Early History of Jewish Worship-2

Editors' note: Stefan C. Reif, Director of the Genizah Research Unit of the University of Cambridge, England, compares what is known of the worship practices of early Judaism with the liturgical evidence of ninth/tenth-century geonic Babylonia, contrasting the fluidity of the early period with the liturgical fixity of the latter. The evidence suggests a radical reconsideration of early rabbinic liturgy, according to which we must imagine a great deal more flexibility and creativity than has traditionally been assumed. He sums up what we know of the many strands of Jewish liturgy from their inception in the first few centuries of rabbinic culture and takes us briefly to the period in which liturgical traditions were consolidated into prayer books and rites that have proved lasting ever since. Of particular significance, he shows how the discoveries from the Cairo Genizah can illuminate our understanding of the process by which prayer books and rites evolved out of liturgical traditions.

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A Comparison of the Two Periods

If stock is now taken of these developments, it will become apparent that significant changes have occurred during the centuries between the Talmudic Period and the Middle Ages, and that they concern the theory, practice, and location of Jewish prayer and prayer customs. To begin with the first of these, it is no longer a matter of debate whether prayer has a central role in the theological priorities of rabbinic Judaism, and the stress is rather on finding all manner of justifications — historical, philosophical, and hatakhic — for the central role that it has come to occupy. The contradictions inherent in a pluralistic approach to liturgical expression have given way to the consistencies of a system in which clearcut definitions and applications iron such awkward creases out of the fabric of prayer.

Instead of limited guidance and extensive creativity, the worshiper is faced with the prospect of extensive guidance and limited creativity. A standard, hitherto vague and adjustable, has taken on a stricter form and makes demands for adherence. In sum, a text has emerged to replace what had for centuries been an oral medium, and the authoritative, written version now has a major relevance to discussions in which the previous consideration had been one of options.

A close examination of the practice is also instructive. Differences between versions are no longer the major matter that they were for the Talmudic Rabbis. Disputes now generally concern minor details, and, explode in number as these details might, they will not constitute significant variation until the modern period, when different considerations are destined to apply. While neither the need nor the method for distinguishing a prayer from a benediction or for institutionalizing popular forms of liturgical expression had been apparent to the amoraim, authorities are now laying down rules for the structure and content of prayer texts and applying these in an increasing number of contexts.

To be sure, Aramaic still has a place in the newly produced texts of the siddur but not of the same nature as before: once, the language of a prayer first depended on its original context and was then subject to change and exchange; now, Hebrew is to be dominant and, as far as popular Aramaic prayers are concerned, matters are frozen as they stand and arguments are offered in favor of the status quo, not just as such but as a sanctified tradition with a profound significance. The evidence from around the ninth century provides the first hints of a move from a widespread pluralism towards an authoritative format; the sources from around the twelfth century indicate the existence of a pull, however limited by the clearly expressed regulations, away from centralization towards regional autonomy of a sort.

In matters of location, too, the theme is one of transformation. The variety of centers — domestic, academic, and cultic — has given way to the dominance of the synagogue, which has absorbed the forms originally associated with these alternative loci. Whatever has been seen to be of lasting significance among the prayers and supplications of the individual has been incorporated into the communal rites. While, at the earlier stage, part of the emerging liturgy modeled itself on the practices of various individuals or groups of individuals, the position is reversed at the later stage, individuals having to follow much of the communal pattern when they choose to recite their prayers outside the synagogue. Ceremonial has also become an integral rather than an occasional element of synagogal worship, with the attendant adjustments in the physical and organizational structure.

What is even more interesting is that the educational and exegetical significance of the scriptural reading has, to a considerable extent, given way to its ritual and ceremonial function. It would appear that it has become more important to read precisely the relevant section of the Hebrew Bible, with or without its standard translation of one sort or another, than to engage in the public exposition of a suitable text. That latter exercise has acquired an existence independent of the formal biblical reading, though not necessarily of its detailed content, and has taken to including as much general, moral, and religious guidance as it does direct interpretation of verse after verse. [1]

Before an explanation is offered of what occurred in Jewish religious and literary history between the late talmudic and the immediate postgeonic periods that brought about such developments in the liturgy, it may clarify matters if some reference is made to the way in which previous generations, from as early as medieval times until current works of scholarship, have viewed the relationship between these two periods and to the new evidence that calls into question many of their presuppositions.

An earlier understanding of the situation — but an understanding still encountered today — has been that the text of the two Talmuds accurately reflects talmudic rather than geonic practice, and little attention is paid to the possibility that major editorial revision was undertaken at a time when liturgical customs had substantially been altered. Where technical terminology is employed, whether with regard to the prayers and benedictions themselves or to the synagogue, its functionaries and ceremonies, the natural tendency is to equate the sense borne in one generation with that used in another, and if the abbreviated title or introductory phrase of a prayer is encountered it is taken for granted that the full text, though not given, is substantially the same as it later came to be known.

Where the view of a talmudic authority does not accord with later custom, it is regarded as an individual quirk rather than the reflection of an existing practice, or it is somehow explained away. Sometimes it is forgotten that the talmudic system of presentation is not geared towards codification but is rather a dialectic method aimed at defining the issues and factors, and that when a decision is clearly recorded it may well be that of a post talmudic redactor. Above all, it is commonly presupposed that Jewish liturgical development consistently moves in one direction, either from the original, pristine form to various corruptions of it, or, indeed, from a variety of possibilities towards an authoritative version.

It is acknowledged that the siddur did not exist before about the ninth or tenth century, but at the same time its contents are regarded as a written version of what had already existed for an extended period in oral form. The geonim are viewed as the continuators of the talmudic tradition and credited with no more than the finalization of a textual, exegetical, and codificatory process that was already well under way some centuries earlier. Wherever any suspicion of creativity on their part is encountered, it is explained as a response to a particular set of circumstances, be they catastrophic or restrictive. The emergence and/or development in talmudic and posttalmudic times of such genres as midrash, targum, and piyyut are seen as the gradual accretion of creative expansions that actually come into conflict with the basic form of liturgy or lectionary to which they are added.

Differences in liturgical practice are attributed to geographical variation, such as the earliest one of Palestine and Babylon, and later rites are traced to one or other of these two original forms. As in the case of general historians who once interpreted the darkness of the "dark ages" as a reflection of the ignorance of those times rather than of their own lack of knowledge and understanding of that part of history, scholars of Judaic studies have supposed that the limited nature of their information about the geonic period may indicate that there was not much of significance to report and that the talmudic and medieval periods may conveniently be linked together without reference to any intermediate stage. [2]

Lest it be thought that the most novel of historical theories makes no assumptions based on its own attitudes rather than on the historical evidence, one may point out that we sometimes choose to forget or ignore the fact that the rabbis of all posttalmudic generations viewed everything in terms of halakhah. They were not biblical critics, midrashic analysts, or liturgical historians, but religious leaders anxious not only to interpret God's original word and current message but also to follow procedures for communicating with God in a way that could somehow be seen as authoritative and sanctioned by tradition. With our modern scientific approaches, we tend to overlook the fact that all Jewish religious developments had a practical, halakhic aspect to them, even if we are entitled to look beyond that and to theorize about their historical nature. [3]

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The Illumination Offered by the Cairo Genizah

That all these presuppositions may now be exposed as faulty and that some light may now be shed on the "dark" geonic ages are due to the discoveries made in the remarkable collection of documents from the Cairo Genizah. As is well known, some two hundred thousand fragmentary texts, many of them at least a thousand years old, survived in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the old section of Cairo and are today housed in famous libraries around the world, about three-quarters of them at Cambridge University Library. It is beyond dispute that these Genizah fragments represent the most important discovery of new source material for every aspect of scientific Hebrew and Jewish studies ranging from the early medieval period until the age of emancipation.

As they have been deciphered and identified, especially as a result of the work of the Cambridge Genizah Unit, previous ignorance has given way to detailed information and earlier theories have been drastically modified. Among the fields of research that are now benefiting most from these developments are the analysis of talmudic study in the geonic period, the history of Jewish Bible reading and exegesis at that time, and the emergence of posttalmudic Jewish liturgy. Although the majority of Genizah texts are generally dated from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, it is clear that there are a substantial number of earlier date and that in the nature of things the adoption of liturgical customs and rituals must anticipate their earliest recorded usage, even by some considerable time.

What is more, the authoritative sources cited from the eleventh and twelfth centuries refer to what their authors were clearly interested in establishing as the standard, while fragments from the Genizah provide evidence of practice at all levels, as much by the Jew in the pew as the rabbi in his code. The chronological range of material from the Cairo Genizah also makes it possible for the historian to obtain a more accurate overview of a great variety of activity rather than a narrow perspective based on the sight of a few specific landmarks. [4]

With regard to the Talmud, that overview is gradually indicating the major role played by the geonim in bringing all aspects of talmudic study, ideology, and practical guidance to the center of Jewish religious activity. It was they who transmitted, expounded, and perfected the traditions and ultimately made it possible for actual copies of texts to be circulated and for commentaries to be composed. In their heyday study circles became major academies; in these academies decisions were made for appending to long talmudic discussions, the first elementary codifications were drawn up, and responsa were dispatched to far-flung communities who sought advice on Jewish religious procedure.

The geonim constituted the essential link between the mass of source material available in the talmudic texts and the exploitation of that material for the construction of a system of Jewish law that could be comprehensively codified by such later scholars as Maimonides. [5]

The Genizah evidence that relates to biblical matters is no less revealing, although it may often have more to do with the Palestinian scholars than their Babylonian counterparts. Whatever the precise origins of the developments, it was in the geonic period that various systems of Hebrew vocalization were attached to the biblical text and that schools of Masoretes laid the foundations for what was ultimately to become a standard text of the Hebrew Bible but was yet far from it. It was also at that time that regulations came to be written down, as in Massekhet Soferim, for the writing of a Torah scroll. Such a wealth of lectionary variation has been uncovered that it can no longer be suggested that the talmudic rabbis, let alone their predecessors in the time of Jesus, followed specific systems that can today be clearly identified.

While it was once suggested that the bulk of known midrashim developed in the talmudic age and that an authoritative targum emerged at a similar time, the riches of the Genizah are now providing scholars with quite a different impression. All manner of midrashic and tugumic creativity in the geonic centuries is now being recorded, and it is only towards the end of that period, and perhaps in the century or two following it, that authoritative and standard versions may justifiably be recognized. [6]

And so to the numerous aspects of the synagogal liturgy that are preserved for us in thousands of Genizah fragments. Although there are fairly full versions of the prayers that can be attributed to such leading geonim as Saadiah and identified with what later became the norm, there are also previously unknown benedictions and prayer texts, some of them in flagrant contradiction of instructions recorded in the talmudic texts. One little-known, but remarkable example is the benediction for the public recitation of the second chapter of the tractate Shabbat on the subject of the Sabbath eve. Novel, messianic, and mystical "expansions" associated with the trishagion, the benedictions surrounding the Shema, and such domestic prayers as Kiddush, Havdalah, and the Passover Haggadah have come to light.

If it was once possible to state categorically that a certain type of text form was of the standard Babylonian kind while another was of its Palestinian equivalent, such a confidence is becoming progressively more misplaced. Having recently discovered significant variation within the liturgical practice of each of these major Jewish communities, scholars must now proceed with greater caution and, instead of referring to two standard forms with hybrid adaptations, are obliged to acknowledge a plethora of trends and tendencies, perhaps leading later to an attempt at arriving at one standard in various centers. [7]

It is not only in the realm of the messianic and the mystical that Genizah texts provide us with greater variety and more extensive content than is available from the standard sources and the later rites. The same situation applies with regard to the choice of language for some prayers and to the incorporation of piyyutim in others. It is no longer surprising to encounter an Aramaic version of a well-known Hebrew prayer or vice versa, and for the last half century it has been almost commonplace to discover new poems, unknown poets, novel uses of poetry, and unfamiliar poetic versions of familiar prose texts within liturgical settings being revealed among these worn but distinguished fragments. Above all, the existence of so many texts convincingly demonstrates that any remaining apprehensions about the dangers of committing prayer texts to writing have either been allayed or have given way to greater fears of the consequences of not doing so. [8]

