JPSTA – Part 1



(Note: This series of articles first appeared in two editions of the Cantors’ Review, 1976. They provide an excellent overview of the development of Synagogue Music, and the rise of the professional Chazan. They were reproduced in that publication with the permission of the Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem )



Music has accompanied Jewish worship from its very inception. The Book of Exodus already records the exultant song that Moses and the Israelites sang in praise of God after the crossing of the Red Sea. Indeed, the song of Moses’ sister together with the womenfolk was accompanied by instrumental music and by dancing. “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing”. In the First and Second Temples, centuries later, both singing and instrumental music adorned the divine service. And, as has been noted, many of the chapters of the Book of Psalms which were reeited in the Temples seem to have been composed with a specific instrumental accompaniment in mind.

In 70 C.E., when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, the disrupted worship there was replaced by the synagogue service. In the course of this transfer the refined instrumental art of the Levites was lost, since the sages prohibited the use of instruments in the synagogue service as a permanent reminder of the national calamity.

Though the pronouncements of the halakah dealt thus harshly with instrumental music. the aggadic portions of the Talmud reveal many instances of a feeling for music. In the words of one well-known example: “A lyre was suspended over David’s bed. When midnight neared, a northerly wind blew on it, whereupon it made music of itself.” The link between the musical and the mystical also finds expression in references by the sages to the music of the angels. One Midrashic source, for example, tells of the celestial songs which the ministering angels sing before the heavenly throne, in language rich in word music and vocal harmony. Beautiful as these harmonies may be, the Midrash goes on to say, it is a song from another source that is preferred by Him Who is to be praised. Rabbi Ismael said: ‘Blessed is Israel – how much dearer are they to the Holy One than the ministering angels! For no sooner do the ministering angels wish to burst forth into song, than rivers of fire and mountains of flame encircle the Throne of Glory. But the Holy One says: Let every angel, cherub and seraph that I have created hold his peace – – until I have listened to the song of praise of Israel, My children.’

Though outsinging the heavenly hosts, the singers in the temporal world were denied – after the Destruction of the Temple – the use of instruments. Music accordingly became a strictly vocal art and, thus limited, underwent changes in style and form. Moreover, the musical skill of the levitic singers and their traditions, accumulated over generations, were not utilised in synagogue song, and their professional teaching and rules were never preserved in writing. Synagogue song was thus a new beginning in every respect, especially with regard to its spiritual basis.

In the new era, prayer took the place of sacrifice in securing atonement and grace. Levitical music had been an integral part of the order of sacrifices, but its nature can only be guessed at. It has been conjectured that since it was directed heavenwards rather than to a human audience, it probably strove to attain an objective and transcendental beauty – a hypothetical early form of art music. The task of synagogue song was a different one. It is by means of the spoken word that both the individual and the congregation appeal to God. Prayer, being “the service of the heart,” has to express a broad scale of human feelings : joy, thanksgiving, and praise, side by side with supplication and contrition. All these emotions prompt the warm subjective expression afforded by song, rather than the more abstract beauty of instrumental music.

The human element in synagogue song found expression in styles which may be guessed at. These would need to be suited to a musically random assemblage of people, for the majority of whom artistically contrived and complicated tunes would be out of range. Such congregations had to be cemented together by a kind of music that was easily grasped and performed. The above conditions are fulfilled by three musical forms, which are the archetypes of synagogue song, and which have been preserved by the whole vast range of Jewish communities over the ages. These forms are: psalmody, the chanted public reading of the Torah, which is dealt with at a later stage; and the prayer melodies in general, especially as they are interpreted by the sheliach zibbur, or prayer leader.


At all public worship, services are led by “an envoy of the congregation” or, in Hebrew, sheliach zibbur. This function includes the intoning aloud of certain prayers, especially their opening phrases or closing benedictions, thus enabling the congregation to proceed more or less in unison; the recitation of the Kaddish at various junctures in the services; and leading the congregation in responsive readings.

Although today this function is sometimes a professional one, in earlier days any member of a congregation could be called upon to lead his fellow-worshippers in prayer. It might be said that the gift of a fine voice almost obliged a. congregant to accept the responsibility of serving as lay envoy. His voice alone, though, did not qualify him to serve in that capacity. The Code of Jewish Law lists several other qualifications; humility, acceptability to the congregation, knowledge of the laws governing prayer and the correct pronunciation of the Hebrew text, proper dress, and a beard. The last requirement is often waived except for the High Holy Days, and in certain circles completely ignored. Apart from the recital of hymns and Psalms, such as the introductory Pesukei de-Zimra portion of the morning service, only a congregant beyond the age of Bar Mitzvah may officiate. And for the High Holy Days, a man with the responsibilities of a wife and children is preferred, so that his supplications will rise “from the heart.”


A shelach zibbur with a trained voice, a knowledge of music, and a measure of creative virtuosity is commonly known as a hazzan. The word frequently occurs in talmudic sources. There, however, it denotes various types of communal officials, expecially the hazzan ha-kenesset. This fuctionary performed certain duties in the synagogue, such as bringing out the Scrolls for the public reading of the Torah, and blowing a trumpet to announce the commencement of the Sabbath and festivals. His was an honoured post. The Code of Theodosius (though defining Jews as “enemies of the Roman laws and of the supreme majesty”) exempted the hazzan from taxes in 438, and 160 years later this privilege was endorsed by the relatively liberal Pope Gregory the Great.

The early hazzan was not regularly required to lead the services although, like any other congregant, he could do so on request. It was only during the period of the geonim, in the centuries preceding the Middle Ages, that the hazzan became the permanent sheliach zibbur. Among the factors contributing to this change were the increasing complexity of the liturgy, a decline in the knowledge of Hebrew, and a desire to enhance the beauty of the service through its musical content, The hazzan ha-kenesset, who had traditionally guarded the correct texts and selected new prayers, was a natural choice. Furthermore, as piyutim increasingly found their way into the liturgy, this form of sung art-poetry demanded the expertise of a gifted soloist, especially when the singer himself was expected to compose both text and tune. Under these circumstances, a lay precentor could hardly continue to suffice as prayer leader.

The professional recitation of the piyutim was called hizana by the Arabic-speaking communities. Its Hebrew equivalent, hazzanut (or hazzaniyyah among the Sephardi communities) came to designate the traditional form of chanting the whole service, or the repertoire and style of a particular soloist, or the profession of cantor. The assumption of the title hazzan by the singer probably took place during the ninth century. Since the function of hazzanut soon came to be passed from father to son, it eventually belonged to an almost closed social class, where it was the custom for a young hazzan to marry the daughter of his master or of a colleague. This family orientation fostered the early training of talents and helped preserve local musical traditions.


It is difficult to imagine the musical character of early hazzanut. Attempts have been made, nonetheless, to demonstrate the features common to Oriental and European hazzanim today, with comparable gentile melodies taken as a control group. In addition, the tunes noted down by Obadiah the Norman proselyte in the early 12th century are available for comparison. In general, it may be said that hazzanut implies the fee evolution of a melodic line, without reference to any system of harmony. For the hazzan must command a reasonable degree of musical inventiveness. He does not simply produce a preconceived piece of music, but edits the general outlines of a theme into final shape by improvisations of his own. In this way,for example, each stanza of a piyut may develop as a new variation on a familiar traditional theme.

This feature is already found in the tunes notated by the above-mentioned Obadiah. The expressive elements which today are still characteristic of hazzanut are also to be discovered there, as too are the repetition of words and the pulsing trill around a single note that have remained the pride of the hazzan until this day.

To sum up, musical tradition in hazzanut means a melodic pattern to be followed, the choice of a scale appropriate to the mood required, and a stock of motifs to be arranged and rearranged in changing melodic structures.  Pliable and versatile by its very nature, this ancient musical tradition cannot be confined to regular bar lines nor enclosed in a framework of symmetrical phrases. Its rhythm is as free as that of the Hebrew poetry of most ages.


The melodic conventions of venerable Rabbis and hazzanim were handed down orally by their disciples. Scattered references to the music of certain prayer texts can be found in medieval compendia of liturgical practice, while other traditions are traceable as far back as the talmudic period, such as extending the singing of the Amen response, of the Priestly Blessing, and of ehad, the last word of Shema Yisrael.

The efforts to consolidate an Ashkenazi tradition of sacred song were concentrated in the school of Jacob ben Moses Moellin of Maintz (died 1427), commonly called “the Maharil.” Although a rabbi of scholarly renown, he also served as a hazzan. The musical usage taught by him was, on the one hand, a continuation of existing traditions accepted from former hazzanim, and on the other, his personal choice and example became normative. Indeed, they remained the established custom in Mainz until modern times. As a rule, testifies a disciple, the Maharil used to uphold local traditions: “Local custom should not be altered at any price, not even by unfamiliar melodies.”

