Jewish Liturgical Music - Part 1

This survey summarizes three millennia of Jewish liturgical music, from countries as diverse as Yemen and Germany, and is influenced by musicological trends that go back to the father of Jewish musicology, Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (1882-1938) [1]. Idelsohn can now be criticized for his overzealous attempts to trace different musical traditions back to a common layer as early as the Second Temple and before. Moreover, much of his masterwork, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development [2], including his theory of the modes, needs a thorough revision. Yet even with these shortcomings, he remains today the exemplary scholar in the field. His Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies [3] is still the most important anthology of Jewish chants and songs.

Evident also is the influence of my own teachers and colleagues, such as Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Hanoch Avenary, and the members of the Jewish Music Research Center in Jerusalem. It may also reflect the biased view of the author as a practicing Ashkenazi[4] cantor, and the pedagogical habits of a teacher who is constantly forced to simplify (perhaps oversimplify) the issues for his students. The survey is confined to the musical practices of "rabbinic" Judaism. It does not include Samaritan, Karaite, and Ethiopian liturgical music because these traditions require special studies of their own.

A firm foundation to the present study and to Jewish liturgical music itself is to be found, of course, in the Bible.

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Music in Biblical Times

It is doubtful whether the early periods of the Bible, before the establishment of the Temple worship, have any influence biblical on our liturgical music today. Nevertheless, some early biblical references allude to the liturgical music of ancient ceremonies.

The Bible presents severe problems for the student of Israel's ancient liturgical music [5], not the least of which is the fact that we can only guess what biblical music sounded like. No precise musical notation indicated melody and rhythm until the thirteenth century. Moreover, music is far from the Bible's center of interest, so descriptions of music are scanty; allusions to instruments, obscure. To some extent, we interpret scriptural information from traditional interpretations of the text and the reappearance of the Bible's musical terms in later sources. Such later sources, however, are insufficient and, at times, even misleading. [6] We prefer, therefore, to apply historical and etymological analyses derived from comparisons of ancient translations, such as the Aramaic targum or the Greek Septuagint, or evidence from archeological findings. Alternatively, we consult ancient Christian sources and ethnomusicological studies of the living Semitic cultures of the Middle East, such as that of the Bedouins of the Negev and Sinai deserts. [7]

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Ceremonial Music in the Patriarchal Period

The Bible's description of the patriarchal period mentions no liturgical music at all. Instead, music is either connected to family and folk celebrations or described as a means to invoke divine inspiration. Genesis 31:26, for instance, records Laban's protest to Jacob that had he known that Jacob was intent on leaving him, he would have sent him on his way with songs and instrumental music. The text alludes to a farewell ceremony which was probably common among the ancient nomadic tribes. Laban mentions two musical instruments: tof (probably a kind of tambourine similar to the Arabic daf) and kinnor (probably a kind of lyre). These, together with the ugav (perhaps an ancient reed instrument such as the Greek aulos), constituted the main musical instruments of the patriarchal period. The kinnor and the ugav were associated with Jubal, the mythical father of music (Gen. 4:21), and were perhaps considered men's instruments. The tof, on the other hand, was associated with women's dance songs (mecholot), such as Miriam's song at the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20). [8]

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The Period of Settlement

The sojourn in Egyptian contact with Egyptian culture may have influenced the music of the Israelites. The silver trumpets of the tabernacle were probably similar to those found in Egyptian tombs; other instruments were perhaps imported from Egypt, especially during the reign of King Solomon. [9] Egyptian songs, too, may have influenced those of the Israelites, and the worship at the Shiloh Temple may have borrowed musical practices from Egyptian or Canaanite worship. That none of this is mentioned in the books of Joshua and Judges is perhaps due to internal censorship that reflects the Bible's rejection of these other cultures.

The book of Joshua is little concerned about music. Despite the story of the fall of Jericho (Josh. 6), the sound of the shofar, the ram's horn, was never considered music; rather, it was, and still is, regarded as a sacred signal of alarm and remembrance. Only two poetic lines appear in the book (Josh. 10:12-13), and they quote the lost "Book of Yashar, " which may have been a compilation of ancient poems or ballads, including a longer version of David's lament over Saul and Jonathan (see 2 Sam. 1:18). In the ancient world, such poetry was usually sung or chanted during civil or religious ceremonies.

