by Rev J. Landenberg
Long before the Israelites were exiled from their land, there was a very rich Hebrew religious type of music which owed its own beginnings to the cantillation of the Bible. This music was based on the various tunes with which the Torah and the prophetical writings are read and is known as the ‘Ta-amai Hamikra’ or the ‘Trop’. These tunes were the source of the first liturgical music and became the groundwork for the Nussach – the musical formula for our prayers.
The singing of the Levites must have influenced the folklore of our people for they were the singers of Zion. When the Israelites were exiled to Babylon, they were asked by their captors: “Sing unto us the song of Zion” (Psalm 137). The exiled Levites brought with them the prayers and melodies they chanted in the Temple services.
We read in the book of Nechemiah about the return of 148 singers in the time of the ‘Return to Zion’ in 516 B.C.E., who were called the Sons of Assaph, the poet and composer in the first Temple, who also wrote some of the Psalms. Those Levites continued the tradition in the second Temple.
According to various sources in Talmud Bavli, the music in the Temple was of a very high standard and there were choirs with thousands of choristers who accompanied the ritual sacrifices and the prayers. Besides the many instruments mentioned in the Psalms, there was also an enormous organ called ‘Magraipha’, which had a thousand sounds – Elef Kolot – and could be heard in the hills surrounding Jerusalem (Eirachin 10-11). From the little we know, we can imagine the tremendous power of sound and also, perhaps, the quality of the music in the Temple. After the destruction of’ the second Temple in 70 C.E. and with the dispersion of’ the Jews to many countries, the chazanut of old was divided into many styles and forms, probably equalling the number of communities also formed. Throughout our history, Hebrew music has been influenced by the Greek, Roman and at a later date Islam.i.e cultures, as well as others. However there were many Israeli tunes which have been preserved throughout the ages and traditionally observed. I shall try to elaborate further on, in this article, on these particular melodies and tunes.
It is rather difficult to ascertain which tunes and what was the style of the ‘Neginot’ used in Temple times. This is mainly due to the fact that we have never had any written score from that period. Flusic was learned by heart and each melody had its own name. We find in the Psalms names like: Mizmor, Mizmor-Shir, Maskil, or Michtam. However it is well known that there was a continuity of traditional tunes and ancient melodies which are used in our prayers and which have been preserved for many centuries. The fact that they could not be traced to a particular period brings us to the conclusion that their origin is from the Temple, where the religious music was confined to the House of God.
Chazanut, as we know it today is a mixture of melodies and tunes based upon many variations of musical scales which we call “Nusach Hatphilla”. There are several Nusschaot like e.g. Nussach Magen Avot; Nusach Hashem Malach; Nussach Yishtabach and Ahava Rabba etc. I refer to the ancient melodies from which the chazan or baal-tephilla would not dare to deviate during a service, and which became the inheritance of our people and are sung in all the Ashkenazi communities.
All Ashkenazim sing ‘Ochila Lakail’ with the same melody. Likewise, the same tune for the beginning of ‘Aleinu’ in the Musaf prayer of the High Festivals. We have many traditional melodies which are common to all Ashkenazi communities especially on the High Festivals. The following should serve as examples: Ashrei Ha’am sung after the blowing of the shofar and which is also sung with the verse Venislach on Yom Kippur; the tune for Hashem Melech on Rosh Hashana; Shema Yisrael when taking the scroll from the Ark; the various tunes for Kaddish before Musaph on Yamim Noraim, and on Shalosh Regalim, before Tal and Geshem; the special tune for the Shabbat Mincha service which is called the Nussach ‘Ata Echad’ and the melody for Ledavid Baruch (Psalm 144) before Maariv on Motza’ei Shabbat.
Among professional chazanim these tunes are known as the “Scarbover Nussach” or the “Scarbover Nigunim”. The term ‘Scarb’ is derived from the Polish language, meaning a ‘Treasure’ or ‘Tresury,’ or ‘a very dear thing’. I assume that this refers to those melodies which have remained unchanged having escaped foreign influences throughout all those years. Jews have treasured them as sacred music from Temple times onwards, and in fact in some places chazanim used to call them Nigunim MiSinai having reference to their antiquity and origin.
I often asked myself, why do we sing the same tune of Shalosh Regalim also on Rosh Chodesh? From the answer to this question we can deduce and learn something about the origin of chazanut.
Rosh Chodesh in the time of the Prophets and in Temple times was observed as a festival. We know this firstly from the Torah (Numbers 10:10) also in Samuel 2, 20:18 and in the second book of Kings 4:21. We know from the book of Ezekiel 46:3 that even in the Babylonian exile the New Moon was observed as a festival. In Amos we read (Chapter 8:5) that the people complained about this custom to observe the day of Rosh Chodesh, for they said ‘When will the New Moon be gone so that we may sell corn.’ Hence we may derive from this that the Nussach tunes of Shalosh Regalim which were sung in the Temple, were also used on Rosh Chodesh in the same way as they are used today. The fact that the custom to observe Rosh Chodesh as a festival has been abolished by our sages has not changed the traditional melodies and tunes.
Chazanut grew and developed together with the synagogue until it reached its artistic dimensions which then formed the vast literature of our liturgical music. The fact that we still have so many melodies and tunes common to all, which have been traditionally observed over the years, during the chanting of our prayers, in spite of the centuries of suffering and wandering in the Diaspora, proves that they come to us as a national inheritance from our ancestors when they were a sovereign people in their land.