The World of Sephardic Piyutim

By Esty Shdeour

What better place to conduct an interview about Sephardic prayer traditions than right here?

This was my thought as I entered the modest downtown Jerusalem office of Mr. Ezra Barnea, a most interesting man whose passions are Jewish education and Jewish music. In fact, in 2009 he was awarded the Yakir Yerushalayim award for his educational and cultural work that included the documentation, publication and dissemination of the musical traditions of Jewish communities around the world.

Above the bookcase opposite the entrance stands a display of darbukas (goblet drums), on a table lies an oud (a short-necked, lute-type stringed instrument), and a Bukharian instrument called a tar hangs on a wall between the portraits of two Sephardic Chief Rabbis of Israel: Harav Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uziel, zt”l, and Harav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l. These two Rabbis still play major roles in Mr. Barnea’s life today.

Mr. Barnea begins by explaining that the office is actually that of the Committee for the Publication of the Writings of Harav Uziel, an organization he founded several decades ago and has volunteered for ever since. “It is important to me that people know about Rav Uziel,” Barnea tells me. “He was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi here from 1939 until his passing in 1953. One of our major endeavors is the publication of his halachic responsa. This right here” — he points to a package on his desk – “is straight from the printer and will be the 34th and 35th volumes of his responsa. The publication of each volume excites me anew in a way I can barely explain.”

Preservation and documentation is a central axis of Barnea’s work, not only concerning Rav Uziel’s writings, but also the tradition of prayer and liturgy in the Sephardic and Oriental-Jewish communities.

“I was born here in Jerusalem in 1935,” he relates. “My parents had made aliyah separately from Persia in the ‘20s, as did many young people at that time in the wake of the Balfour Declaration. They came by camel, donkey, and even by foot.

“My love for prayer and liturgical poetry [piyut]began to develop when I was a young boy living in the Bucharim neighborhood. I used to hear the singing of the bakashot from the beit knesset just outside our house, and I simply fell in love with it. I asked my father if I could attend the early-morning Shabbat bakashot, and he encouraged me; he even woke up with me before dawn and we went together. After a few months, during which I paid close attention to the singing, I was given a chance to sing solo. I was about six years old and had learned to read at age four in the local Talmud Torah.”

Thus began a life-long custom. “Even after I got married, I would still attend the bakashot in a beit knesset in Machaneh Yehudah. When we later moved to Kiryat Moshe [also in Jerusalem], I became one of the chazzanim in the shul of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, even before he became the Chief Rabbi.”

Mr. Barnea was not set on only one liturgy, however. “Even as a boy in the Bucharim neighborhood, I loved to go from one shul to another, trying out all the different Sephardic customs – Kurdim, Kurdistanim, Moroccans, Georgians, and more. I loved all the different melodies and styles.”

By profession, Ezra Barnea was an educator – principal of a school and, later, a supervisor in the Education Ministry. But then, in the mid-1980s, “a great opportunity arose: The Renanot Institute for Jewish Music was seeking a director, and I was advised to grab it. ‘This is your great hobby,’ people told me. ‘You’re all music!’ And so I tried out, and for the next 25 years I was privileged to be the head of Renanot.”

Founded in 1958, Renanot is the oldest institution engaged in the study of musical traditions of the various Jewish ethnic groups. Barnea says that it holds annual conventions featuring expert speakers on Jewish musical traditions, publishes a modern-format book of all the lectures, and runs recreational Shabbatot with special prayer services and zemirot of various traditions.

At one point, representatives of Libyan Jewry asked Mr. Barnea to help them document their unique prayer and musical tradition, especially their Yamim Nora’im services. “I made contact with Prof. Edwin Sarousi, then of Bar Ilan University, who is a great Jewish musicologist, and he took up the gauntlet,” he recounts. “He helped us find a suitable location for recording, advised us on the acquisition of the best recording equipment, and recruited his music department students to help us record and document. The top music tradition researchers in Israel were involved in this project, and this is how I came to know the work of music documentation.”

He says that from this project sprouted many more. “In total, I ended up documenting the musical traditions of at least 27 groups: Yemenites, Gruzinim, and many others. I decided that I would dedicate a CD to each group, to be disseminated by Renanot.”

Mr. Barnea constitutes a very prominent figure in the history of the documentation of the Jewish liturgy. While documentation began at the beginning of the 20th century, the pioneers in this field were Ashkenazic and since they were familiar only with western musical language, their notations were simply inaccurate!

Besides the unique musical language, are there other commonalities in the non-Ashkenazi musical traditions in terms of the music itself and the way it is performed?

There most certainly are. One of the most blatant characteristics of the Sephardic and Oriental prayer traditions is the participation of the congregation. Together with the chazzan are paytanim, men who take charge of the joint singing. In Ashkenazi shuls, the custom is that the congregation remains basically silent. In recent decades this has begun to change, with greater congregational participation and singing during the prayers — the Carlebach minyanim are a perfect example of such — although of course many Ashkenazi communities maintain their generations-long tradition of “quiet” prayer.

