Skip Navigation
October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776
Home  /  Worship, Music and Spirituality  /  Worship With Joy  /  Let Us Learn: Advance Readings  /  Jewish Music Guide for Teachers  / 
Jewish Music Guide for Teachers


This guide is an overview of Jewish music and its relationship to the development of music in the Western culture. It will examine the Jewish contribution to the musical development of the many peoples among whom we lived in the diaspora. It will also try to debunk some misconceptions about Jewish music and hopefully explore our musical roots.

The sources of this Guide are based on various books: the Torah, the Talmud, musicological works by A.Z. Idelsohn, Eric Werner, and many others who are listed in the bibliography at the end of this booklet. It is hoped that the reader will take advantage of the bibliography and get to the source literature of Jewish music history. It is to this end that I hope to whet the appetite of the reader of this Guide.

The ancient Jews, or the Hebrews, obviously did not exist in a vacuum. They were a part of civilizations and cultures of many peoples in the Middle East. There were Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and Greeks, whose cultural interrelationship was as important as their differences. None of the actual sound of the music of these peoples survived through any recorded means, except a certain segment of Hebrew music (for reasons which we will go into later). However, there are many recorded facts: that all these peoples expressed themselves in the art of music, and that these expressions were quite important. Pythagoras, who studied in Egypt in the 6th century B.C.E., referred to a "Book of Songs" of the Egyptians, which apparently did not survive. One of the earliest songs referred to in Egyptian music is the "Maneros," one of the "lamentations over Linos," their first king. The best way to reconstruct elements of ancient, but not recorded music, is by examining their instruments, which either survived, or whose descriptions survived. We know, for instance, that the Phoenicians had a triangular harp-like instrument, called the Kinnor. The same instrument is mentioned in many places in Hebrew literature, and by the same name. The Greeks later called it "Kinura." A larger harp-like instrument is described by the Phoenicians as the "Neval," which the Hebrews called "Nevel" and the Greeks "Nabla." We know also that the Egyptians as well as the Assyrians had many varieties of harps. We read that when King Solomon married (among others) a daughter of a Pharaoh, she "brought with her thousands of variations of instruments." The number of strings in Egyptian harps varied from 3 to 22.

Among the wind instruments, the "Shofar" is the most widely known today, because of its continued ritual use. It is usually referred to as "Ram's horn." The Assyrians had an instrument called Shaparu, which means "wild mountain goat," or obviously the horn of that animal. It was used as a signaling instrument, and the words we use in the Synagogue during the Shofar-blowing ceremony are the words which described the kind of tones which could be produced with this horn: Tekia - blowing, long; Terua - shouting, short; Shevarim - staccato. But never was there a reference to the Shofar by the word of "Negen," which is a musical tone.

The "Chatzotzera." a long metal horn, ancestor of the trumpet, probably was first used by the Egyptians, from all descriptions we know, but was one of the many instruments used by the Hebrews as well.

In Psalm 150 we read about the "Ugav" (a small pipe), which word is related to "Abbub," meaning "hollow reed" in Phoenician and we know the Phoenicians had such an instrument called "Abobas."

The "big pipe" was the "Chalil" in our biblical literature, and we find it to be the same as the Greek instrument which they called "monoaulos" (single-flute), in contrast to the Hebrew "Alamot" or the Greek "Elymos," which is a "double pipe." We can find among many mideastern peoples a "pipe organ," actually a mouth organ, a skin-covered box with 10 reeds in different sizes, each with 10 holes, capable of producing 1000 tones. The Greek name for this organ is Magrepha. It is referred to in Mishna Tamid, and the Hebrew word-root seems to be Grofit, which means reed.

Other biblical instruments: Tof (drums), Paamonim (metal platelets), Tziltzal (cymbal). A combination of string instruments and some wind-instruments were used, together with a responsive choir, by the Levites in the Temple worship.

The "raw material" of music consists of three basic elements: 1) tone 2) rhythm 3) harmony. In our search for Hebraic roots in music, we first deal with the element of melodic chant, i.e. a group of tones in a certain pattern. Some of these tonal motifs many have been used by ancient Mideastern peoples as well, but since there was no way of recording music, they did not survive in any collection of tunes. We can only trace some tunes to certain geographic regions by means of modern musicological "archeology." The two pillars of Jewish melodic continuity are: the cantillation of the Torah and b) the chanting of certain prayers for a given liturgical function. The "cantillation" (in Hebrew: "Ta'amey Hanegina" or "Ta'amey Hamikra" or in Greek: "Trope") is the musical reading of the books of the Torah: the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, Book of Psalms, Book of Ruth, etc. The pattern of chanting of specific prayers ("Nussach Hat'fillah") as well as the Cantillation of the Torah survived, in spite of its unavoidable evolutions and regional adjustments to the tonality of the musical environment in the many countries of the Jewish diaspora.

Before we proceed to analyze the sources of these musical motifs, which were the basis of the "tradition" ("Minhag"), let us examine the form of worship, the "Service" in the Temple (the "Bet Hamikdash") which influenced the later "Service" in the Synagogue and the even later format of Christian Service: in the Bet Hamikdash the Priests (Kohanim) were in charge; they would perform the animal sacrifices, would bless the Congregation (Lev. 9:22), and on Yom Kippur the Priest would confess his sins and the sins of all of Israel (Lev. 16).

The Levites (Levi'im), who performed a wide variety of functions in the maintenance of the Temple were also the musicians of the Temple: they sang psalms, prescribed for each day, played the instruments, such as the harps we mentioned earlier, the Chatzotzera, the Chalil, the Ugav and the Shofar and the cymbals. A.Z. Idelsohn, in his Jewish Music Chapter I, tells us that even in the First Temple (from about 955 B.C.E. under King Solomon to 586 B.C.E., when destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia) the Blessing before the Sh'ma (the Creed), certain benedictions, the Ten Commandments were already used and probably sung. The Second Temple was rebuilt about 516 B.C.E. During its existence the Service was expanded, and it is from that time that certain traditions in singing such prayers as the Ahava Raba, the Benedictions of the Amidah (standing prayer), the Sim Shalom, the Hallel (Prayers of Praise of the Lord) etc. can be traced. (Mishna Tamid, Mishna Arachin XI, 3-6, among the sources). The musical part of the Service was usually a responsive chanting by the Levites and the Congregation, accompanied by instruments.

Both the Biblical Cantillation and the Chanting of Prayers were taught to the Congregation by the Levites by a method which we call Chironomy: a system of hand-signs for each musical motif. This became especially formalized in the Cantillation of the Torah, which was chanted in regular intervals: every Monday and Thursday (the market-days in Jerusalem) and on the Sabbath, as well as on the Holy Days. Originally, these Tropes, the tunes for the Torah Cantillation, were taught by rote with the hand signs, which eventually were put on parchment in a pictorial way. This actually constituted the earliest musical script known in our culture. These Trope signs were eventually systematized and transcribed by Aaron ben Asher in Tiberias in the 9th century. They were then re-transcribed into the evolving common musical script, the Neumes, which were the foundation of our present musical script.

We can detect the ancient roots of the Cantillation and of some of the prayer tunes by comparing the similarity of the Yemenite, Syrian and other Oriental Jews, who for centuries lived isolated from each other; or by comparing these melodies with early Christian chants, which were sung in the Byzantine (Eastern) Church. We can follow the evolution of these tunes into the tonality of German, Lithuanian, and other European Jewish communities and see them again reflected in tunes of the Gregorian chants of the Church, the musical foundation of Catholic Liturgy.

Thus, we find that the enforced diaspora and the will for spiritual survival of the Jews brought about a way to record their original music, which in turn was used and adapted by the Christian Church, which became a dominant influence in European music for many centuries. Of course, there were elements in Church music other than the Hebrew influence, but it is this Hebrew element in Christian music which inspired many centuries of musical development throughout the Western culture.

All the patterns of musical cantillation and chanting can be categorized in a system of tonal groups called "modes." Although the "mode" is the ancestor of our present "scale," and can in fact be described as a scale the tones of which are used to form a melody, the word "mode" comes from the Latin "modus," which is the root of our English word "mood," and I think this is no coincidence. A "mode" expressed a certain mood in which the tune was sung, or was meant to be sung. Thus, even though a "mode" of a prayer-tune (Nussach) may have changed in time and place, the "mood" did not, or should not. It is one of the constant factors in an ever-changing process of "minhag" (tradition).

The Modes of Cantillation vary slightly geographically, but they have certain common constant elements; the mode of chanting the Torah during the week and on the Sabbath, the mode of chanting the same Torah for the High Holy Days, the mode of chanting the Prophets (Haftarah) and the modes of chanting other books of the Bible

The modes of prayers may be categorized into the eight modes, which more or less coincide with the early Church-Tones. These in turn were rationally explained to be based on the Greek modes, such as Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Myxo-Lydian, Aeolian, etc., which were the forerunners of our Major, Minor and eventually Chromatic (12-tone) scales. The main modes (called "Steigers") which survived in our Synagogue music and which also influenced a great deal of our Jewish folk music, are: a) the Magen Avot Mode, b) the Adonai Malach Mode and c) the Ahavah Rabah Mode (which is also an Arabic mode, the makam "Hedjaz"). The names of these modes are taken from the initial words of prayers, which were chanted on the Shabbat. Then there are the many modes in which prayers on Holy Days were chanted, such as Hallel (Praise), Viddui (confession), Geshem (prayer for rain) and Tal (prayer for dew); and, as we said, the modes of the Cantillation.

Before we follow the development of Synagogue music from its ancient roots to the many eras and areas, let us first again go back to some of the historical discoveries of some aspects of Jewish music, which found its expression not only in the Synagogue, but also outside.

In order to understand the gradual development within Jewish music which occurred as a result of musical influences throughout the diaspora, and as it was reflected in folk music, art music, both inside and outside the Synagogue, we have to understand whatever survived of the "original" Synagogue music.

"Synagogue" is the Greek word for Bet Ha-Knesset or House of Assembly. The first such synagogue was within the confines of the 2nd Temple, which finally was destroyed in 70 C.E. It was a gathering of representatives of dispersed communities (known as the Anshe Maamad) who were sent to the Temple to observe and learn the Service of Worship. At that time, the psalms and many benedictions were already sung in an accepted "standard" way, just as the cantillation of the Torah was sung in a developed form. Upon returning to their communities, these representatives became the teachers and the singers for their synagogues. They were called "shaliach tzibur" (messenger of the community), and, in time, they were to fulfill the musical tasks of the Levites in the diaspora. They became the "Chazanim," the Cantors.

