Jewish Liturgical Music

See Jewish Influence on Early Christian Hymnody.

Jewish Liturgical Music, the music used in the religious services of the Jews.

The Bible and the Talmud record that spontaneous music making was common among the ancient Jews on all important occasions, religious and secular. Hebrew music was both instrumental and vocal. Singing was marked by responsorial, antiphonal, and refrain forms, and singing and dancing were accompanied by instruments. The first instruments mentioned in the Bible are the kinnor, evidently a lyre similar to the kithara, and the ugab, possibly a vertical flute. Other instruments, more of ceremonial than of musical value, included the hasosra, a trumpet, and the shofar, a ram's or goat's horn, the least musical of all and the only one still in use.

When the kingdom of Israel was established, music was developed systematically. The part played by music in the Temple was essential and highly developed. New instruments were the nevel, a harp; the halil, possibly a double oboe; the asor, a 10-stringed instrument probably like a psaltery; and the magrepha, an instrument of powerful sound, used to signal the beginning of the service. Various types of cymbals originally used in the Temple were prohibited after its restoration. Ritual music was at first only cantillation, i.e., recitative chanting, of the prose books of the Bible. Later the prayers and biblical poetry were chanted, presumably in a modal system similar to the ragas of Hindu music or the maqamat of Arab music, i.e., melodies with improvisations.

After the destruction of Jerusalem under Roman rule in A.D. 70, much of the chant was preserved among congregations of Middle Eastern Jews and arguably remains intact today, but the instrumental music was lost when the dispersed peoples, as an act of mourning, ceased playing instruments. A system of mnemonic hand signs for traditional chant had been developed in the Temple, and after the Dispersion this became the basis for the development of a system of notation. In the 9th cent., Aaron ben Asher of Tiberias perfected the te'amim, or neginoth, a system of accent signs. His notation superseded all other systems and influenced the development of the earliest Christian neumes, which became a precise system, while the te'amim retained their vague character (see musical notation).

With the growth in importance of the synagogue came the rise of the chazan, or cantor. Among the Sephardic Jews in Arab-dominated Spain Arab music had great influence and was introduced into the synagogue. Later the Ashkenazim (Jewish communities that had their original European base in Germany) accepted some of the melodic forms of German folk song and Italian court song; this adaptation was more or less successfully opposed by traditionalists who reintroduced elements from the song of the Middle Eastern Jews. The post-Renaissance cantors developed a distinct type of coloratura, which was popular in 17th-century Europe.

In the early 19th cent., instruments were introduced into some German synagogues, and other changes resulted from adaptations of Christian music. In the reform movement of the 19th cent., the cantor was eliminated, the organ was employed, and Jewish hymns were written in the vernacular and often set to tunes of Protestant hymns. Reaction against this movement brought a more moderate reform in which the Viennese cantor Salomon Sulzer (180490) was an outstanding figure. Sulzer aimed to restore the traditional cantillation, but without improvisation, and to make use of new music composed for the synagogue. He used the organ and included hymns in the vernacular. Sulzer's compositions, together with those of Louis Lewandowski (1821-94), another great reformer and the leading cantor of his day in Berlin, form the basis of much modern synagogue music. In Eastern Europe, Hasidic influence was beginning in the late 18th cent. Two major Eastern European composers of traditional music were the Russian cantors Eliezer Gerowitch (1844-1914) and David Nowakowsky (1849-1921). In the United States, the reform synagogues make extensive use of hymns, mixed choirs and soloists, and organ compositions. There is a cantor in modern orthodox and conservative services but the organ is used only in some conservative services. Several 20th-century musicians, notably Ernest Bloch and Gershon Ephros, have composed new works for the reformed and traditional services, respectively.

See A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1967); A. M. Rothmüller, The Music of the Jews (tr. 1954, rev. ed. 1967); A. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (1969); E. Werner, A Voice Still Heard (1976).


Organized CHORAL music in ancient Jewish tradition

The Old Testament provides ample evidence of the existence of well-organized choral singing in ancient Israel. David, when he made preparations for bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, 'spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers with instruments of musick, psalteries and harps and cymbals, sounding, by lifting up the voice with joy' (1 Chronicles xv.16). Of the leaders appointed at that time, three were assigned the honour of signalling with cymbals, and 14 (eight with psalteries and six with harps) were designated to play the string instruments which constituted, then and later, the typical accompaniment for Jewish choral music. Chenaniah, appointed to supervise the singing, 'instructed about the song, because he was skilful' (1 Chronicles xv.22). He proved to be an able teacher; when the first Temple establishment was formally organized shortly afterwards, David found it possible to appoint 288 skilful Levite musicians -- 24 groups of 12, each group with its designated leader. For ordinary occasions these small groups may have served in rotation, but at more important ceremonies the entire body of Levite musicians performed.At the splendid ceremonies conducted at the dedication of Solomon's Temple, this already large choir was further augmented by the addition of 'an hundred and twenty priests sounding with trumpets ... the trumpeters and singers ... as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord' (2 Chronicles v.12--13).

Several times, during periods of apostasy or adversity, the Temple choir was disbanded, only to be restored subsequently to its original splendour. A choir school was maintained in which Chenaniah's successors trained generation after generation of cantors and choristers. The levitical choir was officially composed of only adult males, but Levite boys were allowed, probably in the role of apprentices, to add the sweetness of their voices to the singing. There is insufficient evidence to support the view held by some authorities that women were allowed to perform with the levitical singers, but, notwithstanding their probable exclusion from the official choir, women no doubt participated in the congregational acclamations and responses introduced into the singing of psalms. The choirs of many synagogues, though more modest in size and usually lacking accompanying instruments, were modelled on that of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Temple and synagogues, Jewish choral music, which was monophonic, was often performed responsorially or antiphonally. Certain psalms bear superscriptions which have been held to refer to performance by a soloist with responding chorus, and antiphonal singing is described in several biblical passages (e.g. Nehemiah xii.31--9). That the ancient practice of antiphonal singing was still in existence among Jews of the 1st century is shown by Philo of Alexandria's description of congregational antiphony as practised by a Jewish sect known as the Therapeutae (De vita contemplativa, 29):

They rise up together and ... form themselves into two choirs, one of men and one of women, the leader chosen from each being the most honoured and most musical among them. They sing hymns to God composed of many measures and set to many melodies, sometimes chanting together, sometimes antiphonally ... It is thus that the choir of the Therapeutae of either sex -- note in response to note and voice to voice, the deep-toned voices of the men blending with the shrill voices of the women -- create a truly musical symphony.

From: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians  (personal online subscription: $30.00 month.; $295.00 year.) This excellent general resource has several articles containing information on Jewish music. Music Ref ML100.N48

Also see: Oxford Companion to Music 1983.This two-volume encyclopedia contains several entries on various topics such as cantillation, folksong and Jewish hymns. Music Ref ML 100. N5 1983

PERFORMANCE PRACTICE in the Ancient Jewish Temple

The levitical Temple repertory was sung to the probably heterophonic accompaniment of instruments (see 3(i) above). The rubric 'selah' (Septuagint: 'diapsalma'), found in 39 psalms, possibly signified a break in the singing for prostrations (Smith, 1990, pp.173--4).

The forms of the singing were solo, choral and responsorial. Passages in Old Testament Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah show that the levitical choir sometimes had a director who also led the singing. The Mishnah contains descriptions of the levitical choir; it also mentions Hugras ben Levi who was in charge of the levitical song and a noted solo singer (Mishnah Sheqalim v.1, Yoma iii.11). Several psalms have refrains or are prefaced by the word 'halleluyah' that was used as a refrain; these features probably reflect responsorial performance. Similar forms of singing obtained away from the Temple, but without instrumental accompaniment. Released Jewish captives (see 3(iii) above) formed 'choral groups' for their singing (3 Maccabees vi.32, 35); a father sang psalms for his children (4 Maccabees xviii.15); at the domestic Passover meal the hallel was sung responsorially (Mishnah Pesahim x.4, 7); and there was solo, responsorial and choral song among the Therapeutae (Philo, De vita contemplativa x.80 and xi.83--9; see Smith, 1984).

In early Christianity, individual, corporate and responsorial unaccompanied singing is evinced inside and outside the New Testament (e.g. see Smith, 1984, pp.13--15). There is no clear evidence that the New Testament psalmodic material itself (see 4(ii) above) was sung. Three of the Odes of Solomon contain direct references to solo and corporate song (Smith, 1994, pp.13--14). The Hymn of Jesus was sung responsorially.

The earliest reference to psalm singing occurs in the late 2nd century in the Acts of Paul (see 4(i) above); the earliest references to solo, responsorial and choral psalmody occur at the turn of the 3rd century in the works of Tertullian (e.g. Apologeticum xxxix.16--18; De oratione XXV ii; Ad uxorem II, viii.8--9; see McKinnon, 1987, ̭74, 78, 80) and Hippolytus (e.g. Apostolic Tradition xxv; see McKinnon, 1987, 89). From this time onwards, and especially after Constantine's 'edict of toleration' of 313 CE, references become more frequent.

From: New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians  (personal online subscription: $30.00 month.; $295.00 year.) This excellent general resource has several articles containing information on Jewish music. Music Ref ML100.N48


Biblical Music

List of recordings of reconstructed music from the Bible (ancient Jewish music). From Listening to Medieval Music (University of North Florida).

Links to Jewish music research:

The Jewish National and University Library - Sound Archives. Hear MP3 versions of fragments of the Passover song Echad mi yodea in 12 different traditions.

Indepth information about Jewish culture and beliefs (these links are from BELIEVE)

Miscellaneous sites for Jewish Liturgical Music

Chazzanut Online (Comprehensive site on Jewish Liturgical Music (chazzanut), with a large collection of cantorial music scores, midi sound, annotated links and background information. ).

© 2001 Smith Creek Music

Site last updated: April 3, 2013