Religion Wiki
Jewish and Israeli
Magen David
Israeli Flag

Religious music:
Secular music:
Not Jewish in Form:
ClassicalMainstream and Jazz
Israeli Folk DancingBallet
HorahHava NagilaYemenite dance
HatikvahJerusalem of Gold
Adon OlamGeshemLekhah Dodi
Ma'oz TzurYedid NefeshYigdal
Music for Holidays
Music of the Haggadah
Ma NishtanaDayenuAdir Hu
Chad GadyaEchad Mi Yodea
Music of Hanukkah
BlessingsOh ChanukahDreidel Song
Al HanisimMi Y'malelNer Li

Jewish music, the music of Jews, is quite diverse and dates back thousands of years. Sometimes it is religious in nature, other times it is not. The rhythm and sound of the music varies greatly depending on the origins of the Jewish composers.

Religious Jewish music

This section is about the sacred and religious music of Judaism from Biblical to Modern times.

History of religious Jewish music

The history of religious Jewish music is about the cantorial, synagogal, and the Temple music from Biblical to Modern times. The earliest synagogal music was based on the same system as that used in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Mishna, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of twelve instruments, and the choir of twelve male singers. A number of additional instruments were known to the ancient Hebrews, though they were not included in the regular orchestra of the Temple: the uggav (something like church organ)

After the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent diaspora of the Jewish people, music was initially banned. Later, these restrictions were relaxed. It was with the piyyutim (liturgical poems) that Jewish music began to crystallize into definite form. The cantor sang the piyyutim to melodies selected by their writer or by himself, thus introducing fixed melodies into synagogal music. The music may have preserved a few phrases in the reading of Scripture which recalled songs from the Temple itself; but generally it echoed the tones in the country and age in which the Jews lived, not merely in the actual borrowing of tunes, but more in the tonality on which the local music was based.

Contemporary Jewish religious music

Religious Jewish Music in the 20th century has varied greatly. Religious Jewish Music in the 20th century has spanned the gamut from Shlomo Carlebach's nigunim to Debbie Friedman's Jewish feminist folk. Velvel Pasternak has spent much of the late twentieth century acting as a preservationist and committing what had been a strongly oral tradition to paper. In the 1970s, Mordechai Ben David, Avrohom Fried, Abie Rottenburg and Jewish boys choirs such as Yigal Salik's London Pirchei became popular. Periodically Jewish music jumps into mainstream consciousness, with the reggae artist Matisyahu being the most recent example.

A large body of music produced by Orthodox Jews is geared toward teaching religious and ethical traditions and laws. The lyrics of these songs are either in English or in Hebrew, often using phrases from the Jewish prayerbook.

For information on the modern Reform Cantorate go to Cantor in Reform Judaism.


A piyyut is a Jewish liturgical poem, usually designated to be sung, chanted, or recited during religious services. Piyyutim have been written since Mishnaic times. Most piyyutim are in Hebrew or Aramaic, and most follow some poetic scheme, such as an acrostic following the order of the Hebrew alphabet or spelling out the name of the author.

Many piyyutim are familiar to regular attendees of synagogue services. For example, the best-known piyyut may be Adon Olam ("Master of the World"), sometimes attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol in 11th century Spain. Its poetic form consists simply of rhyming eight-syllable lines, and it is so beloved that it is often sung at the conclusion of many synagogue services, after the ritual nightly saying of the Shema, and during the morning ritual of putting on tefillin. Another well-beloved piyyut is Yigdal ("May God be Hallowed"), which is based upon the Thirteen Principles of Faith developed by Maimonides.


Zemirot are Jewish hymns, usually sung in the Hebrew or Aramaic languages, but sometimes also in Yiddish or Ladino. The best known zemirot are those sung around the table during Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Some of the Sabbath zemirot are specific to certain times of the day, such those sung for the Friday evening meal, the Saturday noon meal, and the third Sabbath meal just before sundown on Saturday afternoon. In some editions of the Jewish prayerbook (siddur), the words to these hymns are printed after the opening prayer (kiddush) for each meal. Other zemirot are more generic and can be sung at any meal or other sacred occasion.

The words to many zemirot are taken from poems written by various rabbis and sages during the Middle Ages. Others are anonymous folk songs that have been passed down from generation to generation.


Nigun refers to religious songs and tunes that are sung by groups. It is a form of voice instrumental music, often without any lyrics or words. Two examples of well known niguns (nigunim in Hebrew) are the Erev Shabbos Nigun, and Rebbe Nachman's Lecha Dodi Nigun, both of which can be found on well known video sharing sites. In the first case since the majority of the song is singing without words, it is called a nigun. In the second case, Lecha Dodi is a well-known song that all observant Jews sing on Friday night in Kabbalat Shabbat. There are a number of different tunes for the song, of which Rebbe Nachman's Lecha Dodi Nigun is one of the most well known.


Pizmonim are traditional Jewish songs and melodies with the intentions of praising God as well as describing certain aspects of traditional religious teachings. They are sung throughout religious rituals and festivities such as prayers, circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other ceremonies. Pizmonim are traditionally associated with Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews, although they are related to Ashkenazi Jews' zemirot. The best known tradition is associated with Jews descended from Aleppo, though similar traditions exist among Iraqi Jews (where the songs are known as shbaִhoth, praises) and in North African countries. Jews of Greek, Turkish and Balkan origin have songs of the same kind in Ladino, associated with the festivals: these are known as coplas.

The texts of many pizmonim date back to the Middle Ages or earlier, and are often based on verses in the Bible. Many are taken from the Tanakh, while others were composed by poets such as Yehuda Halevi and Israel Najara of Gaza. Some melodies are quite old, while others may be based on popular Middle Eastern music, with the words composed specially to fit the tune.


The Baqashot are a collection of supplications, songs, and prayers that have been sung for centuries by the Sephardic Aleppian Jewish community and other congregations every Shabbat morning from midnight until dawn. Usually they are recited during the weeks of winter, when the nights are much longer.

The custom of singing Baqashot originated in Spain towards the time of the expulsion, but took on increased momentum in the Kabbalistic circle in Safed in the 16th century. Baqashot probably evolved out of the tradition of saying petitionary prayers before dawn and was spread from Safed by the followers of Isaac Luria (16th century). With the spread of Safed Kabbalistic doctrine, the singing of Baqashot reached countries all round the Mediterranean and became customary in the communities of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Rhodes, Greece, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Turkey and Syria. It also influenced the Kabbalistically oriented confraternities in 18th-century Italy, and even became customary for a time in Sephardic communities in western Europe, such as Amsterdam and London, though in these communities it has since been dropped. By the turn of the 20th century Baqashot had become a widespread religious practice in several communities in Jerusalem as a communal form of prayer.

Jewish Prayer Modes

Jewish liturgical music is characterized by a set of musical modes. These modes make up musical nusach, which serves to both identify different types of prayer, as well as to link those prayers to the time of year, or even time of day in which they are set. There are three main modes, as well as a number of combined or compound modes. The three main modes are called Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot and Adonai Malach. Traditionally, the Cantor (Hazzan) improvised sung prayers within the designated mode, while following a general structure of how each prayer should sound. Over time many of these chants have been written down and standardized, yet the practice of improvisation still exists to this day.

Secular Jewish music

Since Biblical times, music and dance have held an important role in many Jews' lives. Secular Jewish music (and dances) have both been influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time.

Israeli music

Modern Israeli music is heavily influenced by its constituents, which include Jewish immigrants from more than 120 countries around the world, which have brought their own musical traditions, making Israel a global melting pot. The Israeli music is very versatile and combines elements of both western and eastern music. It tends to be very eclectic and contains a wide variety of influences from the Diaspora and more modern cultural importation to Hassidic songs, Asian and Arab pop, especially Yemenite singers, and hip hop or heavy metal.

From the earliest days of Zionist settlement, Jewish immigrants wrote popular folk music. At first, songs were based on borrowed melodies from German, Russian, or traditional Jewish folk music with new lyrics written in Hebrew. Starting in the early 1920s, however, Jewish settlers made a conscious effort to create a new Hebrew style of music, a style that would tie them to their earliest Hebrew origins and that would differentiate them from the style of the Jewish diaspora of Eastern Europe, which they viewed as weak. This new style borrowed elements from Arabic and, to a lesser extent, traditional Yemenite and eastern Jewish styles: the songs were often homophonic (that is, without clear harmonic character), modal, and limited in range. "The huge change in our lives demands new modes of expression", wrote composer and music critic Menashe Ravina in 1943. "... and, just as in our language we returned to our historical past, so has our ear turned to the music of the east ... as an expression of our innermost feelings."[1]

The youth, labor and kibbutz movements played a major role in musical development before and after the establishment of Israeli statehood in 1948, and in the popularization of these songs. The Zionist establishment saw music as a way of establishing a new national identity, and, on a purely pragmatic level, of teaching Hebrew to new immigrants. The national labor organization, the Histadrut, set up a music publishing house that disseminated songbooks and encouraged public sing-alongs (שירה בציבור). This tradition of public sing-alongs continues to the present day, and is a characteristic of modern Israeli culture.

Israeli folk

Termed in Hebrew שירי ארץ ישראל ("songs of the land of Israel"), folk songs are meant mainly to be sung in public by the audience or in social events. Some are children's songs; some combine European folk tunes with Hebrew lyrics; some come from military bands and others were written by poets such as Naomi Shemer and Chaim Nachman Bialik.

The canonical songs of this genre often deal with Zionist hopes and dreams and glorify the life of idealistic Jewish youth who intend on building a home and defending their homeland. A common theme is Jerusalem as well as other parts of Eretz Israel. Tempo varies widely, as do the content. Some songs show a leftist or right-wing bent, while others are typically love songs, lullabies or other formats; some are also socialist in subject, due to the long-standing influence of socialism on Jews in parts of the Diaspora.

Patriotic folk songs are common, mostly written during the wars of Israel. They typically concern themselves with soldiers' friendships and the tragedy of death during war. Some are now played at memorials or holidays dedicated to the Israeli dead.


Around the 15th century, a tradition of secular (non-liturgical) Jewish music was developed by musicians called kleyzmorim or kleyzmerim by Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe. They draw on devotional traditions extending back into Biblical times, and their musical legacy of klezmer continues to evolve today. The repertoire is largely dance songs for weddings and other celebrations. They are typically in Yiddish.


Sephardic music is the unique music of the Sephardic Jews. Sephardic music was born in medieval Spain, with canciones being performed at the royal courts. Since then, it has picked up influences from across Spain, Morocco, Argentina, Turkey, Greece and various popular tunes from Spain and further abroad. There are three types of Sephardic songs -- topical and entertainment songs, romance songs and spiritual or ceremonial songs. Lyrics can be in several languages, including Hebrew for religious songs, and Ladino.

These song traditions spread from Spain to Morocco (the Western Tradition) and several parts of the Ottoman Empire (the Eastern Tradition) including Greece, Jerusalem, the Balkans and Egypt. Sephardic music adapted to each of these locals, assimilating North African high-pitched, extended ululations; Balkan rhythms, for instance in 9/8 time; and the Turkish maqam mode.


Mizrahi music usually refers to the new wave of music in Israel which combines Israeli music with the flavor of Arabic and Mediterranean (especially Greek) music. Typical Mizrahi songs will have a dominant violin or string sound as well as Middle Eastern percussion elements. Mizrahi music is usually high pitched. In today's Israeli music scene, Mizrahi music is very popular. A popular singer who's music typifies the Mizrahi music style is Zohar Argov.


Deriving from Biblical traditions, Jewish dance has long been used by Jews as a medium for the expression of joy and other communal emotions. Each Jewish diasporic community developed its own dance traditions for wedding celebrations and other distinguished events. For Ashkenazi Jews in Eastern Europe, for example, dances, whose names corresponded to the different forms of klezmer music that were played, were an obvious staple of the wedding ceremony of the shtetl. Jewish dances both were influenced by surrounding Gentile traditions and Jewish sources preserved over time. "Nevertheless the Jews practiced a corporeal expressive language that was highly differentiated from that of the non-Jewish peoples of their neighborhood, mainly through motions of the hands and arms, with more intricate legwork by the younger men."[2] Additionally, in religious communities, members of the opposite sex do not dance together.

