This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Singing from the Same Hymn Book *

Far be it from me to belittle all the profound spiritual and moral themes that make the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur synagogue services so meaningful. And yet on a practical level, we cannot lose sight of the simple fact that this season, more than any other in the Jewish calendar, provides an ideal showcase for our cantors.

On these solemn days, even congregations who might normally do without the services of professional ḥazzanim to lead their worship are likely to hire trained vocalists to intone their rich repertoires of liturgical magic. Although some of the festival prayers have familiar melodies that are rarely tampered with, the cantors are also expected to inspire the congregants by introducing a few novel and exciting tunes.

The most enjoyable segments of a synagogue service may be those where the prayer leader adapts the words of the liturgy to popular melodies that lend themselves to congregational sing-alongs. While some of these tunes might be adapted from other Jewish musical contexts, it is not uncommon for a resourceful cantor to borrow a few melodies from non-Jewish sources. On initial reflection it is hard to see anything objectionable in a practice that promotes congregational participation, relieves tedium and generally enlivens the experience of prayer.

Nevertheless, the practice does raise some serious questions for Jewish religious law. For example, if we pay attention to the original words or settings of those foreign songs, some of them might be considered inappropriate to the Jewish religious purposes to which they are now being put. After all, the most common themes in the world's choral repertoires tend to be romance, drink or (non-Jewish) religion; all of these are, to put it simply, unsuitable for the ideals of judgment, repentance and atonement that are evoked by the festival prayers.

And yet Rabbi Israel Moses Hazan reported that in the Jewish community of Smyrna it was customary in his day (the nineteenth century) for the foremost scholars to set off in search of musical inspiration prior to the High Holy Days by visiting Christian churches, where they would position themselves behind barriers in order to be stimulated “by those contrite and heart-rending tunes,” which they would then proceed to adapt for use in the synagogues.

Rabbi Hazan vigorously defended this practice, insisting that whatever protestations previous Jewish legal authorities might have voiced against foreign musical borrowings, those objections had been confined to problematic lyrics, but did not extend to melodies.

One of his most intriguing arguments emerged from his extensive personal experiences of wandering through such diverse localities as Smyrna, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, London, Rome, Corfu, Alexandria and Beirut. In the course of his many travels, Rabbi Hazan was struck by the immense differences that separated the musical traditions of those Jewish communities. From this fact he concluded plausibly that no Jewish community is preserving an authentically Hebrew tradition that can be traced back to biblical antiquity, “for in the lands of Ishmael all the liturgical tunes resemble those of the Ishmaelites, in Turkey they sound like Turkish songs, and in the lands of Edom [that is, in Christian Europe] they resemble 'Edomite' music.”

In defending the use of non-Jewish music in the synagogue, Rabbi Hazan and his supporters had to take into account several earlier rabbinic authorities who, it would appear, had voiced the opposing attitude. The medieval author of the Book of the Pious had dealt with a reverse situation—of a Jew who sang an appealing melody in the presence of a Christian priest. The author’s concern there was that the priest might become so enamored of the catchy ditty that he would be inspired to use it in the worship of his own (false) deity. In admonishing the Jewish singer against such behaviour, the Book of the Pious also made a point of forbidding the inclusion of any Christian tunes in Jewish prayers, a ruling that was cited in subsequent codes of Ashkenazic religious law. The antipathy toward foreign liturgical tunes could be applied in a very restrictive manner, given that the issues related to such serious matters as idolatry and apostasy.

As it happens, however, the predominant tendency of halakhic authorities was toward permissiveness. The tone was effectively set by the seventeenth-century Rabbi Joel Sirkes in an influential responsum. Rabbi Sirkes was dealing with what he himself described as a widespread practice in the synagogues of chanting tunes that were known to have their origins in the churches. Nevertheless, He argued that such tunes could be sung in the synagogue as long as their function in the church was not in an explicitly “idolatrous” context. As long as the Christians employed them for purely aesthetic reasons, then there was no objection to their inclusion in Jewish worship.

Rabbi Hazan took pride in the fact that he himself, at the urging of Rabbi Abraham Gagin of Jerusalem, had ventured to compose liturgical poems according the Arabic style. In this he was following a pattern established by the distinguished seventeenth-century scholar Menahem di Lonzano who had chosen to compose Hebrew liturgical poems to be sung to Arabic melodies ”not for the sake of entertainment by frivolous persons with drums and flutes and feasts of wine like the music of drunkards—but on the contrary, I chose the Ishmaelite tunes because I noted that their tunes express a contrite and broken heart, and I thought that perhaps through them I might be able to subdue my own wayward heart.” Rabbi Isaac Alfasi had declared centuries earlier that a cantor who is known to “intone Ishmaelite songs” with inappropriate lyrics should be immediately dismissed from his post.

Some Ḥasidic masters were known to adopt folk tunes that they heard from the gentile peasantry. In their view, what appear to us as profane songs of erotic love and desire were in reality allegorical portrayals of the longing between Israel and the Almighty, in keeping with traditional Jewish interpretations of the Song of Songs. Some went so far as to claim that these tunes had originally been recited by the Levitical choirs in the holy Temple of Jerusalem; but as a result of the exile they had been lost to us and preserved among gentiles. For this reason, Jews who sing these melodies nowadays—even with their unemended lyrics—should not necessarily be condemned for indulging in frivolity—but quite the contrary, they are repatriating a profoundly mystical legacy of sacred music.

In more recent times, the issue was addressed with his characteristic erudition by Israel’s former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef. He noted that several distinguished Sephardic rabbis had themselves composed hymns designed to be sung to the tunes of profane love songs. This practice is particularly common with the “Baḳḳashot” hymns that are chanted early in the mornings of Sabbaths and festivals in many Sephardic synagogues. “Nearly all the songs of the oriental Jewish communities, which are sung on joyous occasions and religious feasts, were composed by holy and pure liturgical poets to the tunes of erotic songs.”

In addition to his exhaustive survey of previous discussions of the issue, Rabbi Yosef adduced an novel analogy based on a statement in the Talmud about how at the time of the future redemption, the theatres and circuses that were formerly the scenes of pagan depravity will be transformed into venues of prayer and Torah study.

Notwithstanding the unease expressed by some commentators at the prospect of Jews praying in sites that were formally defiled by idolatry and corruption, Rabbi Yosef declared that the Talmud’s vision can actually be understood as a paradigm for how profane songs can be sanctified by including them in sacred worship.

This is consistent with the inspiring words of the festival prayers that envisage a time of harmony when “all your creatures will bow before you, and come together to do your will with a whole heart”!

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, September 21, 2012, p. 20.
  • For further reading:
    • Idelsohn, Abraham Z. Jewish Music: Its Historical Development. Courier Dover Publications, 1992.
    • Shiloah, Amnon. Jewish Musical Traditions. Jewish Folklore and Anthropology Series. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992.