In memory of my cousin
Debbie Sherman z”l
Who passed away on 3 Iyar 5781
May her memory be for a blessing.
Question: It is a very common today to use melodies from musicals, popular English and Hebrew songs, operas and even Christian and Muslim music for prayers and Shabbat Zemirot. What does Jewish law have to say about this practice?
Responsum: Indeed, this is a very common practice today. Here is a list of examples which I put together in a few minutes:
Kadesh Urehatz at the Seder – When the Saints Go Marching In
Lekha Dodi & Kedushah – Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen
Lekha Dodi – Chariots of Fire
Adon Olam – Silent Night
Adon Olam – Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
Od Yishama – Hey ho up she rises early in the morning
Mimkomo in the Kedushah – Erev shel shoshanim
Mimkomo in the Kedushah – Al sefat Yam Kinneret
Dror Yikra – Sloop John B. by the Beach Boys
However, “there is nothing new under the sun”. Rabbis and poskim [=halakhic authorities] have been arguing about this topic for at least 800 years. I will divide them into three groups: strict, lenient, and permissive.
I. Those who forbid foreign melodies
1. It would seem, at first glance, that the first to rule strictly regarding our topic was the Rif (Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi, Morocco and Spain, 1013-1103). Here are the question and answer found in his responsa, No. 281 (ed. Machon Yerushalayim, 2008; cf. ed. Zev Wolf Leiter, Pittsburgh, 1954). He was asked six questions; I am copying only what is relevant to our topic. All emphasis is mine:
[Question:]… a Hazzan whom they heard [is behaving] improperly, e.g. that he is singing Ishmaelite songs and the like, do they remove him or not?…
[Responsum:] a Sheliah Tzibbur [=Cantor] who utters from his mouth improper things, such as obscenity, and sings Ishmaelite songs, they remove him; about such things it is said (Jeremiah 12:8) “it cried out against me, therefore have I hated it”.
It is not clear from this version of the responsum if the Rif is discussing a Hazzan who sings Arab songs outside the synagogue or if he brought these melodies into the synagogue. The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Cracow, 1530-1572) paraphrased this responsum in Orah Hayyim 53:25 and Rabbi Avraham Gombiner (Poland, 1637-1683, Magen Avraham ad loc., subparagraph 31) explained: “[A cantor] who sings gentile songs: in other words, with a melody which they use for idol worship”. In his opinion, the Rema – and perhaps the Rif who was the source of the Rema – ruled that a Hazzan who sings melodies of idol worship in the synagogue “one protests to him not to do so, and if he does not listen, they remove him”. There is no question that this interpretation of Rabbi Gombiner in the 17th century influenced subsequent poskim.
However, it can be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was not the Rif’s intent. Here are all the versions of the Rif’s responsum which I have found:
The responsum of the Rif quoted above: and sings Ishmaelite songs…
Kol Bo (Provence, ca. 1300, parag. 147, ed. Avraham, Vol. 8, Jerusalem, 2006, col. 444: who sings Orev [=Arab?] songs…
Orhot Hayyim (Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel, Provence, ca. 1300, Hilkhot Tefillah, end of paragraph 78, Florence, 1750, fol. 18a): who sings Arab songs which are called bashaaralarab…
The Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra, Safed and Egypt, 1479-1573, Responsa Radbaz, part 2, No. 809): and he sings love songs in taverns, disgraceful songs…
A quote from the Kol Bo in Darkei Moshe by the Rema (Tur Hashalem to Orah Hayyim 53, p. 239): who sings Arab songs…
The Rema in Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 53:25 (first edition, Cracow, 1578): who sings songs of the gentiles, idol worshippers…
The Rema ibid. (standard folio edition Meginei Eretz): who sings gentile (nokhrim) songs…
The Rema ibid. (Mishnah Berurah, reprint, New York, 1964): who sings love (agavim) songs …
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Belarus, 1745-1813, Shulhan Arukh Harav, Orah Hayyim 53:32: who sings in the prayer service Canaanite (hakenaanim) songs which are used for idol worship…
From all these versions we can learn a number of things. Aside from Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi who integrated the interpretation of Rabbi Gombiner into his text, there is no version which fits the interpretation of Rabbi Gombiner. In addition, we can see that the censor influenced the various versions – there are three different versions of the Rema’s words in the Shulhan Arukh!