Jewish Art Music

Preclassical, Classical and Romantic composers

Jewish musicians in the Western European classical tradition have long debated the question of what is Jewish music. Most musicians of Jewish origin in the 19th century composed music that could not be considered Jewish in any sense, either by critics or by the musicians themselves. For example, Jacques Offenbach (1819 - 1880), a leading composer of opera and operetta in the 19th century, was the son of a cantor, and grew up steeped in traditional Jewish music. Yet there is nothing about his music which could be characterized as Jewish in terms of style, and he himself did not consider his work to be Jewish. As another example, Felix Mendelssohn, the grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, continued to identify himself as a Jew, even though he was baptized as a Lutheran at the age of seven. Yet, while he occasionally draws inspiration from Christian sources (one of the themes in his second piano trio, opus 66, is the Lutheran doxology), there is nothing characteristically Jewish about any of his music. "Music written by Jews is not necessarily Jewish music", wrote Erich Werner in 1938 in a seminal essy on the subject in the journal "Musica Hebraica".

That said, there are nonetheless a number of composers who wrote music that they considered Jewish, even if stylistically there was nothing to tie their compositions to traditional Jewish music of liturgy or to the Eastern European klezmer tradition. The first, and one of the most important of these, was Salamone Rossi (1570 - 1630). As court composer in Mantua, Rossi was instrumental in the development of the Baroque trio sonata form. Rossi composed a song cycle called "The Songs of Solomon", which drew on Jewish liturgical and biblical texts.

Other composers who drew on Jewish subjects include

  • Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote the oratorio "Elijah". While Mendelssohn never acknowledged that his choice of a topic was influenced by his Jewish origins, it is probable that his intimite familiarity with the biblical text came from his childhood.
  • Fromental Halévy was a well-known composer of opera in the second half of the nineteenth century. He drew occasionally on Jewish themes for his operas, most notably, La Juive.
  • Giacomo Meyerbeer, also a leading opera composer, arranged a number of liturgical songs, including a motet arrangement for double choir a capella of Psalm 91.

The Jewish National Revival in Art Music

See main article Jewish art music

At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries many Jewish composers sought to create a distinctly Jewish national sound in their music. Notable among these were the composers of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folkmusic. Led by composer-critic Joel Engel, these graduates of the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatories rediscovered their Jewish national roots, and created a new genre of Jewish art music. Inspired by the nationalist movement in Russian music, exemplified by Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui and others, these Jewish composers set out to the "Shtetls" - the Jewish villages of Russia - and meticulously recorded and transcribed thousands of Yiddish folksongs. They then set these songs to both vocal and instrumental ensembles. The resulting music is a marriage between often melancholy and "krekhtsen" (moaning) melodies of the Shtetl with late Russian romantic harmonies of Scriabin and Rachmaninoff.

The Jewish National revival in music was not only in Russia. A number of Western European composers took an interest in their Jewish musical roots, and tried to create a unique Jewish art style. Ernest Bloch (1880 - 1959), a Swiss composer who emigrated to the United States, composed Schelomo for cello and orchestra, Suite Hebraique for violin and piano, and Sacred Service, which is the first attempt to set the Jewish service in a form similar to the Requiem, for full orchestra, choir and soloists. Bloch described his connection to Jewish music as intensely personal:

It is not my purpose, nor my desire, to attempt a 'reconstitution' of Jewish music, or to base my work on melodies more or less authentic. I am not an archeologist... It is the Jewish soul that interests me... the freshness and naiveté of the Patriarchs; the violence of the Prophetic books; the Jewish savage love of justice... [3]

Darius Milhaud (1892 - 1974) was one of the leaders of the French modernist school. As a child in Aix-en-Provence, Milhaud was exposed to the music of the Provençal Jewish community. "I have been greatly influenced by the character" of this music, he wrote[4]. His opera Esther de Carpentras draws on this rich musical heritage.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895 - 1968), an Italian composer who immigrated to America on the eve of World War II, was strongly influenced by his Sephardic Jewish upbringing. His second violin concerto draws on Jewish themes, as do many of his songs and choral works: cantatas Naomi and Ruth, Queen of Sheba, and the oratorio The Book of Jonah, among others. Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a number of songs in Ladino, which was the language of Sephardic Jews.

