Jewish Music

What Is Jewish Music?

Jewish music can be studied from many diversified points of view. Among them historical, liturgical and non-liturgical music of the Hebrews dating from the pre-Biblical times (Pharaonic Egypt); religious music at the first and second Solomon’s Temples; musical activities immediately following the Exodus; the seemingly impoverished religious musical activities during the early middle ages; the emergence of the concept of Jewish Music in the mid-19th century; its nation-oriented sense as coined by the landmark book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929) by A. Z. Idelsohn (1882-1938) and finally as the art and popular music of Israel.

Early emergences of Jewish musical themes and of what may be called “the idea of being Jew” in European music can be first seen in the works of Salamone Rossi (1570-1630). Following that they appear somewhat shaded in the works of the grandson of the well known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn(1729-1786): Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).

Fromental Halevy’s (1799-1862) opera La Juive and its occasional use of some Jewish themes is opposed to the lack of “anything Jew” in his almost contemporary fellow composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) who was actually Jew and grew up in straight Jewish tradition.

Interestingly the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Music led by the composer-critic Joel Engel (1868-1927) reports on how they discovered their Jewish roots. They were inspired by the Nationalistic movement in the Russian Music personified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui and others, and records how set out to the Shtetls and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of Yiddish folksongs.

Ernst Bloch’s (1880-1959) Schelomo for cello and orchestra and specially the Sacred Service for orchestra, choir and soloists are attempts to create a “Jewish Requiem”.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)’s Sephardic upbringings and their influences on his music as they appear in his Second Violin Concerto and in many of his songs and choral works; cantatas Naomi and Ruth, Queen of Shiba and in the oratorio The Book of Jonah among others are worth noting as well.

Many scholars did not missed the Synagogue motives and melodies borrowed by George Gershwin in his Porgy and Bess. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski has claimed that the melody to “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was taken from the Haftarah blessing and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing.

In Gershwin’s some 800 songs, allusions to Jewish music have been detected by other observers as well. One musicologist detected “an uncanny resemblance” between the folk tune “Havenu Shalom Aleichem” and the spiritual “It Take a Long Pull to Get There“.

Most notcied contemporary Israeli composers are Chaya Czernowin, Betty Olivera, Tsippi Fleisher, Mark Kopytman, Yitzhak Yedid.

There are also very important works by non-Jew composers in the Jewish music. Maurice Ravel with his Kaddish for violin and piano based on a traditional liturgical melody and Max Bruch’s famous arrangement of the Yom Kippur prayer Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra are among the best known.

Sergei Prokofieff’s Overture sur des Themes Juives for string quartet, piano and clarinet clearly displays its inspirational sources in non-religious Jewish music. The melodic, modal, rhythmical materials and the use of the clarinet as a leading melodic instrument is a very typical sound in folk and non-religious Jewish music.

Dmitri Shostakovich was deeply influenced by Jewish music as well. This can be seen in many of his compositions, most notably in the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, and in the Second Piano Trio. However his most outstanding contribution to the Jewish culture is without doubt the 13th. Symphony “Babi Yar“.

How Many Jewish Musics?

The world-wide dispersion of the Jews following the Exodus and its three main communities create the basic kayout of the world-wide Jewish music. Those communities in their geographical dispersion covering all continents and their unique relations with local communities have given birth to various kinds of music as well as languages and customs.

Following the exile, according to geographical settlements, Jews formed three main branches: Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi.

Roughly they are located as follows: Ashkenazi in Eastern and Western Europe, the Balkans, (to a lesser extend) in Turkey and Greece; Sephardi in Spain, Maroc, North Africa and later in the Ottoman Empire (Turkey); Mizrahi in Lebanon, Syria, East Asia, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt.

The music of those communities naturally entered into contact with local traditions and evolved accordingly.

Ashkenazi and the Klezmer

“Ashkenazi” refers to Jews who in the century started to settle on the banks of the Rhine.
Today the term “Ashkenazi” designate most of the European and Western Jews.

Besides the Hebrew, Yiddish is commonly used in speech and songs.

The traditional Ashkenazi music, originated in Eastern Europe, moved to all directions from there and created the main branch of Jewish Music in North America. It includes the famous Klezmer music. Klezmer means “instruments of song”, from the Hebrew word klei zemer. The word come to designate the musician himself and it is somehow analogous to the European troubadour.

Klezmer is a very popular genre which can be seen in Hasidic and Ashkenazic Judaism, it is however deeply connected with the Ashkenazi tradition.

Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim. They draw on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. Due to the Ashkenazi lineage of this music, the lyrics, terminology and song titles are typically in Yiddish.

Originally naming the musicians themselves in mid-20th Century the word started to identify a musical genre, it is also sometimes referred to as “Yiddish” music.


“Sephardi” literally means Spanish, and designate Jews from mainly Spain but also North Africa, Greece and Egypt.

Following the expulsion of all non-Christians, forced to convert to Christianism or to the exile in 1492, the very rich, cultivated and fruitful Jewish culture existing in Spain has migrated massively into the Ottoman Empire formed the main brach of Jews living currently in Turkey.

Their language besides the Hebrew is called Ladino. Ladino is a 15th. century of Spanish. Much of their musical repertoire is in that language. The Sephardi music mixes many elements from traditional Arab, North African, Turkish idioms.

In medieval Spain, “canciones” being performed at the royal courts constitued the basis of the Sephardic music.

Spiritual, ceremonial and entertainment songs all coexists in Sephardic music. Lyrics are generally Hebrew for religious songs and Ladino for others.

The genre in its spread to North Africa, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and Egypt assimilated many musical elements. Including the North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam modes.

Woman voice is often preferred while the instruments included the “oud” and “qanun” which are not traditionally Jewish instruments.

Some popular Sephardic music has been released as commercial recordings in the early 20th Century. Among the first popular singers of the genre were men and included the Turks Jack Mayesh, Haim Efendi and Yitzhak Algazi. Later, a new generation of singers arose, many of whom were not themselves Sephardic. Gloria Levy, Pasharos Sefardíes and Flory Jagoda.


“Mizrahi” means Eastern and refers to Jews of Eastern Mediterranean and further to the East.

The music also mixes local traditions. Actually a very “eastern flavored” musical tradition which encompasses Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and as east as India.

Middle Eastern percussion instruments share an important part with the violin in typical Mizrahi songs. The music is usually high pitched in general.

In Israel today Mizrahi music is very popular.

A “Muzika Mizrahit” movement emerged in the 1950s. Mostly with with performers from the ethnic neighborhoods of Israel: the Yemenite “Kerem HaTemanim” neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Moroccan, Iranian and Iraqi immigrants – who played at weddings and other events.

Songs were performed in Hebrew but with a clear Arabic style on traditional Arabic instruments: the “Oud”, the “Kanun”, and the “darbuka”.

Classic Hebrew literature, including liturgical texts and poems by medieval Hebrew poets constitued the main source of lyrics.

Music in Jewish Liturgy

There are a wide collection of, sometimes conflicting, writings on all aspects of using music in the Judaic liturgy. The most agreed-upon facts are that the women voice should be excluded from religious ceremony and the usage of musical instruments should be banned in Synagogue service.

However some Rabbinical authorities soften those straight positions but not regarding the exclusion of the female voice. In weddings, for instance, the Talmudic statement “to gladden the groom and bride with music” can be seen as a way to allow making instrumental and non-religious music at the weddings but this was probably to be done outside the Synagogue.

The very influential writings of the Spanish Rabbi, also a physician and philosopher, Maimonides (1135-1204) on one hand opposed harshly against all form of music not totally at the service of religious worship and on the other hand recommended instrumental music for its healing powers.

Healing powers and mysterious formul hidden inside musical scores was commonly sought after in music scores during middle-ages, renaissance and pre-Baroque epochs. Interestingly, in a recently published fiction novel “Imprimatur” by the musicologist Rita Monaldi and co-author Francesco Solti the whole plot is built-up around a composition of Salomone Rossi (1570-1630), an important Jewish composer.

Jewish mystical treatises, like the Kabbala, particularly since the 13th. century often deal with ethical, magical and therapeutic powers of music. The enhancement of the religious experience with music, particularly with singing is expressed in many places.

Even though there is no unified position concerning music in the Jewish thought a common main ideas seems to emerge: that the music is the authentic expression of human feelings in religious and secular life.