“Instrumental music was a vital part of religious worship throughout biblical times,” writes Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD. in the book “Synagogue Song: An Introduction to Concepts Theories and Customs,” “The Song of the Sea,” the bible’s first instance of praise singing, was accompanied by women dancing and playing timbrels (Exod. 15:20). King David established Levitical choirs and orchestras for the express purpose of enhancing the mood of sacred services,” Friedmann continues.
In the first Temple in Jerusalem, worship included a large orchestra of harps, wind instruments and voices. The choir would regularly recite Psalms 120-134, the 15 “Songs of Ascents,” during ancient Temple service; each corresponded to one of the 15 steps the priest would climb to arrive at the altar.
According to the Mishna, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and a choir of twelve male singers. “As with any choir,” writes Friedmann, “the Levitical singers were expected to produce a balanced sound. For them this was not merely an aesthetic concern… the choir was meant to simulate the blended voices singing in the heavenly realm.” Solos would have “shattered the effect” and, worse, draw attention away from the main event—the sacrifice!
Following the destruction of the second Temple, the tradition of Ancient Israelite music was lost. “Rabbinic authorities banned instruments on Shabbat and holidays,” writes Friedmann. He points out that while “this prohibition came gradually… over time the proscription became the norm. Today Orthodox, and most Conservative services, do not have instrumental music.”
Two reasons for this prohibition have been suggested. First, the absence of musical instruments would serve as a sign of mourning for the Temple. Second, the rabbis of the Talmud opposed the use of instruments in prayer services because of their anti-Hellenistic sentiments. But there is a third reason as well: In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Beitza 36b, the rabbis explain that the Rabbinic prohibition is based on the concern that one might end up fixing the musical instrument if it became necessary. A no-no on Shabbat.
Within the synagogue, the custom of singing soon re-emerged. In later years, the practice became to allow singing for feasts celebrating religious life-cycle events such as weddings, and over time the formal ban against singing and performing music lost its force altogether, with the exception of the Yemenite Jews. The Jews of Yemen maintained strict adherence to Talmudic and Maimonidean halakha (Mishneh Torah, Hilkoth Ta’niyyoth, Chapter 5, Halakhah 14) and “instead of developing the playing of musical instruments, they perfected singing and rhythm” (The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – Yemen Music of the Yemenite Jews (English).
It was with the piyyutim (liturgical poems) that Jewish music began to develop into a definite form. The cantor sang the piyyutim to melodies selected by their writer or by himself, thus introducing fixed melodies into synagogue music. The prayers the hazzan continued to recite were as he had heard his predecessors recite them; but in moments of inspiration he would give utterance to a phrase of unusual beauty, which, caught up with the congregants.
“Today we may only speculate as to how this extensive repertoire of the Temple music sounded. But the practice of involving music in prayer endured. The fundamental components of synagogue music remain consistent throughout the world. Each community developed its own sound, often influenced by the music of its host region, and although those sounds are widely divergent from community to community, the basic structures of music in the synagogue have, by and large, remained constant.” *
Jewish Music has three distinct streams: one is the Ashkenazi, or the Western stream, which includes Klezmer, and originated in Eastern Europe. The second stream is Sephardi, referring to Mediterranean cultural sources, including Spain, Portugal, North Africa, Greece and Turkey. The third stream is the Mizrahi, which is the music of Jewish people who have for centuries lived amidst Arabic cultures. Of course these three streams are not completely separate, but do, in fact, intersect in many places.
Jewish Music also reflects our 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.” Yet, as “innovative, vibrant, adaptive, and many sided,” as it is, today’s Jewish music “rests upon a firm foundation of shared religious and communal experience.”
Though we cannot know what the music of the Temple sounded like, we can surmise that it was majestic and meant to stir the hearts and minds of those in attendance. From what I have learned, it seems to have been quite spectacular!
And while such “productions” disappeared from religious life, the joy of music made its way back into the synagogue life. As we have become more comfortable asserting their religious and cultural identity, Jewish musicians have adopted the influences of American Folk and Rock music. Contemporary Jewish music often draws on, and overlaps with elements of liturgy, both in melody and in text, like the work of Debbie Friedman, whose music is infused with Jewish lyrics, ideas and nigguns (wordless melodies) of Shlomo Carlebach, now so often heard and sung in synagogues.
Sources: My Jewish Learning, Jewish Virtual Library
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to JLife since 2004.