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History of religious Jewish music

This article is about the sacred music of Judaism

from Biblical to Modern times. For Jewish secular music, including klezmer and Sephardic, as
well as the Jewish contribution to Western music, see Secular Jewish culture.

the Shofar, a hollowed-out rams horn;

Origin of Jewish music in the


the metziltayim, or cymbal;

the chatzutzera, or trumpet, made of silver;

the tof or small drum;

the paamon or bell;

the halil or big ute.
According to the Mishna, the regular Temple orchestra
consisted of twelve instruments, and the choir of twelve
male singers.
A number of additional instruments were known to the
ancient Hebrews, though they were not included in the
regular orchestra of the Temple: the uggav (small ute),
the abbuv (a reed ute or oboe-like instrument).

After the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent

diaspora of the Jewish people, there was a feeling of great
loss among the people. At the time, a consensus developed that all music and singing would be banned; this was
codied as a rule by some early Jewish rabbinic authorities. However, the ban on singing and music, although
not formally lifted by any council, soon became understood as only a ban outside of religious services. Within
the synagogue the custom of singing soon re-emerged.
In later years, the practice became to allow singing for
feasts celebrating religious life-cycle events such as weddings, and over time the formal ban against singing and
performing music lost its force altogether, with the exception of the Yemenite Jews. The Jews of Yemen mainSymbolic model of King Davids harp (or lyre) displayed in the tained strict adherence to Talmudic and Maimonidean
City of David, Jerusalem, Israel
halakha[1] and instead of developing the playing of musical instruments, they perfected singing and rhythm.[2]
The earliest synagogal music was based on the same sys(See Yemenite Jewish poetry. For the modern Yemenitetem as that used in the Temple in Jerusalem. According
Israeli musical phenomenon, however, see Yemenite Jewto the Talmud, Joshua ben Hananiah, who had served in
ish music.)
the sanctuary Levitical choir, told how the choristers went
to the synagogue from the orchestra by the altar (Talmud, It was with the piyyutim (liturgical poems) that Jewish
music began to crystallize into denite form. The cantor
Suk. 53a), and so participated in both services.
sang the piyyutim to melodies selected by their writer or
Biblical and contemporary sources mention the following
by himself, thus introducing xed melodies into synagoinstruments that were used in the ancient Temple:
gal music. The prayers he continued to recite as he had
heard his predecessors recite them; but in moments of in the Nevel, a 12-stringed harp;
spiration he would give utterance to a phrase of unusual
the Kinnor, a lyre with 10 strings;
beauty, which, caught up by the congregants.


Adaptations from local music

The music may have preserved a few phrases in the reading of Scripture which recalled songs from the Temple
itself; but generally it echoed the tones which the Jew of
each age and country heard around him, not merely in
the actual borrowing of tunes, but more in the tonality on
which the local music was based. These elements persist
side by side, rendering the traditional intonations a blend
of dierent sources.
The underlying principle may be the specic allotment
in Jewish worship of a particular mode to each sacred
occasion, because of some esthetic appropriateness felt to
underlie the association. In contrast to the meager modal
choice of modern melody, the synagogal tradition revels
in the possession of a of scale-forms preserved from the
remote past, much as are to be perceived in the plainsong of the Catholic, the Byzantine, and the Armenian
churches, as well as Hungarian, Roma, Persian and Arab


appeared cantillation, prayer-motive, xed melody, and

hymn as forms of synagogal music.

2.1 Reminiscences




The contemporaneous musical fashion of the outer world

has ever found its echo within the walls of the synagogue,
so that in the superstructure added by successive generations of transmitting singers there are always discernible
points of comparison, even of contact, with the style and
structure of each successive era in the musical history
of other religious communions. Attention has frequently
been drawn to the resemblances in manner and even in
some points of detail between the chants of the muezzin
and of the reader of the Qur'an with much of the hazzanut, not alone of the Sephardim, who passed so many
centuries in Arab lands, but also of the Ashkenazim,
equally long located far away in northern Europe.

