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Thursday, June 01, 2006

"So…at around 3 am, I arrived at my friend’s house, and knocked on his door."
[see story below - click on pic to enlarge]
With Shavuos coming, besides all the wonderful Torah-related niggunim I could blog about, and the Ne’im Zemiros Yisrael, David HaMelech, and the Baal Shem Tov’s yahrzeit, I thought I’d share a personal story about Shavuos, Modzitz and myself.

But first, perhaps some of you don’t know what Akdamus is, so let’s hear from Torah Tots:
“On the first day of Shavuos, after the Kohen has been called to the Torah, but before he recites his blessing, Akdamus is read responsively, the chazan saying two verses, and the congregation saying the next two. It was composed as an introduction to the Aseres HaDibros. Consisting of ninety verses, composed by Rabbi Meir ben Yitzchak, it is probably one of Judaism's best known and most beloved Piyutim (liturgical poems). It is a description of Hashem's creation of the world and close look at the splendors of Olam Haba (the World to Come). It describes the Malachim's [angels’] praise of Hashem and the greatness and the suffering of Bnei Yisrael [the Jewish People].”

Ohr Sameyach’s website adds: “The poem Akdamus is read on the morning of Shavuos before the Torah reading. Every line ends with the syllable 'ta', which consists respectively of the last and the first letters of the Aleph-Beis. The allusion is to the endlessness of the Torah. As soon as we reach the final letter 'Tav', we immediately start to dwell again on its infinite depth with the first letter - 'Aleph'.”

For a more detailed description of Akdamus, with much of the material adapted, with permission, from "Sefer HaToda'ah," by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, see the OU website. This also includes a partial translation of the poem.

And this is from this week’s English HaModia, which also has the story of how the song came about:
“One particularly inspiring aspect of Shavuos is the chanting of the lilting poem called Akdamus, especially in Chassidic courts. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov* said that very few people can understand the loftiness and significance of the Akdamus. Rav Yissachar Dov of Belz told his Chassidim to be moser nefesh, to sacrifice everything, to come to hear him read Akdamus, for as he reads it he raises the spiritual level of the entire generation. The unique makeup of the poem, its supernal content and the legend of its composition all come together to make it a cherished custom among the rich traditions of our people.”

*From Rebbe Nachman’s wisdom, Sichas HaRan, #256.
“The Rebbe highly praised the Akdamus song, chanted before the Torah reading on Shavuos. He said, 'The Jews are so accustomed to good they do not realize the greatness of the Akdamus poem. If you know the high level of the Akdamus, as well as that of its customary melody, then you know what a wondrously unique song it is.
The Rebbe then chanted a few lines of the Akdamus. He then said, 'Akdamus is a song of cheshek –a song of love and devotion. See the story The Burgher and the Pauper, the tenth story in Sippurei Ma'asiot, which discusses the song of cheshek.
The Rebbe spoke of this on Shavuos, during his dairy meal. He had worshipped early with his group as was his custom, and had begun his meal while the second service was in progress. When he heard the cantor chant the Akdamus, the Rebbe spoke of the high level of this holy song.”


In Modzitz, the Akdamus, which is a hakdama [introduction] to the Torah reading, itself has a hakdama – the Akdamus niggun. To paraphrase R. Velvel Pasternak [“Melodies of Modzitz”, p. 18], the Rebbes of Modzitz were/are in a true sense, composers. Their niggunim are not merely simplistic folk-type melodies, but a number of them are intricate, musically structured and quite lengthy. Both the first Rebbe, the Divrei Yisrael, and his son, the Imrei Shaul, referred to some of their lengthier compositions as ‘operas’. [Although not everyone agrees with that terminology, they are ‘symphonic’ compositions. No one less than Arturo Toscanini put the compositions of Modzitz in the same league as those of Mozart and Beethoven.]

Perhaps the most famous of these operas is the Ezkera HaGadol,” which we described earlier. The Akdamus niggun is another ‘opera,’ and a very moving piece. But first, here’s my story.


MANY years ago, it had just become both ‘in vogue’ and available for women to give birth using ‘natural childbirth’ methods, even in the hospital. When my wife was expecting our first child, she decided she wanted to do this. At that time the only hospital in Brooklyn, where we lived, that offered this method was Brookdale Medical Hospital, not far from Crown Heights.

And so it was on Shavuos night that my daughter decided to make her appearance in this world. My wife was kind enough to let us [myself and some friends, who were our guests] finish our Yom Tov meal, and then it was time to head for the hospital. Summoning a taxi in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn was no simple matter – especially if you wanted the driver to be non-Jewish. My friends quickly summoned a cab with a Chinese-American driver, and off we went.

