Music and The Punctuation of Time

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

This is the story of a fourth day. From the mystery emerge years, seasons, nights and days, all with their own series of markers and movements in the sky. These patterns are the foundation upon which we build our lives. And because of the innate capacity for patterns to quickly progress from lovely routine to painfully boring rut, it is in reference to time, and specifically Shabbat, the seventh day, that we first engage with the word “holy” (kadosh) in Tanach. In order to make and take meaning from the random events of our lives, to vary the endless patterns, we must somehow mark one moment from the next, and also connect one moment to the next, in a way that makes sense over seasons, over years, over generations.

Music and time are inexorably intertwined.  Music that we see on a page is only a hard-copy representation of something that cannot exist without the passage of time. Music must move forward within the context of the passage of time, as must the planets and stars in their revolutions in the sky. The single notes, much like single stars, mean nothing unless connected to others.

The power of a single melody can send one hurtling back in time, and allow us to take others along. That’s the real meaning of the word “commemoration”: remembering together.  With a single melody, I can be transported, along with innumerable others, to another space and energy and emotional state. In this way, music helps us to both awaken to and immerse ourselves in special set times of celebration and commemoration, as well as to the k’doshim b’chol yom, the holiness inherent in every moment of every day. 

In their book Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mystical Reflections on Jewish Prayer, Rabbis Lawrence Kushner and Nehemiah Polen remind us that there were two splittings of seas in Tanach.[1] The Sea of Reeds story is one that we know quite well. Few, if any of us remember this second miraculous occurrence of Israelites crossing a sea on dry land, when “Adonai your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you crossed, just as the Adonai your God did to the Sea of Reeds, which God dried up before us until we crossed” (Joshua 4:23).[2]

Rabbis Kushner and Polen share with us, from the teachings of Itturei Torah,[3] that the reason that one story is paramount in our people’s faith formation and the other has fallen by the wayside is because of song. And when we sing Mi Chamocha we are taken back, each time, to when we emerged from slavery to freedom.

The presence of music and the ways in which it moves our spirits has the ability to change us, as well as whatever comes after.  It connects us to our deeper selves, gives us insight into our past, and reaffirms our commitment to action. It causes us to reflect on our connection to each other, as well as our deep emotions in the face of art and beauty and song. All of these blessings that music brings somehow coalesce in the function of music in our ritual lives.

All faith and secular cultures mark the passage of time with ritual. Can you imagine an important Jewish ritual or holiday celebration without music? Although they vary according to region and origin, the specific modes and melodies used at different times of the year have helped Jews over the centuries to celebrate the patterns of their lives. Our music connects us not only to our present-day communities, but to Jewish communities across the millennia. As older melodies are, over time, replaced by more contemporary sounds, we also merge our unique stories of the past with the story of the communities in which we presently live.

By paralleling and making us mindful of time—its patterns as well as its passage—music allows us to go far beyond the spoken word. By adorning and providing  context  for the  ways in which we travel under the  sun, moon,  and stars created  on the  fourth  day of Creation, music has the power  to open  our hearts  to that  which is “within  our reach, but beyond  our grasp,” according  to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.[4] Music connects us to any human who has ever looked to the patterns in the skies and celebrated with instrument, rhythm, and voice; it allows us to reach upward and inward, simultaneously touching our individual souls, our shared stories, and our stars.

Cantor Ellen Dreskin is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, now available!

Cantor Dreskin also serves as Coordinator of the Cantorial Certification Program at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at HUC-JIR in New York. Ellen travels extensively to congregations around the country as a scholar-in-residence, and has taught for many years on the faculty of URJ Summer Kallot, Hava Nashira, and the URJ Kutz Camp Leadership Academy.  


[1] Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen, Filling Words with Light: Hasidic and Mys- tical Reflections on Jewish Prayer (Woodstock,  VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004),

[2] Adapted from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publica- tion Society, 1999), 464.

[3] A. Chayn, Itturei Torah, ed. Aaron Jacob Greenberg  ( Jerusalem: Yavneh, 1987),


[4] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Vocation of the Cantor (New York: American Con- ference of Cantors, 1966).