There is no question that the most accurate version of what the Rif wrote is the version found in Orhot Hayyim since it includes an Arabic expression and the Rif, of course, spoke Arabic: who sings Arab songs which are called bashaaralarab. As Dr. Uri Melammed, an expert in Judeo-Arabic, explained to me, this Arabic phrase should read: ashaar alarab, Arabic poems, which are called in Hebrew shirei agavim (based on Ezekiel 33:32) or love songs.
Indeed, there is a famous responsum by Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038) opposing secular music (Otzar Hageonim to Gittin, p. 9, paragraph 18). He explains that the music forbidden by Mar Ukba (Gittin 7a) is “songs of love of one person for another, and to praise a beautiful person for their beauty and to praise a hero for his heroism and the like, like those of the Ishmaelites which are called ashaar alghazal [=songs of love, according to Prof. M.A. Friedman]. And an abbreviated version of his responsum reads: “And Rav Hai wrote: songs of desire [or: love songs] between one person and another are always forbidden” (Otzar Hageonim, ibid., p. 8, paragraph 17). And the Rif himself quoted the responsum by Rav Hai in Piskei Harif to Berakhot (beginning of Chapter 5, ed. Vilna, for. 21b): A Gaon explained, that which we say [in Gittin 7a] that singing with the mouth is forbidden, the intent is songs of love of a person for his friend and to praise the beautiful for his beauty like the Ishmaelites call them ashaar…
I do not know if the Radbaz was quoting or paraphrasing the Rif, but there is no question that as an Arabic speaker he understood the Rif: and he sings love songs in taverns, disgraceful songs…
In other words, according to Orhot Hayyim and the Radbaz, the Rif was opposed to a Hazzan who uttered from his mouth improper things, who sings Arabic love songs in taverns. If so, this is a very interesting source about a Hazzan who sang secular music in the 11th century, but it is not connected to our topic. Indeed, after I wrote this, I saw that both Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer, Vol. 13, No. 12, p. 27) and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Responsa Yabia Omer, Part 6, Orah Hayyim, No. 7, p. 19) were of the opinion that Rabbi Gombiner’s interpretation of the Rema is not the simple meaning.
2. The first source that opposes the introduction of melodies of idol worship, i.e. Christianity, into the synagogue is Sefer Hassidim attributed to Rabbi Yehudah the Hassid (Speyer and Regensburg, died 1217). Sefer Hassidim is a mixture of laws, customs and ethics, which has greatly influenced halakhic literature over the generations.
We read in the Margaliot edition, paragraph 238: “And any melody sung before idol worship, he should not make the same melody to God.” Indeed, Rabbi Avraham Gombiner referred to this source in his commentary on Orah Hayyim 53 cited above.
And so do we read in paragraph 428: “If there is a piyyut [=liturgical poem] that a priest made to praise idol worship and it seems to a Jew that it’s a beautiful praise [to God], he should not say it in Hebrew to God.” In other words, one should not translate a Latin or German liturgical poem into Hebrew.
And so do we read in paragraph 768 (ed. Margaliot, p. 459): “And a person who has a pleasant voice should be careful not to sing foreign [or: Gentile] melodies for it’s a sin, and for this he was created with a pleasant voice – to praise his Creator and not for sin”. In other words, if it’s forbidden for a Jew with a pleasant voice to sing foreign melodies in general, how much the more so would it be forbidden in a synagogue.
3. The second to oppose secular melodies in the synagogue was Rabbi Shlomo Alami who was born in Spain ca. 1370 and fled to Portugal after the massacres of 1391. There he composed his ethical work Igeret Mussar in the year 1415. That work, which has been printed at least 18 times, maintained that God seeks to destroy us in every generation as punishment for our sins. And so he writes on our topic (ed. A.M. Haberman, Jerusalem, 1946, p. 25):
Be careful of the “melodies of those who drink alcoholic beverages” [Psalms 69:13] and from “the song of fools” [Kohelet 7:5]. They are the wicked Hazzanim, who stop in the middle of blessings with love songs… from the sons of Edom [=Christians] and Ishmaelites [=Muslims]. in order to find favor in the eyes of people… and they are like idol worshippers.
In other words, he is attacking the Hazzanim who incorporated the melodies of Christian and Muslim love songs into the prayers in order to entertain the congregation; he considers them like idol worshippers.
