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The practice of accompanying synagogue worship with music dates back to ancient times. The Bible recounts numerous occasions when song expressed thanks to God or enhanced Temple services. The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15) marked the occasion of the splitting of the Red Sea as the Hebrews escaped slavery in Egypt, and Deborah sang her song (Judges 5) to commemorate her defeat of the Canaanite general Sisera. King David’s musical skill as a lyre player (I Samuel 16) first drew King Saul to him eventually leading to his kingship; according to tradition, many of the 150 psalms in the canon of the Hebrew Bible were composed and sung by David.
David’s son Solomon built the first Temple in Jerusalem, and worship there included a large orchestra of harps, wind instruments, and voices, played and sung by members of the tribe of Levi. Psalms 120-134, the 15 “Songs of Ascents,” were recited regularly during ancient Temple service; each corresponded to one of the 15 steps the priest would climb to arrive at the altar.
With the dispersion of the Israelites following the destruction of the second Temple, the tradition of ancient Israelite music was lost. Today we may only speculate as to how this extensive repertoire of 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. The musical components of the synagogue service are cantillation, nusah, hymns, and in some communities, niggunim.
Cantillation consists of the musical system for chanting texts from the Bible. The Pentateuch is generally read in short sections each Sabbath over the course of a year; various readings from the Prophets accompany the reading from the Pentateuch every week, and sections of the Writings are often read on special holidays. These sections of the Bible are read by one member of the congregation while the rest of the congregation listens.
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