Music 101

Music has been a part of Jewish life since biblical times, and remains integral to the Jewish religious and cultural experiences. At the moment of Israel’s birth as a nation–the Exodus from Egypt–the Bible tells us that Moses led the people of Israel in a song of divine praise. Music was part of the sacrificial worship in the Temple, and later became part of synagogue prayer services and at-home religious observance. Jewish music tends to blend unique elements with aspects that reflect the cultures in which Jews have lived, composed, played instruments, and sung.


Religious Music

Jewish religious music includes cantorial music–the music of the professional prayer leader; nusah, the melodies to which traditional prayers are chanted, with different tunes used for different services; modern liturgical music, in which composers set excerpts of Jewish prayer to choral or other music that is not necessarily inherently “Jewish”; cantillation, which is the notes for chanting public readings of the Torah, haftarah (selections from Prophets), and other Jewish sacred texts, such as the Scroll of Ecclesiastes on the festival Sukkot; and nigunim, which are wordless melodies. Different Jewish communities throughout history have produced their own distinctive forms of these different Jewish religious expressions. However, as the global community has grown increasingly connected, so too have the different Jewish communities, resulting in a cross-fertilization of musical styles between Jews of different countries and different denominational affiliations.


American Jewish Music

Jewish Rock RadioThe music of North American Jews reflects the delicate balance these communities attempt to maintain between upholding their distinct Jewish identity and participating in the broader North American culture. The rise of North American Jewish folk music, blending the sounds of the American folk music tradition with Jewish lyrics–often based on Jewish texts–is an example of such a phenomenon. In addition, the revival of klezmer music in recent years reflects American Jewry’s largely Eastern European roots and the endeavors of young musicians to reconnect with the cultures and traditions of past generations. In addition, some of America’s greatest composers and songwriters are Jewish, including Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Carole King, and Bob Dylan.

Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning.com are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy