Ne‘ilah: Final Closing, or Not Quite?
“P’tach lanu sha’ar” (Keep open the gate for us) are the words of a fragment of a piyyut attributed to Elazar Kallir (6th century, Land of Israel) [see the Rabbinical Assembly’s Mahzor Lev Shalem, 414].
“Hashemesh yavo … n’vo’ah sh’arayich” (The day will come to an end . . . let us enter Your gates). These are images that carry certainty and finality. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the words of the liturgy speak of being written in the Book of Life, the Book of Forgiveness, etc. Only at Ne‘ilah do we move to the verb chotmeinu (seal us) to emphasize the resolution that comes at the end of this extraordinary day. Even on Shabbat, Avinu Malkeinu appears at the very end of Ne‘ilah, with this transition to the finality of a sealeddestiny appearing (426; see the lines that appear at the foot of the page in bold type).
Close to the beginning of Ne‘ilah, the Sephardic poem El Nora Alilah (Awe Inspiring God; 407) attributed to Ibn Ezra has begun to appear in many Ashkenazi communities. Usually sung with a lively, even triumphant, melody, the poem speaks of Ne‘ilah with finality, with the last stanza almost presumptuous in its certainty:
May we Your children celebrate with joy and gladness
Length of days merited in this closing hour (sha’at haneilah)
Rabbi Lionel Blue, in his poignant prayer of introduction, notes that
Time alone does not heal the wounds we bear nor the wound we cause. We have prayed a little . . . and asked for much forgiveness and done much less to earn it . . . Therefore we turn aside from our cleverness and our pride and come to You as poor people who receive . . . Our minds no longer run about to seek You, but wait in patience for You to find us . . . each of us is precious in Your sight. (UK Movement for Reform Judaism’s Days of Awe Machzor, 635)
Ne‘ilah holds out much promise, and also challenge. Some of us through prayers, melodies, and inner effort will find (or be found by) God’s presence. But for us all there is a real journey. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet teaches,
No life is without its struggle for values, its search for meaning. In today’s fragmented world when we live off the remnants of our tradition among the remnants of our People it is not easy to know where the truth of our task lies . . . For the journey through Yom Kippur was a real journey—one to be measured not by what we feel when it is over, but by how we lead our lives . . . when the final shofar blast has pierced not only the highest reach of heavens, but also the deepest reach of our souls. (630)
Listen and watch to a variety of musical settings:
Three melodies from diverse Sephardic Eastern traditionspresented by El Nora Alilah and sung by Hazzan Eyal Bitton
A lyrical instrumental interpretationby Israeli Tomer Hadadi
A vocal and instrumental arrangementof the melody of the Trieste community
The melody sung by the choir of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation of London
The poem fragment P’tach Lanu Sha’arset to music by Hazzan Ramón Tasat and sung by Atalya Lavie
A more traditional cantorial settingfrom Hazzan Shmuel Levin (recorded during a rehearsal)
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.