Songs of Sephardim: Timeless Tunes and Tefillot

Congregation Shaare Zion on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The hazzan stands by the amud in the center of the Knesset surrounded by his two somchim, who assist him during designated parts of the prayers. Like Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon HaKohen and Chur, who entreated the Heavens for mercy during the battle against Amalek in the wilderness, the trio lead their congregation as they petition on High for the upcoming year.

Their voices ring out in the tunes of yore, evoking emotions and tears of those gathered. The words, the melodies and the sentiments remain the same as they have been for centuries, as the individuals gathered are aroused to storm the Heavens and beseech the Alm-ghty for His honor, for Klal Yisrael and all their personal needs.

Rabbi Moshe Mustacchi.

RABBI MOSHE MUSTACCHI is a young Rabbi who serves the Sephardic community of Brooklyn, New York, in many capacities, including teaching keriah (Hebrew reading according to the Syrian mesorah) in Magen David Yeshiva, performing britot as a mohel, and acting as a shohet. During the year, he is the hazzan each Shabbat at the vatikin minyan in Congregation Shaare Zion, the flagship shul of the Syrian community on Ocean Parkway. For the Yamim Nora’im, he has served as hazzan in the Madison Torah Center, the Avenue O Synagogue, and other Sephardic shuls. “If I am asked to blow the shofar, I will serve as hazzan for Shaharit, since it is difficult to lead Mussaf if you have to blow as well. Otherwise, I am the hazzan for Mussaf.” Rabbi Mustacchi shared with me some of the rich heritage of his community, which sheds light on the customs practiced by Jews of Sephardic descent worldwide for centuries.


Hatarat Nedarim

Preparations for the holidays among Sephardic Jews begin long before Rosh Hashanah. Many may be aware that the minhag of Sephardim is to recite Selihot for the entire Elul (although they do not blow the shofar in Elul). However, the avodah actually begins several days prior to Rosh Hodesh Elul. “According to the Zohar, one who has nedarim, or vows, is despised by Hashem, as he is rejected and his prayers are not accepted for 40 days,” Rabbi Mustacchi explains. “For this reason, we begin the first of several hatarat nedarim, the annulment of vows, on 19 or 20 Av, which is 40 days before Rosh Hashanah. Often, this is performed after Arbit on Motzoei Shabbat before this date, when the people are gathered in their shuls. Some repeat this on Rosh Hodesh Elul, which is 40 days before Kippur (as the Syrian Jews call Yom Kippur), and again on Motzoei Shabbatot before Rosh Hashanah and before Kippur, also when the people are gathered together after Arbit.”

Arbit on Rosh Hashanah

Exterior of Congregation Har Halebanon on Avenue S in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The special tefillot of Rosh Hashanah begin with the piyyut of Ahot Ketanah, which is recited by everyone together after Minhah of Erev Rosh Hashanah. “This is a very meaningful piyut, and according to the minhag of the Syrians, everyone recites it together led by the hazzan,” Rabbi Mustacchi explains. “However, the minhag of the Yerushalmi Sephardim is different, as each stanza is led by a different person.”

There are no other piyyutim recited during Arbit on Rosh Hashanah, but after the Amidah, the congregation prays for parnassah by opening the heichal (aron kodesh) and reciting perek 24 of Tehillim, which is also said by many Ashkenazim.

“Sephardim have the custom that when we say Tehillim, we chant it in unison, unlike many Ashkenazic kehillot where it is said responsively,” adds Rabbi Mustacchi. “In addition, we say this perek of Tehillim to pray for parnassah after each tefillah, unlike Ashkenazim who say it only after Arbit.”

While Ashkenazim greet each other on the night of Rosh Hashanah with the blessing of “L’shanah tovah tikaseivu,” the Sephardic custom is to offer the blessing of “Tizku l’shanim rabot — may you merit many years,” to which the recipient replies, “Ne’imot v’tovot — sweet and good.”


The custom of many Sephardim is to awaken before alot hashahar (the first beam of morning light) and begin prayers at the earliest permissible time. The reason is based on the Yerushalmi that states: “One who sleeps on Rosh Hashanah, his mazal slumbers,” i.e., the Malachim who protect him will “sleep” as well, and he will be left defenseless. Therefore, many pray Vatikin, where they begin Shaharit by alot hashahar and start the Amidah by hanes hahamah (sunrise).

