Kosher Music

Featured Image

By Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Faculty, Belz School of Jewish Music
RIETS, Yeshiva University
Cantor, Lincoln Square Synagogue,
New York City (1965-Present)


It is amazing to me that I am writing for a publication produced by OK Kosher Certification, where Rabbi Berel Levy (ob”m) took the helm over 40 years ago. In a way, I would not be capable today of such a task were it not for Rabbi Levy! Let me explain.

In 1943, in New Haven, Connecticut, a young Rabbi Berel Levy became founding principal of the fledgling New Haven Yeshiva Achei Tmimim Lubavitch—The New Haven Hebrew Day School. In those days it was almost unheard of to find an elementary Yeshiva Day School outside of a metropolitan area. Yet, in 1945, when the time came for my parents to enroll me in kindergarten at the precocious age of “not yet” four years old, the school already existed and it was recommended that I should be placed in Rabbi Levy’s school! Soon thereafter, Rabbi Levy left for greener pastures, and the new headmaster was Rabbi Moshe Hecht ob”m who had me tested at Yale’s Gesell Institute of Child Development before allowing me to enter first grade in 1946 at the age of four years, eleven months and 18 days! Little did anyone imagine then that, someday, I would be writing an article for Kosher Spirit, the magazine of OK Kosher Certification, where Rabbi Levy took the helm sometime after he left New Haven! As the saying goes: “What goes around comes around”. Were it not for that small Yeshiva Day School, I would probably not be an observant Jew today—certainly not the chazzan of 44 years at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, one of the most prestigious shuls in America; a formerly well-known Hebrew folksong concert and recording artist; and, now a faculty member of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University. But Rabbi Berel Levy did agree to start such a school, and here I am today!

It is with a sense of hakaras hatov that I present the following analysis of the music of the Yomim Noroim. I hope you will find it enlightening, and that Rabbi Levy, ob”m, from his heavenly abode, will “shep” a little “nachas.”

The Music of the Yomim Noroim

The liturgical music, or Nusach HaTefillah, of the Yomim Noroim is the most profound of the entire year and contains some of the oldest musical elements in our tradition. It requires an expert Baal Tefillah who intimately knows the sanctified melodies of these tefillos, and it is therefore completely inappropriate for any synagogue to choose a chazzan who is improperly trained in the intricacies of the musical nusach. Needless to say, this pertains all year-around, for every tefillah. However, the lack of competency in a Shliach Tzibbur is more acutely felt on the Days of Awe in every shul and shtible in every corner of the world, and is emphasized in the words of our gedolim throughout the millennia.

It is the intent of this article to give the average rabbi/layman a “crash course” in the guidelines concerning this relatively unchangeable and halachically mandated field of musical expertise. While it is impossible to illustrate the actual music of the tefillos in a written article, I will try to describe to you the musical history and halachic guidelines for the sacred musical themes that have been heard in shuls in every corner of the Ashkenazi world for the last millennium. (Audio clips will be available throughout this article)

The Maharil

To put this topic into the proper perspective, it is necessary to open to the Shulchan Oruch, 619, and the glosses of the Rama at that point. As he does in almost every area of Hilchos Tefillah, the Rama here paraphrases a quote from the Maharil: “V’al yishaneh odom miminhag hoir, afilu b’niggunim….” “One may not change the custom of a community, even as to its customary prayer-melodies (Nusach HaTefillah).”

The Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov HaLevi Möllin, (b. Mainz, 1356(?), d. Worms, 1427), the first to bear the title of “Moreinu”, was the Chief Rabbi of the Rhineland during the years after the Nine Crusades (1096-1272), and in the midst of the terrible period of the plague of the Black Death which began in the 1340’s. As a result of these two catastrophic events, Jews from all over Europe fled to the cities of the Rhineland to join their fellow co-religionists in the largest Jewish cities in Europe for protection and consolation. These cities were Speyer, Worms and Mainz, known as the “Irei Shum,” where the tradition of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg over one-hundred years prior still resonated, and whom the Maharil followed as his spiritual guide.

Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz writes that, “…also being one of the great prayer leaders of his time, he (the Maharil) traveled from one community to another, reestablishing the traditional prayer melodies. By virtue of his great authority, the Maharil succeeded in laying the foundations for the prayer rite accepted by all Ashkenazi communities….”

The Maharil also served as a chazzan, which was often the custom of rabbinical leaders since the time of Rabbi Yehuda Gaon of the Yeshiva of Sura in the 8th century. The Maharil was distressed by the incursion of many “foreign” melodies into the musical liturgy of the synagogues of his time. Over a period of many years he carefully interviewed immigrant Baalei Tefillah from all over Europe to determine which time-honored melodies were the authentic tradition, and discarded those that were incompatible with the consensus. He then sanctified those melodies that he determined were authentic with the title “MiSinai”, to emphasize their ancient and immutable quality.1 In his Sefer HaMaharil, compiled by his student Eliezer Ben Yaakov,2 he declares categorically the rule that one may not change the traditional melodies (nusach) of a community. Let me say at this point that many poskim have opined that this declaration applies all through the calendar year. For this article, we will confine ourselves to the High Holidays.

The “MiSinai” Melodies

There are approximately fifty-two known “MiSinai”melodies (perhaps as many as over one hundred) that can be identified. Many are “motifs”, musical phrases, which are repeated in different texts, but almost all of which are traceable to the time of the Maharil or the Maharam of Rothenberg before him. They were often referred to by the past generations of Baalei Tefillah as Scarbova, from the Slavic word skarb, which means “(from the) treasure”, “official”, or a corruption of the word “sacra”, “sacred”. Most of these melodies are for the Yomim Noroim and some are sanctified in the tefillos of the rest of the year. Until the early eighteenth century this was an exclusively oral tradition because chazzanim were not trained in the art of transcribing music, with rare exceptions (such as Solomon Rossi, 1587-1628 CE, who wrote his music in the tradition of the Sfardim). These melodies were a closely guarded treasure, and each Baal Tefillah carefully handed down the tradition he had learned from generation to generation with relative accuracy. While having been gathered originally in Ashkenaz (Germany), as the population moved eastward because of persecution and pogroms these melodies were transmitted to the East European community and essentially became the hallmark of the tefillah of the entire European Jewish community. This includes the musical style of every paragraph of the tefillos in the machzor and siddur for the entire cycle of the year.

As American Jews, we are the inheritors of the East European minhag and we are therefore required to follow that tradition in our davening. This is our “Minhag HaMakom.” We must insist that our Baalei Tefilla be well-versed in the MiSinai melodies that nurtured the souls of our father’s generation, our grandfather’s generation and the generations before them. No one has the right to discard even one of these sacred melodies of our tefillah.

This applies to our Shabbos and Yom Tov tefillos as well, although most of these tefillos only have rules for the musical style, or mode of each paragraph (major, minor, phreigish, etc. Listen to audio below), rather than an actual melody. This also allows talented chazzanim to insert congregational melodies that fit into the given mode, but additions that should only be done with careful forethought. There are various tefillos outside of the Yomim Noroim that have fixed melodies, primarily for the Kaddeishim and for some major tefillos, such as Tal, Geshem, etc. This also includes the “concluding phrases” of many of the tefillos. The requirement to keep the traditional nusach applies throughout the year, for every prayer, at every service! 3

Major, Minor, pheigish, etc.


The Yomim Noroim Ma’ariv, Bor’chu

It is Ma’ariv, the first night of Rosh Hashana. The chazzan begins to sing the familiar, beloved melody of the Yomim Noroim Bor’chu: (audio below) “Ah…♪…♫…♪…♪…♪……” The melody permeates the atmosphere of the shul and uplifts the hearts of all present. Where did this melody come from, and how old is it? How many generations of Jews began their New Year with this profound introduction to the liturgy of the High Holidays? There are few melodies like this, that by simply hearing them, the listener attains the palpable, visceral recognition that we are no longer in the mundane cycle of our weekday, but that we have now entered the lofty heights of the holiest days of the year – the beginning of the “Days of Awe” – immersing us in an aura of holiness and sacred prayer.

Charlemagne and The Source of The Melody

It may shock you to know that this majestic, magnificent melody may possibly stem from a non-Jewish source! We do know for certain that it is more than eleven centuries old, having first appeared in the 8th and 9th century in the Europe of Emperor Charlemagne (742-814). He imported the rabbinic leaders of Italy and Babylon, R. Kalonymos and R. Machir who composed prayers and set melodies to them based on their ancient traditions that eventually were sanctified by the Maharil.4 One of these sanctified melodies is that of the Ma’ariv Yomim Noroim Bor’chu (audio below), whose origin is a question of, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?”



There is, consequently, the distinct possibility that melodies such as the Ma’ariv Yomim Noroim Bor’chu may truly have come from the Jewish community. Even though its earliest written source is a book of non-Jewish songs, that was only because until the 18th century, Jews generally did not know how to transcribe music. Therefore, when this majestic, sacred melody of the High Holidays is sung in shul, you can sing along with confidence that not only has it been sanctified by Jewish tradition, but that it is very possibly an authentic, ancient Jewish melody that is well over 1200 years old!

