Jablonski, Marek (Michael)


Synagogue music and its development



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2. Synagogue music and its development.


(i) Psalmody.

(ii) Biblical cantillation.

(iii) Modal improvisation of prayers.

(iv) Poetry.

Jewish music, §III, 2: Synagogue music and its development.

(i) Psalmody.

(a) The Psalter and psalmody.


Jewish tradition recognizes King David as the author of the Book of Psalms. Indeed, more than half the psalms are attributed to him by their title or associated with some event in his life. But even those attributed to other persons, such as Moses (Psalm xc) or Asaph (Psalms l and lxxiii–lxxxiii) and those that later Jewish tradition ascribed to Adam, Abraham and Melchisedech (Psalms cii, lxxxix and cx respectively) were also said to have come through the mouth of David (e.g. Midrash, Shir ha-shirim rabbah, iv) and were inspired by God. Tradition attributes even the post-exilic Psalm cxxxiii to David, who through prophecy envisioned the captive Levites by the rivers of Babylon.

King David's authorship and authority endowed the Psalms with special sanctity. Belief in their divine inspiration made their recitation an important means of praising God and at the same time receiving His blessing, as well as divine national and private salvation. Chanting or singing psalms was the focus of daily worship in the Temple, and it later became part of the synagogue liturgy. There, the psalms serve as opening and closing prayers in various services, especially in the daily morning service. Special selections are sung during the Holy Days; thus, the hallel praise (Psalms cxiii–cxviii) is chanted at the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesah, Shavu‘ot, Sukkot), Hanukkah and New Moons.

The Psalms express a broad spectrum of human emotions, and so they became the most important source of paraliturgical devotions, both public and private. Many communities chant the entire book in public (usually on Sabbath afternoons), devoted Jews, especially the elderly, do the same every day or over a week, in small groups or privately. Jewish tradition attributes considerable healing power to various psalms and many are believed to ward off evil powers and calamity. The devotional routine recitation of individual psalms and the entire book for healing are performed to a uniform chant. Special psalms with distinct chants, however, are recited publicly or privately at times of distress.

Despite its centrality in Jewish worship, the musical structure of Hebrew psalmody has not yet been sufficiently researched. Unlike the Christian tradition of Gregorian chant, no specific regulations and no uniform chants accompany psalmodic practices in the synagogue. On the contrary, Jewish psalmody is relatively free and varied. Furthermore, an overwhelming number of psalmodic chants and a great variety of chant-related traditions and functions exist in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora and still await research. An important attempt to tackle the difficult problems of Jewish psalmody is Flender's study of some Middle Eastern and North African communities (1992).




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