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Having discussed the differences between Jewish liturgy as it was in the time of the talmudic rabbis and as it emerged in the postgeonic centuries, and having demonstrated the contrast between the assumptions made about the intervening, geonic period and the hard facts that have been revealed in the contents of the Cairo Genizah, it remains for this study to offer some explanation of what these facts indicate in terms of general liturgical development within the history of Jewish religious tradition.

The overall liturgical theme of the early geonic age was one of creativity and expansion. The basic foundations of rabbinic prayer, and Bible reading in its widest sense, having been laid down earlier, every opportunity was taken, perhaps especially in the tranquil periods of that age, to build all manner of structures. It is not clear whether at this stage piyyutim, midrashim, and targumim were, as has often been claimed, an intrinsic part of liturgy as such or were rather, as seems more likely, developments out of the original centrality of the biblical lesson. Either way, the tolerance and, indeed, encouragement of diversity applied among these genres no less than in the area of prayers and benedictions and the earliest Genizah texts are a reflection of the extent of that unregulated productivity. [9]

In liturgy, as in other manifestations of the Jewish religious tradition, there are of course crests and troughs of creativity, and periods of innovation are followed by years of conservative retrenchment in which yesterday's novelty is retained only because it has become today's established tradition. There are also inbuilt tensions within the liturgy between spontaneity and rigidity, synagogue and home, law and mysticism, Hebrew and vernacular, and brevity and protraction, to cite but a few, and at times laxity about the choice gives way to a strong stand about what represents the preferable alternative in each case.

Such changes appear to have occurred in the latter part of the geonic period and to have reached their peak in the century or two immediately afterwards. The theme then became one of standardization and consistency, and all the authority of halakhah was employed to ensure that variation from the established norm was kept to a minimum. [10]

This was not, however, the whole story. A process of ritualization also took place in which those paraliturgical activities associated with the study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible were virtually incorporated into the liturgy and given a ceremonial role. Particular parts of the poetic, exegetical, and mystical traditions were digested by the standard liturgy and other parts diverted to different functions. The centralization of Jewish worship according to the particular Babylonian rites acceptable to such figures as Saadiah was also undertaken, and what Hoffman has called the "canonization of the synagogue service" became a reality. [11]

The question yet to be answered is why this change took place. As with all historical developments, there were surely a number of factors. The new authority of the talmudic text and interpretation as laid down by the geonim; the success of the rabbinic leadership in spreading their religious ideas and practice to a wide body of the Jewish public; the need for a clearly defined response to the religious challenges of Christianity and Islam from without and Karaism from within; and the general intellectual atmosphere of the day which favored authority and centralization over variety and pluralism — there are strong grounds for regarding these influences as major. [12]

It is not, however, unlikely that the dominant theme is to be sought elsewhere. While the Jews had for many centuries attained high levels of literacy and had recorded various aspects of their religious teachings on papyrus and on leather scrolls, the rabbinic tradition had been a predominantly oral one, and there is a singular lack of manuscript evidence of any sort from the second to the ninth century. The versatile nature of the codex had already been recognized by the Christian community a few centuries earlier, but it would appear not to have been adopted by the Jews for their major corpora of talmudic and related traditions until some time between the seventh and ninth centuries. During that time, what had previously been restricted to oral circulation was committed to codices, and this produced precisely the effect that some rabbis feared and that others no doubt welcomed.

