Jewish music

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Jewish music is the music and melodies of the Jewish people. There exist both traditions of religious music, as sung at the synagogue and domestic prayers, and secular music, such as klezmer. Whilst some elements of Jewish music may originate in biblical times, differences of rhythm and sound can be found amongst Jewish communities that have been musically influenced by location. In the nineteenth century, religious reform led to composition of ecclesiastic music in the styles of classical music. A number of modern Jewish composers have been aware of and influenced by the different traditions of Jewish music.

Religious Jewish music[edit]

Religious Jewish music in the biblical period[edit]

The history of religious Jewish music spans the evolution of cantorial, synagogal, and Temple melodies since Biblical times.

The earliest synagogal music of which we have any account was based on the system used in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah gives several accounts of Temple music.[1] According to the Mishnah, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and a choir of twelve male singers.[2] The instruments included the kinnor (lyre), nevel (harp), shofar (ram's horn), trumpet (chatzoteroh] and three varieties of pipe, the chalil, alamoth and the uggav.[3] The Temple orchestra also included a cymbal (tziltzal) made of copper.[4] The Talmud also mentions use in the Temple of a pipe organ (magrepha), and states that the water organ was not used in the Temple as its sounds were too distracting.[5] No provable examples of the music played at the Temple have survived.[6]

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the subsequent dispersion of the Jews to Babylon and Persia, versions of the public singing of the Temple were continued in the new institution of the synagogue. Three musical forms were identified by scholars of the period, involving different modes of antiphonal response between cantor congregation: the cantor singing a half-verse at a time, with the congregation making a constant refrain; the cantor singing a half-verse, with the congregation repeating exactly what he had sung; and the cantor and congregation singing alternate verses. All of these forms can be discerned in parts of the modern synagogue service.[7]

Jewish prayer modes[edit]

Main article: Jewish prayer modes

Jewish liturgical music is characterized by a set of musical modes. These modes make up musical nusach, which serves to both identify different types of prayer, as well as to link those prayers to the time of year, or even time of day in which they are set. There are three main modes, as well as a number of combined or compound modes. The three main modes are called Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot and Adonai Malach. Traditionally, the cantor (chazzan) improvised sung prayers within the designated mode, while following a general structure of how each prayer should sound. There was no standard from of musical notation utilised by the Jews and these modes and synagogue melodies derived from them were therefore handed down directly, typically from a chazzan to his apprentice meshorrer (descant). Since the late eighteenth century, many of these chants have been written down and standardized, yet the practice of improvisation still exists to this day.

The synagogal reading of the parashah (the weekly extract from the Torah) and the haftarah (section from the Prophets), may recall the melodic tropes of the actual Temple service. Ashkenazic Jews named this official cantillation 'neginot' and it is represented in printed Hebrew versions of the Bible by a system of cantillation marks (sometimes referred to as neumes). In practice the cantillation often echoes the tones and rhythms of the countries and ages in which Jews lived, notably as regards the modality in which the local music was based.

Traditional religious music[edit]

Synagogues following traditional Jewish rites do not employ musical instruments as part of the synagogue service. Traditional synagogal music is therefore purely vocal. The principal melodic role in the service is that of the hazzan (cantor). Responses of the congregation are typically monophonic - the introduction of a choir singing in harmony was largely a nineteenth-century innovation. However, during the mediaeval period among Ashkenazi Jews there developed the tradition of the hazzan being accompanied for certain prayers by a bass voice (known in Yiddish as singer) and a descant (in Yiddish, meshorrer). This combination was known in Yiddish as keleichomos.[8]

There are many forms of song which are used in Jewish religious services and ceremonies. The following are notable examples.

With the piyyutim (liturgical poems - singular: piyut), dating from the first millennium after the destruction of the Temple, one stream of Jewish synagogal music began to crystallize into definite form. The hazzan sang the piyyutim to melodies either selected by themselves or drawn from tradition. Piyyutim have been written since Mishnaic times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author. The best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam ("Master of the World"), sometimes attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain.

