Rehearsal of the choir of the Tłomackie Synagogue, Warsaw, 1929. Directed by David Eisenstadt. Present are cantors (standing, first and second from left) Mosheh Koussevitzky and Pinḥas Szerman. Clipping from unidentified Polish-language newspaper. (YIVO)

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Music for Sacred Texts

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Concert Music 

For the millions of traditional Jews who lived in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, the recitation of sacred texts served as the primary occasion for spirituality. Jews read from sacred texts during synagogue services [listen to a recording], on domestic paraliturgical occasions (e.g., the Haggadah on Passover) [listen to a recording], and while learning.

Patterns of Recitation

Although historically connected to Christian and Muslim practices, East European Jewish recitation of sacred texts is distinct primarily because it is not the property of a religious elite, but rather the daily practice of the entire community. Among East European Jews, recitation is not an art but is primarily a spiritual and ritual act. Yet though the core of the religious experience is found in the text and its spiritual significance, its rendering as ritual is unimaginable without a musical component. According to traditional belief, the spiritual inspiration embedded in sacred texts is impossible to attain without experiencing the sound of these texts. Two underlying musical and religious demands merge in recitation: (1) to create musical expressions that reflect the intonations and the expressive and emotional gestures of speech; and (2) at times, to create a continuous, pulsating, or flowing melody that transports believers into a transcendental religious state.

Prayer book for a cantor. Poland, sixteenth or seventeenth century. Vellum. This rare example of an illustrated prayer book is opened to a page with a prayer for the welfare of all involved in the life of the synagogue and the community. Collection Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

The shape of the music that results reflects an inner negotiation between these demands, in a manner that responds to the concrete needs of the individual and the community and the requirements or limitations of time and space. Thus, recitation may assume various vocal forms, from speech-like, “unmusical” reading or intoned speech, through various forms of “dry,” fast recitation, to simple melodic or complex musical and artistic executions. Yet these vastly different forms respond to the same basic demands. For instance, in a cantorial piece, emotional accents of the text are highlighted, whereas in fast recitation an overall flow of sound is created.

Although recitation is not taught as music, the community acquires, spontaneously, the basics of the musical attitude that derives from it. The recitational attitude serves as the stylistic basis for more complex and artistic compositions, such as cantorial or klezmer music. East European Jewish musical styles are typically speech-like and expressive, and (except when used for dance) tend to gravitate toward flowing, free, rubato rhythms.

The cantillation [listen to a recording] of the Torah has to be carried out according to more or less fixed melodic patterns. The sequence of these melodic patterns (ta‘amim, or tropes), though not their actual melodic shape, has been codified since the ninth century. A Torah reader (ba‘al kore’) is often an appointed person. The reading of selected prophetic texts (Haftarahs) [listen to a recording], which follows the Torah cantillation, is done by any knowledgeable person, but also follows fixed melodic patterns.

Functions of Liturgical Music

Cantor and choir, Pinsk, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

The most varied and complex recitational forms are found in prayer music. Their complexity results from several dualities embedded in the idea of Jewish prayer. On the one hand, prayer is ‘avodah or service—that is, a ritual performed at a specific time and according to a specific form; on the other hand, prayer is a spontaneous, personal outcry of an individual. The codification of texts in statutory prayers secures their proper performance; the musical aspect serves as the medium through which individuals and communities can convey the character of the text and give expression to their own momentary moods. In a sense, music mediates between the demands of fixed ritual and spontaneous outcry in that it allows for a ritualized yet personal manner of rendering a codified text.

The other dual demand occasioned by Jewish prayer calls for each member to pray for himself or herself individually and yet be part of the community. The Ashkenazic musical tradition plays out this duality in an intense manner. During the service, each individual recites prayers in his or her own way in a low voice; the totality amounts to heterophony that embodies this duality. Each person is present, audibly, with an individual voice, while at the same time, the community creates its own unified acoustic sound.

Melodies of Liturgical Music

Because of the lack of documentation, it is extremely difficult to say which melodic differences existed in the territories of Eastern Europe and how, if at all, these were characteristic of different regions. As much as can be determined on the basis of surviving material (early notations, ethnomusicological transcriptions, and recordings), the liturgical music of the Eastern Ashkenazim reflects a remarkable integrity. It is not clear when and how this integral melodic core developed.