It is remarkable how elaborate and detailed the musical performance of the Maharil was. His disciple, Zalman of St. Goar, recorded many details with great care and transmitted to posterity a score without music, so to speak, of the most important parts of the liturgy. For example, in the service for the Ninth of Av, in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, not only is the distribution of texts between congregation and cantor defined, but also what the latter had to sing in a loud, medium or low voice, what in a mournful intonation, and where a cry of anguish was to be sent up. The pauses at the end of the verses and chapters are not forgotten, nor are the melodies which were to be drawn out. The music of the Day of Atonement is treated in a similar way.

Although the Maharil disapproved of hymns sung in the German venacular, which were then in vogue in the same way as Ladino hymns are current among Sephardim to the present, he stressed the importance of hymns as such. Moreover, unlike many other rabbis, he regarded melody as an essential of liturgical tradition. At the same time, his musical teachings are replete with mystical concepts (kavvanot). There are striking examples of their influence on melodic confirguration, noted by contemporaries: “He used to greatly extend the tune at the word ‘Thou,’ obviously concentrating his mind on the divine faculty of ‘Thou’ known to all the adepts of mysticism.”

Such musical suggestion of a hidden sense of the words were indicated by remarks in the various prayer books. Thus the Mahzor Hadrat Kodesh (Venice 1512) advises the hazzan to sing a certain passage “to a drawn-out and beautiful tune.” The prayer Nishmat Kol Hai opens with the words: “The breath of every creature blesses Thy name,” and the same manual accordingly assigns to it “a beautiful melody, since all the people of Israel are given an additional soul on the Sabbath.” Other books attest the use of veritable leitmotifs, still current today, in the recitation of the Book of Esther when, for instance, the drinking vessels of Ahasuerus are mentioned to the tune of the Scroll of Lamentations, for they traditionally formed part of the booty from the despoiled Temple of Jerusalem. It was also an old custom to prolong the tune of Barukh she-Amar in the Morning Prayer. The German scribe Shimshon ben Eliezer recorded in the 14th century that he used to sing it as an orphan in Prague with such a sweet voice that he was given the nickname Shimshon Barukh she-Amar. Although directions for musical execution are found in the works of many authors, it is the Maharil who was made the legendary patron of Ashkenazi hazzanut and the composition of traditional melodies was ascribed to him. In particular, the so-called Mi-Sinai melodies were believed to go back to the authority of the Maharil, and in cantorial circles they are accordingly known as “the tunes of Rabbi Maharil.”


Prominent in the cantorial repertoire of Ashkenazi synagogues of both the East and West Europe rites are the Mi-Sinai niggunim, from the Hebrew meaning “Melodies from Sinai.” Their seemingly presumptious title stems from a reverent analogy with certain authoritative ritual laws known collectively as halakhah le-Mosheh mi-Sinai (“laws transmitted to Moses at Sinai”) which, though of hoary provenance, have no explicit biblical source.

These melodies are so hallowed by this vicarious authority, that no cantor would contemplate replacing them by any other, no matter how appealing. This status is reflected in their Eastern European name: skarbowe niggunim, from Polish and Hebrew words meaning “official tunes.” Located at those points in service where the liturgical and emotional elements join in equal force, the Mi-Sinai tunes may be called the heart of Ashkenazi synagogue song.

The family of Mi-Sinai tunes comprises about ten solemn compositions which are associated mainly with the prayers of the penitential period of the New Year. Their exact scope cannot be determined precisely, since the traditions are not unanimous and were never codified authoritatively. The distinctive features of the melodies are as follows: they belong to the common patrimony of the Eastern and Western Ashkenazi rites; they are invariably found in their proper liturgical place: and they all exhibit a special musical structure. Accordingly, ancient motifs such as the melody of Akdamut Milin, many melodies designated as “ancient” by 19th-century compilers, and well-known hymn melodies such as Eli Ziyyon do not belong to this category. A close examination reveals that they do not entirely comply with the above three conditions, and no hazzan would count them among the Mi-Sinai tunes. However, there remain some border cases which are classified variously by different writers.