The intonations of the Sephardim even more intimately

recall the plain-song of the Mozarabian Christians, which
ourished in their proximity until the 13th century. Their
2 Cantorial and synagogue music chants and other set melodies largely consist of very short
phrases often repeated, just as Perso-Arab melody so ofThe traditional mode of singing prayers in the synagogue ten does; and their congregational airs usually preserve a
is often known as hazzanut, the art of being a hazzan Morisco or other Peninsular character.
(cantor)". It is a style of orid melodious intonation which The Cantillation reproduces the tonalities and the
requires the exercise of vocal agility. It was introduced melodic outlines prevalent in the western world during
into Europe in the 7th century, then rapidly developed.
the rst ten centuries of the Diaspora; and the prayerThe age of the various elements in synagogal song may
be traced from the order in which the passages of the
text were rst introduced into the liturgy and were in turn
regarded as so important as to demand special vocalization. This order closely agrees with that in which the successive tones and styles still preserved for these elements
came into use among the Gentile neighbors of the Jews
who utilized them. Earliest of all is the cantillation of
the Scriptures, in which the traditions of the various rites
dier only as much and in the same manner from one another as their particular interpretations according to the
text and occasion dier among themselves. This indeed
was to be anticipated if the dierentiation itself preserves
a peculiarity of the music of the Temple (see Jew. Encyc.
iii. 539a, s.v. Cantillation).
Next comes, from the rst ten centuries, and probably
taking shape only with the Jewish settlement in western
and northern Europe, the cantillation of the Amidah referred to below, which was the rst portion of the liturgy
dedicated to a musical rendering, all that preceded it remaining unchanted . Gradually the song of the precentor commenced at ever earlier points in the service. By
the 10th century, the chant commenced at Barukh SheAmar, the previous custom having been to commence
the singing at Nishmat, these conventions being still
traceable in practise in the introit signalizing the entry
of the junior and of the senior ociant. Hence, in turn,

motives, although their method of employment recalls

far more ancient and more Oriental parallels, are equally
reminiscent of those characteristic of the eighth to the
13th century of the common era. Many of the phrases
introduced in the hazzanut generally, closely resemble
the musical expression of the sequences which developed
in the Catholic Plain-Song after the example set by the
school famous as that of Notker Balbulus, at St. Gall, in
the early 10th century. The earlier formal melodies still
more often are paralleled in the festal intonations of the
monastic precentors of the eleventh to the 15th century,
even as the later synagogal hymns everywhere approximate greatly to the secular music of their day.
The traditional penitential intonation transcribed in the
article Ne'ilah with the piyyut Darkeka closely reproduces the music of a parallel species of medieval Latin
verse, the metrical sequence Missus Gabriel de Clis
by Adam of St. Victor (c. 1150) as given in the Graduale Romanum of Sarum. The mournful chant characteristic of penitential days in all the Jewish rites, is
closely recalled by the Church antiphon in the second
mode Da Pacem Domine in Diebus Nostris (Vesperale
Ratisbon, p. 42). The joyous intonation of the Northern European rite for morning and afternoon prayers
on the Three Festivals (Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot)
closes with the third tone, third ending of the Gregorian
psalmody; and the traditional chant for the Hallel itself,


Modal Dierence

when not the one reminiscent of the "Tonus Peregrinus, closely corresponds with those for Ps. cxiii. and
cxvii. (Laudate Pueri and Laudate Dominum) in the
"Graduale Romanum" of Ratisbon, for the vespers of
June 24, the festival of John the Baptist, in which evening
service the famous Ut Queant Laxis, from which the
modern scale derived the names of its degrees, also occurs.

to such less denite Hebraisms as ne'imah (melody),
shows that the scales and intervals of such prayer-motives
have long been recognized and observed to dier characteristically from those of contemporary Gentile music,
even if the principles underlying their employment have
only quite recently been formulated.

2.3 Modal Dierence



Next to the passages of Scripture recited in cantillation,

the most ancient and still the most important section of
the Jewish liturgy is the sequence of benedictions which
is known as the Amidah (standing prayer), being the
section which in the ritual of the Dispersion more immediately takes the place of the sacrice oered in the ritual
of the Temple on the corresponding occasion. It accordingly attracts the intonation of the passages which precede and follow it into its own musical rendering. Like
the lessons, it, too, is cantillated. This free intonation
is not, as with the Scriptural texts, designated by any
system of accents, but consists of a melodious development of certain themes or motives traditionally associated
with the individual service, and therefore termed by the
present writer prayer-motives. These are each dierentiated from other prayer-motives much as are the respective forms of the cantillation, the divergence being
especially marked in the tonality due to the modal feeling alluded to above. Tonality depends on that particular position of the semitones or smaller intervals between
two successive degrees of the scale which causes the difference in color familiar to modern ears in the contrast
between major and minor melodies.
Throughout the musical history of the synagogue a particular mode or scale-form has long been traditionally associated with a particular service. It appears in its simplest
form in the prayer-motivewhich is best dened, to use
a musical phrase, as a sort of codato which the benediction (berakha) closing each paragraph of the prayers is
to be chanted. This is associated with a secondary phrase,
somewhat after the tendency which led to the framing of
the binary form in European classical music. The phrases
are amplied and developed according to the length, the
structure, and, above all, the sentiment of the text of the
paragraph, and lead always into the coda in a manner
anticipating the form of instrumental music entitled the
"rondo, although in no sense an imitation of the modern
form. The responses likewise follow the tonality of the
This intonation is designated by the Hebrew term nigun
("tune") when its melody is primarily in view, by the
Yiddish term "Shteyger" (scale) when its modal peculiarities and tonality are under consideration, and by the
Romance word gust and the Slavonic skarbowa when
the taste or style of the rendering especially marks it o
from other music. The use of these terms, in addition

The modal dierences are not always so observable in the

Sephardic or Southern tradition. Here the participation
of the congregants has tended to a more general uniformity, and has largely reduced the intonation to a chant
around the dominant, or fth degree of the scale, as if
it were a derivation from the Ashkenazic daily morning
theme (see below), but ending with a descent to the major third, or, less often, to the tonic note. Even where
the particular occasionsuch as a fastmight call for a
change of tonality, the anticipation of the congregational
response brings the close of the benediction back to the
usual major third. But enough dierences remain, especially in the Italian rendering, to show that the principle of
parallel rendering with modal dierence, fully apparent
in their cantillation, underlies the prayer-intonations of
the Sephardim also. This principle has marked eects in
the Ashkenazic or Northern tradition, where it is as clear
in the rendering of the prayers as in that of the Scriptural
lessons, and is also apparent in the erobot.
All the tonalities are distinct. They are formulated in the
subjoined tabular statement, in which the various traditional motives of the Ashkenazic ritual have been brought
to the same pitch of reciting-note in order to facilitate
comparison of their modal dierences.

2.4 Chromatic Intervals

By ancient tradition, from the days when the Jews who
passed the Middle Ages in Teutonic lands were still under the same tonal inuences as the peoples in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor yet are, chromatic scales
(i.e., those showing some successive intervals greater than
two semitones) have been preserved. Sabbath morning
and weekday evening motives are especially aected by
this survival, which also frequently induces the Polish
azzanim to modify similarly the diatonic intervals of
the other prayer-motives. The chromatic intervals survive as a relic of the Oriental tendency to divide an ordinary interval of pitch into subintervals (comp. Hallel
for Tabernacles, the lulab chant), as a result of the intricacy of some of the vocal embroideries in actual employment, which are not infrequently of a character to
daunt an ordinary singer. Even among Western cantors,
trained amid mensurate music on a contrapuntal basis,
there is still a remarkable propensity to introduce the interval of the augmented second, especially between the
third and second degrees of any scale in a descending


cadence. Quite commonly two augmented seconds will

be employed in the octave, as in the frequent form
much loved by Eastern peoplestermed by BourgaultDucoudray (Mlodies Populaires de Grce et d'Orient,
p. 20, Paris, 1876) the Oriental chromatic (see music

Prophets was stimulated by dancing and music (I Sam. x.

5, 10; xix. 20); playing on a harp awoke the inspiration
that came to Elisha (II Kings iii. 15). The description in
Chronicles of the embellishment by David of the Temple
service with a rich musical liturgy represents in essence
the order of the Second Temple, since, as is now generThe harmonia, or manner in which the prayer-motive ally admitted, the liturgical Temple Psalms belong to the
will be amplied into hazzanut, is measured rather by post-exilic period.
the custom of the locality and the powers of the ociant The importance which music attained in the later exilic
than by the importance of the celebration. The precen- period is shown by the fact that in the original writings of
tor will accommodate the motive to the structure of the Ezra and Nehemiah a distinction is still drawn between
sentence he is reciting by the judicious use of the reciting- the singers and the Levites (comp. Ezra ii. 41, 70; vii. 7,
note, varied by melismatic ornament. In the development 24; x. 23; Neh. vii. 44, 73; x. 29, 40; etc.); whereas in
of the subject he is bound to no denite form, rhythm, the parts of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah belonging
manner, or point of detail, but may treat it quite freely to the Chronicles singers are reckoned among the Levites
according to his personal capacity, inclination, and sen- (comp. Ezra iii. 10; Neh. xi. 22; xii. 8, 24, 27; I Chron.
timent, so long only as the conclusion of the passage and vi. 16). In later times singers even received a priestly
the short doxology closing it, if it ends in a benediction, position, since Agrippa II. gave them permission to wear
are chanted to the snatch of melody forming the coda, the white priestly garment (comp. Josephus, Ant. xx.
usually distinctly xed and so furnishing the modal mo- 9, 6). The detailed statements of the Talmud show that
tive. The various sections of the melodious improvisa- the service became ever more richly embellished.
tion will thus lead smoothly back to the original subject,
and so work up to a symmetrical and clear conclusion.
The prayer-motives, being themselves denite in tune and 4 Singing in the Temple
well recognized in tradition, preserve the homogeneity of
the service through the innumerable variations induced by
impulse or intention, by energy or fatigue, by gladness or Unfortunately few denite statements can be made condepression, and by every other mental and physical sensa- cerning the kind and the degree of the artistic develoption of the precentor which can aect his artistic feeling ment of music and psalm-singing. Only so much seems
certain, that the folk-music of older times was replaced by
(see table).
professional music, which was learned by the families of
singers who ociated in the Temple. The participation
of the congregation in the Temple song was limited to certain responses, such as Amen or Halleluiah, or formu3 Occasions for Music
las like Since His mercy endureth forever, etc. As in the
old folk-songs, antiphonal singing, or the singing of choirs
The development of music among the Israelites was coincident with that of poetry, the two being equally an- in response to each other, was a feature of the Temple
cient, since every poem was also sung. Although little service. At the dedication of the walls of Jerusalem, Nemention is made of it, music was used in very early times hemiah formed the Levitical singers into two large choin connection with divine service. Amos vi. 5 and Isa. v. ruses, which, after having marched around the city walls
12 show that the feasts immediately following sacrices in dierent directions, stood opposite each other at the
were very often attended with music, and from Amos v. Temple and sang alternate hymns of praise to God (Neh.
23 it may be gathered that songs had already become a xii. 31). Niebuhr (Reisen, i. 176) calls attention to the
part of the regular service. Moreover, popular festivals fact that in the Orient it is still the custom for a precentor
of all kinds were celebrated with singing and music, usu- to sing one strophe, which is repeated three, four, or ve
ally accompanying dances in which, as a rule, women and tones lower by the other singers. In this connection menmaidens joined. Victorious generals were welcomed with tion may be made of the alternating song of the seraphim
music on their return (Judges xi. 34; I Sam. xviii. 6), and in the Temple, when called upon by Isaiah (comp. Isa.
music naturally accompanied the dances at harvest festi- vi.). The measure must have varied according to the charvals (Judges ix. 27, xxi. 21) and at the accession of kings acter of the song; and it is not improbable that it changed
or their marriages (I Kings i. 40; Ps. xlv. 9). Family fes- even in the same song. Without doubt the striking of the
tivals of dierent kinds were celebrated with music (Gen. cymbals marked the measure.
xxxi. 27; Jer. xxv. 10). I Sam. xvi. 18 indicates that the
shepherd cheered his loneliness with his reed-pipe, and
Lam. v. 14 shows that youths coming together at the
gates entertained one another with stringed instruments.
David by his playing on the harp drove away an evil spirit
from Saul (I Sam. xvi. 16 et seq.); the holy ecstasy of the

Ancient Hebrew music, like much Arabic music today,

was probably monophonic; that is, there is no harmony.
Niebuhr refers to the fact that when Arabs play on different instruments and sing at the same time, almost the
same melody is heard from all, unless one of them sings
or plays as bass one and the same note throughout. It



was probably the same with the Israelites in olden times,

who attuned the stringed instruments to the voices of the
singers either on the same note or in the octave or at some
other consonant interval. This explains the remark in II
Chron. v. 13 that at the dedication of the Temple the
playing of the instruments, the singing of the Psalms, and
the blare of the trumpets sounded as one sound. Probably the unison of the singing of Psalms was the accord
of two voices an octave apart. This may explain the
terms "'al 'alamot and "'al ha-sheminit. On account of
the important part which women from the earliest times
took in singing, it is comprehensible that the higher pitch
was simply called the maidens key, and ha-sheminit
would then be an octave lower.
There is no question that melodies repeated in each strophe, in the modern manner, were not sung at either the
earlier or the later periods of psalm-singing; since no such
thing as regular strophes occurred in Hebrew poetry. In
fact, in the earlier times there were no strophes at all; and
although they are found later, they are by no means so
regular as in modern poetry. Melody, therefore, must
then have had comparatively great freedom and elasticity and must have been like the Oriental melody of today.
As Niebuhr points out, the melodies are earnest and simple, and the singers must make every word intelligible. A
comparison has often been made with the eight notes of
the Gregorian chant or with the Oriental psalmody introduced into the church of Milan by Ambrosius: the latter,
however, was certainly developed under the inuence of
Grecian music, although in origin it may have had some
connection with the ancient synagogal psalm-singing, as
Delitzsch claims that it was (Psalmen, 3d ed., p. 27).

Contemporary Jewish religious


5.1 Example
One type of music, based on Shlomo Carlebachs, is very
popular among Orthodox artists and their listeners. This
type of music usually consists of the same formulaic mix.
This mix is usually brass, horns and strings. These songs
are composed from within one pool of composers and
one pool of arrangers. Many of the entertainers are former yeshiva students, and perform dressed in a dress suit.
Many have day jobs and sideline singing at Jewish weddings. Others moonlight in kollel study or at Jewish organizations. Some have no formal musical education, and
sing mainly pre-arranged songs.
Lyrics are most commonly short passages in Hebrew from
the Torah or the siddur, with the occasional obscure passage from the Talmud. Sometimes there are songs with
lyrics compiled in English in more standard form, with
central themes such as Jerusalem, the Holocaust, Jewish
identity, and the Jewish diaspora.
Some composers are Yossi Green; a big-name arranger
of this type of music is Yisroel Lamm. Artists include Avraham Fried, Dedi Graucher, Lipa Schmeltzer,
Mordechai Ben David, Shloime Dachs, Shloime Gertner,
and Yaakov Shwekey.

