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The Three Dimensions of Jewish music

Music is a central component of Jewish culture. So much so that Scripture is considered only a collection of laws without the song and music that accompany it (Megillah, 32). Just as there is a cognitive Torah, there is an emotional Torah. What are the three dimensions in which music is expressed in Jewish tradition?

While working to revive the Hebrew language, Eliezer Ben Yehuda organized for the first time in 2,000 years a performance of song and dance in Moshav Ekron. Some people supported it, but the majority opposed the attempt to restore Hebrew art during the Second Aliyah. “If Mr. Ben-Yehuda seeks joie de vivre, let him take himself to Paris,” the Jerusalem press said at the time, a statement which expresses the Diaspora Jewish 7 66 view that song detracts from the holiness of the Land of Israel.


That is nonsense. After all, music has always been the most significant element in the grandeur of a place. When the Children of Israel bring the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David, special song accompanies the ceremony, to the point that King David “was cavorting with all his might before God” (II Samuel 6:16). If David himself “and all the house of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with a trumpet and a shofar” (ibid.), then there is room for a musical hullabaloo even in Jerusalem.

Moreover, the campaign of Joseph’s brothers to liberate Simon from Egypt accentuates the power of the melody of the Land of Israel. After all, their father Jacob works in this way. He instructs his sons to persuade the Egyptian ruler by sending him of הארץ זמרת which some interpret as ‘the music of the land’ and all kinds of fruit (Gen. 43:11). In other words, bring down the music of the Land of Israel to Joseph, and the melody of the place will work its special effect on him.

How does this melody sound? We do not know exactly. But an interesting indication can be obtained from the Gregorian music that was played in churches in the 12th century which originated in the vestiges of the Temple melodies. Here is an example for your enjoyment:

Music in space

Music in time

Beyond music in space, there is music in time.

There is a day in the Hebrew calendar that is dedicated entirely to melody. Remember? Right, this is the holiday when it is a mitzva to sound the trumpets and the shofar: Rosh Hashana. It is indeed music of only a few notes, but these are quite indicative of the possibility of spiritual arousal through music, at certain appointed times.


More importantly, the Jewish text without its melody seems empty. “Those who read without song and recite (the text) without melody, are referred to thus: ‘So I, too, gave them statutes that were not good [Ezek. 20:25]’” (Talmud, Megillah 32a). Two things can be deduced from this Talmudic statement: First, only music can bring life to the text, because without feeling, Jewish tradition becomes nothing more than a “collection of laws.” Second, we learn that two types of melodies exist in the Jewish world: שירה] ,song] which is related linguistically to שרש־ רת – chain, which connects one generation to the next.

It is a component transcending time “then Moses and the children of Israel sang.”זמרה] melody] whose root word is זמר which is a distinctive voice that exalts a specific date “to sing to your highest name. To tell your kindness in early morning and your faith at night. “


So, there is music in time. There are melodies for the holidays, special tunes for Shabbat, songs specific to 68 the holidays. But is there a genre that we would define as Jewish music in 2019? Ever since Yuval, the inventor of music, “the father of all who handle the lyre and pipe“ (Genesis 4:21), each period has been granted great poets/musicians such as Yehuda Halevy, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, Ibn Ezra, Shmuel David Luzzatto, Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook and others. Alongside their work in philosophy, they also engaged in poetry. Who carries this torch today?

Music in the soul

December 2003. A furor broke out in Israel over holding a concert featuring the works of Richard Wagner. As is well known, Wagner was both a musical genius and a virulent anti-Semite. On the one hand, his contribution in the field of opera is considered so great that it influenced the greatest composers and thinkers such as Nobel laureate Thomas Mann, Friedrich Nietzsche, and even Theodore Herzl. On the other hand, Wagner was one of the most powerful inspirations for Nazi ideology, both in his first essay, “Judaism in Music” (1850) and in his musical works that were played in the death camps.

What is interesting in what will later be called “The Wagner File” is that both the supporters of the concert and its opponents agreed on one thing: the melody carries with it a certain cultural content.


This conclusion contributes to the deciphering of the personality of one of the greatest Jewish scholars 69 during the Bar Kokhba revolt, Elisha ben Avuya. To this day, it is difficult to understand how he became a Tana (an early sage mentioned of the Mishnah) who had “all his fellow scholars standing and listening to his words” (Ruth Rabbah 6), after he denied the entire Jewish tradition and even collaborated with the Romans in persecuting the Jews. A Talmudic legend attributes Elisha’s heresy to his encounter with the evil in the world.

For example, when a child fell out of a tree and died, even though he had originally climbed the tree in order to fulfill the two commandments (the commandment of sending the nest and honoring one’s parents) which should have ensured longevity (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 39).


Another school of thought explains his abandonment of Judaism as resulting from his excessive immersion in Greek culture. Make no mistake: openness to other cultures and fields of knowledge is recommended in Jewish thought, and particularly Greek culture, to the point where it is permitted to write a Torah in Greek (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 9). However, there is a difference between studying the knowledge of the nations of the world and the blind adoption of their philosophy. There is a limit, one that expresses itself in art in general and in music in particular. In our context, according to the Sages, when they say of Elisha said that “Greek song was constantly heard in his house” 70 (Babylonian Talmud, Chagiga 15), it means the internal melody playing non-stop in his head is Greek in origin. And that is the problem. The nature of the music reflects the nature of the soul that produced it.

Where would you position yourself in a matrix of non-Jewish music, for example?

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