Mi-Sinai Niggunim

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MI-SINAI NIGGUNIM (Heb.-Yid. נִגּוּנִים, נִגּוּנֵי מִסִּינַי "Melodies from Mt. Sinai"), Hebrew term for a traditional group of cantorial melodies sung in the Ashkenazi synagogues of both East and West European rite and regarded as obligatory, and for which no other melody may be substituted. Located at those points in the service where the liturgical and emotional elements join in equal force, the Mi-Sinai tunes may be called the heart of Ashkenazi synagogue song.

Mi-Sinai is an abbreviated form of *Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, referring to an ordinance going back to Moses, who received it on Mt. Sinai. The term was connected with biblical chant in the 12th century (Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. Wistinezki-Freimann §3); its present application is due to A.Z. *Idelsohn. In cantorial circles, the Mi-Sinai melodies are called "Tunes of our Rabbi Maharil" (erroneously, also Maharal), or, in Eastern Europe, skarbowe niggunim (Polish: "official" tunes).

The family of Mi-Sinai tunes includes about ten solemn compositions that are associated mainly with prayers of the Penitential Days (see ex. 1–7). The exact scope cannot be determined precisely, since the tradition is not unanimous and was never codified authoritatively. The distinctive features of the melodies are as follows: they must belong to the common patrimony of the Eastern and Western Ashkenazi rites; must invariably be found in their proper liturgical place; and must exhibit a special musical structure (see below). Accordingly, ancient psalmodies such as *Akdamut Millin, or the many melodies designated as "ancient" by the 19th century compilers, and well-known hymn melodies (e.g., *Eli Ẓiyyon) do not belong to this category. A close examination reveals that they do not entirely comply with the conditions, and no ḥazzan would count them among the Mi-Sinai tunes. However, there still remain some border cases which are classified differently by different writers.

The usual concept of "melody" as an indivisible unit is not applicable to the Mi-Sinai niggunim. They are real compositions built of several sections ("movements") of individual character. These are often fitted to the divisions of the text (e.g., the *Kaddish), but may also be constructed on an independent plan (e.g., the *Kol Nidrei tune). In general, the first section is individual and characteristic of the specific tune; the following ones may include motives or entire themes of other niggunim, thereby creating a "family likeness" among the members of this group. Every section contains one or more "themes," which are composed of short motives (see music examples of *Aleinu; *Avodah). The order of these themes is usually constant, distinguishing this music clearly from the *nusaḥ style. An important feature is the plasticity of themes and motives, which allows for their easy adaptation to a wide range of texts. Still more characteristic is the liberty granted to the performer to shape the music by himself; tradition prescribes only the approximate layout and motivic profile – an "idea" which the singer must realize in sounds. This challenge to creative improvisation recalls principles governing Oriental music and exceeds by far the freedom of embellishment in older European art. Therefore one should not expect to discover the archetype of any Mi-Sinai tune, for there exist only numerous "realizations" of a certain mental image (cf. *Maqām). Other Oriental features are the free rhythm, which cannot be fitted to regular bars without distortion, and the rich and fluent coloratura adorning it. Tonality is modal (today with a bias to major and minor); *Shtayger scales occur,

but are not maintained rigorously (ex. 1, no. 3; see full version in *Music, ex. 30).

In East Ashkenazi tradition, the bond between music and text has been loosened: entire sections may be sung without words. Certain themes, still found in the earlier Western notated documents, have become lost, and others changed their places in the established order. As a result those themes or sections which were preserved came to be repeated in order to provide for the full text. This regressive evolution in the East was apparently caused by the early displacement of these communities from the birthplace and centers of Mi-Sinai song. The Western ḥazzanim, on the other hand, developed extensive and elaborate compositions from the original tunes. Such "Fantasias" were in fashion from about 1750 to 1850.

That the musical ideas and outlines of the Mi-Sinai niggunim originated in the Middle Ages can be concluded from musical evidence, a few references in literature, and, above all, the fact that they are found in two Ashkenazi rites, which separated early in their history. It may be supposed that the sufferings during Crusader times made Ashkenazi Jewry ripe for expressing in music the deep feelings that emanate from these melodies. Their character and profound musicality also attracted gentile composers, such as Max Bruch (Kol Nidrei, op. 47) and Maurice Ravel (Kaddish, 1914); their confrontation with the idioms of contemporary music is demonstrated in A. *Schoenberg's Kol Nidrei (1938).


A.Z. Idelsohn, in: Zeitschrift fuer Musikwissenschaft, 8 (1926), 449–72; H. Avenary, in: Yuval, 1 (1968), 65–85.

[Hanoch Avenary]