Many communities have the tradition to switch melodies during the middle of the poem Lekha Dodi, but why?
For better or worse, our current practice of switching after the 5th stanza may not specifically have a deeper spiritual meaning, but it does show the strange interaction between the role of music in prayer and the influence of the physical material on our services. At its best, music in prayer is a tool to emphasize the emotional sweep of a service. Melodies can swell up from a soulful song taking us from reflection to celebration. The echoes of an exuberant melody can leave us with a feeling of contentment. Some communities would have a separate melody for each stanza of the poem to capture the full range of emotions in the poem. This is still the practice in a few communities like Yakar in Jerusalem, but this a deep musical knowledge as well as an intimate understanding of the text.
The desire to use more than one melody for a nine stanza poem should be self-evident. It can be a long time to sing a single melody, but when should someone switch? It seems like the choice reflects the physical printing of our prayer books. One of the major German prayer books had the first five stanzas on one page and the last four on the next page and was one of the first places that recorded this custom. Our current prayer books at Har El also have the page break at this point, but they also may have made this choice to reflect the custom. In communities with a different page break, there melodic change may reflect this difference. My friend from Britain was so used to the break in his British prayer book, that he is still surprised to hear the North American custom of switching after the fifth stanza.
While the exact place to change the melody will differ, and some communities are experimenting with more changes based on readings of the stanzas, there is still a clear trajectory in the poem between the first half and the second half. The first two stanzas describe Shabbat, but the third through eighth stanzas describe a prayer for a redeemed world. It is possible to read the earlier stanzas as a description of a people starting to awaken to the possibility that their challenges and mourning are over while the latter stanzas are celebrating the arrival of a time without shame and aggression. Because of this shift, a common practice that I try to follow is to use a more reflective, soulful melody for the first half and a more celebratory melody for the last half.
Perhaps the major challenge of reciting prayers that include these sorts of images of redemption is the way that they clearly ring false. We still live in a world plagued with violence and hatred, and it is nearly impossible to see the path that will lead from this world to a more peaceful, equitable world. Shabbat, however, is a chance to look inward and find something, anything really, to celebrate each week. At its worst, Shabbat would be a day that you ignore these problems out of apathy of callousness. At its best, however, Shabbat becomes a day of rest in which we engage in of spiritual reflection and celebration to strengthen our resolve and to remind us our goals in building our communities and families. One important piece of that process is finding moments of joy and appreciation. Feelings of gratitude and celebrating the good in our lives can sometimes give us a stronger foothold as we grapple with the challenges.
Over the past few weeks, I have been using a melody for the second half of Lekha Dodi. I learned this melody from Joey Weisenberg who found it in the Musikalisher Pinkus, which is a notation of Jewish melodies written in 1920’s Lithuania. According to that collection, it is from the Koydanover Hassadim. Take a listen to the melody as we have been using it here:
The melody was originally a three part melody. Take a listen here: