What is Jewish Music?

Published in the Jewish Press

by Shlomo Walfish

What is Jewish Music? This may seem like a simplistic questions, but think about it for a moment. Is it Jewish music because it has Hebrew words? What if the language is Yiddish or English? What about all of the different rhythms and musical styles that "Jewish music" has been recorded in. If the rhythm is similar to that of Non Jewish music recordings, does that automatically disqualify the song as Jewish?

In order to discuss this topic clearly, lets break this topic into two different categories: 1. Jewish music and 2. Music in general.

Jewish Music

Let's start from the beginning. The first major reference to Jewish music in the Torah occurs when the Bnei Yisrael sang "Az Yashir" . Shmos Rabba 23:2 explains that even though the Israelites believed in Hashem prior to Krias Yam Suf (parting of the sea), after they witnessed the parting of the Red sea they emerged with a heightened belief and special Ruach Hakodesh (Divine Inspiration) which took them instantly and in unison to glorious song. Thus their song was of the holiest source and had great Kedusha. Miriam took the tof (Drum/Tambourine) and played. This is a clear reference to the rhythm early in the Torah as well.

When we discuss rhythm, we specifically make note of trop (the melody for the Tanach and Megilla readings) Jews have three major different ways of singing the trop depending on background and mesorah (tradition) Sephardic, Ashkenaz and German. The nusach (style) for davening in these groups is different as well. However, all of them have Jewish origin and are authentic.

Dovid Hamelech was known for playing the harp and composing Tehillim (Psalms). Hundreds of songs have been written from lyrics found in the Tehilim including many by R. Shlomo Carlebach. Shlomo Hamelech wrote a love song Shir Hashirim. The Levites sang and played instruments in the Beis Hamikdash. As time went on, Jews lived all over the world and adapted the musical styles from their host countries: they wrote Russian, Polish and German Marches, Hungarian music, Yiddish music etc.

The common denominator in all Jewish music and the reason it is defined as Jewish music is, the intent when it is composed. If a composer is writing a Jewish song "Lshaim Shamayim", to bring people closer to Hashem, then it can be considered Jewish music no matter what language it is in or even if it is a niggun (tune) without words.

Music in General

Now that we defined what makes music Jewish, let's discuss music in general. Mozart (one of the greatest music geniuses ever) said "There is good music and bad music" This applies to all music, including Jewish music. When writing good music, the composer must first understand the words he is writing about. Rabbi Baruch Chait says "Music is like a perush (commentary) on the words.

Listening to good music is like using a good computer program. One does not have to know how to program in order to use it and benefit from the program. One does not have to know how a great song is composed in order to appreciate its beauty and genius. Today, many composers write cool tunes then shop around for words to fit into their prearranges music. Many times they repeat words in funny places and stick in lots of Oyes because the words they found don't fit the tune neatly. I compare this to driving down the street in a car, closing your eyes and saying "maybe I'll stay in my lane"

It is possible for anyone to write a nice song, however, good composers consistently write good music because they understand the fundamentals that go into songwriting. They pick words that move them and inspire them and literally start singing those words. Thus a new song is created. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z'l wrote hundreds of songs. Even is least popular songs are still complete and good tunes. You will never hear incorrect Hebrew is any of is songs, and the pronunciation of the words is always correct. His music is like an encyclopedia of Jewish music.

Other great Jewish music composers are: The Modzitzer Rebbes, zt"l; the present Modzitzer Rebbe - Rabbi Yisrael Don Taub shlita; the Bostoner Rebbe - R. Moshe Horowitz zt"l; R Yankel Talmud zt"l - (the court composer of Ger) Rav Bentzion Shenker - (the court composer of Modzitz who composed the melody to Eishes Chayil which we sing Friday night); Rav Shmuel Brazil - (Regesh); R. Abe Rottenberg - (Dveykus, Journeys etc...); Chaim Benett; Rav Baruch Chait; Chaim Saracik from Israel, and others. Musical styles will always change and new styles will be created. Jewish music can be good and pure when written with the right intentions.

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