II. Devotional and Classical

Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi Stream:

II. Devotional and Classical

Klezmer and Yiddish song are the two main prongs of secular Ashkenazi music, music which celebrates Jewish life in all its facets. The more specifically religious musical expressions are the Cantorial Art, the Art of Biblical Cantillation, the Hassidic nigun, and Sacred Song.

An art form that straddles the devotional and secular in Jewish music of the Ashkenazi stream, is Jewish themed Western Art Music. Here one can find liturgical treatments, such as Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service (Avodat Hakodesh), as well as purely instrumental forms of music, based on klezmer’s modes and other modes and melodies associated with Jewish music generally. Both Jewish and non-Jewish composers have created works with Jewish thematic materials. One good example of the latter is Maurice Ravel, who wrote several Yiddish song arrangements for Voice and Piano (or orchestra).

Devotional and Secular

There is always a creative tension between the secular and devotional aspects of Jewish music. Thus certain Yiddish songs may indeed deal directly with religious themes, celebrating the Sabbath and other Jewish ritual events while others can be bawdy and vaudeville like. In terms of commonalities, the freylakh (celebration) rhythms of klezmer and those of the celebration melodies of the hassidim are identical; and the modes of prayer utilized by the cantor in the synagogue are the same as the modes of klezmer music.

Here are some of the elements of music making which differentiate the secular and the devotional in Jewish Music:

  1. The traditonal modes of prayer are sung a capella – there is no instrumental accompaniment in the traditional synagogue ritual as there is in klezmer music;

  2. Yiddish songs deal more with life in general, and only occasionally touch upon ritual life;

  3. Yiddish is the language of everyday life, while Hebrew is the language of prayer and Jewish ritual.

It may then be asked, if Jewish music is so differentiated between the secular and the devotional, what are the hallmarks of the music that make it Jewish? The answer to this question is not at all easy, but we may approach it by considering the congregational song. In the synagogue, the participation of the congregants is of utmost importance, so many melodies and songs are introduced into the prayer ritual to involve the congregation. These melodies may even come from secular sources. And this process works the other way around as well, where devotional melodies are taken outside the contexts of ritual service and are sung and played at life passage events, or on the concert stage. Thus, the devotional context is not devoid of the secular, nor the secular devoid of the devotional.

Some excellent examples of famous secular songs which have made their way into the synagoogue service are: Y’rushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold) – which is utilized to sing the words of L’cha Dodi, a liturgical hymn ushering in the Sabbath; and Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses) – which is set to the words of the Sabbath Kedusha, “Hu Elokeinu, hu avinu…”. There are many more examples such as these.

Among the devotional songs commonly utilized in popular contexts, we can cite as examples the repertoire of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Hassidic nigunim, and a large variety of songs based on sacred texts that are thoroughly appropriate for celebrations and the concert stage.

Devotional Jewish Music

In this category of the Ashkenazi Jewish musical stream we are concerned with the following forms.

  1. The Modes of Prayer – the art of the Synagogue cantor;

  2. Biblical Cantillation – the art of chanting the Hebrew Bible;

  3. The Hassidic Nigun – wordless devotional tunes with the power to unite one with God.

  4. Sacred Song – sung liturgical poetry and scriptural texts.

The Modes of Prayer

As we pointed out in our discussion of the modes of klezmer, and elsewhere, the modes of prayer and the modes of klezmer are very much the same. The chief difference between them is in the way they are performed and the function they serve. In the synagogue, the modes of prayer are meant to create certain states of mind that correspond to the character of the prayer concerned. The cantor (aka, hazzan) – whose position as the leader of synagogue prayer has developed into its present form only since the early 19th century – has the task of preserving the art of singing in the modes of prayer. As the character of a prayer varies – from supplication to praise to rejoicing – so too does the mode of prayer, and there is a long tradition of matching the mode to the prayer. This is the very warp and woof of synagogue modal music – the association preserved over the years between a certain prayer and a certain mode. So much so that someone attending the synagogue and hearing the prayers chanted regularly would feel out of sorts to hear a prayer sung in an unexpected mode. This is the strength of the mode, a mood as it were, of a congregation’s consciousness.

The cantor’s art entails several elements. First, he must know how to present a prayer in the given mode, which includes the ability to sing set melodies and cadential patterns, and improvise in the mode. Secondly, he must be able to lead the congraegation in song, teaching them melodies so that they may participate in the chanting of the prayers. Finally, he also must understand the texts well, and try his utmost to reflect their meaning in his music, and respect their integrity at all times.

There is an important musical difference between the cantor’s chanting of the prayers and the singing of congregational songs. The former is in large part performed without fixed rhythm or tempo, whereas congregational songs are invariably metrical, that is, they have a rhythmic scheme and a tempo. The arhythmic aspect of the cantorial art allows for the element of improvisation to be included in the modal exposition of the prayers. This structured improvisation – structured, since it must adhere to one chosen mode at any given time – lends a very personal tinge to the cantor’s musical art.

Biblical Cantillation

The sine qua non of the synagogue service is the reading from the Torah (the Hebrew Bible, most importantly the five Books of Moses, and the Prophets). This is done on every holy day – every Sabbath (the seventh day of the week, which for Jewish people begins at sundown on Friday evening and lasts until nightfall on Saturday), as well as every other holy day: Succot (Tabernacles), Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year), and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The Torah is also read every Monday and Thursday morning, and passages from other parts of the scriptural canon are read on other holidays such as: Tisha B’av (the Ninth Day of Av, a day of mourning for the destruction of the holy temple of old) when the book of Lamentations is read; and on Purim, when the Book of Esther is read.

The art of biblical cantillation goes back a very long way, and even in talmudic times (5th century CE), it was consisdered to be very important, for the enhancement of meaning, to chant, rather than simply read, the biblical text. Appended to the scriptural text are neumes (aka. trop, aka. te-amim) – notational signs which were codified in the 9th century CE. The system is intricate and exacting, each neume representing a melodic cell, or group of musical notes, to which the appended word or words are sung, and which together create a clear musical rendering. The overall effect is, like the cantor’s art of modal chanting, non-metrical.*

The neumes have acquired many different musical equivalents over the centuries, since Jews in different countries and cultures developed different musical equivalents for the same neumes. Each system is complete unto itself, and one learns the system aurally for the most part, though modern western notational aids are also useful.

Just as there are different modes associated indelibly with certain types of prayer, so there are different neume-music equivalents associated with different readings. To wit, on the Sabbath there will aways be one reading from the Five Books of Moses, and a second reading from the Prophets. The melodic systems of these two readings differ – the Five Books of Moses are chanted in a more ‘major scale tonality’ whereas the Prophets in a ‘minor scale tonality’. There are other systems of neume-musical equivalents, specific to readings from certain books of the biblical canon (such as the Book of Lamentations, the Book of Esther, and others), and specific to certain readings on certain days, such as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. All of these variations and specifications make for great musical diversity and sustained musical interest.

Finally, the art of biblical cantillation, especially the readings from the Five Books of Moses, is tremendously challenging, due to the fact that the reader/chanter must have the neumes committed to memory, since in the synagogue he is reading from the scrolls of the Torah, which are written without any markings whatsoever – no neumes, no commas, no periods, and no vowelings**. Thus the Torah reader is a true expert in his knowledge of the neumes, and no less of the text. In the traditional synagogue, though musical mistakes are not considered an intransigence, any textual flub by the reader and he will be immediately stopped and corrected by the Rabbi before he is permitted to continue. The neumes are meant to enhance the clarity of the text, but the textual integrity is paramount.

The Hasidic Nigun

For the hassidim, a melody is a thread with which one’s heart can be bound to God. A wordless melody especially has this power to unite one with the divine – the reason being that words can get in the way of the experience of God-consciousness. Such a melody is referred to as a nigun (plural: nigunim), which is a Hebrew word meaning ‘a melody’ or ‘a tune’.

There are many hasidic sects, and each of them have their own nigunim, sung to nonsense syllables such as, ya ba bam, ya da dai, bi bi bom, and so on. Interestingly, the different sects use different nonsense syllables, and this is one way of ascertaining where a nigun comes from. The “bi bi bom hassidim” will not sing their nigunim utilizing “ya da dai” syllables, for instance. One may say that each sect has control over its own nonsense.

