The cultures and traditions of the Ashkenazim (at one time defined as German Jewry)—those Jews whose cultural origins date to the migrations via northern Italy to Rhineland areas in what is present-day Germany (and nearby French towns), beginning roughly in the 9th to 10th centuries; and whose customs, mores and liturgical rites were crystallized there by the end of the Middle Ages. Following the series of expulsions of Jews from most northern/western European and English communities between the 13th and 14th centuries (except for pockets of papal and/or local temporal protection), the largest part of Ashkenazi Jewry resettled in Poland, subsequently extending to the Ukraine, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Latvia, and Bessarabia and creating the much larger eastern European Ashkenazi branch. Some of these Jews eventually returned to the German sphere, France, and England, from the 17th century on, but the eastern branch remained the largest in number until World War II. The majority of American Jewry is of Ashkenazi origin, dating to the German-Jewish immigration beginning in the mid-19th century and the vast immigrations from Eastern Europe from the 1870s through the 1930s.

B'rakha (pl. b'rakhot)

The generic term for an anaphoric prayer formula commencing with the phrase barukh ata adonai (You are worshiped, Lord) and proclaiming to God that He is to be worshiped for a particular attribute or for having provided a particular commandment. Often translated as "blessing" or "benediction" (which would erroneously imply that it is in the domain of man to bless God), the term has no direct English equivalent.

Badkhn (pl. badkhonim)

A traditional merry-maker, jester, entertainer, and bard at Jewish weddings and festivities in eastern Europe, in western Europe prior to the modern era, and in the early immigrant era in America.


An alms box in honor of Rabbi Meir, legendarily regarded as a “worker of miracles” and traditionally associated with the great Rabbi Meir quoted throughout the Mishna, although some scholars question the association between the two.


A musical work for solo voices and/or chorus, with instrumental ensemble, using a series of related texts–either secular or sacred. From its inception in the seventeenth century, this genre has endured many accretions to its form, though it usually employs fewer forces and has fewer movements than an oratorio, and is more frequently performed in chamber settings.


The term haggada, which translates generically as “narrative,” is most commonly associated with the specific fixed narrative and related liturgical and para-liturgical texts that are read, recited, reenacted, and discussed at the Passover seder—the annual home ritual in which the ancient Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their liberation from bondage, and their embarkation on the path to a new, independent national as well as religious identity are commemorated and celebrated.


Body of Jewish law comprising the rules and ordinances of Jewish religious and civil practice.


Referring to modern (post–18th century) hassidism—the culture, music, folklore and religious and spiritual orientation of the mystical, pious, but popular mass movement begun by the followers (hassidim) of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the “Besht”: 1700–1760) and his teachings, starting in the Ukraine and subsequently spreading throughout Eastern Europe from that time through the 20th century, and branching out into various subgroups (dynasties) under different venerated leaders (rebbes), with variant but related philosophical approaches and emphases. Regardless of the variants of individual sects, the focus of this approach is, in general, upon joy, ecstasy, and emotion relating to God’s approachability, even taking precedence over strictly legalistic considerations.

Hazzan (Cantor)

The precentor, or one who intones/chants/sings the synagogue liturgy. Especially in the modern era, this usually implies a “professional” artist as distinguished from a lay precentor, (ba’al t’filla—“master of prayer“), even though the latter must also be fully expert in the intricacies of appropriate and required modes and tunes, but not necessarily musically or vocally trained. Bona fide cantors in the modern era are institutionalized clergy with pastoral functions as well, co-equal with rabbis and part of a “dual clergy” unique to Jewish practice. The cantor’s function, whether professional or lay, is required for synagogue services. (The term cantor is not to be confused with the German Kantor, meaning church choirmaster.)

Hazzanut (Cantorial Art)

Usually referring to the Ashkenazi realm of cantorial art (even though Sephardi and other non-Ashkenazi cultures have their own cantorial traditions) and its highly developed, intricate, and often virtuoso florid idioms based in part upon Hebrew prayer modes, biblical cantillation motifs, traditional tunes, and, in some cases, Hassidic melos—and influenced as well by local musical elements of European host cultures.

Klezmer (pl. klezmorim)

A secular instrumental wedding band (or band for similar festive occasions) or street musician among European Jewry, dating from at least the Baroque and perhaps earlier periods and later flourishing in east central and eastern Europe. The type, instrumentation, and style of music played by klezmorim (plural) varied according to locale and time period and was always heavily influenced by local tunes, styles, and modes of host cultures. The recent post-1960s term “klezmer music” refers more specifically to styles of 19th-century eastern European klezmorim, whose recent rediscovery has attracted a wide audience.