The Kol Nidre

The Music of the Kol Nidre, the last of the “MiSinai” melodies, is one of the most profoundly emotional melodies of our entire liturgy. No other synagogue prayer has such an impact on the listener — arousing, uplifting, and inspiring passions that well up from the innermost depths of emotion for the entire congregation. What makes this prayer so important to the average congregant, who is drawn to the synagogue (on time!) with anticipation, trepidation, and awe?

Kol Nidrei


The melody as heard today in the Ashkenazi synagogue did not exist in its present form until the middle of the 15th or 16th century. (Sephardi Jews recite it to a completely different tune!). It is the very last “MiSinai” melody incorporated into the list of the sacred Niggunei Maharil, even though it was finalized many years after the period of the Maharil. We do know that the singing of this “declaration” was instituted by Yehuda Gaon in the 8th Century, to be sung to a (non-specific) melody by his chazzan in the academy of Sura, Babylonia. According to the 11th Century Machzor Vitry of Simcha ben-Shmuel, it was to be chanted three times: first, in a low and soft voice, then gradually increasing with each repetition to full voice. This represents the entrance of a subject into the King’s palace with trepidation and his eventual standing before his King with confidence. In the Sefer Maharil, the Maharil is described as singing the text with “various tunes” over and over again until nightfall: “yaarich bo b’niggunim,” indicative of the fact that no fully set tune was as yet established in the Maharil’s time. The first mention of an established melody for Kol Nidre is found in the Levush of Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe of Prague (1530-1612), who writes of “a widely accepted tune” known to the chazzanim of his time. The earliest notation of this melody is from 1765, written down by Cantor Aaron Beer of Berlin (1738-1821).

The Component Parts of Kol Nidre

Upon analysis it appears to have been formulated from an amalgam of other MiSinai niggunim and Taamei HaMikra (Trope) of the Torah and Haftarah. It is clear that the Jews of France and the Rhineland in the 15th century adapted the concluding phrase of the “Great” Aleinu (see below) for the Kol Nidre, (as well as for the first paragraph of the Yomim Noroim Avos). This phrase has a triumphant character, which is appropriate for “Haboh Aleinu L’Tova,” “May it come upon us for good,” and for use as a typical end of sentence motif.

Great Aleinu


Habo Aleinu L’tova


The opening musical phrase of the Kol Nidre was likely taken from the HaMelech of Shacharis – one of the great MiSinai/Scarbova melodies discussed above. It can also be heard in the melody of the opening phrase of the Kaddish before Mussaf of the Yomim Noroim. Professor Abraham Z. Idelsohn has written that it was a chazzan in 15th/16th century Southwest Germany who “voiced the sentiments of the terror-stricken Marranos, as they recited the Kol Nidre in a touching tune which expresses the fear, terror, fervent pleading and stern hope for ultimate salvation.” Throughout the world, the profound melody of this lofty prayer is recognized as one of Judaism’s most signature contributions to song and prayer.

Hamelech of Shacharis


Kadish Before Mussaf


As we are about to endure the fast of Yom Kippur, the average Jew is acutely aware that his prayers may well have an impact on the coming year in pleas for health, prosperity, peace and tranquility. It is with trepidation and a prayerful hope for the future that the Jew is drawn to this solemn melodic declaration at the onset of the holiest day of the year.

The “Great” Aleinu History

The text of Aleinu was originally composed for Mussaf of Yomim Noroim in the third century C.E., in Babylonia. The hauntingly powerful musical setting of the text was already known during the years of the third Crusade (1187-1192 C.E.) led by King Richard the Lionheart, having developed in the centuries prior to that. During the period of the Nine Crusades (1096-1272 C.E.), many of the communities of the Rhineland were attacked by the marauding Christian army and forced to convert to Christianity. Those Jews who refused were murdered or burned at the stake. In Emek Habacha of Yosef HaKohen (1496-1528) he quotes a letter to the tosafist and last of the Geonim, Rabbi Jacob of Orleans (d.9/3/1189), wherein an eyewitness describes such an event in the town of Blois, France in 1171 C.E. At a mass execution at the stake of many of the Jewish townspeople, the Christian knights listened in awe as the dying martyrs sang a “mysterious song.” When asked, the remaining Jews told them that this was the song of their “Aleinu”. The knight executors and their French collaborators were so impressed, that they incorporated this melody into the French Church Mass, which can be heard to this very day. This disturbing historical fact verifies the ancientness of this melody.