Since none of the music was actually written down until about the 9th century (prayers were also not written down), it was only the oral tradition which permitted it to survive. However, in order to come closest to the melodic sources, we can today examine the psalmody and prayer tunes of those Jewish communities which were least, or not at all, influenced by any Western musical environment. Such communities were found by the musicologist who recorded these tunes in his great collection Thesaurus of Hebrew — Oriental Music, Prof. A. Z. Idelsohn. These tunes give us a feeling for the kind of melody which most likely was taken into the Oriental communities from the early synagogue. We can only speculate that these melodies were originally sung (or similarly sung) in the Temple. We can hear these tunes in the chants of the Jews from Yemen and Bokharia. Yemen is to the south of Israel. Bokharia is in western Asia. Both Yemenite and Bokharian Jews lived quite isolated from other cultures. Both did not go through other countries when driven into exile; the Yemenites went directly from Israel, and the Bokharians from Persia into a mountainous region of what once used to be the far eastern outpost of the Persian Empire. It is important that we now also recognized the influence of the word on the music. Words, phrases, sentences become clusters of words, eventually "verses." The time-element of music, namely rhythm begins to play an important role. With the Singing of the Torah and the Psalms and some of the Benedictions and Prayers, the un-rhythmical music of the most ancient sources which we recognized became more and more rhythmical. What originally was more "narrative" or recitative, eventually becomes more rhythmic. Prose becomes poetry. This was a later development. But it is a development of all Eastern religious and folk music. The Mohammedan and Christian Oriental chant and the chant of the Oriental Jews who, together with the Mohammedans, brought it into the West via Spain have many elements in common, both melodic and rhythmic. It becomes quite obvious that the rhythmic element in music which expresses words, is largely dominated by the rhythm of the word. Small responses from the Levitic Choir, such as "Halleluyah" (which becomes the Alleluya in the Church) or the "Hoshia-Na" (which became the "Hosanna") became eventually enlarged compositions or "hymns" and were adapted from an older tonality (scale) to the evolved newer tonality. We can also see this evolution in the Table of Cantillation of the Pentateuch by Idelsohn.

Aside from time-place-and tonality changes, let us also not forget that it took several centuries to overcome the Rabbinic injunction against both instrumental and sung music after the destruction of the Temple. The changes in "tonality" as a musical environment for the diverse Jewish communities in the diaspora brought about some variants in the cantillation and in prayer chants. These variants are also reflected in the development of songs, which form the basis of Jewish folklore. The amazing thing, however, is not the difference between the versions of chant (such as "Oriental" or "Western"), but the great similarities among all the chants. For example, we find that whereas the Lithuanian Jews sang quite a different variant of the Trope from the Oriental or Sephardic Jews, in their chanting of the Torah, the singing of the Lithuanian version of Shir Ha Shirim (Song of Songs) coincides with the Oriental cantillation of the "Five Books." So, an element of Oriental cantillation was preserved, even though it was used for a different liturgy. Similarly, we find the melodic root of some of the "Ashkenazic" (European) Nussach Ha-t'fillah (Prayer mode) in another part of the liturgy of Oriental Jews. (Example: the Ashkenazic mode of "Adonai Malach," based on the chanting of Psalm 93 prior to the Bar'chu on Friday night, is but a slight variation of the chant of the Amidah by Oriental Jews:)





During the 11th century, a whole group of melodies evolved among the Jews of the Rhineland in Western Germany, which were to become the traditional "Nussach Hat'filah," the prayer tunes for every occasion of Worship: morning, noon, and night, Sabbath and weekday, Festival and High Holy Days. These tunes were given the name of "Scarbov" melodies, or later "Missinai" tunes. The word "scarbove" is a derivative of the Latin word "sacra," meaning "holy." "Missinai" merely underlines the traditional character of the tunes, as if they actually came from "Sinai." However, they did express, in the new tonality of Western Europe, an evolved form of the traditional modes. It is also about this time that we can see the emergence of Z'mirot — the "table songs." The basic modes, which originated in the Middle East, and were transformed into the various tonalities under other people's influences, were:

S'licha — mode (penitence)
Viddui — mode (confession and vows)
Adonai Malach — mode (after a prayer based on psalm #93)
Magen Avot — mode (Friday night, later used in many folksongs)
Ahava Raba — mode (Sabbath morning, a late mode, but Mideastern)
The Cantillation modes of many books of the Torah.

It is interesting to note that the time of the evolving Missinai tunes also coincides with the flowering of the European troubadours and Minnesingers. There are many melodies which can be traced to a mixture of Minnesong, and Nussach. There were also a number of Jewish Minnesingers, such as Suskind von Trimberg, whose poetry we know but whose tunes were mostly lost to us. The language of 11th century Germany was "Mittel-hoch-deutsch" or medieval German. It was the language which the Jews of that area spoke, just as the Jews of Persia spoke Persian and the Jews of Spain spoke Spanish. But the Jews in all these countries not only adopted the language, they also adapted it by mixing it with some Hebrew and inventing their own idiomatic words, such as "scarbove" for "holy" or "Mazeldig" for "lucky," made up from the Hebrew "mazal" (luck) and the Germanic adverbial ending '–ig." Thus, in Central Europe "Yiddish" was born, just as in far-away Bokharia (an ancient eastern province of Persia) Judeo-Persian was born, and in Spain "Judeo-Espanol" was born, which later was called "Ladino." Since the Jews saved their own Hebrew for use in worship and study (Lashon Kodesh - Holy Tongue), they spoke and wrote and sang in their adopted/adapted languages.

The Jews entered Spain in 700 C.E. together with the Moors from North Africa and built strong and prospering communities there for several centuries. Together with their Semitic cousins, they also left a very strong imprint on Spanish culture which became especially permanent in music. Ladino songs have the kind of "Spanish" flavor which is already a result of this Semitic influence on Spain. But most of the Ladino folksongs which we hear sung today come from communities of Sephardic (Spanish) Jews who left Spain a long time ago and can be traced to other musical influences, mostly from the Mediterranean countries, where these Jews settled: Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, etc.

It should be pointed out that the reference which is made to "Sephardim" and "Ashkenazim" today, especially in Israel, bears little resemblance to the original meaning of these words: Sephardi means "Spaniard" and Ashkenazi means "German." Today it relates to the liturgical ritual customs which developed in the communities of originally "ashkenazic" Jews in Central and later in Eastern Europe, (whose Yiddish was a Germanic language once), and in the communities of the once Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, who originally were Oriental Jews, and after their expulsion from Spain migrated back toward the East. The latter's customs and liturgy were still rooted in the Oriental origin and therefore coincided more with the Jews who never left the Orient, such as the Yemenite, Syrian, Iraqi and other Mideastern Jews. Because of this common tradition, we call all Oriental Jews in Israel today "Sephardim," even though they all have had quite different historical experiences in their 2000 years of diaspora.

In our overview of the religious song, the folksong, the developing composed music, we cannot lump these groups into an easy melting pot. We have to see their development from the standpoint of the music history of each country where the Jews lived, and their own input as well as their new adaptations.

The first composer of Jewish choir music in a Western style, is Salamone de Rossi Ebreo, the Hebrew. Salamone de Rossi was born in Mantua, in Northern Italy, in 1572. We do not know for sure when he died, but the records show that he was an outstanding court musician to the Dukes of Mantua, from 1587 to 1628. He served as violinist, singer and composer. He collaborated at least in two works with his contemporary master Claudio Monteverdi, the works being musical dramas "Madalena" and "L'Idropica." His family were descendants of ancient Jews who came directly from Jerusalem to Rome under the Roman emperor Titus. Both Salamone and his sister, a famous singer and actress, named Madame Europa, who appeared in many Monteverdi Operas, were exempt from the rule of wearing the yellow badge as Jews, because of their musical prominence. Their father was an active member of the Great Synagogue in Venice, and both he and Rabbi Leone de Modena persuaded Salamone Rossi to write music for the synagogue. His 33 songs set to Psalms, liturgical prayers, and poems were the first attempt or as far as we know the first published works of choral settings of Prayers for the synagogue. The style of Rossi was the harmonic style of the Italian Rennaissance. The unusual settings, however, were a blend of earlier Rennaissance polyphony and the more contemporary homophony of Rossi's time. The musical form of Rossi's Choir works is the motet-form and the sound of his music, on first hearing, is very much "Italian 17th century" sound. But many of the works can be analyzed and found to be based on melodic roots of real Oriental Jewish nussach hat'filah. This becomes obvious if we dissect the "Bar'chu" and sing the soprano line in a free-rhythmical style: it can be traced to the Oriental way of chanting this prayer; or in the Psalm "Od'cha" (Psalm 118), if we sing the baritone line by itself. Unfortunately, this is rarely brought out through conventional choir interpretations today. The important thing about Rossi's music, however, is that it was the first such attempt (of choir music) for the synagogue and that it came too early in history for it did not last after Rossi was gone. The Jewish community was not ready for choir music, in spite of attempts of the very scholarly persuasion of Rabbi Leone de Modena. Let us only read two paragraphs of Rabbi Leone's introduction to Rossi's "Hashirim Asher Lishlomo," the title of his choir works:

"Despite the apathy of his co-religionists for music, Rossi has not been discouraged. He has placed his trust in the Lord, and each day has seen him add to his collection of hymns, psalms and chants. It seems that the faithful have wished to sing his compositions; they have studied them and found in them much charm. Their ears were so delighted that they have learned to appreciate this music . . . But there are among us, and take care not to doubt it, some people who are always hindering all progress; and these wish to proscribe the present useful innovations which their minds are incapable of understanding. For this reason I have thought it wise to add here . . . a demand which was made of me on this same subject when I was Rabbi in Ferrara. And also to make known my caustic reply agreed to by all the Grand Rabbis of Venice. In this reply I showed by evidence from the Talmud itself that there can be no objection to the introduction of choral chant in our Synagogues. This should surely close the mouths of the detractors. Despite all that these individuals can say. I invite all our faithful to honor, to cultivate and to propagate song and music in our synagogues; and, to continue to do so until that time when the anger to the Lord shall be turned away from us, and He will rebuild on Zion His Temple . . . May we all rejoice in the supreme happiness of our deliverance. Amen."

Rabbi Leone de Modena, 1620.




by V. Pasternak
The origin of Chassidic music may be traced to Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Kabbalist movement. The Kabbalists in Safed, Palestine, made singing their duty and counted it a condition of inspiration and devotion. Melody stood at the cradle of Kabbalah and surrounded it with the mystic yearnings that touch the hearts of its followers to this day. The Chassidic movement, legitimate heir of the Kabbalists, assigned to music a position of primary importance.

