Inauguration of the Head of the Babylonian Jewish Community, 10th century

In a chronicle written in the tenth century, the scribe Natan ha-Cohen, son of Yishaq ha-Bavli, vividly describes the inaugural ceremony of Oukba, newly appointed head of the Babylonian Jewish community. Babylonian Jewry is known to have enjoyed internal autonomy for many generations before that time and the man who was head of the community could always trace his ancestry back to the Kingdom of David. The non-Jews looked upon him as the Persian king's representative; in fact he ranked fourth in the Persian ruling hierarchy, which entitled him to all appropriate pomp and circumstance. The announcement of the candidate chosen was accompanied by the blowing of shofars, singing, and magnificent ceremonies and parades.

R. Natahn ha-Bavli's description of the inauguration attests to the perpetuation of ancient rites and customs, while the rabbi adds that Oukba was a poet and musician "who every day, throughout the year composed and performed his own paeans of praise to the King." Further on, there is a description of the festive Sabbath prayer held in honor of the community's new head:

And when he rises early on the Sabbath to go to the synagogue, many of the prominent members of the community gather around to walk to the synagogue with him.
In good time the faithful had prepared a wooden tower for him seven cubits high and three cubits wide and had draped it in pleasing cloth of silk woven of blue and purple and crimson threads until it is altogether covered and nothing can be seen of it.

Beneath it gather young men chosen from among the leaders and notables of the community and elders endowed with musicianship and with beautiful voices who are well versed [in the prayers] and all about them… And the cantor opens with, "Blessed art Thou" and the men respond after each verse "Blessed art Thou, Blessed be He." And when he chants the Sabbath psalm they respond after him: "It is good to give thanks to the Lord" and the congregations chants verses of the psalms in unison until they come to the end.

Then the cantor stands up and begins "and the soul of all that lives and breathes" and the men respond: "Blessed by thy name." He [the cantor] chants the words and the men answer until they reach the Sanctification and all the congregation murmurs softly and the men out loud and then they immediately become silent and the cantor continues alone until "Israel be redeemed" and all the congregation rises to pray.

When he passes before the ark and comes to the Sanctification the men respond with "The Almighty, blessed be He" in loud voice and the cantor finishes the prayer and the congregation sits. After prayers all of the people go out before him and after him extolling him with words of homage until he reaches his house.

From this description it becomes evident that a cantor and choir performed those prayers that were sung. The choir's rile was mainly responsive, the most usual form being antiphonal, the parts divided between the cantor and the choir. For example: the cantor sings "A psalm for the Sabbath day," and the choir responds, "It is good to give thanks to the Lord;" the choir sings aloud while the worshippers all murmur the prayer.

graphic Hebrew

We also learn that the choir was an established, trained group and included men "endowed with musicianship and with beautiful voices who are well versed [in the prayers] and all about them." Furthermore, they were chosen from among the leaders and notables of the community," that is, for elite families. There were also other songs and liturgies, less sophisticated than those sung by the cantor and choir. They were apparently of a more popular folk character and were sung by all of those who took part it he processions.

Barnes & NOble linkAmnon Shiloah, Jewish Musical Traditions, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1992; pages 45, 46.

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