5.2 Contemporary Music for Children

Many Orthodox Jews believe that secular music contains messages that are incompatible with Judaism. Parents often limit their childrens exposure to music produced by those other than Orthodox Jews, so that they will
not become negatively inuenced by many of the more,
in the parents eyes, harmful outside ideas and fashions.
A large body of music produced by Orthodox Jews for
children is geared toward teaching religious and ethical
traditions and laws. The lyrics of these songs are generally English with some Hebrew or Yiddish phrases.
Country Yossi, Abie Rotenberg, Uncle Moishy, and the
producers of the 613 Torah Avenue series are examples
of Orthodox Jewish musicians/entertainers whose music
teach children Orthodox traditions.

Main article: Contemporary Jewish religious music

Jewish Music in the 20th century has spanned the gamut
from Shlomo Carlebach's nigunim to Debbie Friedman's
Jewish feminist folk. Velvel Pasternak has spent much
of the late 20th century acting as a preservationist and
committing what had been a strongly oral tradition to paper. John Zorns record label, Tzadik, features a Radical Jewish Culture series that focuses on exploring what
contemporary Jewish music is and what it oers to contemporary Jewish culture.
Periodically Jewish music jumps into mainstream consciousness, Matisyahu (musician) being the most recent

6 References
[1] Mishneh Torah, Hilkoth Ta'niyyoth, Chapter 5, Halakhah 14 (see Touger commentary, footnote 14); Responsa of Maimonides, siman 224 (ed. Blau [Jerusalem,
1960/2014]: vol. 2 p. 399 / vol. 4 [Rubin Mass and
Makhon Moshe, Jerusalem, 2014] p. 137); Rabbi Yosef
Qah's commentary to Mishneh Torah, ibid., in note 27
following his citation of Maimonides responsa, "

( "English: they drink wine with musical instruments,
which alone involves two sins as our master enumerated
above [prohibitions three and four of the ve enumerated in responsum siman 224]). Rabbi Yosef Qahs Col-


lected Papers, volume 2,

( Hebrew), page 959: "

, ,
. English translation Yemenite Jews do not accompany their song with
instrumentseven songs said in houses of feastingdue to
the prohibition of the matter, all the more so their prayers.
Thus Yemenite Jews do not at all recognize song with instruments (that which some villages accompany the songs
of their feasts by tin, I don't know if theres anyone who
would call this a musical instrument), neither percussion
instruments, string instruments, nor wind instruments.
[2] Spielberg Jewish Film Archive - Teiman: The Music of
the Yemenite Jews: 4:324:48: Drumming was used by
all. Mourning the destruction of the second temple resulted in the prohibition of using musical instruments.
The Yemenites, stringent in their observance, accepted
this ban literally. Instead of developing the playing of musical instruments, they perfected singing and rhythm.

Saalschtz, Gesch. und Wrdigung der Musik bei
den Alten Hebrern, 1829;
Delitzsch, Physiologie und Musik, 1868;
Forkel, All-gemeine Gesch. der Musik. i. 173 et seq.
and the bibliography there given.E. G. H.
Jewish Encyclopedia article on MUSIC AND MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS

This article incorporates text from a publication now in

the public domain: Singer, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901
1906). "article name needed ". Jewish Encyclopedia. New
York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.

Further reading
Idelsohn, A.Z. (1929/1992). Jewish Music, by
A.Z.Idelsohn. New York: Henry Holt and Company/Dover Publications. ISBN 0-486-27147-1.
Heskes, Irene (1994). Passport to Jewish Music.
New York: Tara Publications.

External links
A Taste of Jewish Music from the Sephardi World
Yiddish Folk Songs and Tales of Russian Folk

10 See also
Synagogal Music
Gregorian chant



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