Synagogue Music

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

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Commonly recited hymns--including Adon Olam ("Master of the World," often sung to close services on Sabbath mornings) and Lekha Dodi--may be sung because of their regular meter to common Jewish melodies, or even to popular tunes from the surrounding musical environment.

Niggunim

Niggunim are musical settings of a few words or short phrases in Hebrew or Yiddish--which are repeated over and over again in order to attain a deep understanding of the text or in order to attain a sort of spiritual "nirvana." Depending on the meaning of the text and the intention of the composer, niggunimmay be fast and joyful or slow and intense.

Originally composed and inserted into the prayer service by members of the movement of Hasidut (from the Hebrew hesed, meaning "kindness"), niggunim were meant to elevate the experience of prayer and to make that elevated experience attainable by any Jew. It is that populist element of Hasidut that encouraged the melodies of niggunim to be relatively simple and repetitive. Often, the words of the niggunim were omitted in favor of humming or syllabic singing.

The practice of singing niggunim was popularized beyond the boundaries of Hasidut in the late 20th century by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who composed and recorded hundreds of them. Today, niggunim may be heard as part of synagogue services as well as outside the context of prayer at celebrations and lifecycle events.

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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.