Pizmonim are traditional Jewish songs and melodies praising God and describing certain aspects of traditional religious teachings. Pizmonim are traditionally associated with Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews, although they are related to Ashkenazi Jews' zemirot (see below). One tradition is associated with Jews descended from Aleppo, though similar traditions exist among Iraqi Jews (where the songs are known as shbaִhoth, praises) and in North African countries. Jews of Greek, Turkish and Balkan origin have songs of the same kind in Ladino, associated with the festivals: these are known as coplas. Some melodies are quite old, while others may be based on popular Middle Eastern music, with the words composed specially to fit the tune.

Zemiros are Jewish hymns, usually sung in the Hebrew or Aramaic languages, but sometimes also in Yiddish or Ladino. Some of the Sabbath zemiros are specific to certain times of the day, such those sung for the Friday evening meal, the Saturday noon meal, and the third Sabbath meal just before sundown on Saturday afternoon. Other zemirot are more generic and can be sung at any meal or other sacred occasion. The words to many zemirot are taken from poems written by various rabbis and sages during the Middle Ages. Others are anonymous folk songs.

The baqashot are a collection of supplications, songs, and prayers that have been sung for centuries by the Sephardic Aleppian Jewish community and other congregations every Sabbath eve from midnight until dawn. Usually they are recited during the weeks of winter, when the nights are much longer. The custom of singing baqashot originated in Spain towards the time of the expulsion, but took on increased momentum in the Kabbalistic circle in Safed in the 16th century, and were spread from Safed by the followers of Isaac Luria (16th century). Baqashot reached countries all round the Mediterranean and even became customary for a time in Sephardic communities in western Europe, such as Amsterdam and London. By the turn of the 20th century baqashot had become a widespread religious practice in several communities in Jerusalem as a communal form of prayer.

Nigun (pl. nigumim) refers to religious songs and tunes that are sung either by individuals or groups; they are associated with the Hassidic movement. Nigunim are generally wordless.

Nineteenth century synagogue music[edit]

Changes in European Jewish communities, including increasing political emancipation and some elements of religious reform, had their effects on music of the synagogue. By the late eighteenth-century, music in European synagogues had sunk to a low standard. Charles Burney visiting the Ashkenazi synagogue of Amsterdam in 1772, wrote:

At my first entrance, one of the priests [i.e. the hazzan] was chanting part of the service in a kind of ancient canto fermo, and responses were made by the congregation, in a manner which resembled the hum of bees. After this three of the sweet singers of Israel [i.e. the keleichomos trio] began singing a kind of jolly modern melody, sometimes in unison and sometimes in parts, to a kind of tol de rol, instead of words, which to me, seemed very farcical … At the end of each strain, the whole congregation set up such a kind of cry, as a pack of hounds when a fox breaks cover … It is impossible for me to divine what idea the Jews themselves annex to this vociferation.[9]

In England however the singing of the chazan Myer Lyon inspired the Methodist minister Thomas Olivers in 1770 to adapt the melody of the hymn Yigdal for a Christian hymn, The God of Abraham Praise.[10] Many synagogue melodies were used by Isaac Nathan in his 1815 settings of Lord Byron's Hebrew Melodies, and the popularity of this work drew the attention of Gentiles for the first time to this music (although in fact many of Nathan's melodies were not Jewish in origin, but contrafacta adapted from European folk melodies).[11]

Later in the century, as synagogues began to utilize choirs singing in Western harmony, a number of hazzanim, who had received formal training in Western music, began to compose works for the synagogue, many of which are still in use today in the congregations of their countries. These included Salomon Sulzer in Vienna,[12] Samuel Naumbourg in Paris,[13] Louis Lewandowski in Berlin,[14] and Julius Mombach in London.[15]

Contemporary Jewish religious music[edit]

Religious Jewish Music in the 20th century has varied greatly. It has spanned the gamut from Shlomo Carlebach's nigunim to Debbie Friedman's Jewish feminist folk. Velvel Pasternak has spent much of the late twentieth century acting as a preservationist and committing what had been a strongly oral tradition to paper. In the 1970s, Mordechai Ben David, Avrohom Fried, Abie Rottenburg and Jewish boys choirs such as Yigal Calek's London Pirchei became popular.

Much of Orthodox Jewish music is performed by men due to religious restrictions on men hearing women sing. In the 1980s, Tofa'ah was the first[citation needed] female Orthodox band and has paved the road for Orthodox Jewish female performers.

A large body of music produced by Orthodox Jews is geared toward teaching religious and ethical traditions and laws. The lyrics of these songs are either in English or Hebrew, often using phrases from the Jewish prayerbook.

Many hazzanim of the Jewish Conservative movement belong to the Cantors Assembly which teaches and publishes Jewish liturgy, music and songs.

Secular Jewish music[edit]

Main article: Secular Jewish music

Since Biblical times, music and dance have held an important role in many Jews' lives. Secular Jewish music (and dances) have both been influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time.

Israeli music[edit]

Main article: Music of Israel

Modern Israeli music is heavily influenced by its constituents, which include Jewish immigrants from more than 120 countries around the world, which have brought their own musical traditions, making Israel a global melting pot. The Israeli music is very versatile and combines elements of both western and eastern music. It tends to be very eclectic and contains a wide variety of influences from the Diaspora and more modern cultural importation to Hasidic songs, Asian and Arab pop, especially Yemenite singers, and hip hop or rock.

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement, Jewish immigrants wrote popular folk music. At first, songs were based on borrowed melodies from German, Russian, or traditional Jewish folk music with new lyrics written in Hebrew. Starting in the early 1920s, however, Jewish immigrants made a conscious effort to create a new Hebrew style of music, a style that would tie them to their earliest Hebrew origins and that would differentiate them from the style of the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe, which they viewed as weak.[16] This new style borrowed elements from Arabic and, to a lesser extent, traditional Yemenite and eastern Jewish styles: the songs were often homophonic (that is, without clear harmonic character), modal, and limited in range. "The huge change in our lives demands new modes of expression", wrote composer and music critic Menashe Ravina in 1943. "... and, just as in our language we returned to our historical past, so has our ear turned to the music of the east ... as an expression of our innermost feelings."[17]

The youth, labor and kibbutz movements played a major role in musical development before and after the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948, and in the popularization of these songs. The Zionist establishment saw music as a way of establishing a new national identity, and, on a purely pragmatic level, of teaching Hebrew to new immigrants. The national labor organization, the Histadrut, set up a music publishing house that disseminated songbooks and encouraged public sing-alongs (שירה בציבור). This tradition of public sing-alongs continues to the present day, and is a characteristic of modern Israeli culture.

Israeli folk[edit]

Termed in Hebrew שירי ארץ ישראל ("songs of the land of Israel"), folk songs are meant mainly to be sung in public by the audience or in social events; for example, the popular folk song David Melech Yisrael. Some are children's songs; some combine European folk tunes with Hebrew lyrics; some come from military bands and others were written by poets such as Naomi Shemer and Chaim Nachman Bialik.

The canonical songs of this genre often deal with Zionist hopes and dreams and glorify the life of idealistic Jewish youth who intend on building a home and defending their homeland. A common theme is Jerusalem as well as other parts of Eretz Israel. Tempo varies widely, as do the content. Some songs show a leftist or right-wing bent, while others are typically love songs, lullabies or other formats. Some songs are also socialist in subject, connected to the long-standing traditions of socialism among Jews in parts of the Diaspora and among early Zionist settlers.

Patriotic folk songs are common, mostly written during the wars of Israel. They typically concern themselves with soldiers' friendships and the tragedy of death during war. Some are now played at memorials or holidays dedicated to the Israeli dead.


Main article: Klezmer

Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular (non-liturgical) Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. They draw on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. They are typically in Yiddish.


Main article: Sephardic music

Sephardic music is the unique music of the Sephardic Jews. Sephardic music was born in medieval Spain, with canciones being performed at the royal courts. Since then, it has picked up influences from across Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece and various popular tunes from Spain and further abroad. There are three types of Sephardic songs—topical and entertainment songs, romance songs and spiritual or ceremonial songs. Lyrics can be in several languages, including Hebrew for religious songs, and Ladino.

These song traditions spread from Spain to Morocco (the Western Tradition) and several parts of the Ottoman Empire (the Eastern Tradition) including Greece, Jerusalem, the Balkans and Egypt. Sephardic music adapted to each of these locals, assimilating North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode.


Main article: Mizrahi music

Mizrahi music usually refers to the new wave of music in Israel which combines Israeli music with the flavor of Arabic and Mediterranean (especially Greek) music. Typical Mizrahi songs will have a dominant violin or string sound as well as Middle Eastern percussion elements. Mizrahi music is usually high pitched. In today's Israeli music scene, Mizrahi music is very popular. A popular singer whose music typifies the Mizrahi music style is Zohar Argov.

Mainstream pop music[edit]

The contemporary reggae artist Matisyahu has introduced some Jewish musical tropes to pop music.

Jewish art music[edit]

Preclassical, classical, romantic and 20th-century composers[edit]

Jewish musicians in the Western European classical tradition have long debated the question of what is Jewish music. Most musicians of Jewish origin in the 19th century composed music that could not be considered Jewish in any sense, either by critics or by the musicians themselves. For example, Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880), a leading composer of opera and operetta in the 19th century, was the son of a cantor, and grew up steeped in traditional Jewish music. Yet there is nothing about his music which could be characterized as Jewish in terms of style, and he himself did not consider his work to be Jewish. As another example, Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, continued to acknowledge his Jewish origins, even though he was baptized as a Reformed Christian at the age of seven. Yet, while he occasionally draws inspiration from Christian sources (one of the themes in his second piano trio, opus 66, is the Lutheran doxology), there is nothing characteristically Jewish about any of his music. "Music written by Jews is not necessarily Jewish music", wrote Erich Werner in 1938 in a seminal essay on the subject in the journal "Musica Hebraica".

That said, there are nonetheless a number of composers who wrote music that they considered Jewish, even if stylistically there was nothing to tie their compositions to traditional Jewish music of liturgy or to the Eastern European klezmer tradition. One of the earliest and most renowned of these, was Salamone Rossi (1570– c.1630) of Mantua. Rossi composed a series of choral settings called "The Songs of Solomon", based on Jewish liturgical and biblical texts.

Other Jewish composers whose work was related to Jewish subjects include

  • Felix Mendelssohn wrote the oratorio Elijah; although there is no evidence that his choice of topic was influenced by his Jewish origins.
  • Fromental Halévy was a well-known composer of opera in the first half of the nineteenth century. His opera La juive (The Jewess) was his greatest success.
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer, also a leading opera composer, arranged a number of liturgical songs, including a motet arrangement for double choir a capella of Psalm 91.
  • Gustav Mahler used Klezmer-influenced motives in the third movement of his first symphony (though ostensibly imitating the sound of a local Moravian town band).
  • Arnold Schoenberg composed a number of works on Jewish themes including Kol Nidre op. 39 (chorus and orchestra), A Survivor from Warsaw (narrator, male chorus and orchestra), Psalm 130 “De Profundis”, Prelude to Genesis Suite (chorus and orchestra), and the opera Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron), (1930–32, only two acts completed).
  • Leonard Bernstein incorporated Jewish material into his symphonies no.1 (Jeremiah) and no. 3 (Kaddish) and his choral work Chichester Psalms.