The “electric” power of this sanctified melody, one of the oldest of our “MiSinai” tunes, introduces and prepares the listener for the most important and sublime prayer of the Amidah, the central paragraphs of the Kedushas Hayom section. Its impact is so great that this theme is heard again and again throughout the Yomim Noroim in tefillos such as the Kol Nidre, the first section of the repetition of the Amida (Avos and Gevuros), and elsewhere throughout the Machzor. The sublime magnetism of this ancient tefillah stands in stark contrast to the simplistic opening and closing phrases of the contemporary tune for Aleinu sung in our shuls every Shabbos. No example better illustrates the chasm separating our “MiSinai” tradition from the corpus of mundane melodies chosen by too many in today’s congregations.

Amida, Kedushas Hayom


Amida (avos and Gevuros)


There are few melodies anywhere in the world that can compare with the lofty serenity and holiness of these sanctified, time-honored “MiSinai” themes. The soul of the Jew responds to them, and the melodies, in turn, enter the hearts of their listeners and have a profound effect upon them. It is that very impact that the Maharil recognized and endeavored so mightily to preserve, so that each year and throughout the year the Jew could be brought closer to the ideal of Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, the formula that can overturn the negative decree and grant us all a good and blessed New Year. V’chein Y’hi Ratson!

Sampling of other MiSinai Melodies

Yomim Noroim

• Hamelech—Its melody was first set by Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (1215-1293) and finalized by the Maharil.


• Avos—Melody also established by R’ Meir. Contains many “MiSinai” elements and motifs.


• Mussaf Kaddish—Originally similar to Tal/Geshem. By the time of the Maharil it became gradually differentiated to provide a specialized musical theme for each service.


• V’Hakohanim—Intended to replicate the service in the Holy Temple. This musical theme is heard again in the Mussaf Kedusha (Kvodo, etc.) and in various other settings.


• Motifs such as “Hashem Melech”, similar to the Neilah theme, and “S’lach lanu,” also heard at ”Sh’vikin Sh’visin,” and elsewhere.


• Ochilo LoKeil Theme—also heard in “Asisi”, “Yoreisi,” “Eimecho Nososi,” and elsewhere.


• Piyyutim such as Aapid, Eder Vohod, Esa Dei.


• Ancient texts such as Ato Hu Elokeinu and L’Keil Orech Din.


• Yotzros and the Avodah of Yomim Noroim.

• Selichos; V’nislach; Vidui, and many others.

Shabbos & Festivals

• Festival Themes

• Mussaf Kaddish for the entire yearly cycle, such as the Kaddish before Shabbos Mussaf.

• Bor’chu themes

• Kedusha modes

1. This appellation (“MiSinai”) was first coined by Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (1150-1217), a descendent of the illustrious Kalonymous family, in his Sefer Hachassidim.

2. Also known as Zalman of St. Goar.

3. In the writings of the halachic authorities of past centuries, we often see references to the importance of davening within the traditional guidelines. One example is from the Mateh Ephraim of the renown Rabbi Ephraim Margolioth of Brody, Ukraine (1760-1828) who writes, “…and if he (the chazzan) thinks that his own melodies are more pleasant than the traditional melodies, he will be punished by Heaven for this!” There is no question that our rabbinical leaders were concerned about maintaining the hallowed musical tradition of our davening. It was unthinkable that anyone would want to change these melodies, and as an absolute, immutable, irrevocable rule of tefillah, it was considered unnecessary to discuss! It was, therefore, rarely voiced as a concern in most of the halachic works of the millennia.

4. Desirous of fostering commerce with the nations of the Middle East, and convinced that the Jews would be the conduit to Middle East commerce with Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, Turkey, etc., he decided to encourage the growth of the miniscule Jewish population in the Rhineland bordering France and Germany. In order to attract Jewish settlement, Charlemagne imported world-renown rabbinic leaders and their families whom, he correctly surmised, would attract Jews who would move to this new community. He first chose the Kalonymos family of Italy, led by the foremost Italian Rabbinic scholar Rabbi Kalonymos and his son Meshullam, as well as Rabbi Machir of Babylon. He settled the Kalonymos family in Mainz, Germany, and the Machirs in Narbonne, Southern France. Each brought with them numerous Talmudists, poets and theologians in their wake. Their leadership elevated and preserved the Rhineland Kehillah, which gradually became the largest in the early medieval Europe, and established its customs. These oriental rabbis were also chazzanim and poets (paytanim), composing poems and melodies based on the ancient traditions they had brought with them. As we mentioned before, many of these melodies were preserved as our “MiSinai” melodies (primarily of the High Holidays and festivals) guided by the dictum of the Maharil, and formed the basis of our Minhag Ashkenaz to this day.