There are many distinctions between the Ashkenazic rites on Rosh Hashanah and those of the Sephardim. While the piyutim of the Ashkenazim contain many written by the paytan Rabi Elazar Hakalir, those recited by the Sephardim were authored by various Rishonim, including Rabi Avraham ibn Ezra, Rabi Yehudah HaLevi, and Rabi Shlomo ibn Gabirol. In addition, while most Ashkenazim recite piyutim during chazaras hashatz, Sephardim generally avoid saying piyutim during the Hazarah and will say their piyutim either beforehand or afterward.

For each day of Rosh Hashanah there are two designated piyutim said at Shaharit; most kehillot recite these before Baruch She’amar, while some wait until after the Hazarah of the Amidah.

The hazzan usually begins leading the prayers when they say Ki LaHashem Hameluchah before Nishmat. “There are special tunes for the hazzan for Nishmat and, for the Syrians, he sings the Kaddish with a designated tune,” says Rabbi Mustacchi. “In the Egyptian kehillot, the hazzan may have a choice of several traditional holiday tunes to use. However, the Syrians are particular about this, and the hazzan would never veer away from the specific tune.”

When Shaharit ends, the bidding for the kibbudim of Keriat HaTorah commences, which often is quite fierce as many people wish to have the honor of an aliyah. The keriah is followed by a beautiful piyut called Eit Shaarei Rason (Ratzon in Ashkenazic pronunciation), which introduces Tekiat Shofar with a lengthy description of Akeidat Yishak (Yitzchak). It is considered a very special piyut, and it is sung by everyone together. In many shuls, the Rabbi will deliver a drashah before Tekiat Shofar as well.

Tekiat Shofar and Mussaf

Interior of Khal Kadosh Ahabah Ve Ahva on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The piyut recited before Mussaf on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Hone Tahone Al Banecha, while on the second day Sho’eif K’mo Eved is recited. These piyutim are not as long as the ones recited during Shaharit, and they are followed by the regular Kaddish. During the lahash (the silent Amidah), the shofar is blown after Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot (as is the minhag of Ashkenazim who daven Nusach Sephard).

Generally, no piyutim are recited during the Hazarah except Hayom Harat Olam, but the hazzan will lead the congregation in singing Keter for kedushah. The minhag is for everyone to sing in unison, and minhagim vary for the tunes [see sidebars].

Most Sephardim blow a total of 101 blasts of the shofar. The number is the same as the gematria of Michael (40+10+20+1+30=101), the Malach that watches over us. The first 30 of tekiot d’meyushav precede the Amidah, with another 60 blown during the Amidah — 30 during the lahash and 30 during the Hazarah. During the Kaddish that follows, as they pause before titkabeil, another 10 are sounded, for a total of 100. Perek 24 of Tehillim (L’Dovid Mizmor), the prayer for parnassah, is recited then, and this is followed by a teruah gedolah. This minhag is cited in Tosafot in Rosh Hashanah (34b) and by the Mehaber (596). The Poskim explain that in order to prevent the Satan from denouncing the people for abandoning the prayers and heading home to partake in a festive holiday meal, this teruah gedolah is sounded to confuse him.

The prayers end with Aleinu and Barchu, as is customary at the end of the daily prayers.

Tashlich is recited the first day of Rosh Hashanah after Minhah at a site that has flowing water; the Sephardim are not particular about going to a river or ocean. Women do not attend to maintain the spirit of seniut — modesty.

Many have the custom to complete Tehillim twice on Rosh Hashanah. There are 150 chapters, and when said twice, it equals 300, which is the same as the gematria of kaper (20+80+200=300), which means forgive.


Kol Nidrei

As the people enter the shul on the evening of Kippur, they recite a special Viduy composed by Rabi Avraham ibn Ezra that begins with the words “Lecha Keli teshukati.” This is the first of several different Viduyim recited throughout the prayers during the night and day of Kippur. [It should be noted that many Ashkenazim have the minhag to say Tefillas Zakah at this time, in which a form of Viduy is recited as well.]