What musical instruments accompany the prayers and when?

The singing is often accompanied by instruments when permitted halachically, such as on Motzoei Shabbat, and at festive occasions, such as a brit milah. The most common instruments used are the kanun string instrument, the oud, the violin, as well as others that are unique to each ethnic community. It goes without saying that a darbuka must be included to provide the beat. Currently there are some ensembles that include an electric organ that can play quarter-tones. Personally, I can’t listen to this organ, as it covers and masks the authentic sound of the other instruments.

What can you tell us about the piyutim (poems and songs), a basic part of the Sephardic liturgy that is mostly unknown to Ashkenazim?

In general, piyutim can be divided into two main groups: Piyutim for circle-of-life occasions, and those recited at different times during the year.

The Sephardic custom is to recite a unique piyut for each circle-of-life event. For instance, most communities have special piyutim for the night before a brit milah (called Brit Yitzchak), for the brit itself, and for the zeved bat held when a baby girl is born. There are special piyutim for bar mitzvahs, weddings, and more. These piyutim differ from one group to another, and from one district to another, and might even be different for different bridegrooms in the same beit knesset.

On the other hand, the piyutim for various holidays are standardized for all the Sephardic communities, although they are sung with different melodies. The same text serves all the different ethnic groupings, from Morocco to Syria and Lebanon, from the Balkans all the way to Iran and Afghanistan. But in each area, the tunes are influenced by the musical style prevalent there. The piyutim, especially those said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are preserved with great care. Woe to anyone who tries to add piyutim on the Yamim Nora’im. The congregation will simply not allow it. Even the tunes may not be changed. For instance, the piyut Mar’eh Kohen, which is now popularly sung with a certain tune in Ashkenazi batei knesset and even at Sephardic weddings and the like, will never be sung in the Sephardic batei knesset. Not even a great Torah leader would dare to add a piyut to the Yamim Nora’im machzor. The prayers of the machzor are preserved zealously – as opposed to the daily prayers, in which all sorts of extra requests can be added and there is a certain measure of flexibility.The special festival piyutim, written mostly during the Golden Age in Spain, are generally the fruit of such spiritual-literary Medieval Spanish giants as Rav Yehuda Halevi, Rav Yehuda Al-Harizi, and Rav Avraham Ibn-Ezra. Some piyutim were written later, mostly by Rav Yisrael Najara, who lived in Syria and Eretz Yisrael about 400 years ago.

Are there any major piyutim recited in the Haggadah?

The Haggadah has both recitative passages, such as Torah verses, Midrashim, and prayers, as well as passages that are sung: the piyutim and Hallel. The recitative parts are read aloud in either a sing-song voice, as when reciting Mishnah, or with no tune at all; this is common in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic households. But the piyutim have very particular melodies to which they are sung. It’s true that of late, many Sephardim have grown accustomed to Ashkenazi tunes such as those used for Dayenu, V’hi She’amdah, and B’tzeit Yisrael. This is largely because the children, who play a central role in the seder, absorb these tunes in their schools, not to mention through radio and popular music CDs.

I have experienced this personally, at my own family Seder. My sons-in-law are of different ethnic backgrounds, and my grandchildren learn Ashkenazi melodies in school. It is of course of utmost importance to me to preserve my forefathers’ traditions, but still, sometimes I have to look the other way. We sing Dayeinu, Echad Mi Yodea and Hallel in the popular Ashkenazi tune that everyone at the seder table knows. But for Chad Gadya, we make sure to sing a special Sephardic tune, one that is very catchy and that everyone enjoys singing together.

What can you tell us about another group of Sephardic piyutim, known as bakashot (supplications)?

The bakashot are unique piyutim recited early on winter Shabbat mornings before the regular prayers, from right after Sukkot until just before Pesach (although the Moroccan custom is to recite them only until Shabbat Zachor).

The custom began with Rabbi Yisrael Najara (late 16th century). When he lived in Syria, he saw Jewish youths spending their Friday nights near gentile coffee houses, enjoying the non-Jewish music. So he decided to offer them a nice Jewish alternative. He took the non-Jewish tunes, set them to Jewish words, and invited the youths to sing them in the beit knesset on Friday night. These became the bakashot, and Rabbi Yisrael compiled them in a book entitled Zemirot Yisrael. [Interviewer’s note: This book was one of the only six books printed on the very first printing press in Israel, in the year 1577.] For many of the piyutim, he noted the origin and makam (musical scale).

Over the years, collections of the bakashot were printed, culminating in the 18th and 19th centuries with the ordered version that is now sung by most Sephardic communities. About seven or eight piyutim are by Rabbi Yisrael Najara, while the others were added later, written mostly by Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, his brother Rabbi Mordechai, and a number of other poets. My theory is that each of the writers used a melody that was familiar from his region.The custom of singing the bakashot is quite widespread in the Sephardic world. It began in Eretz Yisrael, spread to Turkey, the Balkans, the Mediterranean lands, and further. In Yemen, the custom is to awaken well before the prayers, but to sing different piyutim than those recited elsewhere, such as those by Rabi Shalom Shabazi. In Morocco, the bakashot are different each Shabbat, based on the Torah portion read aloud that day.

