Synagogue & Religious Music

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Jewish prayer relies heavily on music. Dating back at least to the times of the First Temple in Jerusalem, Levites had the responsibility of singing and playing instruments as part of the Temple service, which centered around sacrificial practices. With the exile of the Jewish people in 70 C.E., the focus of Jewish worship shifted from sacrifice to the recitation of texts.

The Talmud recounts the formation of the basic components of the siddur (prayerbook). At the time, the national literacy level was low, and most Jews had to memorize the essential prayers; in almost every “oral” tradition such as this, music is used to aid memorization. We have no way of knowing what early prayer chanting sounded like. One thing seems clear, though: The primary purpose of chanting non-poetic texts is to convey the meaning of the words; the structure and decorativeness of the music must have been secondary.

The destruction of the Second Temple also served as the catalyst for a vast change in the music of worship. In the Temple, the Levites had employed instruments–drums, cymbals, horns, lyres, trumpets–but after the destruction of the Temple, the rabbis forbade the use of instruments during prayer. Two reasons for this proscription 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.

While prayer was ideally undertaken by each individual, the Talmud provided for cases of illiteracy through the institution of the shaliah tzibbur (messenger of the community); in this context, music takes on an important role in prayer. The shaliah tzibbur was to chant the liturgical texts aloud, with the intention that that prayer could function for the entire congregation. The role of shaliah tzibbur developed into the role of hazzan (cantor), whose responsibility was not only to pray on behalf of the community, but also to sing the service well.

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