Art Music in Palestine and Israel

The 1930s saw an influx of Jewish composers to Palestine, among them musicians of stature in Europe. These composers included Paul Ben-Haim, Erich Walter Sternberg, Marc Lavri, Oeden Partos, and Alexander Boskovitch. These composers were all concerned with forging a new Jewish identity in music, an identity which would suit the new, emerging identity of the Zionist state. While the response of each of these composers to this Nationalist challenge was intensely personal, there was one distinct trend to which many of them adhered: many of these and other composers sought to distance themselves from the musical style of the Klezmer, of eastern European Jewry, which they viewed as weak and unsuitable for the new national ethos. Many of the stylistic features of Klezmer were abhorrent to them. "Its character is depressing and sentimental", wrote music critic and composer Menashe Ravina in 1943. "The healthy desire to free ourselves of this sentimentalism causes many to avoid this..."[5].

Perhaps the most radical in his search for a new Jewish identity was Alexander Boskovitch. His Semitic Suite for piano, written in 1945, draws much from Arabic music: it is nonharmonic, almost homophonic. He uses repeated notes to imitate the sound of a Kanun, a plucked Arabic instrument.

From these early experiments has grown a large corpus of original Israeli art music, much of it specifically seeking roots in Jewish musical tradition. Notable among modern Israeli composers are

  • Betty Olivera, composer in residence at Bar Ilan University. Olivera takes traditional Jewish melodies – both Ashkenazic and Sephardic – and sets them in complex, profoundly dissonant contexts. The result, surprisingly, is not something sounding ultramodern, but rather a natural extension of the folk traditions she draws on. Her work Serafim for soprano, clarinet, violin, cello and piano is a good example of this.
  • Tsippi Fleischer, who has composed vocal works that merge contemporary Western compositional techniques with the modal, quartertone scales of Arabic music.
  • Mark Kopytman, whose compositions draw heavily on both Eastern European Klezmer and Oriental Jewish sources.

Non-Jewish Contributors to Jewish Music

A number of non-Jewish composers have adapted traditional Jewish music to their compositions. Some notable examples are:

  • Maurice Ravel wrote Kaddisch for violin and piano, based on a traditional Jewish liturgical melody.
  • Max Bruch was a German Protestant, though he is often mistakenly identified as a Jew, because of his famous arrangement, Kol Nidrei, of the Jewish Yom Kippur prayer Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra. Bruch also wrote a cycle of Hebrew songs for choir and orchestra, called Hebraeische Gesaenge.
  • Sergei Prokofiev wrote Overture on Hebrew Themes, an arrangement of traditional Jewish folksongs for piano quintet and clarinet.
  • Dmitri Shostakovich was profoundly influenced by Jewish folk music, and incorporated Jewish music in many of his compositions. Most notable are the song cycle From Jewish Folk Poetry, the second piano trio, and the 13th symphony titled Babi Yar.
  • There are critics who identify Jewish elements in Beethoven's C# minor string quartet, opus 131; however, there is no evidence that Beethoven was actually influenced by Jewish music when composing this quartet.


  1. Menashe Ravina, "The Songs of the People of Israel", published by Hamossad Lemusika Ba'am, 1943
  2. Yiddish, Klezmer, Ashkenazic or 'shtetl' dances, Le Site Genevois de la Musique Klezmer. Accessed 12 February 2006.
  3. Quoted in Mary Tibaldi Chiesa, "Ernest Bloch - The Jewish Composer" in Musica Hebraica, Volume 1-2 (Jerusalem, 1938)
  4. Darius Milhaud, "La Musique Juive au Comtat-Venaissin in Musica Hebraica, Volume 1-2 (Jerusalem, 1938)
  5. Menashe Ravina, The Songs of the Land of Israel, monograph published by the Institute for Music, Ltd., Jerusalem, 1943


  • Idelsohn, A. Z., Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental song (10 vols.)
  • Idelsohn, Jewish Music
  • Grove's Dictionary of Music, article "Jewish Music"

External links

See also

  • Song of a Jewish Cowboy
  • List of Jewish musicians

ca:Música hebrea