The Chassidic movement, originating in the middle 1700's, spread throughout eastern Europe until its adherents numbered between three and four million by the end of the 19th century. The founder of this movement was Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, or "Besht,"1 as he became known. The Baal Shem Tov felt that Jewish religious observance had become a joyless and arid habit rather than a daily rejuvenating experience. "lvdu es Hashem b'simcho, bo-u L'tonov birnono." "Worship the Lord with joy, come before Him with song," said the Psalmist. The Besht preached that the simple man, imbued with native faith and able to pray fervently and wholeheartedly with a sense of joy in his heart, was nearer and dearer to God than the learned but joyless formalist spending his whole life in the study of the Talmud.2 The essence of faith, he taught, lies in the emotions, not the intellect. The more profound the emotions, the nearer man is to G-d.

Chassidism may be defined as the religion of Torah, performance of G-d's commandments and of song and melody The ecstasy of melody is the key with which Chassidism strives to unlock the gates of heaven It is, so to speak, the "ladder to the throne of G-d" "Through the unfathomable depths of space wander countless stars, luminous thoughts of G-d-blest instruments on which the Creator plays. They are all happy — for G-d desires a happy world." This is the creed of the Chassid This is his religion. He shows his faith primarily through joy Music, the natural concomitant of joy, fills the head with a holy ecstasy of unearthly happiness. Music is not only religious it is religion "All melodies," said Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, "are derived from the source of sanctity, from the Temple of Song Impurity knows no song for it is the source of all melancholy" The Besht insisted that excessive fasting, as was the custom, melancholy and morbidity were sinful; to him a lively and joyous manner was more acceptable to G-d. All Chassidic leaders, referred to as rebbis or zadikim, believed that vocal music is the best medium for approaching G-d. They felt that the power of neginah, melody, was such that it could reach the heavens faster and may be more acceptable to G-d than spoken prayer. Many rebbis felt that the realms of Torah,3 penitence and song were closely aligned to each other.

Most of the original Chassidic melodies were composed by the rebbis themselves. Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was a prolific composer The famous "Rav's Nigun," composed by Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi, founder of the Chabad4 movement, is still sung today. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav was perhaps the greatest poet ofthe Chassidic movement. He loved music with a passion and earnestness which made him feel the presence of melody in every aspect of nature. Flowers, grass, trees, the sun and moon, even the human body were to him brimming over with song. "Every science," he said, "every religion, every philosophy, has its own pattern of song. The higher the religion or science, the moreexalted its music."

To possess a good and pleasing voice was as great an asset to a rebbi as Torah scholarship was to others. The Zadik of Ger regretfully observed to his Chassidim. "Were I blessed with a sweet and beautiful voice, I could sing for you new hymns every day, for with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are being created." To many Chassidic rebbis music was a native talent and the art of composition a G-d-given gift. Where the leaders were not blessed with these gifts, special court composer-singers were hired. It was their duty to study the mood, emotions and character of the rebbi and give them utterance through song. These court composed melodies were credited to the rebbi.

Much Chassidic music, unfortunately, has been lost. Little attempt was made to notate these melodies and save them for future generations. In addition to the scarcity of Chassidim who could write music, many rebbis issued prohibitions against commiting these melodies to permanence. Once written down, they felt these melodies would become part of the public domain and might be used by secular institutions and others, not dedicated to the service of G-d. These melodies therefore, as most folk songs of the world, were transmitted orally.

Each major Chassidic dynasty had its own court, as the residence of the rebbi was called. The material character of the court was determined by the number and personal wealth of its adherents, since the Chassidim themselves were the only means of support available to the zadik. It was the custom for Chassidim to spend major holidays at the rebbi's court. Devotees of various leaders would leave their homes and families, and often travel great distances in order to spend the festival in the presence of the rebbi. Often, specific Sabbaths were also set aside for "get-togethers" of rebbi and followers. It was at these occasions that new melodies were introduced and old ones resung. During the religious services, the Sabbath meal, the sholosh s'udos,5 the melave malke,6 and the festival celebrations, the newly composed melody would be sung over and over. By the time the Chassid returned home, he was equipped to teach the new material to his family, friends and neighbors. Thus, without being written down, these melodies became familiar household songs throughout Eastern Europe.

Much of the body of Chassidic song is wordless, employing only vocalized syllables, such as "bim-bom," "aha aha," "dai dai," etc. This is due to the fact that according to the rebbis, the melody alone is of primary importance. It is the melody that brings one to the heights of ecstasy and true religious fervor. The textual material is only secondary. Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi stated in his writings, "Melody is the outpouring of the soul. Words interrupt the stream of emotions. For the songs of the souls, at the time they are swaying in the high regions, to drink from the well of the Almighty King, consist of tones only, dismantled of words." A melody with text was to his mind limited to time, for with the conclusion of the words, the melody, too, comes to an end. Whereas, a tune without words can be repeated endlessly. When texts were used, they were usually existing texts found in the liturgy, the zemiros,7 the Bible or the Talmud. Rarely was new liturgical text created. Galician Chassidim often employed a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish texts and many times sang devotional songs completely in Yiddish. Because of the de-emphasis on words, little consideration was given to proper wedding of melody and text. The Chassidim invariably used poetic license and fit the texts to the melodies as best they could. Quite often specific melodies were created for existing textual material, and thus, the problems normally associated with the lyrics were alleviated.

Chassidim used many tempi and standard folk forms in their composition. Among their favorites were the march, the peasant or cossack dance and the waltz. The recitative style associated with the cantorate was sometimes woven through the musical fabric. Some historians of Jewish music, detecting foreign elements, have made short shrift of Chassidic music, labeling it a jargon of East European folk song and dance. When one remembers, however, that the Jew, for centuries shuttling desperately between countries all over the face of the earth, borrowed from the adopted culture which surrounded him, it is not unnatural that he would also borrow musical motifs from the music which surrounded him. Whether this borrowing was done consciously or subconsciously, it is to the everlasting tribute of the Chassid that that which he took, he reworked and dedicated to the service of G-d. Many rebbis openly proclaimed that it was a sacred duty to take secular melodies from the foreign cultures and incorporate them into the body of Chassidic song. They believed that the motive and purpose to which these songs were put, sanctified their humble birth. This important act was known as "makdish zein a nigun," "making a song holy." We find many examples of this in the songs of the Chassidic dynasties, especially the Chabad movement, which has incorporated a host of Russian and Ukrainian folk songs in the original tongue into its repertoire.

In the course of its development, the Chassidic movement branched out into two distinct directions, the one called the system of the "Besht." the other known as Chabad. The adherents of the Beshtian school lived mostly in Poland, southern Russia, Rumania and Hungary, while the Chabad followers were citizens of Lithuania and White Russia. Just as there were two different schools of Chassidism, the emotional and philosophical, (the Baal Shem Tov having been the founder of the former and Rabbi Shneor Zalman of Liadi the latter) so there were also two distinct type of melodies; the ecstatic and reflective, the joyous and the mystical. A strong melody luring one to dance is characteristic of the first; a more subdued, pensive, introspective, rapturous and yearning tone is the theme of the second group. Simcha, - joy, is the feature of the Beshtian school; D'vekus - union with G-d is the characteristic of the Chabad Chassidim.

Chassidism is today a vibrant movement in many Jewish communities throughout the world. Although literally millions of Chassidim met their death at the hands of the Hitler hordes, the movement is thriving and with renewed vigor. Each year more men, women and children are attracted to and join the ranks of the major existing dynasties. Chabad Chassidism, with headquarters in New York, has become a vital and potent force within world Jewry. Also the Chassidim of Satmar, Bobov, Ger, Stolin, Belz, Modzitz, Klausenberg and others have left their imprint on education and modern Jewish life.

Following in the footsteps of tradition, much Chassidic music is being created today by both rebbis and laymen. Whereas in generations gone by European influences could be detected coursing their way through Chassidic melodies, one can today find strains of American, Oriental or Israeli motifs. Discussion of these recent compositions has been lively, many labeling them neo-chassidic rather than chassidic songs. Those who refuse to accept these new melodies, especially the compositions of the younger generation, contend that they are merely secular melodies attached to sacred text and can, at best, be called Shir Dati (religious song). One should bear in mind however, that the same motive that inspired the chassidic composers of yesteryear is often present in the activity of the modern day composers. The true test of these songs and their proper labeling will be in their acceptance or non-acceptance among the chassidim. Those that will be sung regularly among the various chassidic groups and will enter permanently into their repertoire will deserve to bear the title chassidic. As pointed out previously, the presence of foreign influences or of secular melodies in their music has in no way minimized the contribution that chassidim have made and are making at the present time to this great body of Jewish music.

More and more chassidic music is becoming a form of religious exercise even when not tied to set occasions of religious observance. Recent music notations, tape and phonograph recordings have enabled us to preserve a portion of the chassidic music of yesteryear and hopefully will enable us to preserve the chassidic music of tomorrow. It will remain for the music historian of the future to evaluate in totality this unique phenomenon among folk music. It is also hoped that before it is too late, more work will be done in notating and rescuing this material from oblivion.

1. Contraction of the words Baal Shem Tov.
2. Jewish Oral Law.
3. Bible.
4. Contraction of the Hebrew Chochmo Bino Daas (wisdom, understanding, knowledge).
5. Third meal of the Sabbath.
6. The feast bidding farewell to the Sabbath Queen.
7. Special texts to be sung on Sabbath and Festivals.

Consult the following catalogues for Chasidic and Neo-chassidic recordings:
Collectors Guild
Emet Records
Fran Records
Greater Recording Co.
Menorah Records
Tikvah Records
Y and Y Productions
Hed-Artzi - Israel

Now, let us examine what happened to Jewish music with the emergence of the "Age of Enlightenment" in the end of the 18th and during the 19th century. It was the time when the form of "Classicism" in music was broken by Beethoven and Schubert. But it was also a time when the disciples of the Baal Shem Tov emerged, when Moses Mendelssohn dealt with the philosophical problems of the modern Jews of Europe. While the music of the South European Jews, largely under the influence of the "Sephardim," both from Spain and after Spain, was developing in its own way as a result of direct Oriental tradition, including Arabic melodic and metric innovations, the music of the "Ashkenazic" Jews underwent an evolution which was the result of influences of the Minnesong, the recapture of originally Hebrew melodic sources from the Gregorian chant and European folksong, as well as retained Oriental modes. The modes of ancient and medieval times were transformed into the tonality of the Major and Minor scales, although we can see the close relationship between the "major" scale and the Mideastern "Hedjaz" scale, while the "minor" scale reflects a strong tendency to retain some modes of the original Bible Cantillation. In liturgical music, the best examples of these developments, some of whose melodies go back to the Missinai tunes, were first recorded on paper by Ahron Beer, in the middle of the 1700's. In Beer's and later in L. Sanger's (1781-1843) and J. Goldstein's (1791) manuscripts we find the close interrelationship of synagogue tunes after the 11th and 12th centiry and Cantillation modes. Eric Werner, our contemporary leading musicologist in this field shows us the interrelationship of this musical foundation of European Jewish music with the Christian Church music. (Sacred Bridge — Columbia University Press).