Well, at about 2 am my daughter was born [Mazel Tov!]; my wife wanted to go to sleep, and me? Well, I needed to find a place to be. Not knowing when this was going to take place, I made absolutely no arrangements in advance. What was I to do?

Well, Baruch Hashem I had some good friends in Crown Heights, and decided to walk to that neighborhood, which I mentioned, was not too far away. I was fortunate to remember my friend’s address, and it was also auspicious that it was Shavuos night, when many Jews stay up through the night learning Torah.

So…at around 3 am, I arrived at my friend’s house, and knocked on his door.
“Yitz, what are you doing here at this hour?” my friend asked.
“Well, you see, my wife just had a baby in Brookdale.”
“Well, Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov, come on in and spend Yom Tov with us!”

Simple as that. Except – I too was tired, and I knew that my friend, who was a Lubavitch [Chabad] Chassid, was going to daven in 770 [Eastern Parkway], and that they daven at their regular time – beginning at something like 9:30 or 10 am.

“Maybe you know of a Shul where they daven at Netz [sunrise]?” I asked.
“Sure! There’s a Modzitzer Shtibel across the street. And you know what – R. Ben Zion Shenker is the baal tefilla there!”

Well, that was certainly a pleasant surprise! At that point, I had heard some Modzitzer music on a few records, but had never davened with them; and of course, I had never heard the more lofty [and lengthy] compositions. The davening was just beautiful! Shavuos that year was like this year – on Friday and Shabbos. On Shabbos in Modzitz, besides Keil Adon and Mimkomcha for Kedusha, they sing the entire section that follows Barchu HaKol Yoducha – to a lengthy ‘Tish’ niggun. And of course, Hallel is sung on both days of Yom Tov.

But if I was at ‘cruising altitude’ by the time Hallel was over, my neshama soared to the heavens before Kriyas HaTorah – the Torah reading. For on Shavuos, this is preceded by Akdamus, which in Modzitz, is preceded by…the Akdamus niggun. I was taken totally by surprise.

This wordless melody, as I mentioned, is symphonic in nature. It begins as a rousing march, and just seems to go on and on. As with many marches in Modzitz, it conveys a regal feeling. The middle section becomes more ‘dveykusdik’, imparting a feel of attachment to Hashem. This part also becomes more ‘operatic’ in nature, and requires a skilled singer to execute it properly. Towards the end, it again becomes ‘up-tempo’ and more joyous. Besides on Shavuos, the niggun is often sung on the Yahrzeit Tish or seuda of the Divrei Yisrael. It is told that this is one of the niggunim that the Divrei Yisrael asked his son, the Imrei Shaul, to sing at his bedside before he was niftar [passed away].

Two years later…and on Shabbos, the fourth of Sivan, my wife goes into labor. We drop my two-year-old daughter at a babysitting service, and head for Brookdale Hospital. While religious Jews are enjoying their Shalosh Seudos, the third Shabbos meal, my wife gives birth to a boy. We ask a shaila [a Halachic inquiry] and discover that officially, my son’s birthday is 5 Sivan, and the bris would be on the following Sunday.

On Motzaei Shabbos, I come home [to an empty house] from the hospital, and begin what seems like an endless round of phone calls – parents, in-laws, close friends, etc. And of course, I have to call my friend in Crown Heights:

“Hey, I was wondering, could I spend Shavuos again with you guys this year?” I ask.
“Don’t tell me – you’re wife had another baby!”
“How’d you know?”
“What else could it be?” he answers.

This time, I had no questions about where I was going to daven. So, after having heard the rousing Akdamus niggun twice in three years, my connection to Modzitz grew. When my son was a year old, we moved to Flatbush, Brooklyn, only to discover that down the street from us was a Modzitzer Shtibel, whose baal tefilla was…R. Ben Zion Shenker! And when we came on Aliya a few years later, our downstairs neighbor was a Modzitzer Chassid, with whom we enjoyed going to the Rebbe’s Tishes together!

A wonderful Chag HaShavuos to all!!!

Many years ago (27?) while learning at Ohr Somayach, a friend told me that Ben Tzion Shenker would be the Baal Tefilla at the Moditz Shteibl in Sanhedria. My father was friends with the producer of all the Modzitz album in the 60s (maybe earlier) and I already had a taste for this so I came along. After making some halachic adjustments (we discovered that they weren't going to make zman tefilla and we had to rush ahead a bit) I must say, it ws a very special tefillah.

A few years ago Benzion Shenker came out with a CD. THe music is striking and very moving, for those who appreciate this sort of thing.
"for those who appreciate this sort of thing."?

what's that supposed top mean?

any person with a soul appreciates his music, unless Dedi is your forte, in which case you are de(a)di already!
Nice, hashgacha protit.
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