Jewish Music – An Overview

by Moshe Denburg


The following brief overview of Jewish Music forms part of a World Music curriculum unit which was created by the author in tandem with the Learning Resource Center of the Britannia Secondary School in Vancouver, Canada. The author welcomes comments and queries from all interested readers, in the hopes of expanding upon the ideas put forward here (please mail to our Tzimmes address.). These materials also serve as a springboard for a Tzimmes workshop entitled The Many Faces of Jewish Music.

Moshe Denburg, January 2, 1996.


The Jewish people and their music have their roots in the Middle East, specifically in the land of Israel, and their branches everywhere. They have lived, for over 2000 years, amongst many cultures, both Eastern and Western – from Iran to Israel, to the Western Mediterranean and North Africa, to Europe, and most recently, the Americas.

Thus, there is a unique property of Jewish music that defies geographical location. This property can be called inter-cultural synthesis.

For millenia, Jews have been global wanderers; from the beginning of the common era, about 2000 years ago, until quite recently, they have lived amidst many cultures not their own. To preserve their identity, in a sea of foreign culture, Jewish people have always deemed it wiser to incorporate foreign cultural elements into the Jewish mainstream than to resist all outer influence absolutely.

Thus, to a large degree, Jewish Music is a cross-cultural phenomenon, the music of the wanderer. Undoubtedly, certain Jewish ritual musical forms have their sources in antiquity, but the idea of creative adaptation has been a hallmark of Jewish musical life for a very long time; thus, Jewish Music has many faces.

The Middle Eastern Context

To place Jewish Music in its root context, a brief outline of Middle Eastern Music follows.

Music of the Middle East generally belongs to the modal, or melodic traditions of music. Here harmony, as it has been practised in the Western World, is not emphasized. Rather, melodic intricacy and ornamentation, including 1/4 tones, and rigorous rhythmic development – these are the salient features. It should be noted that today, in popular forms, Western style harmony can also be heard; but the source traditions of music have rarely borrowed Western harmony.

The functions of music in the Middle East can be described as follows:

  1. Music as a Religious Vehicle – This includes the music of communal worship (in Mosque, Synagogue, and Church), and the music of mystic ritual (Sufis, Hassidim, and others).

  2. Music as a Celebratory Vehicle – This is music of both a popular and religious nature played at life passage events (Weddings, Bar-Mitzvas, Bat-Mitzvas, Anniversaries, etc.).

  3. Music as Art/Entertainment – This includes classical and popular forms, both instrumental and vocal music. It also includes certain dance forms such as belly dancing and folk dancing in general.

The Three Streams of Jewish Music

We can describe Jewish Music as having three distinct streams. One is the Ashkenazi, or Western stream. This includes Klezmer, and is music originating in Eastern Europe and extending to the rest of Europe and the Americas.

The second stream is the Sephardi, which refers to Mediterranean cultural sources, including Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey.

The third stream is the Mizrahi, literally Eastern, and refers to the music of Jewish people who resided over the centuries amidst Arabic cultures.

Of course these three streams are not completely separate, but do in fact intersect in many places (see diagram 1 below).

Diagram 1. The Three Streams of Jewish Music View


The music that originated in Eastern Europe (the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, among others) and moved westward and northward throughout Europe and later into North America, belongs to the Ashkenazi tradition. It includes Klezmer music. ‘Klezmer’ means ‘instruments of song’, from the Hebrew words ‘klei zemer’. It has come to denote the musician himself, thus incorporating a point of view that regards the musician as the vehicle or instrument of a higher source. ‘Ashkenazi’ refers to Jews who in the 9th century began to settle along the banks of the Rhine. Since these Jews are the forebears of much of European and Western Jewry, ‘Ashkenazi’ today refers to Jewish people of the Western World, or even more to the point, Jews of a Western cultural orientation.

Other than Hebrew – the tongue of the Bible – the language of speech and song is mainly Yiddish (Judeo-German); nowadays, English and other local languages have come to play a large role in Jewish Music of the Ashkenazi stream.

Yiddish – Beginning as an offshoot of Medieval German in the 10th century, Yiddish developed as a unique hybrid of German, Hebrew, and whatever other languages Jewish people spoke in the various countries where they dwelled. Thus, there are Slavic, Polish, and many other words in Yiddish.


This stream refers to music that originated around the Mediterranean, from Spain and North Africa to Turkey and Greece. ‘Sephardi’ literally means Spanish, and alludes to the fact that until the Spanish expulsion of all non-Christians in 1492, a very fruitful Jewish culture existed in Spain; when these Jewish communities were expelled they migrated to places all around the Mediterranean basin – Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, etc. They took with them a 15th century version of Spanish called Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Much musical repertoire is in this language. The interaction between these peoples and the communities in the countries where they lived, gave rise to a cultural expression that incorporates many melodic and rhythmic elements of the Mediterranean.

Ladino – Ladino is a form of Spanish, ca. 15th century, which emigrated with the Jewish people upon their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Over the centuries it has integrated many Hebrew words as well as words from the various tongues spoken where these Jews made their homes.


The music of Eastern Jews, from the Eastern Mediterranean and eastward into Asia can be designated as the Mizrahi stream of Jewish Music. ‘Mizrahi’ literally means ‘Eastern’; this music is the child of the interaction between Jewish people and the cultures of Arabia, Turkey, and Persia. Generally, this encompasses the following countries: Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and as far east as India. In song, the main language used is Hebrew; local languages have also been used, most notably, Arabic.

Sephardi and Mizrahi Differentiated

In current parlance the terms Sephardi and Mizrahi are often used interchangeably. The reasons for this are as follows: firstly, so many Jews who lived around the Mediterranean (Sephardim) over the centuries share many cultural traits with their more easterly counterparts (Mizrahi-yim), including the Arabo-Turko-Persian musical tradition.

Secondly, and significantly, in Israel today there are two major religious delineations, each represented by a distinct Rabbinate and liturgy – the Sephardi and the Ashkenazi. The membership of the Sephardi religious community includes most, if not all, non-Ashkenazim. This makes sense, since over the centuries the Sephardi and Mizrahi Rabbinates were connected much more intimately with each other than either was connected with the Ashkenazi. This has especially been true in more modern times as the Ashkenazi communities moved more and more northward and westward.

Thus, Mizrahi and Sephardi have been taken up as terms that are meant to imply one another.

However, in order to learn something about the sources of Jewish musical culture, placing Sephardi and Mizrahi together in one basket leaves much to be desired. The Mizrahi element is much more involved with non-Western modes, instruments, and forms of expression; it also has no inherent connection with Ladino. The Sephardi tradition is somewhat of a bridge between the Mizrahi and the Ashkenazi – it has some connection both with Eastern and Western forms of musical expression, as one might expect from a culture sprung up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

Jewish Music – Devotional and Secular

As mapped out in diagram 2 below, Jewish Music can be classified as either devotional or secular, depending on its content and function.


Music for Synagogue Worship – Included in this category is the art of the Cantor (in Hebrew: Hazan), who utilizes specific modes and melodies, and the art of Biblical cantillation, with its ancient tradition of neumes and modal chanting.

Other Religious Music – Melodies utilized to heighten devotional fervour, especially the melodies of the Hassidim; also, religious poetry, sung in the Synagogue or at home.

One of the main features of Devotional Music, especially when utilized in Synagogue ritual on the Sabbath and other holy days, is that it is almost entirely Vocal. Though today, in certain Jewish denominations, accompanying instruments such as the Organ are utilized in worship, the emphasis on congregational song and the art of the Hazan has always been, and still is, paramount.

The one salient exception to this is an instrument called the Shofar, a ram’s horn which is sounded on the High Holidays (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, respectively), as a special call to prayer and repentance.


This is music played at life passage events: Weddings, Bar-Mitzvas, Bat-Mitzvas, and other communal celebrations. Both instruments and voice are utilized in this music. It can be very rhythmic and have popular, even romantic texts. One may include in this category all Jewish Folk and Popular Music whose context lies outside the religious domain.

Devotional and Secular – Interchange

Between the two categories there may be some exchange. For example, devotional texts are often utilized for songs sung and played in a more secular setting. On the other hand, tunes from a secular source, sometimes from the music of the surrounding non-Jewish culture, find their way into the Synagogue. Many secular tunes have been set to traditional texts and used in the act of worship.

The interface, as it were, between these two spheres, is the Congregational Song (see diagram 2 below). These are the songs and melodies that perform a dual function – they can be heard both at worship services and at general celebratory events.

These two categories of Jewish musical expression apply, with variations, to Jewish communities everywhere, be they Ashkenazi, Sephardi, or Mizrahi.

Jewish Music-Devotional and Secular

Diagram 2. Jewish Music – Devotional and Secular View


To summarize, Jewish Music is typified by cultural diversity, and draws upon the resources of the many cultures in which Jewish people have lived. The uniqueness of Jewish Music is to be found in the way Jewish musicians have integrated outer influences and new ideas into their traditional framework. Thus Jewish Music is innovative, vibrant, adaptive, and many sided, and yet rests upon a firm foundation of shared religious and communal experience.



European and Western Jewish tradition.


A ceremonial event for a Jewish boy of 13 years of age, when he becomes a full-fledged member of the religious community.


The same as Bar-Mitzva, but for a girl, and occuring at the age of 12 rather than 13.


This refers to the melodic rendering of the Biblical texts; a very exact system of ‘accents’ (see neumes) forms an integral part of the text and serves as a musical guide for the reader/singer.


See Hazan.


Putting together elements of different cultures to create a new idea or art form. It has the same meaning as Inter-Cultural Synthesis.


Several different notes played simultaneously; the vertical relation of notes rather than the horizontal relation prevalent in melody.


A Jewish devotional tradition, the central idea being that simple faith and a prayer that comes from the heart is more important than intellectual brilliance.


Followers of a devotional branch of Judaism which emphasizes simplicity and sincerity rather than intellectual achievements.


The leader of prayer in a Synagogue; traditionally, only men lead the prayers, but today, in many denominations, women also perform this function. The Hazan must have a good clear voice and know how to recite the prayers utilizing the traditional modes of prayer.


The ancient language of the Bible and of Jews everywhere.

High Holidays

The holiest days of the year in Judaism; they include Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur(the Day of Atonement). These days fall around September/ October time – the variability is due to the fact that the Jewish calendar is tied to the lunar rather than solar cycle.

Inter-Cultural Synthesis

See Cross-Cultural.


A religion whose beginnings go back 4000 years, and whose basic premise is that there is one and only one God.


A language of Sephardi Jews, related to 15th century Spanish, sometimes called Judeo-Spanish.


The ritual of worship and prayer.


a) A Jewish musical style originating in Eastern Europe. b) A Jewish musician. c) A Yiddish word, meaning literally ‘a musical instrument’, derived from the Hebrew ‘kli zemer’, an instrument of song. d) An ensemble of Jewish musicians


Middle Eastern and Asian Jewish tradition.


A melodic structure, like a scale of notes, with prescribed note patterns and methods of performance. A mode carries with it a specific feeling or mood, and may become associated with specific prayers and ritual occasions.


A Muslim house of prayer.


A follower of the religion of Islam.


In Biblical cantillation these are notational signs, also known as ‘Biblical accents’. Each sign represents a pre-set melodic figure, sometimes a single note and sometimes groups of two, three, or more notes.

Rosh Hashana

The Jewish New Year; a two day holiday occuring in September.


A Jewish holy day of rest, occuring once a week, beginning at sundown on Friday and ending Saturday at nightfall. On this day Jews refrain from work and go to the Synagogue, where special prayers are recited and special rituals are performed.


A musical instrument made of a ram’s horn, utilized in Synagogue ritual on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.


Those who practice Sufism, an Islamic mystical tradition.


A Jewish house of prayer. Its etymology is Greek, and is comprised of two words: sun (together) + agein (to lead).


A language of Ashkenazi Jews, related to Medieval High German (ca. 10th century). It has evolved over many centuries, incorporating words and grammatical elements from many languages, including many Hebrew words. It is also sometimes called Judeo-German.

Yom Kippur

The Day of Atonement; a solemn Jewish holy day of fasting and prayer, occuring in late September or early October.


Books and Recordings

  1. Tara Publications

8 Music Fair Road, Suite 1, Dept. 347 Owings Mills, MD 21117 Tel. (1-800) TARA-400 or (410) 654-0880 Fax (410) 654-0881For books and recordings of a large variety of Jewish Music.

  1. SoundsWrite

6685 Norman Lane, San Diego, CA 92120 Tel. (619) 697-6120 Fax (619) 697-6124.

Recordings mainly, but some books as well.

  1. Chadish Media

453 East 9th St., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11218 Tel. (718) 856-3882. email:

Good resource for self-instructional tapes in traditional Jewish liturgy, Biblical cantillation, and the Cantorial art.

  1. Synagogue Song in America

by Joseph A. Levine. White Cliffs Media Co., Crown Point, IN, 1989.

A scholarly work with accompanying cassettes; an excellent primer on the traditional music of the Synagogue.

  1. Jewish Musical Traditions

by Amnon Shiloah. Wayne State University Press, Detroit, Michigan 48202, 1992.

An in-depth look at Jewish music from a renowned Israeli musicologist.

Other resources

Aleph – Alliance for Jewish Renewal

Resources for learning canrtorial art, and much more.

Copyright and Fair Use Notification

The author does not object to the use of these materials for personal educational purposes or for any fair use, such as quoting or citing these materials, as long as his authorship is credited by the user. Making copies of these materials as part of any commercial venture, or for any monetary reward, requires the written consent of the author. All reasonable requests will be honoured.

Jewish Music – An Overview

by Moshe Denburg