top of page

The Melody of Jewish Life

Shabbat Shirah Sermon 5780, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

It is customary on the Sabbath when we chant the greatest “song” in the Torah, the Az Yashir Mosheh, the Song of Moses at the Sea, to talk and sing about Jewish music. And I will do so tonight, here at Beit Simcha, where we feature Jewish music in nearly everything we do, and where a large part of our regular services are sung, as you all know. This can only serve as a little introduction to the world of Jewish music; tonight I’ll trace its origins and two musical modes.

The question that always pops up when you talk about Jewish music is simple to ask and difficult to answer. It is this: what is Jewish music? The most common answer is “Jewish music is any music done by Jews. Any music.” That is, if Jews composed it or arrange it or sing it or play it, it must therefore be Jewish! While that is a facile and perhaps useful beginning, it is also problematic. For if Jewish music is any music done by Jews, does this mean that every Neil Diamond song is Jewish music? How about Paul Simon’s “Feelin’ Groovy”, or the rap music of the Beastie Boys? We celebrated the centennial of the great Leonard Bernstein a couple of years ago; is his Mass therefore Jewish music, especially since it included additional material by the very Jewish Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon? What if only one of the musicians involved with a piece is Jewish, like Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary? How about all the Brill Building pop songs written by Neil Sedaka and Carole King and Barry Mann and Phil Spector? And does this mean that every song by Maroon 5, with lead singer Adam Levine, qualifies as Jewish music? Or Drake’s rap and hip-hop music, since he’s Jewish and had a bar mitzvah? What does that say for the Nobel Laureate in Literature, Bob Dylan, who went through a Christian phase and recorded “Blood on the Tracks,” then reverted back to being Jewish after that? Oh, and how about Felix Mendelsohn’s wedding March, since his parents converted to Christianity but everyone thinks of him as a Jewish composer?

How about all those Broadway musicals, written by Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers and George and Ira Gershwin and Lerner and Lowe and Jerry Herman and Steven Schwartz and Steven Sondheim? Or Take Me Out to the Ballgame, which had a Jewish lyricist? Are those all Jewish music?

And of course, there are two of the very best known songs of the great Jewish Broadway and film composer, Irving Berlin—you know, White Christmas and Easter Parade? Are these Jewish music, too?

So I’m afraid that saying “Jewish music is music Jews do” is not enough. But there is an important truth here nonetheless: Whatever else it is, Jewish music is music sung and played by Jews, and usually created by Jews. And throughout history, it has formed a melody of Jewish life, one we can trace back to its musical origins in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, nearly 2000 years ago, but which is also very much a living, changing, evolving expression of Jewish identity and experience today.

In order to understand the origins of Jewish music, we have travel back to Biblical times, and a truly ancient musical tradition: that of the Temple in Jerusalem. By the way, the Hebrew words for song and poem are essentially the same, Shir or shirah, and since poetry was sung in the ancient world there really isn’t much distinction made. The Hebrew Bible, what Jews call the Tanakh and many Christians call the Old Testament, records many instances of “songs”, some of them fairly lengthy: the song of Moses at the shore of the Red or Reed Sea that is part of our Torah portion this week, the song of Deborah after the triumph over Sisera which is our Haftarah tomorrow morning, and many of the songs of David and the Levites, the priests. It is these last songs that interest us in particular, for they form the Psalms, and according to Jewish tradition the service of the ancient Temple was conducted with full instrumental and vocal accompaniment. Psalms and other hymns were sung by a choir of priests, an entire tribe, the Levites, who had the hereditary responsibility to serve as musicians for the people of Israel. When Psalm 150—we chanted part of it tonight as “Hal’lu” and you have the full, brief text on page 100 in your prayer book—resounds with calls for strumming lyres, trumpet blasts, drums beating and cymbals crashing, and perhaps even tambourines, we believe that it meant just what it says: the Temple service was a musical extravaganza of a religious experience. When Psalm 149—among many others—instructs the Israelites shiru lAdonai shir chadash, “sing to the Lord a new song,” it is a kind of general choral direction, and the various Levitical choirs present in the Temple followed that quite literally.

In fact, many words among the Psalms seem to have been choir directions: the words Selah, for example, has no actual meaning in Hebrew and likely told the priestly choir conductors something specific; the world Halleluyah, which literally means “praise God,” was a choral response. The Temple in Jerusalem was a very musical place indeed.

Unfortunately for music scholars the Second Temple—the last one in which Biblical-style worship existed—was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70, nearly 1950 years ago. Even more unfortunately, the digital recorder had not yet been invented, nor had MP3’s or Youtube or CD’s or even the cassette recorder. Sadly, accurate musical notation was not yet highly developed twenty centuries ago, either. But all is not lost: we do have a primitive sot of musical notation system that dates back to the ancient world, more or less, called cantillation or trope; in Hebrew this is known as Ta’amei HaMikrah. Much of the subsequent system of Jewish music seems to be based on interpretations of that ancient cantillation system. To trace it back, and see how it underlies much of what we think of today as Jewish music, we need to be musical detectives.

To begin, we know that many sections of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, were chanted publicly on Sabbaths and Festivals. In the ancient world, sacred text was always chanted, and never simply read aloud. There are very good reasons for this. First, what do you think is more popular on itunes, podcasts of speeches or music? The most popular Ted Talks pale in comparison to the least popular songs of any era. Second, sung text tends to be more memorable, pleasant and expressive just because it is sung. And third, the way that trope, cantillation in Jewish tradition works, it serves as punctuation and a pronunciation guide and makes the meaning of the words and sentences clearer, adding dramatic emphasis.

Of course, Jewish scripture is still almost always chanted in synagogues the world over today. At the age of 13, every bar and bat mitzvah chants a Haftarah from the Prophets in the Bible, the Nevi’im.

Here is an illustration of the way that a musical mode began in the cantillations of just such a prophetic text, a Haftarah, perhaps sung by a Levite in the Temple in Jerusalem, certainly chanted by a bar mitzvah in a synagogue. The text is from the prophet Isaiah, and it is the Haftarah, the prophetic selection read—really, sung—on the Sabbath of the first Torah portion in Exodus, Shemot.

Haba’im yashreish Ya’acov, y’tzits ufarach Yisrael, umalu p’nai tevel t’nuvah. Hakmakat makeihu, hikahu, im kehereg harugav horag.

But that isn’t the end of the musical line, but rather the beginning of how these modes, the cantillations from Temple times, influenced the development of Jewish music. This same musical, modal framework was transported from the synagogue to the Beit Midrash, the house of study, for study was and is an essential element in Jewish life. This is how a discussion in the Talmud, the central text of Jewish law and lore and study, would have been and might still be chanted by two Yeshiva students, scholars learning the core text of Jewish law. Musically, we have a mode called “study mode”, based in Haftarah chant, simplified and modified only for the emphasis that study and memorization require. I’ll chant both the text and the translation in the same study mode.

Mei’eimatai korin et shma b’arvin? What time do we say the prayer “Shema” in the evening? B’sha’a shehaKohanim nichnasin le’echol be’trumasom, at the time when the priests entered to eat the evening meal in the days of the Jerusalem Temple; ad ha’ashmura harishona divrei Rabi Eliezer, until the end of the first watch of the night according to Rabbi Eliezer; v’chachomim omrim, ad chatzot; but the consensus of the rabbis is that it was until midnight.

This melody of study, based on the Haftarah Trope, was taken up much later by cantors and composers. Now, a word or two about cantors, and what makes someone a cantor. The Hebrew word for a cantor is Chazzan, but we are not really sure where that word comes from. A folk-etymology suggests it started as the Hebrew word chazah, meaning to see or have a vision, then became chazon, a vision itself, then became chazzan, someone who shows others the way in prayer. We do know cantorial music rose out of the same melodies and chants embodying the ancient musical tradition of the Temple. And we know that the role of the cantor was to be the prayer leader, the person who chanted the service and usually the scriptural readings for each service.

In a traditional synagogue it is not the rabbi who leads prayer, but the chazzan, the cantor. And the cantor chants the service by utilizing a musical framework for prayer called Nusach, an overall system for what kinds of modes are used to chant not only scriptural sections but all liturgy.

Back to that melody of study, the one that came out of the Haftarah cantillations for the prophetic reading. Here is an example of study melody, used as the basis for a composition on a section of study text, a paragraph that is included in the daily morning prayer service. You can find the text on page 180 in your prayer books. We referenced this in Mussar class last week, by the way. This setting was composed by Jacob Rappaport, for a passage that lists the highest principles of Jewish conduct. Taken from the Talmud, it says, “These are the things that have no measure, and whose reward, too, is beyond measurement: leaving the corners of the field for the poor; bringing the first fruits to the Temple; honoring father and mother; performing acts of kindness; attending the house of study twice daily; welcoming the stranger; visiting the sick; rejoicing with bride and groom; burying the dead; praying with sincerity; making peace between man and his fellow; but the study of Torah is equal to them all because it leads to them all.”

[Sing Eilu Devarim, Rappoport]

Most likely that composition began as a vocal improvisation on the Nusach, the musical mode for study. The cantor improvised within the mode, as a jazz musician would do, and then decided that he liked what he had sung. He, or someone, notated it as well as he could remember it. Most cantorial composition began their lives this way, as inspired interpretations of prayers that were later translated to written-out musical scores.

Actually, cantors were not restricted to composing only musical settings. Many Jewish prayers themselves were actually created by cantors, by Chazzanim. In the Middle Ages an entire genre of liturgical poems were composed by cantors, called piyyutim, prayer-poems that became part of siddurim, prayerbooks. Some of these are among the most famous Jewish prayers today. Cantors, the paytanim who wrote these prayers, are usually credited with inventing rhymed poetry.

Now to focus on another mode, Torah chanting:

B’reisheet barah Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’arets. Ve’ha’arets hayta tohu vavohu v’choshech al p’nai t’hom, v’ru’ach Elohim m’rachefet al p’nai hamayim. Vayomer Elohim yehi or; vayehi or. Vay’ar Elohim et ha’or, ki tov; vay’hi erev vayehi boker yom echad.

Everyone follow that? You may be more familiar with it in English:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was chaos, darkness was on the face of the deep. The spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. God said, “Let there be light!” and light was. God saw the light was good. There was evening and morning, Day One.”

A mode based on that cantillation for the weekly Torah reading developed in the synagogue, and was used for the beginning of the Friday evening service at the start of the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, just at sundown. It is called Kabbalat Shabbat Nusach, or the mode for the receiving of the Sabbath. It goes like this:

Lechu neran’nah lAdonai, nariah l’Tzur Yisheinu… arba’aim shana akut bador, v’tomar to’ei le’vav heim, v’hem lo yadu d’rachai. Asher nishbati v’api, im yevo’un el menuchati.

You can hear this same mode used today every Friday night in traditional synagogues in the western world, or in Israel—that is, in Conservative or Orthodox or even Reconstructionist temples. Reform Temples you may still hear a bit of this, since they are much less likely to follow traditional musical nusach.

In any case, that same musical mode for Kabbalat Shabbat, the service for receiving the Sabbath and derived from Torah chanting cantillation, was incorporated into one of the great Jewish folk performance songs of all time.

In the days when a large number of European Jews lived in the Pale of Settlement, an area of the huge Russian Empire that included Poland, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Moldova, Lithuania, Latvia and many other areas, it was a region of widespread poverty for Jews, and unlike the stereotypes most Jews, not only in this restricted region but everywhere in Europe, were quite poor. That meant that while the synagogues in which these devout Jews worshipped might have been able to afford to pay the salary of a full-time rabbi, they surely did not believe they could afford to pay the salary of a musical professional, a cantor.

And so, in order to enjoy the beauty of great cantorial singing without being able to afford it regularly, smaller communities would bring in a cantor to daven for a shabbes, to lead services for one Sabbath, saving their resources to bring in a fine traveling cantor. That Chazzan, that cantor, would go from town to town and village to village and sing the services for one Sabbath.

This is a story-song about one such traveling cantor, or rather, about the way that three prominent citizens of the village appreciate his efforts leading services on one Sabbath. It is called A Chazandl af Shabbos, a cantor who came for the Sabbath, and the it is composed on the basis of the same mode, the Kabbalat Shabbat, Receiving the Sabbath Nusach. The three different people who praise the cantor are first a tailor; second a strong young blacksmith; and third, a rough teamster, a wagon-driver. Each expresses his own understanding of what made the cantor so great.

The Nusach, the melodic framework, is based entirely in the Kabbalat Shabbat mode, although this is a folksong used solely for entertainment purposes.

[Sing: Chazandl af Shabbes]

Now that melody did not stop its journey with that folk song. In fact, you might recognize a tune from a Broadway show that is also derived almost entirely from Kabbalat Shabbat Nusach, the mode for the receiving of the Sabbath on Friday night. It goes like this:

“If I were a rich man, yaggdigga digga digga digga digga diggg dum; all day long I’d biddee biddee bom, if I were a wealthy man.”

Here we can trace the musical origins from the chanting of Torah in the Temple in Jerusalem into the synagogue service for welcoming the Sabbath to a long popular Yiddish folksong to the Broadway stage and film.

I’ll conclude this little journey into Jewish music by singing a kind of hybrid song, created by Jewish composer Stephen Schwartz for the film Prince of Egypt, an interpretation of the feelings of the Jews at the Shores of the Sea, that includes some beautiful Hebrew passages from the Song of Moses at the Sea in its text and setting, combining a contemporary composition with a bit of the flavor of the special cantillation used only for this section of the Torah. It’s called When You Believe.

[Sing: When You Believe]

Single Post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page