The authority of the written word now spread from the biblical field to its rabbinic counterparts; the bound volume became the medium for the dissemination of authoritative texts. As a result, what had previously been the exclusive terrain of the scholar became familiar ground to the literate Jew, and, by the same token, the attempts of the leading schools and champions of rabbinic Judaism to establish authoritative guidance for the populace could achieve success by the circulation of volumes newly composed and sanctioned by them. [13]

In the field of liturgy too, then, the codex became the medium for the transmission of authorized sets of prayers, and a process was initiated that was ultimately to lead to the siddur acquiring what amounted to a form of popular canonization. The existence of thousands of Genizah texts representing almost every area of the Jewish religious tradition provides ample evidence of the growing tendency to commit the relevant teachings to authoritative, written form, and it is perhaps in the light of this development that the later literary history of midrashim, piyyutim, and targumim should be viewed.

Once the emerging prayer book had chosen what it wished to include from these and other such fields, the remaining material gradually, or perhaps contemporaneously, formed itself into written corpora suitable for the codex and thereby moved from a paraliturgical function to a purely literary one. This may be a more controversial point; what is, however, beyond dispute is that the written prayer book preserved much of the centralized liturgical tradition of the leading Babylonian geonim long after the authority of those leaders had waned and the centers of Jewish cultural activity had moved elsewhere. [14]


This article is reproduced, in two parts, by permission of the author and the publisher, from The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship, University of Notre Dame Press. Professor Reif's further treatment of the broad field of Jewish liturgy in his volume Judaism and Hebrew Prayer published by Cambridge University Press in 1993 is and still available in paperback.

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[1] All this becomes progressively clearer when one traces and compares the attitudes to prayer and communal worship as they evolve in the earliest liturgical guides cited in n. 13 above. The writer hopes to return to a more detailed analysis of the theories underlying such attitudes in a future study. In the meantime, see David R. Blumenthal, "Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism," in idem, ed., Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times III, Brown Judaic Studies (Decatur, GA, 1988), pp. 1-16.

[2] The tendency to underestimate or virtually ignore the major geonic influence on the talmudic material itself and on the development of rabbinic liturgy is apparent not only in the relevant medieval works but also in Baer's Ayodat Yisrael and in many aspects of the modern scientific treatments cited above. Although questioned in the Hebrew edition (p. 204), Elbogen's lead is followed by many scholarly and semischolarly works, and the liturgical innovation and productivity of the talmudic and medieval periods are viewed as vastly superior to what emerged in the geonicera. Interestingly, Baron makes a much more favorable assessment of liturgical creativity at that time (Social and Religious History VII [1958], pp. 62-134).

[3] If I have a criticism of Hoffman's Beyond the Text, it is encapsulated in the fact that in a wideranging study of Jewish liturgy covering history, theology, sociology, and linguistics, the word halakhah does not have to make a single appearance in the index.

[4] Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972) XVI, 1333-42; S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society I (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967), pp. 1-28; idem, Religion in a Religious Age (Cambridge, MA, 1974), pp. 3-17, 139-51); Stefan C. Reif, A Guide to the Taylor-Schehter Genizah Collection (Cambridge, 1973, 1979; Genizah Collections at Cambridge University Library" (Hebrew), Te'udah I, ed. M.A. Friedman (Tel-Aviv, 1980), pp. 201-6; idem, "The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit," in Newsletter no. 19 of the World Union of Jewish Studies (August, 1981): 17-21; idem, "1898 Preserved in Letter and Spirit," The Cambridge Review 103, no. 2266 (29 January, 1982): 120-21; idem (with G. Khan), "Genizah Material at Cambridge University Library," Encyclopaedia Judaica Year Book 1983/85 (Jerusalem, 1985), pp. 170-7 1; and idem, Published Material from the Cambridge Genizah Collections: A Bibliography 1896-1980 (Cambridge, 1988), introduction.

