‘Jewish music’ as a concept emerged among Jewish scholars and musicians only in the mid-19th century with the rise of modern national consciousness among European Jews, and since then all attempts to define it have faced many difficulties. The term ‘Jewish music’ in its nation-oriented sense was first coined by German or German-trained Jewish scholars, among whom the most influential in this respect was A.Z. Idelsohn (1882–1938), whose book Jewish Music in its Historical Development (1929/R) was a landmark in its field that is still widely consulted today. Idelsohn was the first scholar to incorporate the Jewish ‘Orient’ into his research, and thus his work presents the first ecumenical, though still fragmentary, description of the variety of surviving Jewish musical cultures set within a single historical narrative. In his work Idelsohn pursued a particular ideological agenda: he adopted the idea of the underlying cultural unity of the Jewish people despite their millenary dispersion among the nations, and promoted the view that the music of the various Jewish communities in the present expresses aspects of that unity. Moreover, Idelsohn's work implied a unilinear history of Jewish music dating back to the Temple in biblical Jerusalem. This approach was perpetuated in later attempts to write a comprehensive overview of Jewish music from a historical perspective (e.g. Avenary, 1971–2/R).
Despite its problematic nature, the concept of ‘Jewish music’ in its Idelsohnian sense is a figure of speech widely employed today, being used in many different contexts of musical activity: recorded popular music, art music composition, printed anthologies, scholarly research and so on. The use of this term to refer both to the traditional music of all Jewish communities, past and present, and to new contemporary music created by Jews with ethnic or national agendas is thus convenient, as long as its historical background and ideological connotations are borne in mind.
Since the beginning of the Jewish exile two thousand years ago, following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, the Hebrew faith of biblical times, stemming from its east Mediterranean cradle and perpetuated and interpreted by the rabbis, has flourished in many corners of the world. ‘Jewish music’ as performed and studied in the present is almost wholly the product of life in exile. Information about the music of Jews in pre-exilic times is meagre. It consists mainly of references to musical activities in biblical and talmudic (Oral Law) texts, particularly the lavish musical pageantry of the Second Temple rituals in Jerusalem – a focus of interest among scholars of later periods. Archaeological findings and iconographical evidence also provide important data about the ancient music of Israel/Palestine (see below, §II).
In exile, Jewish ethnicity became inextricably linked to two fundamental elements: observance of halakhah (religious law according to rabbinical interpretation) and historical memory (ritually perpetuated in the liturgy). Emerging in a community bonded by religious faith and rabbinical authority, the music of the Jews in exile developed within the context of the performative practices of religion. At the same time its contents, uses and functions were regulated by rabbinical sanctions.
The long path of exile (Heb. galut) also imposed on the Jews the need to accommodate to the hosting non-Jewish societies. Therefore, each community engaged in a musical dialogue with its non-Jewish surroundings, and through time many different Jewish ‘musics’ emerged. Moreover, frequent displacements and discontinuities affecting individual Jewish communities exercised a major influence on the musical culture of each group. All in all, the active participation of Jews in the musical traditions of the surrounding societies poses a challenging scholarly question: where exactly are the limits between the music ‘made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews’ (to quote the legendary definition of Jewish music proposed by Curt Sachs in his address to the First World Congress of Jewish Music in Paris, 1957) and the music ‘made by Jews, as musicians, for all listeners’. A further question arises with music created by non-Jews but used by Jews within their own communities.
What is known as ‘Jewish music’ today is thus the result of complex historical processes. Being primarily an oral tradition, the lack of historical documentation about the music of Jewish communities, even in the recent past, poses major methodological challenges to research. The information available is of recent origin, and this data is certainly influenced by the profound social changes that have affected the Jews over the past two centuries, first in Europe and more latterly throughout the Islamic lands. One such process is the challenge to religious orthodoxy (either by mystical trends or by the various reformist movements); a second was the embracing of the secular nation-state concept by the Zionist movement. Against this background, any reconstruction of an authentic national music dating back to the period of mythical, ‘normal’ nationhood in biblical times on the basis of 20th-century data collected from the wide variety of contemporary Jewish communities is a futile undertaking. It is therefore necessary to consider the particularities of each of the many Jewish ‘musics’, both in the past and in the present, in their own terms. At the same time, it must be recognized that there are indeed features shared by the musical cultures of many Jewish communities. But rather than an expression of ancient nationhood, this shared heritage results from the common observance of religious law, the contacts between different communities in relatively recent times, the migration of musicians (especially synagogue cantors) from one community to another and the historical memory that has maintained a remarkable sense of Jewish identity in spite of exile and dispersal.
The scope of this article reflects the complexities of the concept of ‘Jewish music’ discussed above. It attempts to describe the uniqueness of each Jewish musical tradition according to the geographical distribution of the Jewish communities roughly from the 16th century until World War I. This distribution sets up the present-day boundaries between the Jewish ethnic groups on the basis of geographical and cultural identity. The main division is between Ashkenazi (originally from Germany and France, and who spread to eastern Europe after the 15th century), Sephardi (originally from the Iberian Peninsula, and who settled after 1492 in the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and western Europe), ‘Oriental’ (Jews who remained in the Middle East or spread to the Arabian Peninsula, the Caucasus, Central Asia and India) and the Ethiopian Jews. The term ‘Oriental’ (Heb. ‘edot ha-mizrah) was coined by Jewish Israeli sociologists to describe all eastern Jewish communities that were not wholly influenced by Sephardi Jews who fled from Spain and settled in the eastern Mediterranean. In the present-day Israeli context, however, ‘Sephardi’ has obliterated the less politically-correct ‘Oriental’, even though the latter term still persists in Jewish and Israeli musical literature. The Ethiopian Jews are treated here as a self-contained community because of their unique liturgical order and musical traditions that have no parallel in any other Jewish community.
