The point of departure for all liturgical music in Judaism is that early music which was developed for the purpose of worship by the Children of Israel before the time of Christ. This period of 3,000 years is composed of the period of the Exodus and settlement of Israel and Judah, through the time of the Judges, to the Kingship of Solomon and David, and the prophetic period — all of which represents a developmental stream within the context of a people chosen and called by God and brought into "the promised land."
While there were undoubtedly foreign influences, the liturgical tradition developed in a relatively local context. Looking at the Old Testament does not provide clear answers to questions about the origins of Jewish liturgical music and practice, for there is no mention of liturgical music in the patriarchal period. It is assumed that the sojourn in Egypt influenced the music of the Israelites, perhaps with the use of ceremonial instruments coming from this cross-cultural exposure. During the period of the settlement in the promised land, some references to music and dance occur in Judges and Samuel, and descriptions of instruments can be found.
With the construction of the First Temple, liturgical music is described for the first time as an integral part of worship (II Samuel 6, I Chronicles 6:16-17). Here is described the use of string, wind and percussion instruments, along with singing and dancing, as part of the transfer of the Holy Ark to Jerusalem. We can safely assume that this usage was not limited to major processions, but is representative of liturgical forms in use at the time. Modern scholars of early Jewish liturgical music affirm that we do not know what the singing of Psalms in the First Temple sounded like.
The destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent Babylonian captivity not only terminated Temple worship as such, but had other consequences. The exile and loss of the Temple forced the development and enhancement of synagogue music. Exposure to the Babylonian culture may have influenced Jewish liturgical music with Babylonian forms, for we know that the Jews borrowed Assyrian script and the Babylonian calendar while they were in exile.
A second consequence of the Babylonian captivity was the Diaspora — those Jews dispersed from Israel and scattered around the Mediterranean, which gave rise ultimately to the Sephardic and Ashkenazie forms of Judaism. The rise of the synagogue tradition during the exile was principally didactic (focused on teaching) rather than the sacrificial worship of the Temple, and it developed its own chant traditions. Many of these traditions were brought back to Israel after the exile and found their way into Temple worship. Synagogue worship, in contrast to the sacrificial forms of the Temple worship, was characterized by recitation of prayer, chanting of the Psalms, Bible reading and instruction. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., synagogue worship and its liturgical form became the central aspect of Jewish worship.
The music traditions of the early synagogue were influenced by the Rabbinic prohibition against playing musical instruments which would be considered work on the Sabbath. Two other factors also shaped early synagogue liturgical music: mourning over the destruction of the Temple, and rules against promiscuity. Mourning over the destruction of the Temple led to a Rabbinic ban on secular and merry songs and instrumentation, resulting in a penitential character in the service. The fears of promiscuity led to the separation of men and women, and ultimately to only men singing in the Synagogue.
- Back to Top -