What is the importance, in your opinion, of your work in documenting and preserving the original melodies?

It is critical in the light of the demographic and sociological changes that the Sephardic communities have undergone in recent decades, especially since the 1950s. After the State of Israel was established, the vast majority of the Sephardic world left the countries in which they had lived for centuries, moving to Israel, Europe, and North and South America. I’m Israeli, so I can only tell you what happened here. The children of the new immigrants studied in Israeli schools, including yeshivah high schools and yeshivot ketanot, which were all Ashkenazi-run. The teachers and Rebbeim there were mostly Ashkenazi, and the boys became accustomed to praying Ashkenazi-style. Once a month they would return home and would often be asked to lead the prayers in their neighborhood beit knesset. The congregation would wait with great anticipation to hear the returning yeshivah boy — and you can imagine their amazement and disappointment when he would begin with “Borchu” in an Ashkenazi tune!

About 25 years ago the wave of aliyah from the former Soviet Union was at its height. Thousands of Jews came from Bukhara [roughly, Uzbekistan], bringing with them glorious centuries-old traditions. I decided at the time to conduct and record a model seder, run according to Bukharan tradition from beginning to end, with the participation of the newly arrived olim. Among them was a young boy, whom I asked to sing Mah Nishtanah – which I assumed he would do with the original old Bukharan melody that he had learned at home. But then he opened his mouth and out came the familiar Mah Nishtanah melody that every Israeli child knows! He had managed to learn it in the short time he was in Israel. In the end, I was able to record the original Bukharan melody – sung by adults.

I can also tell you about Simchat Torah in the beit knesset in which I have been praying for many years, the beit medrash of my Rabbi and teacher Harav Mordechai Eliyahu, zt”l. The congregation mostly sings and dances to songs that are of the popular Chassidic-Ashkenazic genre. To ensure that the traditional Sephardic songs are not forgotten, Rav Eliyahu once asked me to prepare a pamphlet of all the Sephardic songs that we used to sing, from which we would choose a traditional Sephardic song or two to begin each hakafah. Immediately afterwards, Rav Eliyahu himself would burst out singing one of the popular Ashkenazi songs, and everyone would enthusiastically join in. This sums up the story: The Ashkenazi world’s influence over the Sephardic is stronger than vice-versa, and with all due sorrow at this state of affairs, we must recognize reality and deal with it as best we can.

What about the large Sephardi yeshivot, such as the famous Porat Yosef in Jerusalem? Are they a type of Sephardic “nature preserve” within the larger world of Jewish music, or have the trends you just described made inroads there as well?

In Yeshivat Porat Yosef, the authentic Sephardic musical traditions are certainly being preserved to a significant degree. On the other hand, the students there are also exposed to many popular recordings on radio and CDs, and this has an influence on the prayer services even there.

Why do you thinks it is hard for those accustomed to Ashkenazi-European music to listen to and appreciate the glorious world of Sephardic music?

It is primarily connected to the quarter-tone and eighth-tones to which the Western ear is not accustomed. The scales are different as well: I found that among the 12 scales (makamim), three of them are parallel to the three main modes prevalent in Western music and chazzanut: The Ionian (parallel to the modern major scale), and the Phrygian and Dorian modes (very similar to today’s minor scales). I therefore concluded — and it has been shown to be correct — that compositions based on these three scales are more communicative to the Ashekanzi-European ear. When I visit my daughter for Shabbat in a mostly Ashkenazi community and I am asked to lead the prayers, I choose melodies based on these scales, and the congregation enjoys them.”

How can Ashkenazim who are not familiar with the Sephardic musical tradition come to appreciate and enjoy this unique music?

The main thing is to come with an open mind and open ears. Decide in advance: “I know that I’m about to hear something new and strange, but I am ready to learn, and I hope I will enjoy it.” It is much easier to listen when you are openminded. I would also recommend taking active part in the experience. When attending a Sephardic davening, follow the prayers and even say them as they are said aloud.

In New York, around Ocean Parkway, there are several Sephardic batei knesset with very qualified chazzanim. In Israel, of course, there are many of them all over, and Ashkenazim are welcome to visit. I can say right now that for those visiting a Sephardi shul for the first time, there will be some tunes that they will like more than others. But whoever comes with an open mind will find himself looking for more and more opportunities to take part in these prayers.

In conclusion, what would be the essential message that you would like to transmit to our readers?

Al titosh toras imecha — Do not forsake your mother’s teachings. Remain with that which you received from your parents’ home, and adhere to their traditions and melodies. Try very hard not to bring in foreign elements, even for the noble goal of national unity. Just like one would never think of replacing the traditional Kol Nidrei melody, we should approach all our other prayers and piyutim in the same manner. On the other hand, I am quite aware that it is impossible to be 100% impermeable to outside influences. Therefore, each of us must try his best to preserve his family’s traditions in all areas, including in Jewish music and liturgy, and preserve them for future generations.