Synagogue Music

The music of the synagogue celebrates both the diversity and unity of the Jewish people.

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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.

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

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.

The written notation for cantillation was developed by a group known as the Masoretes (from the Hebrew word Mesorah, meaning "tradition"), active as early as the sixth century, but who may have been recording much more ancient practices. The Masoretes inscribed each word in the Bible with a cantillation mark, indicating how it was to be sung. Those markings do not indicate specific notes or melodies, but only guidelines for enunciation. During the ensuing 1,500 years, each community's cantillation melodies diverged and took on the character and sound of music of surrounding peoples, but the Masoretic markings and guidelines for cantillation have remained the same.

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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.