The family tree of Jewish music has its roots sunk deep in liturgical music. The tree spreads branches in many different directions and the fruit it bears comes in many flavors: folksongs based on Slavic melodies, modes and melodies with a Gypsy sound, oriental- and Moorish-sounding scales and vocal effects, wordless Hassidic chants... and to crown it all, Western-type classical compositions.

Jewish Musical Instruments

The shofar, predecessor of the modern trumpet, is the quintessential Jewish instrument. Reaching directly into the soul, this common ram's horn is sounded in times of our greatest joy and our darkest despair. Filled with, and amplifying, the horn player's breath, the sound of the shofar has strength and powers beyond that of common instruments. It was the trumpets' blasts that brought down the walls of Jericho. Even during the countless religious bans on instrumental music in the synagogue, the shofar has blasted loud and true.

The association of wind instruments with profound mystical spirituality should come as no surprise, as it is implicit in the word itself! Trumpet (Hebrew: khatzotz'ra) come from "two little words:" khatzu (broken) and tzarot (troubles.) Rabbi Mattityah Glazerson, a leading kabbalist, writes that "the trumpet has the power to break all troubles." Moreover, it is breath that fills the brass instrument, and the word for wind/breath (Hebrew: ruach, Latin: spiritus) also means spirit. Is it mere coincidence that alcohol, which lubricates the gates to the soul, is also called spirits?

Given the almost instinctive, ancestral attraction towards wind-blown instruments, is it surprising that Jews longed for their sound, especially when it was proscribed? As historical Yiddish music specialist Josh Horowitz reveals, "for Jews in the 18th and early 19th century Ukraine, instrumentation was divided into two legal categories, which were stubbornly enforced by the authorities: "loud" and "soft." The instruments in the category of "loud" music were horns and drums. Jews were only allowed to play "soft" music. If a Jew broke one of these laws, he (or she) could be prohibited from playing another event for up to a year." After the legal emancipation of the "loud" klezmer brass band, fans flocked to this formerly forbidden fruit.

Two other instruments that seem to be particularly popular with Jewish musicians are the violin (Chagall's depictions of the Shtetl fiddler are only too well-known!) and the clarinet. Why this should be so, no one really knows, though there's a joke that says: "Have you already seen someone running away from a pogrom with a piano under his arm?" Maybe that's the answer!

Jewish Musical History

So: in the beginning was the Bible

Scholars have found several dozen references to music and musical instruments in the Torah and in fact, in chapter 4 of Genesis, we are told that Jubal is "the father of all such as handle the harp and the organ"! This "organ" of the King James version of the Bible, "ugav" in Hebrew, is thought to be a woodwind, a distant ancestor of our flute or clarinet.

Indeed, music played an important part in the life of the ancient Jews. King David himself - referred to as "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Sam. 23) - not only authored the "lyrics and music" of Psalms, but was also a performer and is often represented strumming on his harp, or lyre.

Part and parcel of the religious ceremonies at the Temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt by the Jews after their return from Babylonian deportation, was a rich offering of sacred music, impressive in its splendor: no less than twenty-four choral groups raising their voices in song, accompanied by musicians on more than a dozen different types of instruments, including a variety of strings, reeds, and percussion - drums, cymbals and tambourines.

After the destruction of the Temple by the Roman legions ca.70 C.E., many Jews fled and sought refuge in various lands around the Mediterranean.

This marked the beginning of a new era in Diaspora Jewish worship: the sacrificial ceremonies of the Temple were now a thing of the past. In their various countries of exile, Jews now gathered in small groups to pray and to study and meditate upon the sacred texts in a "House of Assembly", or synagogue. Instrumental music was proscribed from these meetings of worship as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple and for the loss of their country. This overall lack of instrumental music during services still remains to this day among orthodox synagogues, except for the sounding of the Shofar - a ram's horn trumpet - on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and at Rosh Hashana, the New Year. Conservative and Reformed Jews have slowly added instrumental music back into the liturgy, including Piano, Organ, Guitar and other instruments.

Thus, the only "music" at early Jewish services was vocal, and included the cantillated reading of texts from the Torah and the chanting of Psalms.

Cantillation refers to the vocal inflections used for emphasis while reading texts aloud, inflections which were handed down by oral tradition until the 10th century, when they were codified. After that, this standardized recitation was adopted by Jewish communities everywhere, with variations determined by local influences. Christian Gregorian chanting is actually a descendant of Jewish chanting of the Torah via cantillation.