The Jewish national revival in art music[edit]

Main article: Jewish art music

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries many Jewish composers sought to create a distinctly Jewish national sound in their music. Notable among these were the composers of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folkmusic. Led by composer-critic Joel Engel, these graduates of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories rediscovered their Jewish national roots, and created a new genre of Jewish art music. Inspired by the nationalist movement in Russian music, exemplified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and others, these Jewish composers set out to the "Shtetls" - the Jewish villages of Russia - and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of Yiddish folksongs. They then set these songs to both vocal and instrumental ensembles. The resulting music is a marriage between often melancholy and "krekhtsen" (moaning) melodies of the Shtetl with late Russian romantic harmonies of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

The Jewish national revival in music was not only in Russia. A number of Western European composers took an interest in their Jewish musical roots, and tried to create a unique Jewish art style. Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), a Swiss composer who emigrated to the United States, composed Schelomo for cello and orchestra, Suite Hebraique for violin and piano, and Sacred Service, which is the first attempt to set the Jewish service in a form similar to the Requiem, for full orchestra, choir and soloists. Bloch described his connection to Jewish music as intensely personal:

It is not my purpose, nor my desire, to attempt a 'reconstitution' of Jewish music, or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic. I am not an archeologist... It is the Jewish soul that interests me... the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs; the violence of the Prophetic books; the Jewish savage love of justice...[18]

Darius Milhaud (1892–1974) was one of the leaders of the French modernist school. As a child in Aix-en-Provence, Milhaud was exposed to the music of the Provençal Jewish community. "I have been greatly influenced by the character" of this music, he wrote.[19] His opera Esther de Carpentras draws on this rich musical heritage.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968), an Italian composer who immigrated to America on the eve of World War II, was strongly influenced by his Sephardic Jewish upbringing. His second violin concerto draws on Jewish themes, as do many of his songs and choral works: cantatas Naomi and Ruth, Queen of Sheba, and the oratorio The Book of Jonah, among others. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a number of songs in Ladino, which was the language of Sephardic Jews.

Art music in Palestine and Israel[edit]

The 1930s saw an influx of Jewish composers to British Colonial Mandatory Palestine Territory, later Palestine/Trans-Jordan and Palestine/Israel, among them musicians of stature in Europe. These composers included Paul Ben-Haim, Erich Walter Sternberg, Marc Lavri, Ödön Pártos, and Alexander Uriah Boskovich. These composers were all concerned with forging a new Jewish identity in music, an identity which would suit the new, emerging identity of Israel. While the response of each of these composers to this challenge was intensely personal, there was one distinct trend to which many of them adhered: many of these and other composers sought to distance themselves from the musical style of the Klezmer, of Eastern European Jews, (this is notably also true of the chosen way Israel pronounces Hebrew, which specifically left out all European Jewish shibboleths in Hebrew accent) which they viewed as weak and unsuitable for the new national ethos. Many of the stylistic features of Klezmer and Yiddish were abhorrent to them. "Its character is depressing and sentimental", wrote music critic and composer Menashe Ravina in 1943. "The healthy desire to free ourselves of this sentimentalism causes many to avoid this...".[20]

Perhaps the most radical in his search for a new (more Sefaradi) Jewish identity was Alexander Boskovich. His Semitic Suite for piano, written in 1945, draws much from Arabic music: it is nonharmonic, almost homophonic. He uses repeated notes to imitate the sound of a Kanun.[clarification needed]

From these early experiments a large corpus of original Israeli art music has been developed, much of it specifically seeking a return to the composers' roots in Jewish musical tradition. Notable among modern Israeli composers are

  • Betty Olivero, composer in residence at Bar Ilan University. Olivero takes traditional Jewish melodies – both Ashkenazic and Sephardic – and sets them in complex, profoundly dissonant contexts. The result, surprisingly, is not something sounding ultramodern, but rather a natural extension of the folk traditions she draws on. Her work Serafim for soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano is a good example of this.
  • Tsippi Fleischer, who has composed vocal works that merge contemporary Western compositional techniques with the modal, quartertone scales of Arabic music.
  • Mark Kopytman, whose compositions draw heavily on both Eastern European Klezmer and Oriental Jewish sources.
  • Yitzhak Yedid, Israeli composer, strives to merge classical genres with free modern improvisation and Eastern and Jewish music styles, breaking out of defined frameworks to produce an original sound.

