What is Jewish Music? Music of Jews or music that is used by Jews for religious purposes?

    January 2009            
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Music of the Jews

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

The Book of Genesis identifies a man named Jubal as “the ancestor of all who play the lyre and the pipe” (Gen. 4:21). This reference is traditionally understood to mean that Jubal was the inventor of music. In this same passage, we read that Jubal’s brother, Jabal, was the first to raise cattle, and that his sister, Zillah “bore Tubal-cain, who forged all implements of copper and iron.” The mention of music’s invention alongside the origins of cattle-raising and tool production suggests that music played an essential role in ancient pre-Israelite society. The Jewish Bible is, in fact, filled with descriptions of music’s use in all aspects of life, from ritual and prophecy to war and celebration.

In the days of the Jerusalem Temple, sacrificial worship was aided by elaborate musical accompaniment. In this relatively stable environment, the Levitical choirs and Temple orchestra established a uniquely Hebraic musical mainstream—what one might call the “Temple Sound.” This unity of music and prayer is presented most strikingly in Psalm 150: “Praise God in His sanctuary . . . Praise Him with blasts of the horn; praise Him with harp and lyre. Praise Him with timbrel and dance; praise Him with lute and pipe . . .”

Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews were dispersed throughout the world. As a result, all aspects of Jewish culture—including music—took on diverse and variegated forms. “After the dispersion,” wrote composer Herbert Fromm, “[Jewish] sacred music was exposed to the ever changing influence of other nations.” Consciously or unconsciously, Jews heard certain music in the various countries in which they lived, and absorbed it into whatever musical tradition they had. For this reason, musicologists have been unable to isolate a common melody—sacred or secular—shared by all of the world’s Jewish communities.

This great diversity has led many to ask, “What is Jewish in Jewish music?” The truth is that there really is no definitive answer to this question. In fact, the most widely accepted description of Jewish music is functional rather than definitional: “Jewish music is that music which is made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews” (Curt Sachs). In other words, rather than trying to determine what styles of music are fundamentally Jewish, it is better to look for that music which functions Jewishly: music for the synagogue, Jewish weddings, Jewish theater, etc. In this connection, musicologist Marsha Bryan Edelman observed that, while it may be impossible to define Jewish music, there is certainly “music of the Jews.”

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Author Bio: Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and editor of two books, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008) and The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009).


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine