Pinchas Minkovsky

Pinchas Minkowsky1859 - 1924

Pinchas Minkowsky
1859 – 1924

Biographical details of this great Chazan are scarce. He was born at Byala Zherkov in Russia, the son of that city’s Chazan, Reb Motl Gody’s, a fine Baal T’fihlah as well as an outstanding Chazan, who served the Great Synagogue for forty-five years. The young Pinchas was married at the age of sixteen, and presumably had a family, but details are not known. He was descended on his mother’s side from the illustrious Talmudic scholar Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Heller, the “Tosephot Yomtov”. Chazan Minkovsky the younger died in Boston in 1924, and was interred in Philadelphia. He had enjoyed a great reputation in the many communities he served.Pinchas was a giant in the world of Chazanut, a personality who played a great role in the field of liturgical music and shaped a new approach to Chazanut and the Service – an approach of professionalism in music; an approach of seriousness in the task of Chazan. He personified great talent and ability in the research of Chazanut, was a Talmudical scholar, and a man who made a great impact upon all the Chazanim of his generation, and on those who were his students.

The writer and composer, Nathan Stolnitz, described Pinchas as “The greatest Chazan in knowledge and in music”, and mentions that during his lifetime Pinchas was crowned with the title “the king of Chazanim”. He had, for his choirmaster, for a major part of his time in Odessa, the world famous composer and conductor, David Nowakowsky, and a great deal of his success as a Chazan was due, no doubt, to Nowakowsky’s beautiful compositions.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Jewish life in the Ghettos was in a state of depression. Religion and traditions were in decline in the great cities, much of Jewish cultural activity had deteriorated. Thus Chazanut was robbed of its roots from which to draw  upon for its nourishment and sources of inspiration.

Although there were several outstanding Chazanim in Eastern Europe at that time, the great majority were selfstyled ‘Chazanim’, with little knowledge of music, especially Jewish Liturgical Music. The trend was to captivate the feelings of the ordinary people with easy and ‘catchy’ tunes and melodies of foreign origin. Tunes of non-Jewish character were applied to prayers, regardless of suitability. An example of this this can be found even today among Chassidim and the poem “L’chah Dodi”.

In many instances, Chazanim divorced themselves from the traditional ‘Nuschaot’ and Modes, and would improvise according to their mood, pouring out their hearts in a mournful fashion, even if the text was in omplete contrast.

Even the great composers of Jewish Liturgy, such as ShestopoL Naumberg, Lewandowsky and Nissan Blumenthal, were not then able to influence the many Chazanim of small and scattered congregations to perform their Services in the correct manner, and with the traditional Modes. They too, could not change the trend for singers to become Chazanim by virtue of their voices alone, without feeling the need to study Chazanut.

Pinchas was a beacon penetrating the darkness of his time. His talent in Chazanut and music was exceptional. As a child, he used to sing with his father, and continued studying both Torah and music. As a young man, he was termed “Iluy”, because of his acute and intense understanding of Talmud. After extensive religious studies, he went to Berditchev, which, at that time, was the metropolis of Chazanut, and studied with the famous Chazan ‘Nisi’ Belzer, who was among the first Chazanim in Eastern Europe to introduce choral singing in proper harmony, and was regarded as the ‘father’ of traditional Chazanut in the Ukraine. Later, Pinchas went to Vienna to study music in general, and from then on, began his interest in research. He occupied himself in every aspect which had any association with Liturgical Music.

Pinchas came at the opportune time to elevate the lowly standards of Chazanut, and to raise too, the status of the Chazan, as if history had waited for him to come and teach the theory of music and ‘Nuschaot Ha’T’fillah’ to his people in the Diaspora, which was essential for the betterment of Chazanut.

Pinchas was naturally graced with a talent for research. From his childhood, he had been raised and educated in the centres of Orthodoxy in a learned and pious environment. He became a research fellow, a critic and an historian, as well as a composer who brought methodical order to the singing of prayers. He knew how to avail himself of the great treasures and spiritual substance of the People of Israel, so he went out publicly to contradict the criticisms of many, in order to prove the existence of our ancient Jewish Music.

In the many articles which he wrote in several languages, he opposed the theory that, with the destruction of the Temple, our own music also disappeared, and that the Jews adopted the music of the nations where they lived. Minkovsky replied to those who denied the authenticity of Jewish Music: “N’ginat Yisrael was not an imitation of Egyptian Music after the Exile of Babylon, the Babylonians would not have asked the Jews in captivity ‘Sing unto us the songs of Zion’ (Psalm 137). However, we have to admit that Greek music which dominated a great part of the world in the period of the Greek Empire, also, in a certain measure, influenced Jewish Music. The Jews, as an intellectual people, have always searched for the beauty and greatness of the culture of other nations, and, no doubt, have taken some melodies (and ‘Motifs’) from the folk-music of the Greeks. This was a means of beautifying the religion, for the Jews could not compete with the great and mighty power and the resources of the Hellenic Empire whose culture, music and art, were at their highest”.

Pinchas was criticised by Professor Bresloy, an authority on Jewish Music, and who disapproved of the theory that our Music is really ‘authentic’. He argued that our music was not intended originally for those prayers which we use, because the words and the number of syIlabIes do not fit the rhythm.  “Thus,” says Bresloy, “we chant without rhythm, and many of our melodies resemble those of gypsies and other ancient tribes.”

Pinchas maintained that “the People of Israel composed the Slichot the Nigunim for Supplication and Lamentation, in times of trouble, distress and grief, when their fate was at stake. When they were persecuted, they found solace in the study of the Talmud and its ‘pilpulistic’ debates, which were accompanied with traditional tunes, handed down from generation to generation until today. They laid their trust in God, and their chanting of prayers would be spontaneous. A people who suffered in all our history of persecution, would not attempt to compose ‘prayer-motifs’ in proper rhythmic stanzas, because in all ‘Modes’ of our prayer, one can hear the sound of Semitic orientality, can feel the tremor of the voice and the echo of the mountains. The proof lies in the fact that in all our history, we retained the same melodies for our prayers, and if not the ‘same’ melodies, at least, the same Modes, which are full of longing and craving with the spirit of our suffering”.

He tries, further, to prove and establish a conclusion: “That our music stems from all the ‘Nuschaot Ha’T’fillah’, that is, the Modes of our prayers, which were not always based on rhythmic scales, and the proper fitting of the words in their rhythm, and which are not traceable to any particular period of our history”. Therefore, his conclusion is that they are and were the ‘Zimra’ and the ‘N’ginah’ of the Temple.

In one of his many articles on the origin of our ‘N’ginah’ in prayers, he expressed the view that in certain early periods in our history, there was an influence of Egyptian and Phoenician Music, but this influence did not diminish the fact that we had our own Music whose source was the singing of the Levites in the Temple.

Idelsohn, on the other hand, criticised Minkovsky, saying “Pinchas Minkovsky, late Chazan of Odessa, unfortunately wrote from an exceedingly subjective point of view, without considering the researches of others. He refers to some brief surveys which were written in the Judeo-Russian and Hebrew Encyclopaedias”. However, when writing about ‘Harmony in Jewish Music’, Idelsohn mentions Pinchas as ‘among the great composers’, saying “In only very rare cases do we find harmonic progression of Jewish character. For this artistic Jewishness we have to turn to the works of East European Chazanim such as Gerowitch, in whose compositions there is a wealth of Jewish harmony, with traditional material in the Synagogual Modes, ‘Ahava Rabba’, ‘Magen Avot’, and ‘S’lichah’ Modes, which are remarkable for their Jewish genuiness and their fine artistic conception. The same holds true with regard to the works of David Nowakowsky and Pinchas Minkowsky.


To return to Pinchas’s career; at the age of eighteen, he was already appointed successor to Chazan Spivak, and three years later, became the Chazan Rishon of the “Choral Synagogue” of Kishinev. After further study in Vienna, he sang in Kherson, Lemberg and Odessa. At the age of thirty, he decided to leave his native country, and spent three years at the ‘Kahal Adat Yeshurun’ Congregation of New York. Then, he was recalled to Odessa in 1892, as Chazan Rishon of the “Broder Shul”  – an office which he held for thirty years.
From 1880 until the 1920’s, the Jewish Community of Odessa was the second largest in the whole of Russia. This community had a considerable influence on the Jews of the country, especially through many institutions of learning. The rapid and constant growth of the Jewish population in the latter half of the nineteenth century was a driving force in the development of the cultural life in this community. One of the centres of Jewish life in Odessa was the “Broder Shul” , which served a great part of the Odessa community.

In 1891, after fifty years of service, Chazan Nissan Blumenthal retired from the “Broder Shul” of Odessa, and was succeeded by Minkovsky who, at the age of thirty-three, had gained a reputation as a Chazan of great talent. He possessed a beautiful lyric tenor voice, of a natural sweetness, though lacking in power. He avoided extraneous effects in singing, such as word-repetition, falsetto and needless coloratures. His style was a straightforward singing, but with the emphasis on interpretation of the prayers, and expression of religious feeling. he became a prominent member of the intellectual group which flourished in Odessa, headed by the grest poet Bialik. He lectured at the Jewish Conservatoire, was chairman of the “Hazamir ” (‘The Nghtingale’) music society, and published many articles on Chazanut and Jewish Music.

Having had a sound training in harmony and counterpoint, it was a great joy and satisfaction for him to find on his arrival at the “Broder Shul” as the choir director of this synagogue, the composer of Jewish music, David Nowakowsky. Pinchas began to feature Nowakowsky’s compositions in the Services of the Shul. His beautiful voice and musical intelligence enabled him to interpret the Chazan’s solos superbly. It was during the ‘Minkovsky-Nowakowskv period’ that the Shabbat Service in the “Broder Shul” acquired fame throughout Europe. Visitors to Odessa never missed the opportunity to listen to Pinchas’s singing, accompanied by the excellent choir of Nowakowsky. The two musicians inspired each other, and worked with absolute sincerity in their hearts. They raised the djgnity of the Service through the beauty of their music, and their listeners had both enjoyment and a spiritual uplift.

Hence, we understand Pinchas’s devotion to his position and his community. He succeeded in establishing the “Broder Shul” as an exemplary “Temple of Prayer”, based upon the traditional singing of ‘Nissi’ Belzer, his teacher, and upon the modern compositions of Nowakowsky. As a Chazan he was regarded as an example to all Chazanim of his time, as a ‘High Priest among Priests’. Perhaps that is why so many Chazanim had much regard and reverence for him, and why many named him “The King of Chazanim”.

Dr. J. Harris describes Pinchas’s Services thus: “He who has not been present in the “Broder Shul” during the ‘Kaballat Shabbat Service’, and did not have the privilege of hearing the beautiful rendering of Nowakowsky’s compositions, and felt the atmosphere which prevailed in this place while Chazan Minkovsky was singing with the choir, cannot grasp the true concept of a holy service in its highest meaning”.

Minkovsky did not utilise very high notes in order to impress, but, with his pleasant lyric voice, and the excellent choral sound which Nowakowsky produced with his choir, they merged together into the most beautiful and enchanting singing which encompassed all the worshippers, and gave them a spiritual enjoyment: they felt as if they were elevated into a sphere of splendour and majesty.

        (This article first appeared in the Cantors’ Review September/October 1979. It was submitted by Chazan J Landenberg)