Melodic integrity does not mean that the same melodies were used all over Eastern Europe. Fixed melodies are rare and appear mostly in the High Holiday services (e. g., the Kol Nidre prayer) and/or as the opening motives of major prayers (e.g., the blessing preceding the Hallel psalms, the beginning of the Sabbath morning ‘Amidah). Melodic integrity means, rather, a large yet integral pool of possibilities (characteristic modes, scales, intervals, melodic curves and motifs, melodic types and structuring principles, rhythmic styles and patterns) that make up a complex framework within which (and often against which) the individual creates his or her own prayer.

Thus each rendition of a prayer is unique, and there may be vast differences between musical performances of the same liturgical section. This situation challenged scholars to find a system that explained the musical rules governing individual versions. Scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries described Jewish music according to scales that they called shtayger. Modern ethnomusicology expanded on this idea, replacing the word shtayger with mode—by which they meant a melodic framework incorporating a scale structure, typical motifs, and an underlying melodic progression. It has also been noticed that in some cases, the variants cohere into what can be described as a melodic type. By contrast, cantorial schools conceive and teach the music of the liturgy as a collection of fixed melodies that may be varied in performance. If we consider traditional oral practice, there are many instances in which none of these ordering principles (melody with variants, mode, melodic type) explains the coherence among variant performances. It is a unique feature of East European Jewish music that it does not allow itself to be systematized according to any one governing principle.

Role of the Prayer Leader

The style and melody of any given rendition of a prayer or section of prayers depends on a variety of interrelated factors: the type of community (region, size, religious orientation), the location and context of the service, the (professional or nonprofessional) status of the service leader, and the service leader’s religious attitude and personality.

Different holidays, services, and sections of the liturgy call for diverse musical solutions. The practice that governs which aspects of the music are strictly defined and which can be changed (and to what degree and in what manner) is referred to traditionally by the word nusaḥ. For students of modern cantorial schools, the term has come to mean simply the melodic framework or mode associated with a given prayer service (for example, the weekday, Sabbath, or holiday morning prayers). In traditional communities, however, nusaḥ refers to a complex framework that also includes rhythmic aspects and performing style. (The word nusaḥ, which is traditionally understood as a musical-technical term, can be used also in reference to liturgical text, typically in connection with the difference between the main textual variants of the Jewish service: e.g., nusaḥ Ashkenaz or nusaḥ Sefarad.)

Boys’ choir in a synagogue, Tallinn, Estonia, 1927. (YIVO)

The manner of liturgical performance also depends on the status and professionalism of the prayer leader. In a traditional Jewish service, each congregant has to pray (or daven), in a simple recitative style that is also used for the reading of texts in paraliturgical situations (such as reading the Haggadah at the Passover Seder). During the prayers of a service, parallel to these individual recitations, the prayer leader chants sections of the prayers in a more musical manner. The prayer leader is not regarded as an intermediary between the individual and God, but rather as the “messenger of the congregation” at the time of prayer, and thus is designated as the sheliaḥ tsibur. Sometimes prayer leaders who are skilled in the singing and recitation of the prayers are entrusted with leading the service on a regular basis. Such a prayer leader is called a ba‘al tefilah (master of prayer).

The ḥazan, or cantor, is essentially a ba‘al tefilah with an exceptionally good voice and musical talent. The emergence of the ḥazan as a permanent shaliaḥ tsibur is referred to in gaonic literature; in medieval Western Europe, the position was professionalized. Whereas the ba‘al tefilah may or may not put emphasis on the musical aspect of the prayers, the ḥazan is a professional who is expected to develop vocal and musical skills. Traditionally, the ḥazan was expected to preside only during specific holidays and/or parts of the service. A good ḥazan also masters the simple recitative style, and alternates between simpler and more elaborate cantorial styles depending on the text. Similarly, even a simple ba‘al tefilah might make the recitation more elaborate at certain points in the liturgy.

Types of Liturgical Songs

On the basis of rhythm and form, liturgical music can be divided into two basic groups: (1) flowing, free rhythm; continuous form (recitative, nusaḥ, ḥazanut [cantorial singing]); and (2) metric rhythm with self-contained (closed, strophic, stanzaic) form. In principle, Jewish worship can be performed without songs, and there are some traditional communities that “run through” the texts of the prayers in a recitative manner. Often, however, metric songs assume importance. The primary function of songs is to create a sense of community among the worshipers. Songs also momentarily ease the intensity of recitation.

Finally, songs help connect the community to the “here and now,” in a social and historical sense. Whereas the continuous repetitive recitation is inward turning, emphasizing the timelessness of the sacred, songs connect the ritual to the surrounding world. The recitative style aims at transporting worshipers to the world of the beyond; songs seek to reconnect them with the definiteness of concrete reality. This conception emerges most clearly in the attitude of the tradition toward musical borrowing. While in the nusaḥ we find relatively little direct influence exerted by the folk music and popular songs of neighboring ethnic communities, such influence is often welcomed in songs by both cantors and congregations (though the practice was sometimes condemned by rabbis).

Although prayer leaders may provide inventive and original renditions of the nusaḥ, these are usually not thought of as compositions. In songs, however, inventiveness is noticed and appreciated; songs are thought of as musical pieces or compositions. Songs are valued in part because they depart from the “routine” of the nusaḥ tradition—but precisely for that reason, they can be omitted and replaced. The cantor or prayer leader chooses which song to use for a particular text, and decides even whether to use a song at all or, rather, to remain “in the nusaḥ” (though a knowledgeable service leader can choose songs that are musically within the mode dictated by the nusaḥ). Nevertheless, congregations need some stability in the service, and so each community or region develops its own tradition with regard to the parts of the liturgy that are sung and with melodies that are used. Indeed, it often happens that over the years a congregation becomes used to a song to such a degree that it comes to regard it as irreplaceable.

There is thus a complex and somewhat paradoxical relationship between recitative/nusaḥ and metric styling/songs. On the whole, nusaḥ is thought of as conveying the sacred, while songs gravitate toward the secular domain. However, certain songs have come to be endowed with spirituality no less than recitative, especially in paraliturgical situations. For instance, during Sabbath meals, there is no recitation apart from blessings, so songs—especially the table songs known as zemirot—function to create a spiritual atmosphere.

Moscow Choral Synagogue choir, founded in February 1990 and sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Moscow, 1990s. (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Photo Archives)

The spiritual power of metric songs has been emphasized most strongly in Hasidism. Yet we find that the most spiritual genres of the Hasidic nigun (Yid., nign; spiritual melody) approximate the style of recitative, either by means of an extremely flexible conception of beat or through the performance of the melody in an entirely recitative manner. The investment of nigunim with religious meaning resulted in a great variety of song forms among Hasidim, ranging from one-line metric fragments through a variety of stanzaic formations, to complex, multisectional compositions.

It is characteristic of the whole of East European Jewry (and one of the unique features of Jewish music generally) that vocal performance often fluctuates between rhythmic and metric styles. We often hear prayer leaders insert a metric line into a section of free-rhythm recitative, or slip into recitative within a song, or perform one stanza of a song in a recitative style and the other stanzas in a metric manner.

Sources of Melodies

With respect to their musical content, songs may be divided into three major groups: (1) songs whose melodic bases are the same as those of the recitation, meaning that they are “rhythmicized” versions of recitative melodies; (2) songs that are borrowed from the repertory of the surrounding non-Jewish environment; and (3) the core repertory of Jewish songs. The borders between these groups are not rigid. In the course of time, melodies belonging to the first and second groups shift, approximating the style of the core repertory.

This core repertory exhibits strong cohesion in melody, rhythm, structure, and performance style. There is reason to suspect that its formation dates back to the eighteenth, or possibly even the seventeenth, century. The basis of the style seems to have been contemporary West European dance music, including both local and international genres; the phrase structure, beat patterns, and certain melodic ideas found in Jewish song show affinity with the patterns of the dance music of that era. Nevertheless, this dance music style appears to have been transformed at a very early stage so that in the extant Jewish repertory only fragments of melodies can be identified as having a West European dance origin. The development or possibly the creation of that repertory seems to be connected to the Hasidic movement, although today it is difficult to separate Hasidic nigunim from non-Hasidic songs.

Modernization of Synagogue Music

From the seventeenth century on, Jews incorporated various elements of contemporary Western art music into the music of the synagogue. This was not a straight-line development: eras of modernization were often followed by a return to more traditional styles, and both tendencies proceeded differently in different territories, communities, and times.

One of the basic patterns of modernization has seen the insertion of aspects of Western art-music style into the liturgy. This was more typical in Germany, but the style also reached the Czech lands and various other communities in Eastern Europe. In most cases, the traditional recitative remained untouched; rather, modern compositions appeared as insertions into the liturgy.

In Eastern Europe, the most significant modern development was the rise of local ḥazanut. We do not fully understand the reason for the sudden emergence of great virtuoso ḥazanim in the eighteenth century. These ḥazanim created an art form that was not merely an elaboration of nusaḥ, but rather a creative compositional style that freely combined aspects of nusaḥ with aspects of Western music. The purpose of these compositions remained the emotional expression of the text, and so the style may be called ḥazanut ha-regesh (ḥazanut of emotion). Ḥazanim sometimes used two or more other singers (meshorer [chorister], bass), who provided a background sound (drone) and interjected short melodic fragments in order to give variety to the performance—and to allow the ḥazan to rest. These “helpers” were sometimes more educated musically than the ḥazan himself, typically knew a broad repertory, and often entered the cantorial profession themselves. Some synagogues also introduced four-part choruses in order to enable the performance of choral compositions.

The Reform movement originated in Western Europe and reached parts of Eastern Europe mostly in the nineteenth century. Its cantors downplayed exuberance in form and expressive ornamentation; instead, they often sang relatively simple, “purified” melodies within the nusaḥ. They also slowed down the melody, and their voice quality began to approximate the sonority of operatic bel canto. In most cantorial performances recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century, Western and Eastern European ideals of the cantorial art merge.

Suggested Reading

Hanoch Avenary, “The Cantorial Fantasia of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” Yuval 1 (1968): 65–85; Hanoch Avenary, “The Concept of Mode in European Synagogue Chant,” Yuval 2 (1971): 11–21; Hanoch Avenary, “Second Thoughts about the Configuration of a Synagogue Mode,” Orbis musicae 9 (1986): 11–16; Hanoch Avenary, “The Aspects of Time and Environment in Jewish Traditional Music,” Israel Studies in Musicology 4 (1987): 93–123; Gershon Ephros, “The Hazzanic Recitative: A Unique Contribution to Our Musical Heritage,” Journal of Synagogue Music 6.3 (1972): 23–28; Judit Frigyesi, “Preliminary Thoughts toward the Study of Music without Clear Beat: The Example of ‘Flowing Rhythm’ in Jewish ‘Nusah,’” Asian Music 24.2 (Spring–Summer 1993): 59–88; Judit Frigyesi, “The Practice of Music as an Expression of Religious Philosophy among the East-Ashkenazi Jews,” Shofar 18.4 (Summer 2000): 3–24; Judit Frigyesi, “Orality as Religious Ideal: The Music of East-European Jewish Prayer,” Yuval 7 (2002): 113–153; Judit Frigyesi, “The Variety of Musical Styles in the Ashkenazi Service,” Jewish Studies Yearbook (Budapest: Central European University, 2002): 31–50; Judit Frigyesi and Peter Laki, “Free-Form Recitative and Strophic Structure in the Hallel Psalms,” Assaph-A: Orbis musicae 7 (1979/80): 43–80; Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, “The Mogen-Ovos Mode: A Study in Folklore,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939, orig. pub. in 1933): 559–574; Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, comp., Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies, 10 vols. in 4 (New York, 1973); Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development (New York, 1992); Yaakov Mazor and Edwin Seroussi, “Toward a Hasidic Lexicon of Music,” Assaph-A: Orbis musicae 10 (1990–1991): 118–143; Macy Nulman, “A Perception of the Prayer Modes as Reflected in Musical and Rabbinical Sources,” Musica judaica 8.1 (1987): 45–58; Solomon Rosowsky, The Cantillation of the Bible (New York, 1957); Chemjo Vinaver, comp., Anthology of Hassidic Music, ed. Eliyahu Schleifer (Jerusalem, 1985); Max Wohlberg, “The ‘Hazzanic’ Recitative,” Musica judaica 10.1 (1989): 40–51.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 112, Music, Collection, 1846-1973; RG 1140, Leo Low, Papers, 1895-1971; RG 1225, David Hirsch, Papers, 1892-1934; RG 1259, Vladimir Heifetz, Papers, 1920s-1970 (finding aid); RG 1272, Abraham Isaac Reif, Papers, 1900-1934; RG 1293, Harris Pine, Papers, 1920s-1980s; RG 212, Elias Zaludkowski, Papers, 1911-1940s; RG 217, Meyer Posner, Papers, ca. 1918-1931; RG 289, Sholem Perlmutter, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 36, Abraham Moshe Bernstein, Papers, 1878-1933; RG 397, Yom-Tov Spilman, Papers, 1893; RG 412, Mordechai Moniak, Papers, 1883-1913; RG 7, Music (Vilna Archives), Collection, 1882-1940.