“I get more out of the service when I sing.”
The person who said that to me this past Shabbat evening was a woman I’ve known for a long time. She used to sit quietly during services, listening to the music but never participating except by tapping her toe or her fingertips. I noticed that she was singing, and asked her about it.
“I just get more out of it if I sing,” she said, “I can’t explain it.”
That’s my experience, too: I feel the service more deeply and I lose myself in it if I sing along. A lot of people don’t sing because they are insecure about their voices, and that’s a shame. Jewish prayer is a whole-body, whole-person experience, and the person who doesn’t sing misses out on a part of it. People don’t sing for a lot of reasons:
“I have a terrible singing voice” – The quality of your singing voice is not important. It might have been important in high school glee club, but it isn’t an issue for congregational singing. If you are really worried about it, sing softly, but sing.
“I don’t know the tunes” – The way most people learn the tunes is by singing along. Again, sing softly if you are unsure, but if you can sing with the car radio, you can sing along with “Adon Olam,” even if the tune is new to you.
“I don’t know the words.” – So don’t use the words! Sing “lai-lai-lai” or “dai-dai-dai” or whatever works for you. Again, if you sing along, you’ll learn the words faster. If you are self-conscious, sing softly.
“I’d rather listen to others sing.” – OK, sometimes when that’s what I need from the service, I just listen, too. But if that’s all I ever did, it would be like showing up to potluck suppers empty-handed time after time. Congregational singing is part of the service precisely because it lifts the spirit in a way that nothing else can; it is something we do for ourselves and for one another.
If you are worried about the etiquette of congregational singing, here are some tips:
- Do sing, but don’t bellow. A nice rule of thumb is that you should be able to hear other people around you sing, too.
- If you are unsure of words or tune, sing a bit more softly.
- Sing with, not against the congregation. If you learned the tune a different way, that’s interesting but do not try to impose your will on others.
- Sing with the congregation. If the cantor or soloist is singing alone, don’t chime in; it will look like you are showing off.
When human beings sing in a group, we join ourselves together at a deep level. We take breaths together, we move together, we almost become a new, larger being. Music is a mysterious and wonderful part of liturgy; it reaches parts of the human psyche that are otherwise difficult to touch. It is one of the oldest forms of Jewish worship:
Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Eternal, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. – Exodus 15:1
Music transcends time; it is old and new. It stirs memory and emotion and it moves hearts. Do you sing in the service? Why or why not?