Author Archives: Dr. Rebecca Cypess

Dr. Rebecca Cypess

About Dr. Rebecca Cypess

Rebecca Cypess graduated with honors in music from Cornell University and holds a Master of Music degree in harpsichord from the Royal College of Music in London. She has pursued Jewish studies at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. She has a Ph.D. in music history from Yale University, and is a musicologist and performer at the New England Conservatory.

Israeli Folk Music

Throughout world history, music has served political purposes. Plato’s Republic describes the ability of music to calm the passions, thereby allowing for the building of a harmonious society. In 17th-century France, Louis XIV commissioned new large-scale musical works for every social occasion or political event; the grandeur of those musical works was to reflect the grandeur of the monarch himself. American revolutionaries adopted songs that spoke of freedom and national pride to unify them in their quest for independence from Britain. 

Fostering a Love of Israel

Music played an equally important role in the spread of Zionism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The Zionist movement from its beginnings posited that the Jewish people had a common attachment to the ancient land of Israel, beginning with Abraham’s departure from his father’s home in Mesopotamia, and lasting to the present day, even after thousands of years of exile and dispersion. But the actualization of such a profound common love of the land required creativity and work. The pressing question for the early Zionists was how to bring the Jewish people together, to rekindle their love of their common heritage and especially of Israel.

guitar playingMusic is in many societies an expression of common experiences and values. Participants in the early Zionist movement reversed this process: they created, almost instantaneously, a “folk” music, in order to unify Jews throughout the world around their cause.

The early Zionists were by and large Socialists, and their approach to music reflected their politics. Music, like almost everything else in life, needed to be dedicated to and related directly to the common good. It needed to serve as an inspiration for the new olim (immigrants to Israel), both in its topics and in its musical characteristics. The topics of Israeli folk songs are as disparate as love (for example, in “Erev Shel Shoshanim”–“Evening of Lilies”) and the physical construction of the new state (as in “Havu Livenim“–Carry the Bricks). But the unifying characteristic of these songs is their description of the experience of living in Israel and fulfilling the national destiny.

Synagogue Music

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.

synagogue musicDavid’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.