinu k’kedem” – “renew our days as of old”, before the Cantor brings the piece to a thoughtful and gentle close.
6) SH’MA/HU ELOKEINU, Geoffrey Shisler arr. Stephen Glass
"Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. He is our God; He is our Father; He is our King; He is our Saviour; and He will let us hear, in His compassion, for a second time in the presence of all the living, “ to be a God to you”."
One of many settings of the Musaf K’dushah text sung at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim. This piece has a number of stylistic elements reminiscent of the compositions of Cantors Leib Glantz and Pierre Pinchik, including the modal tonalities and the distinctive melodic patterns.
7) SH’MA/HU ELOKEINU, Zeidl Rovner arr. Stephen Glass
"Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One. He is our God; He is our Father; He is our King; He is our Saviour; and He will let us hear, in His compassion, for a second time in the presence of all the living, “ to be a God to you”, I am the Lord, Your God."
A contrasting setting of the same text as in Track 6. After a declamatory choral Sh’ma, the Cantor introduces a melody with an unmistakable lilt. The choir adopts the melody while the Cantor floats a countermelody above them. The choir then introduces a distinctive rhythmic accompaniment for the original melody which expands and changes key. As the “fervour” dies down, the melody remains in the Choir while the Cantor returns to his original descant. At “v’hu yashmienu”, the music transitions to the recognisable prayer mode for Shabbat, and the piece ends with a familiar cantorial formula.
8) UVYOM HASHABBAT, Zvi Talmon arr. Stephen Glass
"On the Sabbath day: two male first-year lambs, unblemished; and two tenth-ephah of fine flour for a meal- offering, mixed with olive oil, and its wine-libation. The elevation-offering of the Sabbath must be on its particular Sabbath, in addition to the continual elevation-offering and its wine-libation."
A composition that reflects the joy of the Sabbath as well as the phrygian and major tonalities of the Shabbat prayer mode.
9) YISM’CHU, Yaakov Talmud arr. Stephen Glass
"They shall rejoice in Your kingship – those who observe the Sabbath and call it a delight. The people that sanctifies the seventh day – they will all be satisfied and delighted from Your goodness, and the seventh day – You found favour in it and sanctified it. “Most coveted of days,” You called it, a remembrance of creation."
A Chassidic melody – the perfect alignment of text and musical character.
10) SIM SHALOM, Samuel Alman arr. Stephen Glass
"Establish peace, goodness, blessing, graciousness, kindness, and compassion upon us and upon all of Your people Israel. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance, for with the light of Your countenance You gave us, Lord, our God, the Torah of life and a love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace. And may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel, in every season and in every hour, with Your peace. Blessed are You, God, who blesses His people Israel with peace."
This setting of the Sim Shalom text has a number of notable elements: the gentle sonorities of the opening; the “shine” at the words “ki v’or panecha” – “the light of Your countenance”; the emotive Cantor’s line that soars above the choir at “utzdaka uvracha” – “righteousness and blessing” and then settles at “peace”: “v’shalom”; the elegant cantorial line and settling mood at “v’tov b’einecha” – “may it be good in Your eyes”; the hushed quality at “uvchol sha’ah bishlomecha” – “in every hour with Your peace”; the gentle phrasing at “ham’vareich et amo Yisraeil” – “who blesses His people Israel” that leads to the firm and climactic expression of the desire for peace.
11) PITCHU LI, Shlomo Carlebach arr. Raymond Goldstein/Stephen Glass
"Open for me the gates of righteousness, I will enter them and thank God. This is the gate of God; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank You for You have answered me and become salvation. The stone the builders despised has become the cornerstone. This emanated from God; it is wondrous in our eyes. This is the day God has made; let us rejoice and be glad on it."
An arrangement of the popular Carlebach setting of the text from Hallel containing much play-off between Cantor and Choir as well as innovative choral textures and harmonic creativity.
12) KEIL MELECH YOSHEIV, Siroto Collection arr. Stephen Glass
"O God, King who sits on the throne of mercy; who acts with kindness, pardons the sins of His people, removes sins one by one, increasingly grants pardon to careless sinners and forgiveness to rebels, who deals righteously with every living being – You do not repay them in accord with their evil."
The setting of this text begins with a distinctive choral passage that reflects the idea of approaching God with humility and trepidation before the music finds greater confidence and assurance. This opening leads to one of the most beloved melodies in Shaar Hashomayim’s High Holy Day repertoire, sung at S’lichot, Kol Nidrei and N’ilah services.