A significant musical innovation was introduced in the synagogue ritual at the start of the 6th century C.E.: they began to employ a cantor, or "chazan", whose function it was to compose hymns based on the sacred texts and to sing them, as a soloist, during the religious service.

Other congregations worldwide soon adopted the custom, and there is hardly a synagogue today that doesn't have its cantor or cantorial soloist. Cantors or cantorial soloists are often professionally-trained singers whose virtuoso, richly ornamented performances add both dramatic power and emotional impact to their congregation's service.

Though banned during worship, instrumental music was nevertheless ever-present in the day-to-day life of the Jews. No wedding party, no family festivity could take place without music. The instruments were those typically used in the country concerned at that particular time.

Ironically, Jewish orchestras found a fertile ground for their art at one time in Moslem countries - Morocco, Persia, and Turkey for example -where Moslem musicians were prohibited from performing there due to a strict application of Islamic law.

In Europe during the Middle Ages, itinerant Jewish minstrels, dancers and jugglers traveled from place to place along with their Provençal counterparts, and performed in the market places of small towns and villages. Quite naturally, wherever they happened to settle, Jews incorporated certain features from the surrounding culture into their music, vocal and instrumental music, as well as preserving ancient instruments from Israel.

Having to seek new havens of safety time and time again, the Jews took their musical heritage with them, thus transporting melodies and modes, for example, from 15th century Spain eastward to Greece and the Balkans, and bringing Slavic and Gypsy tunes to the western parts of Europe. The musical "archaeologist" can thus find embedded in certain strains of Jewish music precious leads to forms of language and music no longer extant in their culture of origin.

The Sephardic repertoire, for instance, has preserved the folksongs of the Iberian peninsula in the Castillian language of the 15th century; the tunes of eastern Europe are now very popular in their rendition as "Klezmer" music, songs sung in Yiddish and accompanied by a few instruments: usually fiddle, clarinet, accordion and bass.


Klezmer is a style of music fused with the heart and soul of Ashkenazic Jewish music - it is the sound of the Hora at weddings, it is music of uncontrollable joy fused with irrevocable pathos. Echoing the sounds of its long-lost homeland of Eastern Europe, it mirrors and interweaves with the musical kaleidoscope of its new home in America.

The Yiddish word klezmer referred to professional Jewish musicians. Besides entertaining for the gentile public, these klezmorim commonly played at weddings in the shtetls, close-knit Jewish communities that speckled the Eastern European landscape up until the World War II. The language of these Jews was Yiddish, and today Yiddish songs comprise a large part of klezmer repertoire. The word klezmer comes from the Hebrew words kle, vessel or instrument, and zemer which means song. Klezmer music made an appearance in the United States in the wave of immigration in the early 1900s. However, it did not take on the new soil, as younger generations of musicians and listeners rejected their roots, turning to more "American" musical styles. Klezmer music in America was thus quickly disappearing, only occasionally surfacing in the mainstream in the form of "Jewified" jazz. As the war wiped out the remnants of Yiddish life in Europe, the prospects for klezmer music seemed bleak.

To hear the classic Hava Negila tune, click here. Note you will need to install QuickTime to hear this streaming audio.

For an example of Jazz-influenced Klezmer music from the Minnesota Klezmer Band, click here. Note you will need to install QuickTime to hear this streaming audio.


In 1970s, a new generation of Jewish musicians set the stage for a klezmer revival. Long established in the United States and eagerly searching for their lost roots, they feverishly sought out to uncover old scores and records, anxious to capture the disappearing tradition. Several major bands, some of which are still actively recording today, brought new life to the style, making recordings and attracting a new generation of listeners. Today klezmer music is at the peak of its revival, with bands numbering in thousands all over the world. Despite its inherent roots in tradition, klezmer is evolving. It's being infused with jazz, ragtime, blues, bluegrass, new age and many other musical traditions.

Jewish Classical Music

The classical composers of Jewish origin such as Mahler, Mendelssohn, Milhaud and others are too well-known to need mention here; actually, with some few exceptions, they didn't really draw upon Jewish sources for their music at all, while, on the other hand, non-Jewish composers sometimes did: Shostakovich, for one, and Ravel, and Max Bruch, to mention only these three.

In this particular context it may be appropriate to draw attention, and pay tribute to, some of the 20th century Jewish composers who were killed by the Nazis in the camps of Terezin and Auschwitz: the music of Gideon Klein, Hans Krasa, Pavel Haas, and Viktor Ullmann, among others, deserve a wider audience.

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