Synagogue Music

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

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In addition to regional variances, communities often vary their cantillation melodies depending on the type of reading and the day on which the reading is done. For example, readings in the Pentateuch have different melodies from readings in the Prophets; a reading done on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) sounds different from a reading done on an ordinary Sabbath. The most important element of cantillation is communication of the text. For that reason, there is no predetermined meter to any reading of the Bible; rather, the music must simply follow the flow and rhythm of the words.


Nusah is a Hebrew word referring to a system of melodies used for chanting liturgy in the synagogue. The text of the siddur (prayerbook), contains elements that date back to Biblical times (for example, the psalms said during the morning and afternoon services), elements that were fixed by the sages who composed or are mentioned in the Talmud (for example, the Amidah, the silent prayer that is the centerpiece of every synagogue service), and elements that have been added much more recently (for example, poems such as Lekha Dodi ("Go, my Beloved," sung on Friday nights to welcome the Sabbath).

Music makes a continuous whole out of these divergent elements. The cantor of a synagogue, or whoever serves as the sheliah tzibbur (messenger of the community, the term for a prayer leader), leads the congregation in chanting the appropriate texts of the prayerbook aloud. Nusah determines the melody of those prayers on a given day. The nusah of prayers on a weekday is different from that of a Sabbath or other holiday. As in the case of cantillation, the rhythm is quite free. Of primary concern is the natural flow of the text; the rhythm of the words determines the meter of the chant. Unlike in the system of cantillation, however, there is no musical notation to accompany the prayerbook. The cantor or leader must know the melody appropriate to the day and must be able to improvise the chant accordingly.

Cantorial Music

Many communities have professional cantors who lead the community regularly in prayer. This practice dates back several centuries, and it has led to the development of an extensive repertoire of cantorial music. Often written in the notational system of classical Western music, the cantorial repertoire represents an element of virtuosity and soloism. Professional cantors are especially important in cases where the majority of the congregation does not know the words or nusah of prayer, but many congregations find that a cantor with a beautiful voice may enhance the synagogue experience. The technology of recording in the last few generations allows us to hear voices of great cantors such as Jan Peerce (also a prominent opera singer), Israel Alter, and Yossele Rosenblatt.

Prayerbook Poetry

Hymns and poetry constitute a subsection of the prayerbook. As early as the fifth century, Jewish poets composed piyyutim, poetry intended to enhance the prayer service. These piyyutim, as well as the more recent hymns and songs inserted into the prayer service, possess a regular poetic meter. For that reason, hymns and piyyutim often lend themselves to more regularly metered musical settings.

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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.