[5] S. Abramson, Bamerkazim Uvatefutsot Bitekufot Hage onim (Jerusalem, 1965) and Inyanot Besifrut Hage onim (Jerusalem, 1974); D. M. Goodblatt, Rabbinic Instruction in Sasanian Babylonia (Leiden, 1975); Tsvi Groner, The Legal Methodology of Hai Gaon, Brown Judaic Studies (Decatur, GA, 1985); R. Brody, "The Testimony of Geonic Literature to the Text of the Babylonian Talmud," a Hebrew paper delivered at the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in 1985 and scheduled for publication in a collection of essays by the Talmud department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

[6] Israel Yeivin, Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah (Missoula, MT, 1980); idem, "Masorah" in Encyclopaedia Judaica XVI, 1401-82; J. Mann, 1. Sonne, and B. Z. Wacholder, The Bible as Read and Preached in the Old Synagogue (Cincinnati, 1940, 1966, 1971); Z. M. Rabinovitz, Ginzi Midrash (Tel-Aviv, 1976); Stefan C. Reif, "A Midrashic Anthology from the Genizah," in J. A. Emerton and Stefan C. Reif, eds., Interpreting the Hebrew Bible (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 179-225; Michael L. Klein, Genizah Manuscripts of Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch (Cincinnati, 1986).

[7] N. Wieder, "Berakhah Bilti Yeduah," Sinai 82 (1978): 197- 221. The many recent articles of N. Wieder and E. Fleischer in Sinai and Tarbiz have taken much further the earlier seminal work of Jacob Mann and the important contributions of Joseph Heinemann. See also M. Margaliot, Hilkhot Eretz Yisrael min Hagenizah, ed. 1. Ta-shema (Jerusalem, 1973), pp. 127-52. Among younger scholars, see Tsvi Groner, "Haberakhah al Havidui Vegilguleha," BarIlan Annual 13 (1976): 158-68, and Genizah Fragments, no. 13 (1987): 2; Lawrence A. Hoffman, Canonization of the Synagogue Service; Stefan C. Reif, "Festive Titles in Liturgical Terminology" (Hebrew), Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1986), Division C, pp. 63-70; M. Bar-Ilan, The Mysteries of Jewish Prayer and Hekhalot (Hebrew; Ramat Gan, 1987).

[8] The pioneering efforts of M. Zulay and J. Schirmann and individual publications by A. Habermann and A. Scheiber have now been substantially supplemented by E. Fleischer in such works as his The Yozer: Its Emergence and Development (Hebrew; Jerusalem, 1984). See also M. Sokoloff and J. Yahalom, "Aramaic Piyyutim from the Byzantine period," JQR 75 (1985): 309-21; W. J. van Bekkum, The Qedushta'ot of Yehudah according to Genizah Manuscripts (Groningen doctoral dissertation, 1988).

[9] In addition to the work of the scholars cited in the previous note, and that of Petuchowski and Heinemann cited in notes 3-5 above, see the relevant essays by A. Shinan and J. Yahalom in The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, pp. 97-126; and by Barry W. Holtz in Back to the Sources, pp. 176- 21 1; and Gary G. Porton, Understanding Rabbinic Midrash (Hoboken, NJ, 1985).

[10] Jakob J. Petuchowski, Understanding Jewish Prayer (New York, 1972); Reif, "Early Liturgy of the Synagogue"; idem, "Some Liturgical Issues."

[11] Hoffman's work, Canonization of the Synagogue Service, is an important contribution to our understanding of this process, although he has probably been too ambitious in attempting to identify precise and discrete trends within particular timespans and on the part of individual authorities.

[12] For the general history of the period see Baron's Social and Religious History, III-VIII (New York, London and Philadelphia, 1957-1958); Haim H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People (London, 1976); Cecil Roth, The World History of the Jewish People (London, 1966).

[13] M. Haran on scrolls in Eretz Yisrael 16 (1982): 86-92; JJS 33 (1982): 161-73; 35 (1984): 84-85; HUCA 54 (1983): 111-22; 56 (1985): 21-62; M. Beit-Arid, Hebrew Codicology; C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London, 1983); Stefan C. Reif, "Aspects of Mediaeval Jewish Literacy" in Rosamond McKitterick, ed., The Uses of Literacy in Early Mediaeval Europe (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 134-55.

[14] The writer gratefully acknowledges the assistance received from Dr. Robert Brody during his year as a Visiting Research Associate at the Genizah Research Unit (1987-1988) as well as the most efficient data-base management demonstrated by his wife in the preparation of this paper.

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