This is followed by the removal of all the sifrei Torah from the heichal; Kol Nidrei is recited three times responsively by the hazzan and the kahal. During these three repetitions, the text used is in the past tense, i.e. “From last year’s Kippur until the present year’s Kippur,” thus annulling the vows of the past year. The hazzan then repeats Kol Nidrei a fourth time using future tense, i.e. “From the present Kippur until next year’s Kippur,” which is to nullify any future vows that may be made in the upcoming year. The sifrei Torah are then returned to the heichal.


Kaddish is not recited between Kol Nidrei and Arbit, as the hazzan begins with Barchu. After the Amidah, Selihot are recited, and Viduy Hagadol is said. Some have the custom to recite the piyyut Ben Adamah. In this piyut, the stanzas describe the stages of man throughout his life: at 3 years old, at 7, 10, 20, 30 and 90. In the end, man will die, and his life is worthless if he does not do proper teshuvah. Abinu Malkeinu is not said after Arbit.

In the “old country,” many had the custom to sleep in the shul on the night of Kippur, but this is no longer commonly practiced.

Shaharit and Mussaf

Interior of Congregation Har Halebanon on Avenue S in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Many add an extra 10 chapters of Tehillim before Shaharit. The number 10 has many connotations, including the 10 kings who ruled over the entire world and the ten maamarot through which Hashem created the world.

During the Amidah of Shaharit, Viduy Hagadol is recited in which a confession is said for transgression of misvot asei — positive commandments. By Mussaf, the Viduy Hagadol on misvot lo taaseh — negative commandments — is said. The Avodah of Kippur in the Beit Hamikdash is recited, and the people do korim whenever it mentions that the people in the Beit Hamikdash bowed down. Selihot are recited after the Hazarah, and Mussaf is followed by Aleinu (unlike Ashkenazim, who do not recite Aleinu after Mussaf).

During the recital of Selihot throughout Kippur, Vayaavor and the 13 Attributes of Mercy are said a total of 26 times (which is the gematria of the Shem Havayah).

Minhah and Ne’ilah

Minhah begins with the piyut of Eit Shaarei, followed by Ashrei and Kriat HaTorah. Maftir Yonah is considered a special honor and is usually purchased for a tidy sum. The Amidah, Viduy and Selihot follow.

The piyut Kel Nora Alilah precedes Ne’ilah. Since Sephardim try to do [Birchat] Kohanim at Ne’ilah, there is usually a bit of a rush to reach that part of the Hazarah in time to complete it before shkiah. Selihot are then added to stretch the tefillah until seit hakochavim (nightfall). At that time, the hazzan leads the congregation saying Shema Yisrael one time, Baruch Shem once, Karati B’chol Leib seven times, and Hashem Hu HaElokim seven times. During Kaddish Titkabeil the shofar is blown 10 blasts — tashra”t, tasha”t and tara”t — and a teruah gedolah is sounded at the completion of the Kaddish.

Arbit is followed by Birchat Lebanah (Kiddush Levanah).

Piyutim and tunes may vary from community to community, but the sincerity of the heart remains constant. May we all soon witness the realization of the fervent prayer we all share: “V’yei’asu chulam agudah achas… — may we all become one assemblage to do the will of Hashem with a full heart.”


Congregation Shaare Zion on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.


“In the Syrian Sephardic community, the entire flavor of the holidays is brought about by the special tunes the hazzan uses for the prayers,” says Rabbi Moshe Mustacchi. “During the rest of the year, it’s a bit more liberal, and the hazzan has more of a choice of which tunes he may use for different parts of the tefillah. Of course, he won’t use the latest song released on a popular CD, since all the tunes used are traditional ones, but nevertheless there is a choice of several. But on Rosh Hashanah and Kippur, the people are excited to hear the tunes they grew up with, the ones that have been used throughout the generations, and we all stick to the customary tunes.”

Although the minhag of the Sephardim is to have two somchim to assist the hazzan during the tefillot, in the Syrian community they perform more on Kippur than on Rosh Hashanah. “Our minhag is not to say any piyyutim during the Hazarah on Rosh Hashanah, so the somchim do not have such a prominent function. On Kippur, however, when there are additions, the somchim take a more central role.”

Although the Moroccan kehillot use a specific tune for Keter in Kedushah, the Syrians are more liberal in this respect and the hazzan may use any one of the several Keter tunes used year round. Likewise, Keter is sung together by the entire congregation as is done throughout the year.

On Rosh Hashanah, the prayers usually take four and a half hours. On Kippur they may be longer, but ordinarily there is a break between Mussaf and Minhah.



Congregation Kol Eliyahu on Avenue T in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Although the minhagim of the Lebanese community mirror those of the Syrian community in many ways, Rabbi Rahamim Harary, who serves as a Rabbi in Congregation Har Halebanon on Avenue S in Brooklyn, explains that as is the case in most communities, there are some subtle differences. While reviewing the Syrian minhagim, he mentioned that unlike the Syrian minhag described by Rabbi Mustacchi, when the Lebanese recite Kol Nidrei, all three times it is said with the past tense as well as the future tense, thereby making it both an annulment of past vows and a notification concerning future vows.

In addition, he mentioned that in many congregations, the honor of reciting the brachah of Shehehiyanu that is recited on the night of Kippur is given to the Rabbi. However, some congregations give this honor to the person who purchased the kabod of holding the Sifrei Torah for Kol Nidrei.



Elie Gabay.

“The tunes and songs of the Moroccan communities have a unique flavor of Andalusian, Arabic and Spanish influences, which make them sound different than those of the Syrian or Yerushalmi communities,” says Elie Gabay, a resident of Brooklyn who serves as the hazzan in Congregation Yismach Moshe in Midwood.

“The countries of this region border the sea, and their music was greatly influenced by the sounds of the tides as the waves lap the rocks and sands of the shore. As Harav Yoram Abergel, zt”l, a great Hacham of Moroccan origin, explained, the style of songs and tunes used by the people of this region, who immigrated there during the Bayit Rishon, has a distinct Andalusian flavor. The sounds of the water as it raged in the sea and then calmed as it crested and splashed the stones of the seashore can be detected in the music of the entire region.

“Harav Abergel compared these sounds of the sea to what we find in Perek Shirah, which describes the praises that each creature and creation offers to Hashem. Similarly, the sounds of the ocean are a form of shirah, and it is captured and encapsulated in the rhythm and melodies of the Maghreb.”

Elie follows in the footsteps of his father Rabbi Amram Gabay, who serves in Congregation Adat Yeshurun in North Hollywood, California. His appreciation of Moroccan hazzanut supersedes the simple knowledge of the tunes. “The Sephardim have several Maqam, which is a series of musical scales for special bakashot (supplications) that coincide with the weekly parashah, the time of year, or other events. The tempo of the Maqam sets the mood, and I constantly study and explore the melodious Maqam of the Moroccan community, which is different than those of the Yerushalmi or Syrian communities.”

As a result of the flowing style of the tunes favored by the Moroccan community, the prayers are usually quite lengthy, since every part of the tefillah is sung in unison. “Our prayers take more time, and we are in no rush to finish,” explains Elie. “The tefillah is beautiful, and even on a regular Shabbat, the prayers can take several hours. On Yom Kippur, there is usually a very short break.”

For the Yamim Nora’im, there are special tunes for the Kedushahof each tefillah. Before beginning the Kedushah on Yom Kippur, the Moroccan community says a special piyut that describes how the Malachim praise Hashem in the Heavens. This piyut is considered extremely holy and is said with great fervor.

“It’s interesting to note that in the later years, many Moroccan Jews moved to France and were influenced there by the Chabad community,” Elie explains. “For this reason, you may find some Moroccan communities that have included some distinctly Ashkenazic selections in their liturgy, such as the piyut of Unetaneh Tokef.

“As for myself,” Elie admits, “I tend to drift more to the traditional side, following the customs of my father. In fact, I still wear a galabiya, which is the traditional Moroccan garb worn by the hazzan, as does my father.”



The exterior of Khal Kadosh Ahaba Ve Ahva on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Khal Kadosh Ahabah Ve Ahva was founded in Egypt in 5628/1928 and has re-established itself on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. Under the leadership of Rabbi Shimon Alouf, the congregation houses a beautiful keniss which serves not only as a house of prayer, but houses a kollel as well.