This rough compartmentalization has been partially perpetuated in the new lands where Jews settled after the events that so profoundly affected them in the first half of the 20th century (the fall of the Austro-Hungarian, Tsarist Russian and Ottoman Empires, the rise of Zionism, and the Holocaust). Jews migrated to all countries that offered them shelter and these waves of emigration created the map of present-day Jewry. Today Jews are distributed between Israel, the Americas, western Europe, South Africa and Australia, to which may be added the sizeable Jewish community that remained in the former Soviet Union after World War II. Some emigrants escaping from Europe reached as far as China and Japan.
The emigration patterns led to new perceptions of Jewish ethnic identity. For example, Jews from the ‘Oriental’ communities – especially those in Israel – identify themselves as ‘Sephardi’ (partially on the basis of their acceptance of Sephardi rabbinical authority), Iraqi Jews who settled in Calcutta and Bombay in the 19th century identify themselves as ‘Indian’, and North African Jews who recently emigrated to France now consider themselves as ‘French’. With the passing of time, these new identities (and thus new ‘Jewish musics’) replace the older ones. Despite the vital persistence of the basic Ashkenazi–Sephardi/Oriental paradigm, today many Jews tend to refer to themselves and their musical cultures more as American-, Russian-, British- or French Jewish, or as Israeli.
In addition to all Jewish ethnic groups, two other sects, the Samaritans and the Karaites, share with Judaism the acceptance of the Torah (Pentateuch) as divine revelation and as the source of religious practice. This article includes the music of the Karaite Jews who split from Judaism in the 8th century ce but who are conceptually closer to mainstream ‘Rabbanite’ Judaism than the Samaritans. For the music of the Samaritans, who split from Judaism in the 8th century bce, see Samaritan music.
Music in religious settings predominates throughout this entry because of the crucial role of religion in exilic Jewish culture. The division between liturgical, paraliturgical (both §III) and non-liturgical music (§IV) denotes different contexts of creativity and performance within a traditional Jewish community. While the first two categories represent the inner core of the Jewish musical culture, the third, which includes Jewish folksongs and instrumental music, is the main area of contact between traditional Jewish music and surrounding, non-Jewish music cultures.
Religious music in Judaism is bounded by religious law (halakhah). Two crucial restrictions imposed by this law are the ban on the use of musical instruments in the synagogue (more lenient approaches apply this limitation only to Sabbaths and all Holy Days) and the prohibition against men listening to the voice of a woman. The first ban, whose most widely quoted rationale is that of a sign of mourning for the destruction of Temple in Jerusalem (although alternative explanations are equally feasible), led to the predominance of vocal music in traditional Jewish contexts. The only exception to this ban is the use of the shofar (ram's horn) in the liturgy of the High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), but not when it coincides with the Sabbath. The second, though not universally enforced, led to sexual segregation in religious musical performances. The repertories of Jewish men and women have generally different musical styles and languages (Hebrew for men, vernacular Jewish languages for women) and are performed in different social contexts (liturgical and paraliturgical occasions in the synagogue among men; accompanying domestic chores and celebrating events of the life cycle among women). However, this dichotomy based on gender should not be over-emphasized. Men and women were not mutually excluded from each other's contexts of performance, as is shown, for example, in the use of melodies from the women's repertory for the singing of Hebrew religious songs by men.
The Emancipation of the Jews in Europe (beginning in the second half of the 18th century in Germany) led to the contestation of the very foundations of traditional Judaism. Following the spread of rationalism and the emergence of modern nation-states (especially after the French Revolution), Jews began to read their canonic religious texts in a scientific, critical way, to adopt and imitate patterns of behaviour from the non-Jewish ‘civilized’ society, and to expose themselves to the contemporary arts and literature. New types of Jews emerged from this process: the non-observant (called ‘secular’) and the liberal (i.e. Jews proposing non-Orthodox forms of Jewish religiosity, such as the Reform, the Conservative and the Reconstructionist Jews). The challenge to orthodoxy had profound musical consequences, as the synagogues of liberal movements became arenas for unprecedented musical creativity within Jewish religious contexts. As the traditional bans on musical instruments and sexual segregation were relaxed or completely abandoned, instruments, mixed choirs and women cantors became customary.
Moving away from the religious frameworks, the distinct identity of the Jewish musician within a wider socio-cultural unit becomes problematic (see below, §V). As secularism and modernization made their inroads into Jewish communities and as the integration of the Jew as a citizen in modern nation-states became more feasible, a paradox emerged. As music developed as an art for its own sake in Western culture during the 19th century, European Jews were granted, for the first time, access to its composition and professional performance. However, the full entry of a Jew into art music in Europe demanded, in general, a high price: the dissolution of his or her Jewish identity.
It is only since the Emancipation (with the exceptional case of Italy since the 17th century) that the phenomenon of Jewish composers overtly expressing themselves as Jews within the Western art music tradition has emerged. This process occurs in contemporary societies in which the Jewish community is integrated within the nation both as a religious and as a cultural entity, the most obvious contemporary example being the USA. This article addresses the possible reflections of the Jewish self in the work of outstanding Western composers of Jewish ancestry, the responses of audience (Jewish and non-Jewish) to such reflections and the approaches of recent scholarship to this modern phenomenon. The case of the State of Israel is different; with the emergence of the Jewish nation-state in the 20th century a particular new musical culture has developed (see Israel), although the question of Jewish identity in music is nevertheless present there too. This entry also considers the involvement of Jews in the music of societies in which the social difference of the Jew was clearly demarcated. Such was the case in most Islamic countries, where Jews were able to participate in diverse spheres of musical creativity while remaining, due to the nature of the surrounding social order, within the confines of their religious community.