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Jewish Religious Music

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Music plays a particular role in the religious practice, since its aim is to accompany the services, as well as provide a means of expression of feelings and instants of life. Religious music consists of choir music and instrumental parts. However, in recent days, religious music has evaded the restricted environment of the Church and can be listened to at even at home, being available on CDs and cassettes.

An analysis of the Jewish religious music needs to go back in time, to the music performed in the Temple in Jerusalem. This served as an example of how the synagogue music should be later organized. According to historical documents, the Temple orchestra comprised twelve instruments and was accompanied by a choir of twelve men.

The destruction of the Temple and the spread of the Jewish population on the globe brought along a ban on the use of music in the synagogue. However, when the liturgical poems entitled ”piyyutim” became a regular issue of the service, it was common for the cantor to sing them according to specific tunes, which then became a part of synagogue music. Even though these liturgical poems preserve certain phrases which remind one of the services performed in the Temple, the added tune is rather customized according to the area where it is performed, instead of having a unitary form everywhere.

The oldest form of Jewish music is that used when chanting passages from the Torah. It is customary to have these melodies signaled by a sign printed above the respective passage in the Torah. However, which passages are chanted depends on the community itself, as there is no unitary approach in this regard. Another form of differentiation is the moment requiring the chanting – while it is common to chant passages such as the 10 commandments, other parts of the Torah are reserved for holy days, such as the Sukkot, Pesach and Shavu’ot or the Tisha B’av or the Purim.

The Renaissance witnessed several attempts to introduce composed music in the synagogue to accompany the service. Such initiatives were common among the Jewish communities of Western Europe, but did not receive sufficient follow-up in order to become a practice. At the time, the most famous Jewish religious compositions were those of Salamone Rossi from Mantua, who even published a book comprising psalms in a Baroque orchestration. These composition were later revived during the 19th century.

The 17th and 18th century witnessed the addition of a new instrument to the synagogue orchestra – the harpsichord. This was very common especially in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogues. Also, classical music became common in the synagogue, with composers such as Abraham de Casseres and Christian Joseph Lidarti responsible for providing it. It was also customary to organize an instrumental concert on Friday to get people in the spirit of the Sabbath and prepare them for the coming Friday evening service.

Naturally, the development of instrumental music as well as its gaining of more importance during the service depended to a large extent on the type of Jewish community. For instance, in the Ashkenazi community, the birth of a Jewish religious music dates back to 19th century Vienna, where Salomon Sulzer, a friend of Schubert, began composing music especially for the service to be performed in the synagogue. Other Ashkenazi centers where Jewish religious music was being composed where Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt. Also from the 19th century dates the presence of the organ in the synagogue and the spread of the use of both an orchestra and a choir during the service, although in some Orthodox communities the use of the organ is restrained only to specific events, such as weddings.

The 20th century Jewish religious music is represented by composers such as Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, Daniel Ben Shalom, Velvel Pasternak, Matisyahu and popular groups and choirs such as Pirchei, Miami Boys’ Choir, Toronto Pirchei, London School of Jewish Songs, Rabbis’ Sons, Rashi and the Rishonim, Simchatone, Ohr Chodosh, etc. The music produced by these combines religious influences with other ones, including reggae and feminist talk, which made it more mainstream, rather than purely religious music.

Given the more colloquial nature of this music, some parents, such as the Orthodox Jewish parents find it inappropriate for their children and replace it with music produced by Orthodox groups. The latter is composed by people from the community and contains traditionally religious messages put in a combination of English and Yiddish phrases.

Another form of Jewish music is represented by the chanting of prayers or of specific passages. For instance, the Amidah and the Psalms are sang in a recitative manner according to a specific tune. This tune is different from one community to another and is known as “nusach”. Also, depending on the type of Jewish community, there are several scales- “steiger”, used in the interpretation of the prayers. In the Ashkenazi community the most common scales are the “Adonoi moloch steiger” and the “Ahavoh rabboh steiger”, while the Syrian Jews of the Mizrahi communities are prone on using the “magam” system. Even these scales are different according to the season and the celebrated holiday, sometimes allowing for changes and improvisations in the tune and the melody, while other times the melody is a fixed one that is constantly replayed, no matter the difference in season and holiday.

Also, depending on the nature of the prayer – be it the Nishmat, the Kaddish or the Kedushah, the performer can engage in a more elaborate interpretation or transcribe it into a piece fit for a choir.

Taking everything into consideration it appears that Jewish religious music comprises both the music performed in the synagogue, as well as the more mainstream music that could be played at home, and that contains specific religious messages to be easily grasped by the listeners. However, in both cases, the approaches to this type of music differ based on the community they stem from, or on the type of celebration they are intended for. Nevertheless, the role of this type of music is highly important to the overall Jewish experience, which explains why the Jewish religious music survived through the centuries after the destruction of the Temple.

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