4. The third to oppose secular melodies in the synagogue was the poet and grammarian Rabbi Shmuel Archivolti (Padua, 1515-1611) in his book Arugat Habosem, devoted to Hebrew grammar and poetry. In chapter 31 of his book he deals with the “desired song” (ed. Amsterdam, 1730, fol. 100b):
And we, “what can we say and how shall we justify ourselves” [Genesis 44:16] regarding some of the cantors of our generation who chant the holy prayers to the tunes of popular secular songs, and thus, while engaged in sacred speech, they think of profanity and nakedness.
In other words, the cantors at that time sang the prayers to secular tunes and, as a result, thought of the profanity and nakedness in the original songs while they were singing the prayers.(2)
5. The first posek I found who attacks the cantors who bring theater melodies into the synagogue is Rabbi Binyamin Aharon Slonik (Poland, 1550-1619, Responsa Mas’at Binyamin, 6). In a lengthy responsum that deals with the correct way to read the Ten Commandments, he sharply attacks the cantors of his time:
… and not only that, but they do not read even one verse in the Torah with vowels and te’amim [according to] the grammar… because the congregations choose and desire those cantors who know how to stretch out the prayers and kaddishim in a pleasant voice and beautiful melody, and from month to month and from Shabbat to Shabbat the melodies increase, which our holy forefathers could not have imagined and which they did not wish to hear, for from the voice of the gentile children they took and learned many of the melodies sung in theaters. And how much did the author of Sefer Hassidim in paragraph 238 emphasize and warn against this. Even so, no one is concerned about this, rather the more one sings, the more people like it…
6. Rabbi Yosef Yuzpa Hahn Nordlingen (Frankfurt, 1570-1637) also opposed the use of gentile melodies in his book Yosef Ometz (Frankfurt, 1928, No. 602, p. 134 = ed. Kinarti, Sha’alavim, 2016, p. 177):
One should not use gentile melodies on Shabbat eve and Motza’ei Shabbat for songs such as “Kol Mikadesh” and “Birvot Itim” and the like. And how much the more so should they not use these melodies in the synagogue, and not like those who cleverly find permission, saying that all of their melodies were stolen from us at the time when the Temple existed …
7. Rabbi Mass’ud Hai Rakah (Smyrna, Jerusalem, Tripoli, Livorno, 1690-1768) objected to foreign melodies in his commentary Ma’aseh Rokeah on Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefillah 8:11, Part 1, Venice, 1742, fol. 74b and ff.). He was asked about the new custom in synagogues where they sing the songs of God to the tune of
shirei agavim [=love songs, as above] and dances, to take from the songs of the land, the songs of the Gentiles and to sing with them Kedushah and Kaddish and the Tefillah. [And he replied:] Behold, the Shlichei Tzibbur who sing songs of praise and thanksgiving to God while praying the Kaddish or Kedushah and the like, if it’s a melody which they sing to idol worship, it’s obvious that that melody is absolutely forbidden.
He relies on the responsum of the Rif quoted by the Kol Bo, on the Rema, and on Rabbi Avraham Gombiner all quoted above, but we have already seen that the Rif did not actually deal with our topic. He also forbids this practice according to the above-mentioned Sefer Hassidim.
8. The famous Sephardic posek, Rabbi Hayyim Palache (Smyrna [Izmir], Turkey, 1787-1868), also opposed the paytanim who sang Kaddish and Kedushah using foreign melodies (Kaf Hahayyim, Saloniki, 1859, 13:6, fol. 86a):
Would that the paytanim and meshorerim [=singers] should be careful not to chant the Kaddish and Kedushah in foreign garments, in the Maqam [= a well-known type of Arabic and Turkish music], that he who knows it, it will bring him bad thoughts and he sins and causes others to sin and “It’s an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable” (Leviticus 19:7), and nothing impure shall enter God’s Temple, and its absence is better than its being found, and about this it is said “my thoughts were all aflame” (Psalms 39:4) (and then he refers to Ma’aseh Rokeah etc.)
9. Cantor Pinchas Minkowski (1859-1924) was a famous Hazzan who served at the “Broder Shul” in Odessa for thirty years, where he also composed music for many poems, including Bialik’s Shabbat Hamalkah. He discussed our topic in his takkanot [=regulations] for cantors included in his Yiddish book Modern Liturgy in Our Synagogues in Russia (Odessa, 1910, pp. 241-250). And so he wrote in regulation No. 15, p. 248, according to Solomon Rybak’s translation:
Songs from the theater and concerts and all profane songs must be, under all circumstances, kept out of the service. We must guard the traditional Nushaot [=chants] like the eye in our head, for only the Nushaot unify us in all the synagogues. A singer who is not thoroughly versed in all the synagogue Nushaot should, under no circumstances, be recommended as a cantor in a community.(3)
10. Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the most important and prolific poskim in the twentieth century (Jerusalem, 1917-2006), dealt with our topic at length in his Tzitz Eliezer (Part 12, No. 13). He was asked if it’s permissible to chant prayer passages and Bakashot [= a popular type of Sefardic piyyut] using the melodies of shirei agavim [= love songs]. He begins his responsum as follows:
Behold, in my opinion… it’s an abomination to clothe sacred things in filthy garments (cf. Zekhariah 3: 4), like those which exude a smell of prostitution, and they defile and stupefy the body and the soul, and of them it’s said “go out impure one”, not to let them enter holy places like synagogues, [which are called] “little Temples” (Ezekiel 11:16 as explained in Megillah 29a) of the nation.
Later on, he discusses the responsum of the Rif and the Rema, Sefer Hassidim, the responsum of the Bah and more. He agrees completely with the strict approach of Rabbi Rakah quoted above and completely opposes the lenient approach of Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazzan which we shall see below.
II. Those who are lenient — secular melodies are permitted, Church melodies are forbidden
1. Rabbi Yoel Sirkes, the Bah (Poland, 1561-1640) dealt with our topic in his responsa (Shu”t Habah Hayeshanot, end of No, 127). The paragraph we shall quote is from the Frankfurt edition of 1697, since it was omitted in a number of other editions due to Christian censorship:
What they sing in synagogues, melodies which they [=Christians] sing in their house of prayer, it seems that it’s not forbidden except precisely those melodies which are specific to idol worshippers [=Christians], since it’s a law for idol worship… but if they are not specifically [for idol worship], it seems that there is no prohibition…
In other words, in his opinion, melodies sung in the church may not be brought into the synagogue, but melodies that are not special to the church may be brought into the synagogue.
2. We have already seen above that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (Belarus, 1745-1813), the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, forbade a cantor to sing melodies of idol worship, in keeping with the Magen Avraham. On the other hand, he and Chabad Hassidim used to take completely secular melodies and bring them into the synagogue. They called it in Yiddish “tzu makdish a niggun”, to sanctify a melody. The most famous example is “Napoleon’s March”; some of the Hassidim learned the tune from Napoleon’s soldiers in 1812 and sang it to the Rebbe. He was very impressed and said that it’s really a shir shel nitzahon, a song of victory, possessing a spark of holiness. As a result, the Rebbe instructed his Hassidim to sing the melody at the end of Ne’ilah before blowing the Shofar to symbolize the victory of the Jewish people over Satan, and this is the custom of Chabad until today. (the musicologist Velvel Pasternak, quoted by Rabbi Allen, 1994, p. 6)
3. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Lithuania and New York, 1895-1986) dealt “with the law of hearing the melodies of idol worshippers” in Igrot Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, Part 2, No. 56):
Behold, the melodies that the Christians sing in their house of worship, certainly it’s forbidden to hear them on the radio and even on a phonograph, and not only the melodies that are sung now, but even what they used to sing long ago, even though they have now stopped singing those melodies, they are forbidden. And also the melody that some Christian composed for a verse of Psalms is forbidden, because the melodies that Christians compose to verses of Psalms are intended for their prayers, which is forbidden.
And if he recognizes that the author of the melody did not intend to sing for their worship, but to sing in general for the sake of enjoying the singing, even though the composer of the song is a Christian, there is no prohibition. But, in general, it must be assumed that it’s for their worship and forbidden, and even to earn a living, it’s forbidden.
And cf. Hagigah 15, where Shmuel explained that a man great in Torah such as “Aher” [= Elisha Ben Abuyah] became an infidel because “Greek song did not cease from his lips” and the commentary of Rashi is surprising… and therefore the Maharsha concludes that [Elisha] sang songs of idol worshippers which is a prohibition of idol worship which belongs to heresy…
In other words, Rabbi Feinstein forbids listening to any church music on the radio or on a record, as well as a Christian melody for a verse from Psalms. He does not deal with our topic directly, but there is no doubt that in his opinion it’s a kal vahomer [=how much the more so] that a church melody may not be brought into the synagogue. However, he permits listening to a melody composed by a Christian “to sing in general for the sake of enjoying the singing”. Therefore, he might have permitted using a secular melody in the synagogue.
4. Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi (Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, 1924-1998) dealt with our topic in two responsa from 1978 (Aseh Lekha Rav, Part 3, Nos. 4-5). He forbids church music in the footsteps of the Rema, the Magen Avraham, and the Responsa of the Bah. But he makes a distinction between Christian music which is intended for idol worship and the melodies of the Ishmaelites. He then quotes the above-mentioned Rabbi Hayyim Palache who opposed secular music such as the Maqam, and he concludes:
And although his words are words of taste and logic, it’s already common custom among all cantors of Edot Hamizrah [Jews of Islamic countries] to transfer melodies taken from the world of Arabic music and singing to prayer passages, and no one protests and no one says a word “and let Israel be, [for if not prophets, they are the sons of prophets, Pesahim 66a].
In other words, Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi forbids Christian melodies because, in his opinion, they are by definition intended for idol worship. But he allows Muslim melodies because that is the custom of all the cantors of Edot Hamizrah and no one protests, and there is a Talmudic principle that if there is no clear halakhah, we follow the custom of the Jewish people, for if they are not prophets, they are the sons of prophets.
III. Those who permit
1. The Rashbatz, Rabbi Shimon bar Tzemah Duran (1361-1444) was a posek in Spain and Algeria. He dealt with our topic tangentially in his philosophical work Magen Avot (Livorno, 1785, part 3, fol. 55b). He is discussing there the subject of melodies:.
And some of them [= of the melodies] have been innovated in the lands of Spain, the poets took them from the songs of Ishmael, they are very pleasant, very appealing. Some of them in the lands of France they took from the songs of the ilgim [troubadours, according to Boaz Cohen, note 41] and they are perfect melodies in elevation and length. And we do not know re. the ancient [melodies], if they were received by our people or taken from the rest of the peoples…
He then discusses the problem of matching the melody to the words. There is no halakhic ruling here, but this passage teaches us tangentially that, in his opinion, it’s not prohibited to transfer an Arab or Christian melody to our poems.
2. Salamone Rossi (ca. 1570-1628) was a famous composer in Mantua, Italy. In addition to his many secular compositions, he composed 33 musical works for Psalms, piyyutim and Shabbat and holiday prayers and published them as Hashirim Asher Lishlomo, “The Songs of Solomon”, Venice 1622. But, as Avraham Zevi Idelsohn emphasized in his classic book on Jewish music (p. 199), “the compositions of Rossi for the Synagogue, have not the slightest sound of Jewishness. They are entirely in the Italian Renaissance style, and they have the same spirit as his secular compositions”. Of course, Rossi did not transfer a secular melody to the synagogue but rather created a secular melody for the synagogue. Yet, there is no doubt that it would not have bothered Salamone Rossi or his devoted followers such as Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh of Modena (1571-1648) to transfer a secular tune to the synagogue.
3. Rabbi Israel Najara (1555-1628) was a gifted and famous poet and paytan who lived in Safed, Damascus and Gaza. He composed hundreds of poems and piyyutim “and each and every poem was written especially according to a particular Turkish song, and such are mentioned in the hundreds in the titles of his poems as melodies” (Yahalom, pp. 628-629). And thus wrote Rabbi Najara on the title page of the first edition of his book Zemirot Yisrael, Safed, 1587: The poet announces that the praise of his book is “that it’s a Mahzor of piyyutim and poems/all clear/founded on the pedestals of gold, the melodies of Arabia and Togarma [= Turkey]” (ibid., p. 629).
4. His contemporary Rabbi Menahem Di Lonzano (Turkey, Jerusalem and elsewhere, 1550-1626) also composed piyyutim according to Turkish songs. When he criticizes Rabbi Najara in his book Shetei Yadot (Venice, 1618), he does not criticize him for the practice itself; he criticizes him for writing piyyutim for cheerful Turkish melodies, while Rabbi Di Lonzano makes sure to use only sad Turkish melodies:
And God knows and Israel will know (cf. Joshua 22:22) that I did not compose liturgical hymns according to Ishmaelite melodies [so that people should sing them with drums and flutes while drinking wine[, but I chose the Ishmaelite melodies since I saw them to be the melodies of a broken heart… And for this reason there are many of them that should not be said on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and not like the author of Zemirot Yisrael [= Rabbi Yisrael Najara] who does not differentiate between Shabbat and Tisha B’av (Avodat Mikdash, fol. 65b).
