During the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, the Jews of Mantua, Venice and
Ferrara had began to developed a taste for le nuove musiche, the new
music of the period. At the same time, the counterreformation demanded enforcement
of the laws that separated the Jew from his neighbor. Now, at the peak of the
Renaissance, Italian Jews were forced to turn increasingly inward; their appetites
for le nuove musiche would now have to be satisfied within the confines
of their own community. The synagogue would provide the venue for this fine
In Padua and Ferrara there were synagogue choirs at the end of the 16th century.
In Modena there was an organ; in Venice a complete orchestra. Flaunting the
centuries-old tradition, these practices came under heavy criticism from many
conservative members of the community.
We have the correspondence of Rabbi
Leone da Modena (Judah Aryeh) (1574-1648, Italy) regarding the establishment
of a choir in Ferrara in the first decade of the seventeenth century. A true
Renaissance man, Da Modena was a scholar in many disciplines, a famous rabbi
of the Venetian community, as well as an amateur musician.
1605, he replied to Venetian Jews who inquired about the admissibility of choral
singing in the synagogue. He not only replied in the affirmative, but defended
liturgical singing with great vigor.
We have among us some connoisseurs of the science of singing, six
or eight knowledgeable persons of our community. We raise our voices
on the festivals, and sing songs of praise in the synagogue to honor
God with compositions of vocal harmony. A man stood up to chase us
away saying that it is not right to do so, because it is forbidden
to rejoice, and that the singing of hymns and praises in harmony is
forbidden. Although the congregation clearly enjoyed our singing this
man rose against us and condemned us publicly, saying that we had
sinned before God!
was also friend and champion of the Jewish composer Salamone Rossi,
whose madrigals and instrumental compositions rank among the finest
musical works of the period. In 1623, Rossi published (with Modena's
help) the first collection of Jewish choral music for the synagogue
Ha-Shirim asher le-Shelomoh. On
Simhat Torah in 1628, a choir performed Rossi's music in the Sephardic
synagogue in Venice a rare event during
this period. In reaction to the controversy surrounding this event,
the liberal Rabbi published the following responsum:
I do not see how
anyone with a brain in his skull could cast any doubt on the propriety
of praising God in song in the synagogue on special Sabbaths and on festivals.
. . . No intelligent person, no scholar ever thought of forbidding the
use of the greatest possible beauty of voice in praising the Lord, blessed
be He, nor the use of musical art which awakens the soul to His glory.
Question posed to Leone da Modena, from original manuscript
When Rossi's choral work was first published in 1623, it was preceded by the
following open letter of Leone of Modena to "all whose ears are willing
to understand truth."
As everybody knows, it is from the Hebrews that the other nations have borrowed
music. For who could forget King David, that wonderful poet who taught the
sons of Asaph, Henan and Jeduthun music (1 Chronicles 25:1-6), as it is written?
It is also well known that he created vocal music, while instrumental music
flourished during the long period of the first and second Temples.
But our banishment, our dispersal over the earth, the unbelievable persecutions
inflicted upon us, caused inevitably the decline and downfall of the arts.
For when the anger of the Lord fell upon us, nothing was left of our spiritual
wealth. The rich well was exhausted and dried up. We have been compelled to
borrow our music from other nations and adapt it to our religious sings: until
this epoch when Solomon made his appearance, who excelled in the musical science
not only among the Israelites but also among the Christians. He succeeded
by his merits in rising in the ranks of singers who belong to the choir of
the Duke of Mantua. His musical works composed for Italian texts were so successful
that many of them have been received with admiration everywhere. His music
has been so acclaimed that we might say, "God has opened the eyes of
the blind and unstopped the ears of the deaf" (Isaiah 35:5). In spite
of the indolence of his co-religionists he did not allow himself to become
discouraged. He turned faithfully to the Lord, and each day added Psalms,
hymns and Synagogal songs to those of the previous day. He has collected them
into one volume. Now his followers were eager to sing his compositions. They
have studied them, they were delighted and their ears enchanted
The public should also be informed that the Hebrew words have been written
from left to right in order to be adapted to the musical notes. The author
preferred to sacrifice the [normal] way of inserting the printed text rather
than change the ordinary manner of writing the notes. In doing so, he was
entitled to rely upon the choral singers who usually know the text of all
Psalms and songs by heart. He also found it unnecessary to add vowels, for
the singers do no need a punctuated text in order to read correctly, which
is very much indeed to their credit.
Thus be blessed, my brethren, who have begun the publication of the works
of this outstanding musician who has composed all these Psalms and hymns.
Do homage to the Lord by singing this fine music in your sanctuaries on the
festivals. Make them known to your children and devote the latter to music,
as was the custom of the Levites
I am convinced that this work will,
from the moment of its appearance, further in Israel the taste for good music
that is well constructed and worthy to praise the Lord
My answer, which has been endorsed by all the great Rabbis of Venice, was
complete proof that nothing in the Talmud forbids the introduction of choral
singing into our temples. This may close the malignant mouths of our opponents.
In spite of all that they may say, I invite all our faithful brethren to honor
and cultivate song and music in our synagogues, to use and spread them until
the anger of the Lord turns away from us, and until He restores His Temple
in Zion, where the Levites will again let their harps and their songs of joy
resound, in another manner than today, when our hearts, while we sing, are
filled with bitterness because of the misfortunes with which we are overloaded
in our captivity. May the high happiness of our deliverance be established
for all of us soon. Amen.
the year 1630 the great city of Mantua was stormed by invading Austrian
troops. The Jewish ghetto was ravaged and its inhabitants fled the
town. The Renaissance was over for the Jewish community, and choral
music was no longer heard in the synagogue.
Jacobson, "An overview of Rossi's environment" published on the
Zamir Chorale of Boston website: http://www.zamir.org.
(32) Israel Adler, "The Rise of Art Music in the Italian Ghetto,"
in Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ed. Alexander Altman (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 336-337.[back]
Salamone Rossi, Hashirim Asher Lish'lomo, ed. by Fritz Rikko (New York:
Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1967-73), vol. 3. [back]
 Franz Kobler, Letters of Jews through the Ages
(volume two: From the Renaissance to Emancipation) Jewish Publication Society
of America, 1952.[back]
Joshua Jacobson, "An overview of Rossi's environment" published
on the Zamir Chorale of Boston website: http://www.zamir.org.
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