The books of Judges and Samuel contain a few references to music and dance. Women welcome victorious leaders with song and dance (Judg. 11:34; 1 Sam. 18:6; and Deborah's song, Judg. 5); young women dance in vineyards at Shiloh during the festival celebrations (Judg. 21:19-23); a "company of prophets" descends from the sacred shrine prophesying to the accompaniment of a nevel (a stringed instrument of uncertain identification), tof, chalil (the pipe), and kinnor; a musical boy, David, plays the kinnor before Saul to relieve the king from his melancholy (I Sam. 16:23); leaders and prophets recite (probably chant) political speeches and moralizing fables (Judg. 9:7-20, 1 Sam. 15:22-23, 2 Sam. 12:1-4); people sing laments over the death of their heroes (2 Sam. 1:17-27 and 3:33-34).

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Secular Music in the Kingdoms of Judea and Israel

The Bible's few allusions to secular music comment with reproach. But even these scanty references indicate that the people, especially the upper classes, had a vivid musical culture. Amos (ch. 6) describes what was perhaps a typical feast of the rich people of Samaria, with fat food, wine, rich ointment, song, and instrumental music. Isaiah (5:11-12) relates a similar scene in Judea. Later still, Job depicts the wicked as playing the tof, kinnor, and ugav. Instrumental music is also associated with mourning; Jeremiah (48:36) uses the sound of pipes (chalils) as a simile of his mocking lamentation of the fate of Moab.

Generally the prophets associate music with the general corruption of the rich; Isaiah (23:15-16) even connects it with harlotry. Perhaps the only verses that show a positive attitude towards secular music are Jeremiah 31:4 and 13, which foresee the restoration of song and dance as part of the future redemption of Israel. We know little for sure about the relationship between sacred and secular music in ancient Israel, but I think that the two did not differ much in ancient times and that they strongly influenced each other.

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Sacred Music in the First Temple

Sacred music first receives an important role with the biblical narration of King David's life. Music as a part of the regular worship is not mentioned in the Bible before David. Earlier description of the divine worship mention only the blowing of the shofar and trumpets over the sacrifices, but these were nonmusical, priestly functions. The story relating the transfer of the holy ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6, 1 Chron. 6:16-17), however, describes music for the first time as an integral part of the worship. Some discrepancy exists between the two versions of the story, yet both suggest the use of string, wind, and percussion instruments along with singing and dancing.

Jewish psalmodic formulas vary from one community to another, and they are in general more complicated than their Roman Catholic counterparts. Usually, two recitation tones are used, a higher one for the first hemistich and a lower one for the second. These tones are frequently embellished with many other auxiliary notes.

It is quite difficult to ascertain from the current Jewish and Christian examples how the original psalmodies sounded. Nevertheless, the structure of the text and the need for a simple formula for the execution of many verses of a similar structure may assure us that the psalmody of the Temple was at least in principle very similar to some current formulas. Many scholars believe that the medieval Jewish and Christian formulas branched off from the ancient patterns of the Temple. Yet it is also possible that the formulas that we can hear now in synagogues and churches developed independently. The similarity of the structure might testify, not to the migration of the ancient chants, but to the structural strength of the psalm verses themselves. In other words, if you would have to invent a melodic pattern to fit the numerous psalm verses that have to be chanted in the liturgy, you would have no choice but to create a psalmody that in principle would closely resemble existing Jewish or Christian formulas.

While we may have some idea about the singing of the psalms, we have very little knowledge of the musical instruments in the Temple and their function. The Book of Psalms contains many obscure terms, either in the psalm titles or in the psalms themselves. Of these, some may refer to instruments or to instrumental music. Thus, for instance, the term asor (Ps. 92:4), or nevel asor (Pss. 33:3 and 144:2) may mean a ten-string harp or kithara, whereas the term sheminit (Pss. 6:1 and 12: 1) may again mean an eight-string instrument of the same family; but we are unable now to describe the instrument or its musical qualities.

Some terms present special problems of interpretation. Jewish tradition understands the word selah as "forever." Yet the Septuagint translated it as diapsalma, that is, a sort of instrumental interlude between verses or a postlude for the entire psalm; and some medieval Jewish commentators concur. [10]

Interestingly enough, dancing is not mentioned as part of the worship in the First Temple. King David's dance before the ark (2 Sam. 6 and I Chr. 16) is an exception rather than a precedent.

Sacred music was also used outside of the Temple, in coronation ceremonies and in wars. Thus Jehoshaphat is reported using Levite singers in his war against the Ammonites (2 Chr. 20). The singers lead the army into battle and head up a victory procession into Jerusalem with the regular Temple instruments. Temple music, similar to that of Jerusalem, may have existed in other centers of worship such as Beth El and Dan, or even in less important "high places."

As is suggested by Psalm 137, the "Song of Zion," must have been famous even beyond the Land of Israel. But contrary to what could be deduced from the same psalm, the exiled Levites by the rivers of Babylon did sing the Lord's song on foreign soil; or at least they transmitted it in other ways to later generations who restored it to Second-Temple worship. The same returning generations may also have heard the rich music of the Babylonian temples and been influenced by it, just as they borrowed also the new Assyrian script and the Babylonian calendar.

One hundred twenty-eight Levite singers, "the sons of Asaph," are said to have returned from the Babylonian exile (Ezra 12:41). Moreover, during the inauguration of the rebuilt Temple, the priests blew the trumpets and the Levites played the cymbals and sang King David's Psalms (Ezra 3:10-13). Nehemiah (12:27-43) describes in detail the inauguration of the wall of Jerusalem with a grand processional of two groups of priests and Levites who marched in opposite directions on the wide wall, blowing the trumpets, singing and playing the cymbals, and plucking their nevels and kinnors.

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Music in the Second Temple

Rabbinic literature recalls worship at the Second Temple, especially after its reconstruction by King Herod. To the extent that these recollections are valid, we can say that the Temple choir consisted of at least twelve Levites "and their number could be increased without end." Young Levites could serve as choir boys "to add sweetness to the melody" (M. Arak. 2:3-6). The psalms were still the main hymns and were probably still sung antiphonally, responsorially, or as a litany (B. Suk, 38b). Each day is said to have had a psalm of its own (M. Tamid 5:4):

Day Psalm
Sunday 24
Monday 48
Tuesday 82
Wednesday 94
Thursday 81
Friday 93
Saturday 92

The Levites are credited also with developing various techniques of virtuoso singing. It was said of Hugras the Levite that when he sang his virtuoso passages he inserted his thumb into his mouth and placed his index finger under his nose, and that by this means he was able to produce unusual tones that used to astonish the attending priests. [11]

The instrumental music at the Second Temple seems to have been richer than that of the First Temple. The orchestra consisted of two to six nevels (probably kitharas), nine or more kinnors (lyres; the maximum number was limitless), two to twelve chains (pipes, perhaps shawms of the aulos type), and one cymbal. The priests blew the shofar and at least two trumpets. They also sounded the magrefah (the rake used for clearing the ashes of the altar) by throwing it forcefully on the ground in order to signal the beginning of the Temple Worship. [12]

Summarizing the Mishnah, Idelsohn describes the main musical worship, which — as in the First Temple — was part of the morning sacrifice. "After the priests on duty had recited a benediction, the Ten Commandments, the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), the priestly benediction (Num. 6:22-26), and three other benedictions, they proceeded to the offerings," after which, "one of them sounded the Magrefah... the signal for the priests to enter the Temple to prostrate themselves, whereas for the Levites that sound marked the beginning of the musical performance. Two priests took their stand at the altar immediately and started to blow the trumpets... After this performance, they approached Ben Arza, the cymbal player, and took their stand beside him, one at his right and the other at his left side. Whereupon, at a given sign with a flag by the superintendent, this Levite sounded his cymbal, and all the Levites began to sing a part of the daily psalm. Whenever they finished a part they stopped, and the priests repeated their blowing of the trumpets and the people present prostrated themselves." [13]

Usually, during the sacrifices and in some festive processions, only the trumpets were blown; but on New Year's Day and on fast days, the shofar was sounded together with the trumpets (M. RH 3:3-4) in very stylized manner, utilizing two particular sounds: tekiyah, a plain sustained sound, and teruah, a trill or a tremolo. [14] On weekdays seven rounds of this order were performed by the trumpeters: one for the opening of the Temple gates at dawn, three at the morning sacrifice, and three at the afternoon sacrifice. On Sabbaths, New Moons and festivals three rounds were added at the additional sacrifices. On Friday afternoons, two special rounds were sounded to announce the beginning of the Sabbath (M. Suk. 5:5).

The best time to hear the music of the Temple was probably during the celebrations of the water libation at the festival of Sukkot. The festivities took place at night and included singing and dancing of all assembled (the only occasion when dancing in the Temple is mentioned in the sources), as well as acrobatic feats performed with torches. The Levites formed a huge choir and orchestra "with innumerable musical instruments" that stood on the fifteen steps that led from the men's section to the women's. They sang psalms of praise, perhaps the fifteen Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 121-135 (M. Suk. 5:4).

The postbiblical sources tell us little about the role of music in domestic sacred ceremonies. Singing and dancing is mentioned here and there but no details are given. The most frequently mentioned musical instrument is the chalil, a reed instrument of the aulos family which was used at weddings and funerals (M. B.M. 4:1; Matt. 9:23 and 11:17; Luke 7:32). It was held that "even the poorest of Israel should hire not less than two chalils and one wailing woman" for his wife's funeral. [15]

Credits

This page is reproduced, in three parts, by permission of the author and publisher in three parts from "Jewish Liturgical Music from the Bible to Hasidims" by Eliyahu Schleifer, in Sacred Sound and Social Change: Liturgical Music in Jewish and Christian Experience published by University of Notre Dame Press.

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[1] See Yuval 5 (1986), the Abraham Zvi Idelsohn memorial volume, especially Eliyahu Schleifer, "Idelsohn's Scholarly and Literary Publications: An Annotated Bibliography," pp. 53-180.

[2] Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (New York, 1929; 1967).

[3] Published between 1914 and 1933, in German as Hebrsch-orientalischer Melodienschatz. A Hebrew version covers vols. 1-5, and the English version all but vols. 3-5. Details in Schleifer, "Idelsohn's Publications," pp. 63-92.

[4] In general, Ashkenazi Jews trace their cultural roots to Germany, while Sephardi Jews hark back to Spain. See below for fuller definitions.

[5] See Alfred Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel (New York, 1969).

[6] Modern Hebrew usage is especially misleading: e.g., kinnor, "violin."

[7] For a masterful study of this kind, see Bathja Bayer, "The Biblical Nebel," Yuval 1 (1968): 89-131.

[8] Possibly, however, machol, which appears together with tof, indicated some kind of flute. Tuppim umecholot (Exod. 15:20) would then mean tambourines and flutes, perhaps similar to the ancient "tabor and pipe."

[9] Under the directorship of Moshe Gorali, an attempt was made by the Haifa Music Museum and Amli Library to reconstruct the trumpets and other biblical instruments. See the catalogue, Music in the Ancient World (The Haifa Museum of Ancient Art, Spring 197 1). These reconstructions, however, cannot be considered final and authoritative. Moreover, at best, all we can reconstruct is the instrument, not the sounds that were produced by the ancients.

[10] On other related problems, see Bathja Bayer, "The Tides of the Psalms: A Renewed Investigation of an Old Problem, "Yuval 4 (1982): 29-123, and the vast bibliography there.

[11] Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah, ch. 3.

[12] The magrefah was erroneously identified in ancient sources and modern interpretations as an organ of the Roman hydraulos type. See Bathja Bayer, Encyclopedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971), vol. 12, cols. 1452-53. In an unpublished article read at the Tenth Congress of Jewish Studies, August 1989, Bayer sums up the evidence showing that the magrefah was nothing but the rake, and that the term could not have been used for an organ of any type.

[13] Idelsohn, Jewish Music, pp. 18-19.

[14] A third sound, shevarim, was probably added after the destruction of the Temple.

[15] M. Ket. 4:4. See Hanoch Avenary, "'Flutes for a Bride or a Dead Man': The Symbolism of the Flute According to Hebrew Sources," Orbis Musicae 1/1 (August 1971): 11-24.

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