Synagogue & Religious Music

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While prayer was ideally undertaken by each individual, the Talmud provided for cases of illiteracy through the institution of the shaliah tzibbur (messenger of the community); in this context, music takes on an important role in prayer. The shaliah tzibbur was to chant the liturgical texts aloud, with the intention that that prayer could function for the entire congregation. The role of shaliah tzibbur developed into the role of hazzan (cantor), whose responsibility was not only to pray on behalf of the community, but also to sing the service well.

In many regions, cantorial music became a venue for vocal virtuosity; recordings of hazzanim like Israel Alter and Yossele Rosenblatt provide only a glimpse of the Eastern European tradition of cantorial music. The basic melodies of the hazzan are determined by the nusah (melodic formula) of the day: The nusah of the Sabbath differs from that of weekdays, the nusah of the Days of Awe differs from the festivals, etc.

jewish music quizWhile nusah is generally fixed within a given community, there are vast differences among the sounds of different communities. In addition, basic nusah may be expanded upon and embellished. Many large European congregations of the 18th and 19th centuries housed choruses that accompanied the cantor; they assembled a vast repertoire of choral music that stands out as one of the great achievements of Jewish music.

In addition to liturgical chanting, many days require the chanting of portions of the Pentateuch, Prophets, or Writings. The notation for these melodies was fixed by a group of sixth-century scholars known as the Masoretes (from the Hebrew mesorah, “tradition”). Like nusah, the sounds of each Masoretic cantillation mark differ with each community, and the modes and sounds of the cantillation differ depending on the type of text being read.

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