Prayer, Music & Liturgy

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Jewish prayer features an elaborate tradition of texts and accompanying actions that have roots in the practices of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and perhaps in traditions of prayer outside the Temple. These rituals were shaped most fundamentally, by the rabbis of the generations immediately after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Those sages established the outlines of prayer: three daily worship services (with the addition of the Musaf or “additional” service on Shabbat and festivals) and their contents, which–with only minor changes–have been the basis of Jewish prayer for two millennia.

prayer quizFor individuals and communities, there is a challenge in performing a formalized liturgy. How does one express one’s own inner feelings and thoughts in such a situation? How does one prevent the inherent repetition from having a numbing effect on one’s ability to freshly perceive the words and their meaning? Many innovations in both text and music over the centuries have addressed this issue, including short introductions (kavvanot), additional poetry, and cantorial and congregational music composed for the texts.

The exact texts and the details of their usage vary among different Jewish communities. These variations are often local, but several regional traditions can be discerned. One such ethnic cluster, using the Sephardic rite, consists of communities of Jews whose ancestors lived on the Iberian peninsula until their expulsion and dispersion in the last decade of the 15th century. The Ashkenazic rite is shared by the descendants of Jews whose ancestors lived in western and central Europe, mostly migrated to Eastern Europe, and have been migrating westward since the mid-17th century.

The Jews of the Muslim world–North Africa and the Middle East–constitute a fairly closely related set of “eastern communities,” from which the traditions of the Jews of Yemen stand apart as a distinct rite. Smaller ethnic divisions exist, such as the native Italian rite (followed by some Italian Jews) and the Romaniote rite of the Jews of the Balkans (now in disuse).

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