More on Liturgical Music…

As I mentioned before, I wrote a paper on Jewish Liturgical music for a class I was taking last semester. I found the topic very fascinating and had some interesting experiences while researching! The paper was quite long, so I thought it might be interesting to post a few re-vamped excerpts. Enjoy!

Judaism is complex because it is not only a religion but a nationality as well. It is an identity the Jew feels the weight of wherever he goes, and this affects every aspect of his daily life. The life of an observant Jew is centered around his religion, which is highly based on liturgy, ritual and tradition not only in the synagogue itself but in the everyday rhythm and schedule of the daily prayers. The music of the liturgy is based primarily in the synagogue and so this is where one must start when looking at the development of this particular art form.

Music has played a role in the Jewish worship service since Biblical times, and so this liturgical development begins in the Middle East where we see the first origins of Jewish music.[1] Much of what we see in Jewish music today stems originally from its surrounding countries and has changed and developed along with the history and cultures of those countries.[2] The music we see and hear today is based on what Jewish music scholar Abraham Idelsohn describes as “semitic-oriental.”[3] Idelsohn was one of the first notable authorities on Jewish music still referenced today, and because of his extensive research, collecting, and documentation of topics pertaining to Jewish music study we have a starting point for what we know today. In his writings he gives us some basic characteristics of this musical style. This music is characterized by modes which are made up of motives, giving 16 basic modes which he says are popular in the Near East,[4] and other characteristics he references are, absence of rhythm, focus on ornamentation, basis on quarter-tones, an absence of harmony, and a highly improvisational style.[5] The modes historically have been mainly vocal, orally transmitted, and have traditionally excluded women.[6] With this type of music the minor is not considered sad, but the “moods are rather expressed by the rhythmical construction of the motives.”[7]

The Jewish Talmud states that “…the Bible should be read in public and made understood to the hearers in a musical, sweet tune.”[8] In the synagogue we see the use of what is known as cantillation. Miriam-Webster defines this as “to recite with musical tones.”[9] In his book Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer, which is a compilation of essays based upon his extensive research and expertise as scholar and teacher, Macy Nulman, who has lectured and taught in musical capacities at both Yeshiva University and Brooklyn College highlights the necessity of this idea when he states that “Biblical Cantillation, the oldest source of Jewish music, is required for anyone who reads the Scriptures without a tune shows disregard for them and their laws,” and “Moreover, it is through the medium of melody and song that the Sabbath brings joy and peace, enriching the mind and gladdening the soul.”[10]

Traditionally, there are specific modes which are used for specific parts of the liturgy, and there are Biblical modes for chanting the books of the Bible while there are also prayer modes for the specific prayers of the liturgy.[11] Even inside of these different modes one sees further differentiations inside the Torah as well as different styles based on different countries and regions.[12] Ismar Elbogen, a prominent Jewish scholar of the late 19th century authored a detailed history of the Jewish liturgy which is still referenced today and gives considerable insight into both the musical and nonmusical aspects of the liturgy. His book, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History, has been called “…the most exhaustive compendium of factual information about the Jewish liturgy.”[13] This work, while first published in the early 20th century, remains an authority on the subject, and its relevance to music scholarship today is clearly seen with its extensive historical information as well descriptions and examples. Raymond P. Scheindlin, who translated the work in the late 1990s, describes it as “…a work of pure scholarship, yet at the same time it is a contribution to the urgent debate on the future of Jewish religious life.”[14] Elbogen speaks to the modal differentiations in saying that the Torah is chanted differently from the books of the Prophets, and books such as Lamentations and Esther are different as well, along with even further variations depending on specific passages and days.[15] There are significant markings in the text which indicate the manner in which it is to be sung and many prayers and special Sabbath and festival portions have relegated melodies and modes.[16]

The Jewish liturgy itself is a complex body made up of many different parts whose development and codification has taken a tremendous amount of time and does not remain static today. There is not one specific word for the whole liturgy, but the different parts are each labeled according to their function and meaning.[17] There are “benedictions and prayers (berakhot and tefilot) established, according to the tradition…” and they “…designate prayers of every type.”[18] These are contained in the Siddur, or prayer book. There is not one universal prayer book, but countless translations and editions, and these also vary from denomination to denomination. A Siddur used by an Orthodox Jew will be different from one seen in a Conservative or Reformed synagogue. There is, however, an official and prescribed order of liturgy and statutory prayers which are largely universally similar with the biggest changes being seen in the service of the Reform movement.”[19]

The poetry of the liturgy is known as piyyut, which can broadly refer to the entire genre itself while some of the poetry has more specific terms depending on different criterion.[20] Elbogen says that the word piyyut could denote “…every type of sacred poetry” but it has come to refer to “poems of hymnic character, poems containing praise and thanksgiving, whether of general content or dealing with nature or history.”[21] The term seliha is used for “elegies, penitential prayers, confessions of sin, and lamentations, together with the petitions and expressions of hope attached to them.”[22] While there is some controversy surrounding the development of piyyut [23] the “Period of Piyyut” is thought to have begun around 550.[24] At this time, while the statutory prayers were being codified and there was a rise in written prayer books, the piyyut continued to develop.[25] The rise of piyyut was deeply impacted by the growth of Islam and one can see heavy Arabic influence in the poetic styles and forms.[26] Since poetry is an art form, one of the complaints with its addition into the liturgy was that it sometimes overshadowed the prayers and this was seen as a problem which at times resulted in conflict.[27] However, the importance of the poetry in the liturgy was growing and had many anonymous contributors which scholars have now divided up into distinct poetical eras.[28]

[1] AZ Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development (NY: Tudor Publishing Company, 1944), 3.

[2] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 3.


[3] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 24.

[4] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 24.

[5] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 24-28.

[6] Idelsohn, Jewish Music. 28.

[7] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 28.

[8] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, 35.

[9] Cantillate.” Accessed December 14, 2017.


[10]  Nulman, Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer, 11.

[11]  Ismar Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1993), 382.

[12]  Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 382.

[13]  Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, xi.

[14]  Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, xii.

[15] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 382.

[16] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 382-283.

[17] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 5.

[18] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 6.

[19] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 165.

[20] Elbogen, Jewish liturgy, 167.

[21] Elbogen, Jewish liturgy, 167.

[22] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 177.

[23] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 233.

[24] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 219.

[25] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 219.

[26] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 224.

[27] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 234.

[28] Elbogen, Jewish Liturgy, 239.

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