A hybrid secular Sephardi Jewish language, also known as Judeo-Espagnol, which is a fusion of Castilian (15th century) Spanish and Hebrew dating from the Spanish Expulsion in 1492, after which Ladino became a vernacular among Eastern and Mediterranean Sephardi Jews, and constituted a major part of their literary and folk song culture as well as a daily spoken language.


Rabbinic interpretation, focusing on non-halakhic sections of the bible, including homilies, ethical teachings, and biblical stories.

Missinai tunes

A group of melodic motifs whose formulation and canonization date to medieval southwestern German and Rhineland communities (the original “Ashkenaz”). Together with biblical cantillation, they form the underlying historical bedrock of Ashkenazi musical practice. Each of the missinai (lit. from Sinai) tunes is associated with, or assigned by tradition to, a specific event on the liturgical calendar—ranging from single prayer texts to entire services of a particular annual holy day or other sacred cyclical occasion. By definition, the missinai tune tradition (at one time also called the tunes of the Maharil, after the 14th/15th-century rabbinic authority who is thought to have stipulated the exclusivity of the oldest ones) is not confined to local communal or regional practices, but pervades the entire Ashkenazi world. These motifs are considered mandatory for their complementary prayer texts or services in all synagogues that follow the Ashkenazi ritual—whether in Europe or in any other area to which Ashkenazi Jews emigrated from Europe. In a few cases, eastern European and western, or German-speaking, branches of Ashkenazi tradition have acquired alternative missinai tunes for the same text or liturgical function, but most are common to both orbits, even if some variations have evolved.


A full-length musical setting of a sacred text comprising both dramatic and narrative elements, usually performed by operatic soloists with symphony orchestra on a large concert stage. In the twentieth century, the genre was expanded to include secular texts.

Piyyut (pl. piyyutim)

Hebrew liturgical texts of a poetic nature that embellish portions of the standard liturgy. Historically, piyyutim were written for specific sections of the liturgy, and typically used to elaborate it during certain holidays and/or life cycle ritual events. Though many poets (paytanim) lived and practiced their art in Christian Europe, the art form is generally considered to have reached its zenith in medieval Spain, where many piyyutim were composed either to existing Arabic melodies, or to newly composed melodies in a similar style.


A spontaneous attack, accompanied by destruction, the looting of property, and murder, perpetrated by one section of the population against another.


Lighthearted plays with music relating to the Book of Esther, which were performed annually on the holiday of Purim. Purimspiel were performed as part of the festivities and merriment in commemorating the Jews’ victory over Haman, the Persian king’s minister who, in the biblical account, planned their annihilation throughout the ancient Persian Empire. Celebration on Purim through music and drama dates back to Talmudic times, though the development of staged dramas incorporating both traces to the 16th–18th centuries in Europe. Purimspiel became the foundation for the development of Jewish theater and film.


Setting of text from The Mass for the Dead of the Roman Catholic Church, taking its name from the first text in the Requiem Mass Proper, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, (Give them eternal rest, O Lord). Some contemporary works with the title 'Requiem' do not use liturgical texts, such as Britten’s War Requiem and the German Requiem of Brahms.


The cultures and traditions of the Sephardim—those Jews whose roots and ancestry date specifically to pre-16th-century Spanish/Iberian Peninsula Jewry, mostly under Moslem rule. Following the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, and shortly thereafter from Portugal, some of these Jews resettled in Amsterdam and, in the 17th century, in London. But the majority returned to the then-hospitable Moslem realm comprising Mediterranean countries of North Africa, Greece, and Turkey; parts of what is today Bulgaria; and parts of Syria. Smaller groups went under papal protection to Tuscany and areas in southern France. The first American Jewish communities and synagogues were western Sephardi and remained exclusively so until the 19th century.


The rebbe’s leftovers, which, in some Hassidic traditions, are customarily distributed among his followers, who consider it an honor and meritorious to consume them.


The biblical trumpet/clarion-like wind instrument, usually made from a ram’s horn, should be defined more generically as a ritual horn of ancient Israel. Modern Jewry’s chief acquaintance with the shofar derives from the religious association with its ceremonial position in the Rosh Hashana morning service, and in the Yom Kippur evening service, signaling the end of the annual High Holy Days celebration.


A market town in Eastern Europe (Poland, the Ukraine, etc.) with a minimum population of 5,000–10,000. The word is a diminutive of the Yiddish shtot or the German stadt, meaning “city”—in this case, a small- to medium-size city.


A fusion of Middle High (12th-century) German and Hebrew, with some Slavic elements; begun originally as Judeo-German in the medieval period; the vernacular of the bulk of Eastern European Jewry until World War II, and its secular literary, folksong, and daily spoken language.


A member of the Jewish political party active during the second Temple period. They developed their own religious outlook as they struggled against Roman rule.


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