13) TZADIK HASHEM, Sholom Secunda/Lionel Rosenfeld/Stephen Glass arr. Stephen Glass
"Righteous is God in all His ways and magnanimous in all His deeds. God is close to all who call upon Him – to all who call upon Him sincerely. The will of those who fear Him He will do; and their cry He will hear, and save them. God protects all who love Him; but all the wicked He will destroy. May my mouth declare the praise of God and may all flesh bless His holy name forever and ever. We will bless God from this time and forever, Halleluyah!"
This version of Tzadik Hashem is based on the composition by Sholom Secunda, made famous by Richard Tucker. After a bold opening, the lyrical “shomeir Hashem et kol ohavav” – “God protects all who love Him” is directly followed by the threat of retribution: “v’et kol har’sha’im yashmid” – “all the wicked he will destroy”. Instantly the music transports us to a place of serenity and holiness leading to a rousing cadence.
14) RACHAMANA, Geoffrey Shisler arr. Stephen Glass
"The Merciful One Who answers the poor, may He answer us. The Merciful One Who answers the humble of spirit, may He answer us. The Merciful One who answers the brokenhearted, may He answer us. O Merciful One, answer us. O Merciful One, pity. O Merciful One, redeem. O Merciful One, deliver. O Merciful One, have mercy on us – now, swiftly and soon."
Sung at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Choral S’lichot and Kol Nidrei Services, this lyrical melody has a reflective quality which
perfectly underlines the character of the text.
15) KEIL MALEI RACHAMIM, Meir Finkelstein arr. Stephen Glass
"O God, full of mercy, who dwells on high, grant proper rest on the wings of the Divine Presence – in the lofty levels of the holy and the pure ones, who shine like the glow of the firmament – for the souls of all those who are inscribed in this Memorial Book, and all those who we remember this day for a blessing, who have gone on to their world. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden – therefore may the Master of mercy shelter them in the shelter of His wings for eternity; and may He bind their souls in the bond of life. The Lord is their portion, and may they repose in peace in their resting place,
and let us say: Amen."
Congregation Shaar Hashomayim’s Yizkor (Remembrance) Service is extremely refined and elegant. Two different settings of the Memorial prayer are sung. This somewhat unconventional yet extraordinary version of the prayer draws its inspiration from the mood of the words. It includes a mysterious section related to the names of the deceased contained in the Congregation’s Memorial book, a very distinctive moment in reference to the Garden of Eden: “b’gan eiden” and, unlike traditional settings of the text, concludes with an optimistic and luminous melody reflecting the desire for the deceased to find comfort
and peace in their resting place.
16) AVOT FOR YAMIM NORA’IM, Samuel Naumbourg/Salomon Sulzer/Stephen Glass/Gideon Zelermyer arr. Stephen Glass
"Blessed are You, Lord, our God and the God of our forefathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; the great, mighty, and awesome God, the supreme God, who bestows beneficial kindnesses and creates everything, who recalls the kindnesses of the patriarchs and brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for His name’s sake, with love."
As the Ark is opened for the beginning of the Cantor’s repetition of the Musaf service on the High Holy Days, this music fills the air with an appropriate atmosphere of grandeur and majesty. The piece draws on a number of sources, including the traditional mode for the High Holy Day Avot.
17) UNTANEH TOKEF, Jacob Rosemarin/Samuel Alman/Stephen Glass arr. Stephen Glass Choir soloist: David Packer
"Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the one who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; who writes and seals, counts and calculates; who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the book of remembrances – it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them – and they will say, “Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!” – for they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment. All mankind will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict."
An iconic Shaar Hashomayim composition which includes music from a number of composers. From Jacob Rosemarin (choir director from 1942-1972), an opening and a recitative which is heard twice, both times leading in to an evocative melody. A dramatic middle section by Stephen Glass illustrating the sound of the shofar and the trembling angels. A gentle pastorale for duet by Samuel Alman follows, depicting the shepherd with his flock. The piece returns to the music of Stephen Glass with an introspective and original setting of the final words: “kein ta’avir v’tispor” – “so shall you cause to pass, count, calculate and consider the soul of all the living.”
18) KADDISH SHALEIM, Jacob Gottlieb arr. Stephen Glass
"May His great name grow exalted and sanctified in the world that He created as He willed. May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days, and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel, swiftly and soon, and we respond: Amen May His great name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He – exceedingly beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world, and we respond: Amen. May the prayers and supplications of the entire household of Israel be accepted before their Father who is in heaven, and we respond: Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel, and we respond: Amen. He who makes peace in the heavens, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel, and we respond: Amen."
At Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, this famous and exhilarating setting in a Chassidic style, is reserved exclusively for S’lichot and High Holy Day Services and clearly underlines the grandeur of the text.