The usual concept of “melody” as an indivisible unit is not applicable to the Mi-Sinai Niggunim. Typically, they are compositions built of several sections or movements of individual character. These are often fitted to the text (as in the Kaddish) but may also be constructed on an independent plan (as in the Kol Nidrei melody). In general, the first section is unique and characteristic of the specific tune; the following ones may include motifs of entire themes of other niggunim, thereby creating a kind of family likeness among the members of the group. The order of themes within each section is usually constant, distinguishing this music clearly from the more flexible nusah style. This still allows for a certain plasticity of themes and motifs, which in turn allows for their easy adaptation to a wide range of texts. The performer is granted considerable liberty to shape the music by himself; tradition prescribes only the approximate layout and motivic profile – an idea or master plan which the singer must realise in sounds. The challenge to creative improvisation recalls principles governing Oriental music and exceeds by far the freedom of embellishment characteristic of older European art. One should therefore not expect to discover the archetype of any Mi-Sinai tune, for there exist only numerous realisation of a certain mental image. Other Oriental features are the free rhythm, which cannot be fitted without distortion to the regular bars beloved of Western ears, and rich and fluent coloratura adorning it.

In East Ashkenazi tradition, the bond between music and text has been loosened: entire sections may be sung without words. Certain themes, preserved only in the earlier, Western notated documents, disappeared from common usage in Eastern Europe, and others replaced them in the established order. Alternatively, surviving themes or sections came to be repeated in order to provide sufficient musical accompaniment for the full text. This regressive evolution in the East was apparently caused by the displacement of these communities from the birthplace and centres of Mi-Sinai song. The Western Hazzanim, on the other hand, developed extensive and elaborate compositions from the original tunes. Such fantasias were in fashion from about 1750 to 1850. Basically, however, the Mi-Sinai melodies retained their identity in Jewish settlements as distant from each other as Eastern Russia and Northern France, south of the Carpathians, and Scandinavia or Britain.

There is no doubt that they antedate the great migrations from Central to Eastern Europe in the 15th century or even earlier. That the musical ideas and outlines of the Mi-Sinai Niggunim originated in the Middle Ages can be concluded from musical evidence, from a few references in literature and, above all, from the fact that they are found in two Ashkenazi rites which separate early in their history. It may further be supposed that the sufferings of Crusader times made Ashkenazi Jewry ripe for expressing the feelings that emanate from out of the depths of these melodies. It is of interest that their character and profound musicality attracted gentile composers, such as Max Bruch (Kol Nidrel, op 47) and Maurice Ravel (Kaddish, 1914), while their confrontation with the idioms of contemporary music is demonstrated in A. Schoenberg’s Kol Nidrei, which first appeared in 1938.


Let a visiting hazzan but deliver himself of the first phrase of his favourite overture for a festive occasion, and the seasoned congregants will immediately catalogue his style: “a classical Galician nusah,” “an obviously Lithuanian Nusah,” and the like.

The Hebrew word nusah has many meanings. For a start, it signifies a prayer rite, that is, the order of prayers followed in a particular region. This meaning has two extensions in a musical context. On the one hand, a public reading of the Torah many be described as nusah Sepharad, that is, the Sephardi version of melodic Bible-reading. On the other hand, the comment that “this cantor has a good nusah” means that he renders the traditional tunes faithfully and in good taste.

The word, however, is also used as a technical term of synagogue music. In combinations such as nusah ha-tefillah, nusah Yamim Nora’im, and nusah Shabbat, it denotes the special musical mode to which a certain part of the liturgy is sung. The musical characteristics of these modes are defined in terms of the following elements. In the first place, each is based upon a particular series of notes, which may be a scale of less or more than eight notes. Secondly, each mode or nusah contains a stock of characteristic motifs which undergo constant variation. Thirdly, these motifs are combined in a completely free order, forming an irregular pattern. And fourthly, each nusah, as defined by the above-mentioned three elements, is always associated with a particular section of a specific holiday liturgy as, for instance, the Musaf prayer of the High Holy Days, the Morning Prayer on weekdays, and so on. It is worth noting that the nusah principle is known both to European and to Oriental Jewish communities. On the assumption that it therefore antedates their current dispersion it may be regarded as a very old musical trait in synagogue song.

At the same time, the particular nusah that evolves in any community inevitably bears the imprint of its cultural environment. Thus the Roman nusah of certain periods is recognizably solemn and decorous; to the amateur the nusah of an Oriental hazzan is barely distinguishable from Arab dirge; while his German counterpart is predictably precise in the execution of his decidedly Teutonic rhythms. Dabblers in liturgical geography can enjoy the equivalent of a world trip by a visit to the Western Wall, where side by side scores of ad hoc congregations enjoy their own prayer services, each in the nusah which they brought with them to Israel as part of their cultural baggage.


An important ingredient of the nusah in Ashkenazi communities is the shtayger, a Yiddish term for the musical modes of traditional synagogue song. The shtayger are characterised by an order of intervals which is unusual in European music, and are named after the initial words of certain prayers sung to them, with some differences in nomenclature between East and West Ashkenazi usage. Originally these cantorial modes were conceived as of the Jewish parallel of the liturgical modes of the medieval European Church, and were accordingly described by early investigators in terms of Western, octave scales. Increased knowledge of non- European model structures, such as the Oriental maqama or Indian raga, later gave scholars the clue for understanding the nature of the shtayger. First, their “scales” need not be an octave repeating itself through the whole gamut; their tonal range may extend over less or more than eight notes; and the intervals may be altered in different octave pitches or in ascending and descending order. These include not only semitones but sometimes micro-intervals. Another characteristic is given by the specific location of the keynotes, which serve as resting points of the intermediary and final cadences, corresponding to the shorter and longer pauses in the text being sung. Furthermore, certain shtayger are characterised by a stock of motifs of their own. Singing according to a shtayger thus comes very close to Oriental concepts of modality.

One well-known shtayger appears not only in synagogue music but in folksong and hasidic melodies as well, and has accordingly been used for the musical characterisation of the Jewish people by Mussorgsky, Anton Rubinstein, and other composers. Another shtayger resembles the natural minor scale, while a third is reminiscent of the so-called Gypsy scale. In the free compositions of individual cantors, modulation from one shtyger to another frequently occurs, and contibutes much to the expressive power of the East Ashkenazi singing style.

Predictably, the use of shtayger melodies in art music raises certain problems, especially when their harmomsation is attempted. Some convincing solutions have been found, as when the solo tune is allowed to display itself before a background of sustained chords.


At various points in the liturgy, the cantor invites the congregation afresh to join him in worship. This collaboration is expressed musically in their alternating responses – as soloist and choir – according to a traditional division of the texts.

Very old practices of responsorial performance have been preserved, especially by the Sephardi communities. As indicated in the Talmud and also adopted by the Roman Church, the cantor may intone the first words of a chapter, whereupon the choir takes over, or they may alternate and respond to one another. Among the Sephardim the congregation is also accustomed to take up the key-words of the more important prayers from the mouth of the cantor. The division of tasks between solo and choir sometimes affects the melodic configuration. For example, if a particular prayer is sung to a nusah, its original free rhythm may change into measured time when taken over by the congregation, while conversely, the hazzan may execute a simple pattern in elaborate coloraturas.

Many Ashkenazi communities provide the cantor with two assistants (known variously as mezammerim, somekhim, or maftirim) who flank him at the prayer desk and take over a certain points of the liturgy. At one time Ashkenazi hazzanim did likewise, with a view to the enrichment of their singing. According to convention, one of these singers (or meshorerim) had to be a boy-descant, known as the singer, and the other, an adult, known as the bass. It is not known when this custom was introduced; a picture in the so-called Leipzig Mahzor of the 14th century may be regarded as the earliest representation of such a trio. The heyday of hazzanut with accompaning meshorerim was the 17th and 18th centuries, and it is only from the sources of this late period that its nature can be inferred. It appears that the assistants improvised an accompaniment of hummed chords, drones, and short figures, while in addition the singer intoned thrids and sixths, that is, tones harmonising with the basic melody sung by the hazzan. In addition, both singer and bass had their solo parts – most often extended coloraturas to be performed while the cantor paused. Famous cantors travelled, with the meshorerim as part of their household, from one large centre to another as guest prayer-leaders, while the less famed undertook such wanderings in search of a hoped-for permanent post. In the late baroque period, if not earlier, the traditional number of two assistants was supplemented by performers of distinctive tasks, including the fistel singer (falsetto), and specialists in the imitation of musical instruments, such as the sayt-bass, fagot-bass and fleyt-singer, for strings, bassoon and flute respectively.

The use of musical instruments proper is attested in medieval Baghdad by the traveller Pethahiah of Regensburg, who visited there between 1175 and 1190. However, this was a rare exception and restricted to the half-holidays, since the ban on instrumental music in commemoration of the Destruction remained in force. It was only under the influence of later mystical movements, with their emphasis on joyful worship, that instruments were played in some 17th century Ashkenazi synagogues before the entry of the Sabbath as a token of the joy of the day of rest. In general, however, vocal performances remained the basic characteristic of synagogue music. An incessant struggle took place in this field between the traditional claims of the older singing styles and the musical expression of spiritual tendencies that arose during the Middle Ages. This interplay of forces preserved Jewish liturgical music from the petrifaction typical of many other traditions of religious chant.