Rabbi Jack Savdie, who assists Rabbi Alouf, shared some of the unique minhagim of the Egyptian community, many of which were recorded centuries ago in the writings of Rishonim.

As in other communities, there are three people on the teibah (bimah) for all of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur — the main hazzan and two somchim (Nehar Misrayim, Rosh Hashanah 4).

During the lahash Amidah, one of the somchim recites the Amidah in somewhat of a raised voice to enable the kahal to follow along with him. Since the Amidot of Rosh Hashanah and Kippur are said only a few times a year, many people are not so familiar with the words and may make mistakes in the prayer. This custom helps the kahal recite the words properly and present a befitting tefillah to the Almighty. It dates back hundreds of years and is actually recorded by Rabbeinu Abraham ben haRambam in his sefer Hamaspik L’obdei Hashem.

The tune for the Kaddish, Nishmat and Hashem Melech is ancient, inspiring and uplifting and is sung together by all three, with solos for certain parts.

On Yom Kippur Eve, the blessing of Sheheheyanu is said by the person who bought Sefer Kol Nidrei. He is instructed to have the whole kahal in mind while reciting the blessing.

Prior to the Kedushah of the tefillot of Kippur, special piyyutim are recited called Kedushot. The piyutim were written by the great poets of Spain and speak of the greatness and holiness of Hashem in stunning poetry and awe-inspiring language. The hazzan remains silent while the two somchim recite the Kedushot (Nehar Misrayim, Yom Hakippurim 13).

The heart-stirring piyut Eit Shaarei Rason is sung on Yom Kippur afternoon during Petihat Haheichal (the opening of the aron kodesh) of Minhah. According to Hazal, that is the time when the Akeidah actually took place (Nehar Misrayim, Yom Hakippurim 17).



“The original Jews who settled in Bukharia were from Persia and Bavel,” explains Rabbi Yaniv Meirov of Chazaq in the Forest Hills section of Queens, New York. “Yet about 300 years ago, a great Sephardic Rav arrived and the community accepted many of his minhagim. Because of this, the minhagim of Bukharian Jews are a blend of both traditions.”

For example, on Rosh Hashanah night, after saying perek 24 of Tehillim for parnassah, which many Ashkenazim also do, the Bukharians recite a long prayer for parnassah that is attributed to Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad (Iraq), the Ben Ish Hai.

Other parts of the tefillah are unique to Bukharia. Before beginning the Hazarah of the Amidah, the piyyut Hashem Shamati Shimacha Yareiti is recited, yet it is said both in Lashon Kodesh and in Bukharian, as translated by Rav Shimon Hacham, a Bukharian scholar. The piyyut beginning Im Efes, which speaks of the Akeidah, is said with a stich in Judeo-Persian. Some kehillot have adopted the custom to recite Unetaneh Tokef, which is decidedly of Ashkenazic origin.

After the fast is over, the elders of the congregation bless the kahal with the words of V’yitein Lecha HaElokim, and on the way home everyone conveys brachot to one another, because blessings given when one has been cleansed from sin are powerful.



Congregation Beth Torah in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Many people who find themselves in Yerushalayim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur discover that the prayers recited are familiar in some ways, yet different in others. The reason, explains Rabbi Yehezkel Zion, who served for decades as the hazzan at the minyan of Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, is because the custom is in fact not unique to Yerushalayim, but a conglomeration of the various communities that found their way to the Holy City.

“The Sephardic community in Yerushalayim came from Turkey, Iraq and other places,” explains Rabbi Zion. “This resulted in the adoption of many piyutim of Turkish origin, as well as a composite of customs from several countries. Eventually, it became known as ‘Yerushalmi’ and is widely practiced in Eretz Yisrael. In fact, many Ashkenazim who pray at the Kotel during Elul have become familiar with the refrains of the Selihot that are sung together.”

Rabbi Zion, who now prays in Beth Torah, a Syrian congregation on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, mentions that he misses some of the beautiful piyutim and tunes of Yerushalayim. “Our custom is not to say piyutim during the Hazarah of the Amidah, so we say Ohilah LaKel after completing the lahash and before beginning the Hazarah. In Yerushalayim, I would recite the piyut titled Hashem Shamati Shimacha, which is beautiful both in its text and its tune. Here, it is not recited, and it is something that I still miss each year.”