Tevye the Milkman (from Fiddler On The Roof) bemoans his wearisome plight. The horse has gone lame, there’s trouble in the town, and the chickens have stopped laying eggs.

With all this tsuris (trouble) what is the response of the milkman from Anatevka? He dreams a dream and he sings a song…

If I were a rich man, yiddle deedle
deedle diddle deedle deedle diddle man.
All day long I’d biddie biddie bum
If I were a wealthy man…

Lord who made the lion and the lamb,
You decreed I should be what I am.
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan
if I were a wealthy, man?

It seems the very heartthrob of our people has been captured in Jewish songs throughout the ages. We have used music to express our worship, our hopes, and our material aspirations. We sing when we are happy. We sing because we are sad. We sing to put our children to sleep, and we sing to stay awake.

Because of the plight of Jews like Tevye (the mythical, but all too true, character of Sholom Aleichem), when the Zionists arose they used music to stir the Jewish heart to long for a homeland.

The Zionist movement had its orators, its literary advocates, but nothing moved the hearts of the Jewish people like its songs. They became homesick for a land they had never seen. From the Zionist song Let Us Return” by Goldfaden we hear:

Enough of this wandering;
Why do you stand there pondering?
Your home is there, in Zion!
Let us go back!

Herzl and the early Zionists raised the hope of a downtrodden people. A more confident song with an assuring melody came forth called “Ha-Tikvah,” the hope.

As long as deep in the heart
There still throbs a Jewish soul
And along towards the east
An eye keeps watch upon Zion

Our great hope is not yet lost
The hope of two millennia
To be a free people in our land
of Zion and Jerusalem

That song was first heard on the new settlements in “Palestine” then in the dark crowded ghettos of Europe. It was sung by oppressed people who were perpetual aliens in the lands of their nativity. Today it has become the national anthem of the modern State of Israel. It was written in 1878 by Naptali Herz Imber who later became a Christian and died in poverty.

It is remarkable that Imber’s “HaTikvah” as sung today contains no, reference to God, but the former version penned by the composer was different:

Our hope is not yet lost
The age-old hope
To return to the land of our fathers
To the city where David dwelt

Cryptically, but forthrightly, the song pertains to God by it reference to the messianic hope: returning to the city of David. This remarkably parallels the first lyrical poem in the Bible, the song of Moses. This song of praise and adoration for a God who delivered His people out of Egypt’s bondage culminates in “the hope” of seeing that same place, a place they had never been:

Thou wilt bring them and plant
them in the mountain of thine inheritance,
The place, O LORD, which Thou hast made
for Thy dwelling
The sanctuary, O LORD,
which Thy hands have established.
(Exodus I 5:17)

 

Even when we didn’t have the Zionist fervor to spur us on, we found plenty to sing about. Everyday life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, and even in the urban ghettos of the “New World,” were both uplifted and glorified in the songs of the Badchonim (Merry Makers) and the Yiddish Theater. These folk songs ran the whole gamut of Jewish life, retelling the common experience, the simple joys, the ever pressing sorrows. They comforted the suffering in trouble, and they provided a way of rejoicing. But the Yiddish lullabies also echoed the hopes and aspirations of the Jewish mother in the Czarist Pale of Settlement.

Sleep, sleep my son
I will buy a little book for you
Soon you will run to cheder
And study regularly
You’ll solve rabbinic problems
And speeches you will make

Often a little comedic music went a long way in softening the hardships. The well-known ditty Bulbes (Spuds) decried the monotony of the tiresome potato diet of a group of tailors in a workshop:

Sunday spuds, Monday spuds
Tuesday and Wednesday—spuds
Thursday and Friday—spuds
On the Sabbath, a special treat—
a Potato pudding!
Sunday—spuds again.

Not only did these little tunes capture the hopes of our people at that time, but it was through the humor of the Yiddish folksong that our people weathered the storms of life in Eastern Europe.

Yet our music goes much deeper than just expressing our earthly cares. Our people are, by definition, a religious people. Our heritage and our culture is inextricably linked with the God who called us into being. Regardless of the degree of spiritual fortitude and theological conviction we have, this religious and spiritual underpinning is very evident in our music.

The Song of Moses mentioned earlier was part of the daily liturgy in the Temple at Jerusalem, as were many of the psalms. A 17th century Kabbalist wrote, “That man whose soul yearns to cleave to the Blessed One, let him cleave to the Book of Psalms.” The Book of Psalms is literally a book of musical lyrics. Out of the 150 psalms, 105 mention music explicitly in the body or in the superscription. The author of many of these songs was King David, “the sweet singer of Israel.” David, skilled at playing the kinnor (a stringed instrument of the lyre family), describes the joy of musical worship in the 150th Psalm:

Praise the LORD!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His
excellent greatness.
Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed
instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.

King David seems to be lifted higher and higher in exaltation of his God. And whereas words alone cannot express the magnitude of praise and devotion to the God of Israel, David brings all the musical elements into the celebration. All of creation must join in as well:

Let everything that has breath
praise the LORD.
Praise the LORD!

The use of instruments was an intrinsic part of Jewish worship. It is not surprising that many of the psalms which were recited in the Temple seemed to have been composed to be played on a specific instrument as well as sung.

We can get a small glimpse of what musical worship in the Temple was like through this Mishna account of the celebration of Sukkot: Whosoever has not witnessed the rejoicing of the festival of the water-drawing has never seen joy. Men of piety and good deeds danced with torches in their hands, singing songs of joy and of praise, and the Levites made music with lyre and harp and cymbals and trumpets and countless other instruments.