The authorship of the nigunim is usually attributed to the Rebbe, the chief Rabbi of the specific sect, though it may be that one of his followers authored it. The hasidim do not concern themselves with the usual business of copyright within their own sphere, though in today’s modern wold, where there is so much dissemination of art for profit, it may be assumed that original nigunim are copyright protected. Certainly hasidim would be aware that the Jewish prescriptions for respecting property rights extend to intellectual property, but in order to preserve the holiness of the nigun, ascribing its ‘authorship’ to the Rebbe is a way of saying that the nigun comes from God, and ultimately returns to Him.


**Neumes are also sometimes referred to as ‘Biblical accents’. Each sign represents a pre-set melodic figure, sometimes a single note and sometimes groups of two, three, or more notes.

** In Hebrew, all letters are consonants, and vowels are added below and above the consonants. Much Hebrew is written without adding any vowels, since most of the words can be recognized from the consonants alone. However, there are many difficult and archaic words in the Torah, not easily recognized or committed to memory.


Among the hassidim there is a mystical conception that all nigunim are deemed to be pre-figured by the Creator and kept in a Celestial Palace of Song – known by its Hebrew name, Heichal Han’gina. Thus the whole idea of human will being the producer of music is called into question. Music, or in Hasidic terminology, N’gina, exists from the beginning of time – it is not authored by anyone but the one Creator. The work of the human being is not so much to create new melodies but rather to channel these pre-figured melodies into the world. So here again one might say that we are describing the term ‘klezmer’, the human vessel of song, the human channel through which a melody from the heavenly Palace of Song can come into this world. It does not mean that the work of authors and composers is not real or proprietary, but it may mean that the greatest works of art are not willed into existence by the, altogether paltry, individual ego of a human person alone. There is a divine source, and connecting with this source is the work of the artist. One may connect one’s music more or less with one’s material needs in this life, but it is not good, from the Hasidic point of view, to assume that the human individual is the source of the mystical experience of music.

Sacred Songs

Finally, in the realm of Jewish devotional music, we include sacred songs. These are the songs utilizing liturgical poetry and scriptural texts. They may be used in the synagogue service, in the Jewish home, at life-passage events, and on the concert stage.

The piyut (plural: piyutim) is a liturgical poem, honouring and enhancing the Jewish experience of the sacred. Thus piyutim, written over the millenia to honour the Sabbath and the festivals, have been set to many different melodies. Some of these sacred songs are sung in the home, such as Shalom Aleichem (Peace Be Unto You), on Friday night after returning from the synagogue. In fact there are many beautiful hymns in honour of the Sabbath, collectively called Zmirot Shabat (Songs for the Sabbath).

Some piyutim have made their way into the synagogue service itself, and have been utilized by the cantor to involve the entire congregation in singing. Here again we reiterate the pivotal role of the congregational song in Jewish music, making it a music of both the devotional and the secular contexts.

The late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and other Jewish songwriters authored many melodies, based on liturgical and scriptural passages. These songs are not only sung in the synagogue, but have a crucial role to play in today’s Jewish simcha (Jewish celebration – weddings, bar and bat mitzvas, and so on). Carlebach’s songs, full of rhythmic life, make the perfect celebration music, the perfect music for the “circle dance”.

A tremendous amount of Jewish music has been, and continues to be, written to scriptural and liturgical texts. Thus, without being religious, and even without going to the synagogue, a Jewish person will come into touch with the spirit of sacred music at life passage events, and to some degree at concerts of Jewish music.

Western Classical Art Music

In this category we concern ourselves with forms of Jewish musical expression which utilize the western classical art medium. This takes 2 main forms.

  1. Choral Works – with sacred texts, or on sacred themes, with or without instrumental accompaniment;

  2. Instrumental Works – for western forces, utilizing recognizable Jewish modes and musical techniques.

The composers of these works may or may not be Jewish. The works may or may not be meant to be heard in the synagogue. The concert stage is often where such music will be played, though the tradition of cantor and choir has been part of the synagogue service for a long time.

We also include here works that serve a serious Jewish theme, for example John Williams’ score for Schindler’s List. We choose not to include here Jewish music produced for the English language musical theatre, such as the music for Fiddler on the Roof. In Section III we will deal with these kinds of popular forms as a contemporary trend in Ashkenazi musical culture.

Choral Works

Synagogue Based

In the synagogue, a large body of choral works has been created, set to the texts of the prayers. In these pieces the cantor sings the solo part, while the choir provides accompaniment and transitional passages. In the Orthodox synagogue practice*, the choir is comprised only of men, usually in the form of Tenor 1/Tenor 2/Bass 1/Bass 2**. In Conservative and Reform, and other denominations, the choir will be mixed – Soprano/Alto/Tenor/Bass – and indeed, today the cantor may be a woman as well. The a capella nature of synagogue music is retained in both the Orthodox and Conservative movements, while in the Reform and other more modern movements there may be instrumental accompaniment, especially that of the organ.

Concert Works

Though the choral music of the synagogue is often performed on the concert stage, there is a large body of choral work created more specifically to be heard in concert. A fine example of this is Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service (Avodat Hakodesh), a large scale work involving choir, cantor and a symphony orchestra. There are many more works for the concert stage, based on liturgy, utilizing voices and instruments, and of course there are many songs and settings of scripture for a capella choir.

Instrumental Works

Many composers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have written instrumental works which utilize Jewish thematic material. Among these composers we may mention: Ernest Bloch (1880 – 1959), Max Bruch (1838 – 1920), Leonard Bernstein (1918 –1990), and Srul Irving Glick (1934-2002).

Among non-Jewish composers who wrote Jewish themed music are: Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), and John Williams (1932 -).

In the selected discography below are listed works which will give the reader an ample introduction to Jewish themed Western Classical Art Music.


*There are several main denominations of Jewish ritual practice – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and several others.

** The reasons for the segregation of the sexes, and differentiation of their roles, in Jewish orthodoxy is beyond the scope of this essay.


Selected Discography

Classical Art Music

Ofer Ben-Amots, Celestial Dialogues; The Joyce Cycle – for Voice and Orchestra.

Leonard Bernstein, Symphony No. 1, Jeremiah; Symphony No. 3, Kaddish; Dybbuk, Suites No. 1 and 2; Halil, nocturne for Solo Flute, Piccolo, Alto Flute, Percussion, Harp and Strings; See also the recording: Leonard Bernstein: A Jewish Legacy – this is a good sampler of his Jewish music;

Ernest Bloch, Sacred Service (Avodat Hakodesh) – for choir and orchestra; Schelomo – for cello and orchestra; Voice in the Wilderness – for orchestra; Baal Shem (Three Pictures of Chassidic Life) – for Violin and Piano ( or Orchestra).

Max Bruch, Kol Nidrei Op. 47, (Adagio on Hebrew Melodies) – for Violoncello and Orchestra

Srul Irving Glick – many if not most his works are Jewish themed, some with a more Western musical approach, and some firmly based in Jewish Music. For more information go to: http://www.musiccentre.ca

Maurice Ravel, Chants populaires: No 4. Chanson Hebraique (Meyerke Mayn Zun); Deux Mélodies Hébraïques (Di Alte Kashe, Kaddish) – for voice and piano (or orchestra).

Dmitri Shostakovich, From Jewish Folk Poetry; The Fourth Quartet; Violin Concerto No. 1; Second Piano Trio (Op. 67) – all inspired by the folk music of the Jews of Russia, the trio includes a bitter-sweet, Jewish themed finale.

John Williams, Schindler’s List – music for the film.

The Modes of Prayer and Biblical Cantillation

For recorded learning resources go to: www.chadishmedia.com

For Cantorial Music go to: www.jewishmusic.com

Sacred Songs

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – for his many recordings and sheet music go to: www.jewishmusic.com

Tzimmes – Go to: www.tzimmes.net and see the albums: Sweet and Hot; A Lid for Every Pot; KlezMyriad.

Invitation to the Piyutwww.piyut.org.il/english/ – a tremendous resource of all things Piyut.

The Hassidic Nigun

Modzitzer Hassidim – to listen to the music of the Hassidim of Modzitz go to: www.modzitz.org/music.htm

General Resource – Books and Recordings

Jewish Music.com: www.jewishmusic.com – for books and recordings of every kind of Jewish Music.

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Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi Stream: II. Devotional and Classical

© Moshe Denburg, 2015.