Both Sephardim and Ashkenazim introduced into the worship new poetry (Piyutim), whose metric structure was influenced by Oriental (Arabic, etc.) and European folk-poetry (Minnesong). Thus, we see a two-way relationship: folksong influenced Synagogue song and the other way around. A good example is given us by Idelsohn in his tracings of many tunes, for example the interrelationship of the Kol Nidre tune and Yiddish and other folk tunes. (Jewish Music — Schocken Publishing Co.) The folk music of the Jews of Europe developed with the many dramatic historical experiences of our people, from exile to exile, from one war to another, from pogrom to pogrom; but also from depth to more depth in constant learning and devotion; from one talmudic school to another, from one settlement to another, from "shtetl" and ghetto to emancipation, immigration, the Holocaust and finally to the new State of Israel.

This is the story of the Yiddish song of the Ashkenazic Jews. The story includes songs of love, lullabies, work songs, songs of joy, songs of bitter disappointment, of separation, songs of struggle in the Labor movement, songs of yearning for Zion and the early songs of the Chalutzim (the pioneers in Palestine), songs from the concentration camps and songs of faith right in the face of the death chambers.

These songs should not only be described, they should be sung and experienced.

(Sources: Voices of a People, by Ruth Rubin, McGraw-Hill, available in libraries. Jewish Folksongs, Folkways Records. Hundreds of other Jewish folksong records on Tikva, Collectors Guild and many other labels. Also see: Heritage of Music by Eisenstein, Chapters 12, 14, 16, 17, 19, 26).

Just as Chassidism freed the hopeless Jews from despair and brought the "Niggun," the holy melody, into the life of Jews as a remedy for the soul, we see the development of music among all Europeans during the 19th century turning towards a new expression of national pride, away from tyranny, towards a new freedom. This musical expression, which brought us Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Verdi and Moussorgsky among the Germans, Austrians, Poles, Italians and Russians, is known as the style of Romanticism. It was Schubert's contemporary, the chief Chazzan of Vienna, Solomon Sulzer, who was now able to collect, write for and influence the institution of permanent choirs in the synagogues, reaching all over the Eastern European Jewish communities. In Berlin, Louis Lewandowski, a contemporary and admirer of Felix Mendelssohn, added his settings for cantor and choir to the already established traditional tunes, and Samuel Naumbourg in France, who revived Salamone Rossi and wrote his own volumes of choir music for the synagogue. Followed by many other choir leaders, composers and cantors all over Europe, the Synagogue music of the period of musical Romanticism was a true Rennaissance, a rebirth of old traditional Nussach Hat'filah, wedded to the new creativity of the 19th century composers, which brought about a whole new era of the "Golden Age of Chazzanut."

This, however, was not only the case with Synagogue and Choir music. This creativity found its expression in other vocal and instrumental music. In Chapter 24 and 25 of Dr. Eisenstein's Heritage of Music you may get introduced to the "Klezmorim," the Jewish band-players. The word "Klezmor" comes from the Hebrew Kley (tool or instrument) and Zemer (song). Just like the Chazzan, the Klezmor developed a highly sensitive art of improvisation, long before this art became the cornerstone of American Jazz. As we see it now, it was no coincidence that the Black Jazz (improvising) artist found it easy to form a musical alliance with the new American immigrants who were descendants of these very same Klezmorim: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Rogers, Loesser, Lerner, Weill, and Leonard Bernstein.

It is interesting to note that when George Gershwin went to Paris in order to study the European art of composition, after he proved his popularity in the U.S., he was told by masters of the famous schools of Debussy and Ravel and others, that he should look into his own backyard and stick to his "own" style. The style was American Jazz. He did, and the "Rhapsody in Blue" is a testament to it. But less than half a century before that, a Russian Jewish composer traveled to St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), in order to learn the art of composition in the cradle of such giants as Moussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakoff, and there he was told the same thing: "Why, you have such a treasure of folklore and music of your own people, why don't you stick to it?"

That young Jewish composer was Joel Engel (1868-1927). He took these words seriously, and the first of many Jewish art-song and instrumental composers of the Petersburg school emerged. It was the beginning of our own modern Jewish music. The others were: Joseph Achron, Alexander Krein, Solomon Rosovsky, Moses Milner and Lazar Saminsky.

At the turn of the century and especially after the repressions and pogroms of 1905, the biggest waves of Jewish immigration brought the bulk of today's Jewish population's parents or grandparents to the United States. Some of the composers of Russia stayed there, some came here, and some went to Palestine, or eventually got there. By that time, the Yiddish Theatre brought here by Abraham Goldfaden from Poland, was already established. The repertoire of songs in Yiddish spanned from the Chassidic and genuine folksongs to traditional tunes borrowed from the synagogue to popular ballads, sometimes over-sentimental, even banal. It is obvious that we as Jews have become a nation in every sense: we can even find "songs of the underworld" in Ruth Rubin's book (Voices of a People, Chapter XII).

All the information which we have covered thus far, even if only superficially and in "capsule" form, is a result of research done within this century. Much of it was known before and written in bits and pieces by scholars and cantors of the past 200 years, but the mosaic of the evolving music of the Jews as part of the total musical culture of Western civilization was put together by such musicological scholars as A.Z. Idelsohn, Eric Werner, Israel Adler, Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Batya Bayer and others who are continuing to dig up our musical archeology.

In the field of Synagogue music, I am not making any attempt to qualify or disqualify the creative efforts of hundreds of composers of the last hundred years, most of whom have contributed their music in North America, on the basis of ideological opinion. The Jewish community is ideologically divided into the three main groups: orthodox, conservative and reform. For the sake of music history and appreciation, I prefer to see the Jewish community as one: K'lal Yisrael, the whole community. When Sulzer and Lewandowski wrote their music for mixed choir and even organ accompaniment, they expressed the traditional missinai melodies in the musical style of 19th century Central European romanticism. A few decades later, this same choir music was used and sung by male choirs with boy-voices as soprano and altos, in hundreds of orthodox synagogues all over Eastern Europe and later in America. The music was and is here to stay. In the last 50 years, composers such as A.W. Binder, Max Helfman, Lazar Weiner, Reuven Kosakoff, Julius Chajes and many others have created works for the Synagogue which are on a level equal to or some better than many Church works which found their way into the permanent concert repertoire of the world. Ernest Bloch, who came here from Switzerland and devoted most of his music to Jewish themes and content (Sh'lomo, Baal Shem Suite,) eventually wrote his "Avodat Hakodesh" (the Sacred Service), which was first performed as a concert piece in Carnegie Hall. Is Bloch's music "Synagogue Music" or "Concert Music"? Bach's St. Matthew Passion was written for his church in Leipzig and nobody knew about it after a few years, until Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered it almost a century later and it became one of the greatest concert works of musical history. So, how can we determine today what, in the hundreds of new works written for the Synagogue, is now or will be "relevant" to posterity? We can, however, determine that such music was written within the context of Jewish life of its time. As such, this music is an expression of Jewish creativity, Jewish identity and Jewish value.

The same is true for a large number of composers whose works "overlap" the realm of folk music, theater music, and Synagogue music, both in the diaspora and in Israel. Leo Low, Zavel Zilberts, Sholom Secunda, to name but a few from the first half of this century, expressed through their music a certain nostalic love of European folklore and chazzanut, mixed with a newly found pride as a Jewish nation. In Israel, this "mixture" is evident through the works of many composers. Again, to name but a few, there is Pugatchov-Amiran, M. Zaira, N. Nardi, M. Lavri, D. Zahavi and many others whom we can find in the bibliography of 20th century composers.

In a number of the concert works of Israeli composers, such as Paul Ben-Haim, Mordecai Seter, Odeon Partos, Josef Tal, Menahem Avidom and others, the European technique of contemporary composition is mixed with the newly-found sounds of all kinds of in-gathered Jews in the new homeland.

Here we have come to the point where it should be possible to determine if music today, written in Israel or outside of it, is identifiable as Jewish or not.

It is relatively easy to identify a folksong or a folkdance as an expression of a certain ethnic group or nation. There are certain elements of temperament, rhythm and, naturally, language which make this possible. But where do we draw the line between, let's say Carl Orff and Benjamin Britten, two contemporary composers from Germany and England, or was Handel's music 200 years ago German or English? (He lived in both countries and wrote for both languages.) My answer to this "puzzle" is that not all music or all art by a given artist is necessarily an expression of his national identity, because he expresses his art within a total cultural environment which absorbs elements from many nations and ethnic groups and thus becomes transnational. But in every work of art there are some elements of the individual personal background of the composer or artist which will come to the fore, sometimes very strongly, and sometimes only less pronounced.

As an example, I should like to use the music of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein had quite a good Jewish background. He was brought up by his father who was a Hebrew teacher, went to a conservative synagogue, studied music as an American talented pianist, composer, conductor. His musical environment was the Boston Symphony, Tanglewood, the American Musical Theater. He loved Jazz and all contemporary and good "classical" music. Just when he got his "break" and became famous, he chose to write his first symphony dedicated to the Prophet Jeremiah. He performed it in 1947 in what was not yet officially Israel. The first movement is based on a theme closely related to the "Nussach" of the Hallel liturgy, the second movement is a wild development of the Haftarah Trope and the last, with Hebrew text, is based on the cantillation of "Lamentation," the "Echa," which is chanted by traditional Jews on "Tisha B'Av," the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. Very Jewish, indeed.

But if we listen to many parts of this work, we will find Bernstein's style as it re-occurs again in later works, such as "West Side Story" or "On the Waterfront." In these elements of the composer's personal "style" there are the same "Jewish" elements whether in a Broadway piece or in his later "Kaddish" Symphony or his "Dybbuk Variations." His Jewishness in his music is intertwined with his total background. And this, I think, is true for all "good" music. We can find the "German" in Beethoven as much as we can find the "universal" music in Beethoven, i.e., only universal in quotation marks, because Beethoven is the result of Western musical culture. So is Bernstein, and so was Rossi and Naumbourg and Ben-Haim and the hundreds of composers who express what they really are by what they really feel.

Bibliography: The Music of the Jews (Rothmuller)
Books: The Modern Rennaissance of Jewish Music (A. Weisser, C. Bloch)
Music of Ancient Israel (Sendrey)
Music of the Jews in the Diaspora (Sendrey)
Heritage of Jewish Music (Eisenstein)
Jewish Music (Idelsohn)
The Sacred Bridge (Werner)

Jewish Music Guide for Teachers, Board of Jewish Education, Inc.



URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved