Nusach (Hebrew: נוסח nosaħ, modern pronunciation nósakh or núsakh), plural nuschaot or nusachim, is a concept in Judaism that has two distinct meanings. One is the style of a prayer service (Nusach Teiman, Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari); another is the melody of the service depending on when the service is being conducted.
Meaning of term
Nusach primarily means "text" or "version", in other words the correct wording of a religious text or liturgy. Thus the nusach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or as used by a particular community. In common use nusach has come to signify the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition. It is one example of minhag, which includes traditions regarding Jewish customs of all types.
It may be subdivided into the German, or western, branch ("Minhag Ashkenaz"), used in western and central Europe, and the Polish/Lithuanian branch ("Minhag Polin"), used in eastern Europe, the United States and among Ashkenazim, particularly those who identify as "Lithuanian", in Israel.
The form used in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, known as "Minhag Anglia", is technically a subform of "Minhag Polin" but has many similarities to the German rite. See Singer's Siddur.
Nusach Sefard is the style of service used by some Jews of central and eastern European origins, especially Hasidim, who adopted some Sephardic customs emulating the practice of the Ari's circle of kabbalists, most of whom lived in the Land of Israel. Textually speaking it is based on the Sephardic rite, but in melody and feel it is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.
Nusach Ari is a variant of Nusach Sefard, used by Chabad Hasidim.
Sephardi and Mizrachi nuschaot
The nearest approach to a standard text is found in the siddurim printed in Livorno from the 1840s until the early 20th century. These (and later versions printed in Vienna) were widely used throughout the Sephardic and Mizrahi world. Another popular variant was the text known as Nusach ha-Hida, named after Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai. Both these versions were particularly influential in Greece, Iran, Turkey and North Africa. However, most communities also had unwritten customs which they would observe, rather than following the printed siddurim exactly: it is easy, from the printed materials, to get the impression that usage in the Ottoman Empire around 1900 was more uniform than it really was.
Other variants include:
- the customs of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, based on an older form of the Castilian rite, with some influence from the customs both of Italian Jews and of Northern Morocco. This version is distinguished by the near-absence of Kabbalistic elements.
- Nusah Adot Hamizrah, originating among Iraqi Jews but now popular in many other communities. These are based on the opinions of the Ben Ish Chai and have a strong Kabbalistic flavour.
- Minhag Aram Soba, as used by Syrian Musta'arabim in earlier centuries (the current Syrian rite is closely based on the Livorno prints).
- the Moroccan rite, also related to the text of the Livorno prints but with a strong local flavour. This subdivides into the customs of the Spanish-speaking northern strip and the Arabic-speaking interior of the country.
- formerly, there were variants from different parts of Spain and Portugal, perpetuated in particular synagogues in Salonica and elsewhere, e.g. the Lisbon and Catalan rites, and some North African rites appear to reflect Catalan as well as Castilian influence.
Under the influence of the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a common nusach appears to be emerging among Israeli Sephardim, based largely on the Nusach Edot Hamizrach but omitting some of the Kabbalistic additions.
A "Temani" nusach was the standard among the Jews of Yemen. This is divided into the Baladi (purely Yemenite) and Shami (Sephardified) versions.
Both rites are recited using the unique Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew. Yemenite Jews, and some scholars, regard this as one of the most authentic, and most closely related to the Hebrew of Ancient Israel.
In addition, there are other nuschaot.
- Nussach HaGR"A was a very brief version of Nussach Ashkenaz written by the Vilna Gaon (otherwise known as Elijah of Vilna or the GRA) he believed that many things in prayer were added later and took them out in addition to editing some grammatical errors (according to him) and small changes in other parts as well.
- There are the Minhag Italiani and Minhag Benè Romì used by some Italian Jews.
- Closely related to these was the "Romaniote" rite from Greece where there was an ancient, pre-Diaspora Jewish community. The only surviving Romaniote synagogues are in Ioannina and New York, and even these now use a predominantly Sephardic rite: there were formerly Romaniote synagogues in Istanbul and Jerusalem. (The customs of Corfu are a blend between the Romaniote and Sephardic rites.)
- There was once a French nusach, closely related to the Ashkenazi, which is now used only in certain towns in Northern Italy (see Appam).
- Distinct Persian and Provençal nuschaot also existed before being gradually replaced by the Edot Hamizrach and Spanish and Portuguese nuschaot respectively.
- Nusach Eretz Yisrael, a recent attempt at reconstructing the nusach of Eretz Yisrael in the Talmudic/Geonic period by Machon Shilo's Rabbi David Bar-Hayim. This reconstruction is based on the Jerusalem Talmud and documents discovered in the Cairo Genizah, and is published in the form of a siddur by Yair Shaki. Rabbi Bar-Hayim's Jerusalem followers use this nusach in a public prayer service held in Machon Shilo's synagogue.
- Beis Aharon V'Yisrael is the nusach used by Karlin-Stolin Hasidim.
It is said among some mystics that an as-yet undisclosed nusach will be revealed after the coming of Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah. Others say that the differences in nusach are derived from differences between the twelve tribes of Israel, and that in Messianic times each tribe will have its proper nusach.
The whole musical style or tradition of a community is sometimes referred to as its nusach, but this term is most often used in connection with the chants used for recitative passages, in particular the Amidah.
Many of the passages in the prayer book, such as the Amidah and the Psalms, are chanted in a recitative rather than either read in normal speech or sung to a rhythmical tune. The recitatives follow a system of musical modes, somewhat like the maqamat of Arabic music. For example, Ashkenazi cantorial practice distinguishes a number of steiger (scales) named after the prayers in which they are most frequently used, such as the Adonoi moloch steiger and the Ahavoh rabboh steiger. Mizrahi communities such as the Syrian Jews use the full maqam system.
The scales used may vary both with the particular prayer and with the season. For examples, there are often special modes for the High Holy Days, and in Syrian practice the scale used depends on the Torah reading for the week (see The Weekly Maqam). In some cases the actual melodies are fixed, while in others the reader has freedom of improvisation.
- Siddur Tefillot ha-Shanah le-minhag kehillot Romania, Venice 1523.
- Shelomo Tal, Nosaḥ ha-Tefillah shel Yehude Paras.
- Seder ha-Tamid, Avignon 1776.