Jewish Music in the Middle Ages

From chants to niggunim.

Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

Were it possible to hear in modern melodies traces of levitical singing in the Temple, or the playing of instrumental music by both elite and simple folk in biblical times, it might be said that Jewish music is one of the oldest musical traditions in the world. However, ancient Hebrew music was transmitted solely by way of an oral tradition, leaving no written records. Furthermore, the destruction of the Temple, exile, and dispersion, have fragmented this musi­cal heritage into a multitude of regional traditions which over time have absorbed different local influences. Scholars attempting to uncover common roots underlying the elements accumulated over the centuries, have pro­posed interesting, but entirely unfounded, hypotheses.



There is however sufficient evidence to describe certain stages in the evolution of Jewish music after the destruc­tion of the Temple. The first basic change occurred in the transition from a ceremonial ritual of singing and playing by a professional order of musicians–the levitical singers in the Temple–to the more intimate and simple form of unaccompanied chanting in the synagogue.

The text and its message were the primary object of prayers and biblical readings chanted in a simple melodic pattern. Therefore, any member of the congregation could lead in prayer as a “delegate of the community” (sheliah zibbur). After the completion of the Talmud, a system of accents and vocal­ization indicators (taamei mikra), prescribing how the reader was to organize his recitation, was gradually established. Most of the diaspora followed the musical intona­tion invented in Tiberias in the tenth century, but the style was gradually transformed in each region through the influence of local musical traditions. This “learned art” of biblical chanting became one of the driving forces of Jewish musical evolution. The Ashkenazi style was the first to be transcribed into musical notes by Christian human­ists in the early sixteenth century.


The introduction of the hymn (piyyut) into synagogue liturgy is ascribed to sixth‑century Palestine. Initially intended to embellish prayers on Sabbaths and festivals, liturgical hymns soon emerged out of the synagogue and became prevalent in all spheres of Jewish life, the com­munal as well as the private. A key element in the evolution of Jewish music was thus the composition of piyyutim, with melodies based primarily on local traditions. The hazzan‑paytan (“cantor‑poet”) was the composer of both text and tune and the solo singer of his own creations. The growing importance of the musical element in the synagogue was regarded with suspicion by the rabbis. Rabbinical prohibitions (on playing instruments in the synagogue or on imitating foreign rites) undoubtedly impeded the development of Jewish music.

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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