And elsewhere in his book he writes:
And this was a reason for me to compose most of my poems to the Ishmaelite melodies, for they raise their voices in their songs more than others, and even though in my book Avodat Mikdash [cited above] I wrote another reason, this and that made me do it. And I saw some Sages complaining badly about the poets who compose songs and praises to God, may He be blessed, to melodies that are not from the Children of Israel, and they are not correct, for there is nothing wrong with it (Totz’ot Hayyim, fol. 142a)
5. Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazzan (Izmir, Jerusalem, Rome, Corfu, Alexandria, Sidon, 1808-1862) was one of the most lenient poskim to deal with our subject. In Responsa Kerakh Shel Romi (Livorno, 1876, No. 1, fols. 4b and 4d), after praising the Christians as compared to the Muslims, he writes:
And I ask Heaven and Earth to testify that when I was in a great city of Sages and writers Smyrna, may God protect her, I saw some of the greatest and most famous Sages who were great singers on the scales of music, headed by the wonderful Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Ariash zlh”h [= his memory for the life of the World to Come]. And for the scales of music of the Yamim Noraim [=Days of Awe] which require great submission called by them Hizzun [= Cantorship], they would go to the Christian church behind the curtain during their holiday to learn from them that submissive voice which breaks the heart, and they would arrange from those voices Kaddishim and Kedushot, a thing of wonder. And such a Ma’aseh Rav [i.e., their action proves that it’s permissible] is a great support to all that has been said and explained above and that is enough …
… and now one can learn a kal vahomer [an inference from minor to major] — the songs of Ishmael most of which are love songs, they permitted to sing them in Hebrew and in prayers and with sacred words since the matters are appropriate or sacred and we don’t care that at the moment he is singing that melody with Hebrew words lest he remember the Arabic [words] which are lesser matters and love songs. And so is the custom in all of Eretz Yisrael and Arabia in all the synagogues, and the Sages did not protest. Christian songs most of which are about wars and heroism, how much the more so is it permissible to sing them… in the synagogue in Hebrew in the prayers. All the more so the melodies of the Christian church which are truly submissive melodies and bring the love of God and His oneness … but, on the contrary, it’s a duty on us for all the above reasons and it’s clear.
In the first paragraph, Rabbi Hazzan testifies that the Sages of Smyrna would enter churches on Christian holidays in order to learn melodies for Kaddish and Kedushah! In the second section, he learns a kal vahomer, an inference from minor to major: if it’s permissible to transfer secular melodies of the Muslims to the synagogue, kal vahomer it’s permissible to introduce secular Christian melodies, and all the more so is it permissible to transfer melodies from the church to the synagogue!
6. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Sefardic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, 1920-2013) dealt with topic in two places (Responsa Yabia Omer, Part 6, Orah Hayyim, 6 in a more scholarly fashion; Responsa Yehaveh Da’at, Part 2, No. 5 in a more popular fashion). As is his custom, he quotes many of the sources we have already seen above, both strict and lenient. After quoting the lenient opinion of Rabbi Menahem Di Lonzano, he adds in Yehaveh Da’at: “Indeed, Ma’aseh Rav [as above], from some of the Ge’onei Yisrael who composed songs and praises [to God] according to the melody of love songs, including the Shirei Habakashot recited in our day every Friday night with a large congregation in the synagogues of the Sefaradim and Edot Hamizrah in Israel and the Diaspora.” Then he lists famous rabbis who composed such piyyutim, such as: Rabbi Shlomo Laniado, Rabbi Avraham Antebi, Rabbi Mordechai Levaton and Rabbi Mordechai Abadi. He also testifies that he himself has heard many such compositions from the sacred mouths of shlihei tzibbur who are scholars. “And the heart of the congregation was drawn after them with awe and reverence, with joy and a good heart, with thanksgiving and the voice of singing.”
Then he quotes from Maimonides (Laws of the Lulav 8:15) that one must worship God with joy. “And on this the great men of the generations of Edot Hamizrah relied to compose songs and hymns to the melody of Arab songs to sing to God, may He be blessed, at wedding and bar mitzvah and circumcision parties, on Shabbat and Yom Tov, with songs based on the melody of Arab songs.” Then he quotes from the above-mentioned Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazzan, that they used to chant prayers and Kaddishim and Kedushot according to Arab, Turkish and Christian melodies and one should only be careful about the content of the words. He admits that Rabbi Hayyim Palache objected “but it seems that as for the halakhah, the main thing is according to the words of the Zakhor Le’avraham and the Kerakh Shel Romi [=Rabbi Hazzan] who permitted this, because the great men of Israel did Ma’aseh Rav [as above]”. In other words, he admits that there is a disagreement, but since the famous rabbis of Edot Hamizrah compose and composed piyyutim according to Arab, Turkish and Christian melodies, Ma’aseh Rav and it’s permissible.
