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date: 22 September 2017

Judaism and Music

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses music in Jewish contexts from the Bible until the present day. Music in Jewish religious life historically and at present includes cantillation of the Bible, the chanting of prayers, and synagogue song. Various forms of liturgical music developed among Ashkenazic Jews (Jews who lived in Europe) with nusach, modal chanting of prayers that was led by the chazzan. The artistically embellished prayer known as chazzanut is a unique musical and liturgical development. Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews (Jews whose heritage is in the Mediterranean and Middle East) adopted a range of musical styles from their surroundings. The adaptation of a known song in this region to religious poetry is known as piyyutim, a well established practice for hundreds of years. Comments on modern trends on a variety of issues conclude this chapter.

Keywords: Bible, cantillation, chant, chazzan, Jewish prayer, music, nusach, piyyutim, synagogue song

Music throughout Jewish history as manifest in religious life and culture is vast and complex. Music is mentioned hundreds of times in the Hebrew Bible, in rabbinic literature of the first millennia and of every epoch of Jewish history. For this chapter I discuss the music of Jews according to the Hebrew Bible, the development of the Jewish people in Jerusalem and their various areas of relocation during the Diaspora. The biblical era documents rich examples of music at key moments in Jewish history in religious life. After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the playing of instruments was banned by rabbis. In later periods, the explanation of the ban was for commemoration of the glory of the Temple, with the effect that as long as the Temple was not rebuilt, music would not have the height it did during Temple times. This ban was critiqued and lifted in the nineteenth century with the development of Reform Judaism in Germany and Central Europe, where the organ and other instruments were introduced. The changes to Jewish life during the Modern Era, in Jewish studies the Haskahla (Enlightenment), which began around 1800, brought challenges and new opportunities to religious expression through music and its impact on Jewish life.

This chapter will begin with a discussion of music in the Bible and rabbinic literature and will refer to important contributions. A general description is that music in Jewish religious life historically and at present is found through cantillation of the Bible, in the chanting of prayers and in synagogue song. While the majority of scholarship historically in Jewish music refers to Ashkenazic Jews (Jewish life in Europe) a separate section of this chapter will describe Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish life (Jews whose heritage is predominantly from Spain and Portugal who have migrated to Europe, America, North Africa, and the Middle East). Comments on modern trends on a variety of issues will conclude this essay.

The Bible provides a rich set of sources on a variety of contexts associated with music. The first comment on music in the Bible is in Genesis 4:21, where Yuval is introduced as the father of music with two instruments mentioned. Rashi, a famous eleventh-century biblical commentator, says the music of Yuval was used for idolatrous practices. Perhaps this first statement and its commentary is an appropriate metaphor for the conflict (p. 264) about music in Jewish life, that it can be used for inappropriate purposes. Other biblical statements include the singing of the shirah (Exodus chapter 15), the primordial song, after the children of Israel cross the sea and Pharaoh’s army drowns. When the Ten Commandments are given, two passages refer the greatness of the experience with the sounding of the Shofar (Exodus 19:19 and 20:15). The books of the prophets describe the role of music during prophecy and the anointing of the king (1 Samuel 10:5; Kings 3:15). Rabbinic literature of the third century C.E., the Mishnah, describes the role of music during the sacrifices in the Temple (Sotah 48a and Shulchan Arukh, Orech Hayim 540:3). These sources provide a rich array of the use of music on one hand but also the challenges of various sects that focused on idolatrous practices. Various statutes show the use of instruments mentioned in the Bible. Braun’s study (2002) is a compendium of biblical sources with archeological evidence and contextualizes these source with neighboring cultures of the time.

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., rabbis worked to redefine Jewish religious practices. During the second half of the first millennia the text of the siddur [prayer book] formed and the role of a chazzan [cantor] developed as the prayer leader for the congregation. Attitudes towards music were generally stern in this period, and the singing of music in non-religious contexts was banned.

One of the enduring practices in Jewish religious life is the cantillation of the Bible. Cantillation has been practiced since the Temple. Scholars differ in the dating of practice. The Ben Asher Family in Tiberius codified the system of ta’amim; these are accent signs that indicate the grammar of a sentence of the biblical text in the ninth century. They refer to a melodic formula, not an exact musical pitch. A. Z. Idelsohn, one of the first Jewish musicologists, saw the various twentieth-century practices of cantillation as a remnant of an ancient tradition.1 Modern scholars do acknowledge the similarities of modern practices but are doubtful that twentieth-century practices faithfully maintain two-thousand-year-old traditions.2 A definitive documentation of the Lithuanian Ashkenazic traditions is by Rosowsky; Avenary’s comparative study of Ashkenazic practices provides insights into practices over time. Cantillation of the Bible has continued. One modern artistic usage is the use of cantillation from the book of Lamentations in the third movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony no. 1, Jeremiah.

Chanting in Jewish worship makes up the core of the liturgical practice. Blessings, psalms, and rabbinical texts are chanted. Eric Werner’s landmark study The Sacred Bridge explores the interconnection of music of the synagogue with that of the church. He asserts that the music of the church came from the synagogue. In subsequent scholarship this has been reappraised and critiqued by Peter Jeffrey. Most scholars aim for a more conciliatory view, as expressed by Avenary in “Contacts Between Church and Synagogue Music.” The phenomenon of chanting is part of the oral tradition, through the application of melodic formulas in particular modes that vary by cultural region, as analyzed by Reinhard Flender, regarding the practice of psalmody. In the Ashkenazic tradition the term nusach is used to describe musical modes in a systematic fashion, where specific phrases are tied to particular parts of the liturgy on a given occasion. For example, the HaShem Malakh mode (similar to a major scale but using a flat seventh and (p. 265) a flat tenth) is used on Friday night for the Kabbalat Shabbat service; the regal nature of this mode is used to praise God. Ahavah Rabbah (a mode with a lowered second and raised third) is used on the Shabbat morning service, denoting an intimate connection to God. This system is clearly documented in Baruch Cohon’s article “the Structure of Synagogue Prayer Chant.” There are variations of this system in Central and Eastern Europe, which was also brought to America as a fundamental part of Jewish worship. For adherents to this European-based system the “right” nusach is often the litmus test of what is proper and correct. Twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century chanting practices have challenged the prominence of nusach in favor of synagogue song.

Notations of synagogue music appear significantly from 1750 onwards in Central Europe. Prior to this date documentation is sporadic. One exception is the early seventeenth-century publication by Solomone Rossi, a musician of the court of Mantua, who composed, as part of his oeuvre, polyphonic music for a synagogue service and a wedding ceremony. His music challenged the demands of tradition yet fueled the desire for innovation; this subject is well studied by Don Harrán. The nineteenth century saw a greater challenge for change with the full-scale encounter with modernity. Solomon Sulzer (1804–1891) was a cantor in Vienna who wrote new music for the synagogue. While his compositions for the High Holidays were based on traditional nusach, he also composed synagogue songs significantly influenced by Romantic era composers (see his Adon Olam, which is in the style of a Viennese Waltz). Developments of a modern aesthetic in the synagogue service continued with Samuel Naumbourg (1815–1880) in Paris and Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894) in Berlin.3 Changes to Eastern European life came more slowly. In bigger cities composers sought to innovate synagogue songs with new melodies and the incorporation of modal harmony to nusach: Abraham B. Birnbaum (1865–1922) in Moravia and Lodz as well as David Nowakowsky (1848–1921) in Odessa. The organ was an instrument of great debate, with Reformers advocating for its use and traditionalists adamantly arguing against it, due to the ban on instruments in a synagogue service.4 With Jews from Western and Eastern Europe coming to America, the twentieth century saw a significant change, with an ongoing debate about innovation versus preservation of tradition, richly documented in Slobin’s Chosen Voices. With changes in American culture to a more participatory form of worship, song styles from folk, pop, and rock music became the form of aesthetic innovation. Some see this as the downfall of synagogue music, while others see the incorporation of new and old styles into prayer as a creative development of new worship.5

While tensions were abundant in the growth of music in the Ashkenazic tradition, at the same time communities centered on mysticism idealized the role of music. Thirteenth- and fourteenth-century mystics focused on the role of music in prophecy and in the Temple to achieve a higher spiritual state. Music in this context was fused with ritual practices to create a meditative state.6 With the growth of Hassidism, mystical and spiritual practices were incorporated into daily life; this began in the eighteenth century and has been ongoing to the present day. Music in Hassidic life does not focus on an artistic aesthetic but aims to inspire the individual, the congregation, and community with more devotion (see Koskoff’s study of Lubavitch Hassidim).

(p. 266) There are many parallels between the Ashkenazic musical changes and practices in Sephardic communities. Sephardic Jewry covers a vast region from the traditions emanating from Spain and Portugal to Europe, the Americas and the Middle East.7 The designation Sephardi/Mizrahi refers to the diverse practices of these Jewish communities. Western Sephardic Jews in London, Amsterdam, and New York sought to continue the music and ritual practices of their ancestors form Spain, which represented a Golden Age of culture interaction in the tenth to twelfth centuries. Real or imagined Western Sephardic communities take great pride in the dignity and precision of their worship style and melodies.8 Recent scholarship has shown that historical idealism and modern practice are often inseparable.9 Music from North African, Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebanese Jewish communities are tightly connected to the Arab music drawing from many styles. The flexibility of the makam system (Arab musical scales) allows for music and aesthetics to be brought into worship. Often music is drawn from other sources in a common practice of contrafact. Ottoman mystical and artistic influences were common in this region. The practice of singing piyyutim (religious songs) has been part of Sephardi/Mizrahi life for close to five hundred years and continues in earnest today. Payyatanim (poets) adapt an existing Spanish, Arabic, Greek, or Turkish song by creating a new text. The singing of these melodies takes place in the synagogue, at home during holiday meals, and at life cycle events. Overtime the practice has become a highly artistic mode of expression, and in Israel renewed interest has led to ongoing studies of new and old melodies.10

Modernity has brought many new encounters to Jewish music with new contexts in abundance. The rise in nationalism in the late nineteenth century was the impetus for composers to draw upon nationalistic characteristics in their music. This was followed by modern artistic and aesthetic developments in the early twentieth century by composers expressing an individual style. Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), born in Switzerland, struggled with these issues. His cycle of Jewish compositions during 1910–1920 culminated in his Sacred Service (1933), a grand work for orchestra, choir, and cantor. Commissioned as a synagogue service, it is more commonly heard in a concert setting. Schiller’s book On Assimilating Jewish Music explores the work of composers who drew from the Jewish tradition to create orchestral works through individual expression; this characterizes the works of prominent composers such as Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) and Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). Jews have been prominent in musical theater and popular music from its very beginnings, and some speculate that motifs of Jewish traditional music are found in well-known American melodies (see Gottlieb’s book Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish). The growth and development of Jewish organizations and institutions in America and Israel led to a rediscovery of past musical traditions. The klezmer revival of the 1970s11 and the interest in Sephardic songs12 led to a proliferation of reissuing of 78 rpm recordings, new recordings, concerts, lecture series, and workshops. In past generations this music was part of Jewish life cycle events, now it is a separate entity; the compositions often take a simple melody and develop and reshape the music for a more artistic end. The variety of available music has influenced religious communities to unproblematically use popular, rock, and many other styles (p. 267) in their music (see Kligman’s study “Contemporary Jewish Music”). For young Jewish Americans today the amount and variety of Jewish music is vast. Where cantors from Europe who were immigrants to the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries aimed to become Americanized, by the late twentieth century, American-born Jews who trained as cantors strive to learn European Jewish musical styles and its various developments.13

Recent studies on Jewish music have expanded the focus to the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities, going beyond the focus of Ashkenazi Jewry. A wider array of topics has been considered. Where national identity was the focus for the music of Jews in Europe, now the complexity of individual identity as expressed in music is a subject of consideration. Jews engage with the surrounding cultures in ways that are now complex, resulting in many syncretic and hybrid forms of music. Any definition of “Jewish music” has always been problematic, as Jewish music grows in complexity during modernity. In Philip Bohlman’s book Jewish Music and Modernity (2008), issues of identity, authenticity, and invention are explored, showing an ongoing development of music in Jewish contexts.


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(1) . See Idelsohn’s Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929); see examples in Idelsohn’s Thesaurus 1922–1932 for both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions.

(2) . See Shiloah, Jewish Musical Traditions, 1992:21–33, 96–109.

(4) . See Ellenson’s study on the use of the organ in nineteenth-century synagogues.

(5) . See studies by Adler and Summit.

(6) . See important studies by Moshe Idel and by Amnon Shiloah.

(8) . See studies by Avenary and Katz.

(10) . See studies by Judith Cohen, Dardashti, Kligman, Seroussi, Sezgin, and Shelemay.