Non-Jewish contributors to Jewish music[edit]

Performed by members of the Advent Chamber Orchestra

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A number of non-Jewish composers have adapted traditional Jewish music to their compositions. Some notable examples are:

  • Maurice Ravel wrote Kaddisch for violin and piano, based on a traditional Jewish liturgical melody.
  • Max Bruch, a German Protestant, (but a student of the German Jewish composer Ferdinand Hiller) made an arrangement, Kol Nidrei, of the Jewish Yom Kippur prayer Kol Nidre for cello and orchestra.[21] Bruch also wrote a cycle of songs for choir and orchestra, Hebraeische Gesaenge, based on the Hebrew Melodies of Byron.
  • Sergei Prokofiev wrote Overture on Hebrew Themes, an arrangement of traditional Jewish folksongs for clarinet, string quartet, and piano.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich incorporated elements of Jewish music in many of his compositions. Most notable are the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, the second piano trio, and the 13th symphony titled Babi Yar.
  • Franz Schubert was contacted by Salamon Sulzer around 1828 and made a choral setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See, e.g. Mishnah Sukkot, chapter 5, on website of Oceanside Jewish Centre, accessed 8 June 2014.
  2. ^ Jonathan L. Friedmann, "The Choir in Jewish History", Jewish Magazine website, accessed 8 June 2014.
  3. ^ Idelsohn (1992), 9-13.
  4. ^ Idelsohn (1992), 15.
  5. ^ Idelsohn (1992), 14.
  6. ^ Idelsohn (1992), 18.
  7. ^ Idelsohn (1992), 19-21.
  8. ^ Conway (2012), 21.
  9. ^ Burney (1959), II, 229.
  10. ^ Conway (2012), 76.
  11. ^ Conway (2012), 93-97.
  12. ^ Conway (2012), 133-6
  13. ^ Conway (2012), 219-20
  14. ^ Conway (2012), 158
  15. ^ Conway (2012), 103-4
  16. ^ Edel, Itzhak (1946) "HaShir HaEretz-Yisraeli" ("The Songs of the Land of Israel) (Tel Aviv: Monograph published by Merkaz HaTarbut, Histadrut).
  17. ^ Menashe Ravina, "The Songs of the People of Israel", published by Hamossad Lemusika Ba'am, 1943
  18. ^ Quoted in Mary Tibaldi Chiesa, "Ernest Bloch - The Jewish Composer" in Musica Hebraica, Volume 1-2 (Jerusalem, 1938)
  19. ^ Darius Milhaud, "La Musique Juive au Comtat-Venaissin in Musica Hebraica, Volume 1-2 (Jerusalem, 1938)
  20. ^ Menashe Ravina, The Songs of the Land of Israel, monograph published by the Institute for Music, Ltd., Jerusalem, 1943
  21. ^ Conway (2012), 193.
  22. ^ Conway (2012), 135. A score is available at IMSLP


  • Burney, Charles, ed. Percy A. Scholes (1959). An Eighteenth Century Musical Tour in Central Europe and the Netherlands. " vols. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Conway, David (2012). Jewry in Music: Entry to the Profession from the Enlightenment to Richard Wagner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-01538-8
  • Idelsohn, A. Z., Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental song (10 vols.)
  • Idelsohn, A. Z., int. A. Orenstein (1992). Jewish Music: Its Historical Development. New York: Dover.
  • Grove's Dictionary of Music, article "Jewish Music"

Further reading[edit]

  • Rabinovitch, Israel, Of Jewish Music, Ancient and Modern, trans. from the Yiddish by A. M. Klein

External links[edit]