Finally, in Yabia Omer, he adds that if it’s permissible according to Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (Responsa Shoel Umeishiv, first edition, part 3, No. 72) to turn a church into a synagogue, kal vahomer, how much the more so, is it permissible to turn a church melody into a sacred melody of the synagogue. “A new face has come here, and there is no prohibition in the matter when the Shatz [=Cantor] did so with the pure intention of praising and singing to God, may He be blessed…”.
IV. Summary and practical halakhah
As can be seen from all the sources quoted above, this is not a halakhic disagreement based on the Babylonian Talmud, but rather a disagreement between different customs from the Middle Ages until today. In such cases, it’s difficult to say who is right and who is wrong, rather nahara nahara upashtei every place follows its custom (see Hullin 18b and 57a and Rashi in both places). A person who is careful not to bring foreign melodies into the synagogue, has a strong basis for doing so; a person who “sanctifies” a secular or church melody, has a strong basis for doing so. However, I do agree with the misgivings expressed by Rabbi Samuel Archivolti in the 16th century and by Rabbi Hayyim Palache in the 19th century. If the secular song being borrowed has vulgar lyrics or the Christian song being borrowed has clear Christian content, they should be avoided, since both the Hazzan and the congregation will think about the original words as they are praying. This will definitely harm their kavanah [intent] as they stand with awe and reverence before the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He.
June 3, 2021
1. My thanks to Dr. Uri Melammed and to Prof. Mordechai Akiva Friedman who explained to me the two expressions in Judeo-Arabic, and to Dr. Naomi Cohn Zentner who referred me to the passage in Yosef Ometz. My thanks to Dr. Anat Rubinstein, an expert on Cantor Pinchas Minkowski, who referred me to the Music Reading Room at Israel’s National Library, and to the librarians there: Dr. Gila Flam, Dr. Amalia Kedem, and Ohad Sofer who helped me locate Cantor Minkowski’s book in Yiddish as well as Rybak’s article.
2. The historian Cecil Ruth translated this passage into English without referring to a specific source and attributed it to the preacher Rabbi Judah Moscato (1530-1593) who was the official preacher and Chief Rabbi of Mantua. Indeed, a number of subsequent scholars (e.g., Landman, p. 12) quoted this passage from Roth. After searching at length in his sermons (Nefutzot Yehudah, Venice, 1589) without success, I discovered the correct source quoted by Prof. Wieder, p. 71, note 316, about which our Sages said: “If a person tells you: I toiled and did not find, do not believe him” (Megillah 6b).
3. Rybak’s article contains a full translation of Cantor Minkowski’s Takkanot. Rabbi Allen, 2019, pp. 181-186 copied part of Rybak’s translation.
Allen, 1994 — Rabbi Wayne Allen, “Secular Music in the Synagogue”, Update 5 (1994), pp. 5-8
Allen, 2019 – Rabbi Wayne Allen, The Cantor: from the Mishnah to Modernity, Eugene, Oregon, 2019, Index, s.v. singing popular songs
Aviner – Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, “Listening to Church Music”, Tehumin 17 (5757), pp. 365-369 (Hebrew)
Cohen — Boaz Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism, New York, 1959, pp. 178-180
Idelsohn — A.Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in its Historical Development, New York, 1929, pp. 196-203
Landman — Leo Landman, The Cantor: An Historic Perspective, New York, 1972, pp. 9-14
Roth — Cecil Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance, Philadelphia, 1959, p. 272
Rybak — Solomon Rybak, “Minkowski’s Eighteen Takkanot for the Cantorate”, Journal of Jewish Music and Liturgy VI (1983-1984), pp. 24-30
Wieder – Naftali Wieder, Islamic Influences on Jewish Ritual, Oxford, 1947, p. 71 and note 316 (Hebrew)
Yahalom – Yosef Yahalom, “Hebrew Mystical Poetry and its Turkish Background”, Tarbitz 60/4 (5751), pp. 625-648 (Hebrew)
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.