Music was as key a function of the Levitical priesthood as was sacrifice. Indeed, the Babylonian Talmud says that lack of singing rendered a sacrificial offering null and void.

The Temple musicians consisted of a minimum of twelve adult singers, though there could be more, and an equal number of instrumentalists. The training period was five years, between the ages of 25 to 30. Then, from age 30 to 50, the Levite performed his Temple service. Younger Levites did join the choir “to add sweetness to the sound,” but they could not stand on the same platform with the master singers.

By the time of King David’s death, there were 4,000 Levites who were responsible to praise the Lord in music (1 Chronicles 23:5). This was not only the singing of the psalms, but of the Torah as well.

We know from Talmudic statements dating back to the first century that the words of the Law had musical accompaniment: The Bible should be read in public, and made understood to its hearers in musical and sweet tones; and he who reads the Torah without tune shows disregard for it and its vital values and laws. (B. Megillah 32a)

Temple worship was vital to Jews. It was a joyful experience, piercing the soul of the worshiper, opening him up to God. The music was rhythmically accented and the singing exuberant! After all, the beat of the timbrel, the twang of the harp, and the tinkling and clanging of cymbals was designed to stir the congregants to worship and prayer.

But then with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem came a rabbinic ban: “The ear that listens to music shall be deaf,” says the Talmud. All use of instruments and choral singing was no longer permitted. The joyful rhythmic sounds of Psalm 150 would no longer be heard. However, on Sabbaths, holidays and at weddings some music was allowed, for “there should be no mourning on the Sabbath.” Yet the skill of the Levitical choristers and the melodies they played and sang were soon forgotten.

After the Temple destruction, liturgical music took on a wailing and plaintive character. It was barely rhythmic. While the priests and Levites intoned the liturgy in the Temple, the local synagogues selected a prominent man of the community to lead the prayers, the sheliach tsibbur (messenger of the people). The prayers were finally written down at the beginning of the Middle Ages, but they bore little resemblance to the vibrant past. The reciting of prayers and the Pentateuch were now separated. The importance of music in worship was reduced ever more, for the hazzan (cantor) would chant the prayers from a lower level in the synagogue while the Torah was read and the sermon was preached ffrom the bima (platform). The focus had definitely shifted. The importance of joy in worship seemed lost. Even today, as we listen to the chanted prayers of the synagogue service, there is a bittersweet quality, a sadness to the music.

The exception to this is the sect of Hassids, who tried to re-introduce the element of joy by song and dance in worship. But Hassidic worship never caught on outside their own sect. For the most part the wail, rather than the lilt, seems to characterize most Jewish worship music. Yet for some of us Jews, something has happened in our lives to inject joy, rhythm and lilt in our worship.

We have discovered Yeshua (Jesus), and we are no longer awaiting the coming of the Messiah before we can allow ourselves to sing the songs of joy which were hushed with the destruction of the Temple. We have a new spirit called by our ancestors the Ruach Ha-Kodesh (Holy Spirit).

We sing with the ecstasy that can only be known by those who are at one with God. To those who have never known the experience of the new birth, our joy seems frivolous and giddy.

In the twentieth century, we have reborn psalmists who vibrantly intone songs of those who are in a living, loving relationship with the Almighty. In this generation, a new Jewish music has been written and is gaining acceptance virtually everywhere but in the synagogue. This is Messianic music. The minor chords are still there. The words are most often Scriptures which tell of the Messiah and his redeeming work. They are love songs about Yeshua. Sometimes they are sad songs with a sorrow for those who do not yet know the Redeemer and the joy of His redemption.

But for the most part it is the kind of music that rouses people and makes them want to stand. It’s hard for the listener to contain himself and refrain from clapping along or tapping a toe.

One such song, written by Mitchell Glaser and Moishe Rosen, is an invitation song in the words of Scripture (Zechariah 4), calling people to return to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is an invitation to discover Yeshua the Messiah who is the Temple and the Hope and the soon-returning King of Israel.

Mine eyes have see the pierced One
Descending from the clouds
Ten thousand angels at his side,
The trumpet sounding loud:

Come back, people, children of Abraham
Come back, people, sons of Jacob,
The Lord is come, He’s heard your cry,
Open up your eyes, your redemption is nigh.

My soul did mourn at Jesus’ death
And I was born anew
He filled me with His Holy breath
And I was pierced too.

The mountain split beneath His feet,
The heavens opened wide,
My Lord amidst Shekinah light
His glory fills the sky.

Come back, people, children of Abraham
Come back, people, sons of Jacob,
The Lord is come, He’s heard your cry,
Open up your eyes, your redemption is nigh.

Bibliography

  • Encyclopedia Judaica. Vol. 12. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Jerusalem, Ltd., 1972.
  • Heskes, Irene, ed. Studies in Jewish Music: Collected Writings of A. W. Binder. New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1971.
  • Idelsohn, Abraham Zevi. Jewish Liturgy and its Development. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.
  • Idelsohn, Abraham Zevi. Jewish Music in its Historical Development. New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1944.
  • Perowne, J. J. Stewart. The Book of Psalms: A New Translation with Introductions and Notes. Explanatory and Critical, Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1 976.
  • Posner, Raphael; Kaploun, Uri; and Cohen, Shalom, eds. Jewish Liturgy: Prayer and Synagogue Service Through the Ages. New York and Paris: Leon Amiel Publisher, 1975.
  • Rubin, Ruth. Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1979.