Jewish Music in the Middle Ages

From chants to niggunim.

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The classical tradition of liturgical hymns was con­tinued in Italy and Germany, while in Spain new forms were developed between the tenth and fifteenth centuries under the influence of Arab and Spanish poetry. Particularly stimulating was the adoption of strophic forms in the order of the rhymes which are more easily integrated with music and enable audience participation in singing the unchanging refrain. The Spanish heritage also fostered a repertoire of secular folk songs, popular ballads or l'ornanceros, preserved by Ladino‑speaking communities down to this day.


The expulsion from Spain and the mass migration of Ashkenazi Jews to the east in the sixteenth century created a new map of Jewish communities. During the same period there was an increase in the spread of the Safed Kabbalah, which emphasized singing as a means of elevat­ing man's spirit to the celestial. The joyous reception of the Sabbath (on Friday evening), supplications, psalmody, and wordless coloraturas of the mystics, considerably enriched the Jewish musical repertoire. The musical ideas of the mystical Kabbalah had a strong influence on the sacred and secular poetry of Yemenite Jewry, and on the singing and dancing of the Ashkenazi Hasidic movement. From the early eighteenth century the niggun ("melody") was a major element in the life of the hasid, helping him to ascend to higher levels of mystical enthusiasm.

When emancipation enabled Judaism to emerge from its relative isolation, integration into European music became all the more pronounced. The Reform move­ment, attempting to modernize German Jewry by adopt­ing European customs and aesthetic values, introduced the organ, a professional choir and chorale‑like music into the synagogue. With its encounter with modernity in both western and oriental communities. the characteristic features of Jewish music were gradually depleted. The one remaining distinctive trait of contemporary Jewish music is its profusion of styles.

Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University. This article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books. © 1992 by Hachette Litterature.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University