The Jerusalem-Sephardic Tradition


This article shows the crystallization of the prayer and singing style known as “Jerusalem-Sephardic,” which originated among the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire during the 16th to 20th centuries and developed under Turkish-Ottoman and Arabic musical influences.



The tradition of “Jerusalem-Sephardic hazzanut and piyyutim

The baqqashot singing tradition

Piyyutim for the yearly cycle and life-cycle




The Jerusalem-Sephardic cantorial and piyyut tradition

The roots of the piyyutim singing tradition found among the descendants of the Jewish communities exiled from Spain to the lands of Islam are found in the distant past. The singing of piyyutim is found in all of the the Sephardic Jewish tradition such as prayers, the singing of baqqashot (pl. of baqqasha which means “request”) during Friday nights (from after midnight until the Shaharit morning prayers), life-cycle events, and in piyyutim for Shabbat and holidays.

This singing is part of the liturgical and para-liturgical musical tradition of communities that descended from Jews expelled from Spain who lived in various geographic areas, including those that that were part of the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century until the beginning of the 20th century. These regions included Turkey, the Balkan countries, Syria, Lebanon, the Land of Israel, and Egypt. Hazzanim (cantors) and payytanim passed on these traditions from generation to generation over hundreds of years, and they still exist and continue today.

In spite of the wide distribution and diversity of synagogues throughout the Ottoman Empire, there is a common liturgical repertoire shared by all the Ottoman Jewish communities. The central musical principle among these communities exiled from Spain was the use of the Arabic-Turkish modal system (maqam), a musical system that shaped the Shabbat and holiday prayers. Early evidence for this phenomenon is found in the compositions of Rabbi Israel Najara (1555-1625), where we find reference to the use of maqam. The use of maqam for liturgical poetry and song was based throughout the 17th century on extensive Jewish involvement in the musical activity of the surrounding culture.

The Sephardic-Ottoman hazzan’s understanding of the maqam system was the most important element of his art and was expressed in part through musical improvisations. These were sung in a free meter and were performed during solo prayer sections, as opposed to other sections in the prayer service with a defined melody usually sung by the congregation.

The prayer melodies were usually adaptations of popular Arabic and Turkish songs. The old style Ottoman-Jewish musical tradition was eventually replaced by the prayer style known today as “Jerusalem-Sephardic,” although the older Ottoman style of liturgical singing still exists among a small number of Turkish communities in Israel, Turkey, France and the United States.

The “Jerusalem-Sephardic” tradition, which today has become the central style among a significant portion of the Eastern communities in Israel and in the Diaspora, is a combination of two main musical layers: the layer of the old Turkish-Ottoman music, the impressions of which can still be heard in prayers and in piyyutim, especially during the High Holidays, and the newer layer of Middle-Eastern Arabic musical style, which was crystallized during the turn of the 20th century.

This transition took place as part of a number of historical, cultural, and historical processes which occurred over the Middle-East in general and in Jerusalem in particular. The slow collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a collapse which reached its peak in the early 20th century with the fall of the Ottoman regime and the establishment of the Turkish Republic, also brought about a decline in the influence of the Ottoman-Turkish musical style and an increase in the influence of Arabic style on the music of the Middle-East.

This style of Arabic music was connected to the development of Arabic nationalism in the Middle-East in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to technological development during the late 19th century. The invention of the phonograph and the possibility of recording and distributing the music that had developed in Egypt and Syria aided in spreading and implanting the new Arabic music style throughout the Middle-Eastern regions. These included the Syrian and Eastern Jewish communities, who adopted the new Egyptian arrangements into their piyyut tradition.

Like Ottoman musical culture, this musical style was also based on the use of maqam. However, it made use of the unique musical tones of Arabic music. The influence of the Arabic musical style overcame the influence of the Turkish-Ottoman style in the Arabic Middle-East, including among the Jewish communities. It can be assumed that the Land of Israel and Jerusalem were included in this process. As the music of the Middle-East was transitioning from Turkish-Ottoman to Arabic style, another, additional factor appeared which influenced the creation of the Jerusalem-Sephardic tradition, namely, the appearance of Jewish communities originating from Aleppo (Syria) in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. These communities influenced the prayer and piyyut traditions of the Sephardic communities there.

The Aleppo community held on to an ancient performance tradition of prayers and piyyutim that was also based on the Arabic musical style. With their arrival in Jerusalem and the establishment of the “Ades” synagogue in 1901, they began to affect the performance style of Sephardic communities, beginning in Jerusalem and then in eastern Diaspora communities in the entire Land of Israel. The influence of this community was part of the general process of transitioning to an Arabic musical style.

The transition from the old to the new tradition undergone by the Jerusalem-Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem is described by author Yaakov Yehoshua in his book, Ben Masoret Le-havay Be-mishkanot Ha-sfaradim Be-yerushalayim. In his work, Yehoshua mourns the disappearance of prayers and piyyutim from the old “Noam Sephardi”:

“I doubt that the members of the new Sephardic generation know the meaning of the words ‘Noam Sephardi’ … not only has the ‘noam’ [grace] vanished from our prayers, but the ‘noam’ has also disappeared from the baqqashot and piyyutim, which accompanied us in the synagogue during happy hours… Piyyutim that held a significant part in our prayers… The Sephardic synagogue was therefore conquered by the Eastern communities… who instilled in the synagogue customs that were unknown.”

Baqqashot singing

During Friday nights between Shabbat Bereshit (the first Shabbat after Simhat Torah) and “Shabbat Hagadol” (the Shabbat before the Passover Seder), two or three hours before sunrise, poetry emerges from the Ades synagogue in the Nahlaot neighborhood and from the Musayef synagogue in the Bukharin neighborhood, both in Jerusalem. A large crowd gathers in these synagogues to sing piyyutim called shirat habaqqashot over the course of many hours. In other synagogues in Jerusalem and in other communities in Israel, baqqashot workshops are held during the week, where piyyut artists teach baqqashot singing in the Jerusalem-Sephardic style of performance.

The origins of the baqqashot singing practice are not certain. However, a liturgical poem in the baqqashot style was already included in a Sephardic prayer book from before the Spanish exile.  Additionally, the practice of rising at night for learning and prayer, which is something which characterizes shirat habaqqashot, was a custom in Spain and in the Land of Israel during the Middle-Ages (Rabbi Yehuda ben Barzillai, who lived in the 11th century and early 12th century, mentioned this practice). At first the baqqashot were sung immediately before each day's morning prayers, as the Jews of Iraq were accustomed to do, but today they are performed only on Shabbat. The practice of singing the baqqashot in groups seems to have originated in Sefad among the students of the Ari (Isaac Luria) during the 16th century, and from there it spread to other communities.

The baqqashot singing tradition of Aleppo is also ancient, likely originating in the 16th century as well. At the beginning of the 1500s a group of Spanish exiles arrived in Aleppo, Syria. This process saw the city become a city of Torah and trade. Visits from rabbinical emissaries from the Land of Israel influenced the development of groups in Aleppo who read Psalms and sang piyyutim and baqqashot. Evidence for this is found in the writings of the traveler Benjamin the Second, who visited Aleppo in 1859: “On the night of Shabbat, all the community members sing pleasant songs… most of the songs and prayers were written by the great composer Rabbi Israel Najara…”

At the end of the 19th century it seems there were two baqqashot singing traditions in Jerusalem. One was a tradition unique to the Old City; according to Seroussi (1993), this tradition was established by Refael Yitchak Alteras, the son of a Sephardic family from Aleppo who moved to Jerusalem in 1845. The second tradition emerged in the late 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century among the Aleppo Jewish community who had immigrated to Jerusalem. The central figure in this tradition in Jerusalem was Rabbi Mordechai Abadi. The Aleppo style of baqqashot singing became a model for other Eastern communities, although at the same time, there was also an influence from cantors and paytanim who were not from the Aleppo tradition – the result was that everyone sang the Aleppo material, even those who did not come from the Aleppo tradition, and thus a different style was created known today as Jerusalem-Sephardic.

Today the Jerusalem baqqashot tradition is based on The Shabbat Baqqashot Book, which was edited by Rabbi Haim Shaul Avod. Mastery of this baqqashot text has become a fundamental requirement for cantors who sing in the Jerusalem-Sephardic tradition. The baqqashot repertoire consists of a group of set piyyutim, and a number of others that are decided upon depending on the event, conditions, and the nature of the participating congregation.

Each baqqasha is based on an antiphonal format (responsive singing) between two groups. Between a section of piyyutim and that which follows, a solo singer performs a musical section called petiha (opening) – a maqam-based improvisation on a Psalm reading. A petiha section is always in the same maqam as the last piyyut, and modulates to the maqam of the following piyyut. These petiha sections are based on a solo mawal, a musical improvisation in free rhythm, as expressed through the soloist’s personal knowledge and tradition: Turkish, Persian, or Iraqi. The piyyut “Yedid Nefesh” is always the closing selection of the event, and each week it is based on a different arrangement according to the maqam of that Shabbat (each Shabbat is assigned a certain maqam, according to a permanent yearly cycle).

Apparently, most of the baqqashot arrangements are compositions that were adopted in the recent past and earlier from the cultures that surrounded the Spanish Jewish exiles in various regions of the Ottoman Empire. A large portion of the piyyutim is of unknown provenance. However, we know that the piyyutim of Rabbi Israel Najara, for example, appeared in his books with signs indicating the foreign sources to the melodies at the opening of each piyyut.

Piyyutim during the year and over the life cycle

In addition to the baqqashot piyyutim many Eastern communities also sing piyyutim for the Sabbath and holidays as well as for events connected to the life cycle such as marriages, circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs, and others. These piyyutim are also performed at the synagogue during the Torah portion of the prayer service, as well as outside of the synagogue around the Shabbat and holiday table or at other happy occasions.

These piyyutim are from different sources and periods. A significant portion consists of the Aleppan Jewish community piyyutim repertoire, which they call pizmonim, some of which have become common knowledge among many Sephardic and Eastern communities. The piyyutim repertoire also includes selections from other Eastern communities such as the Jewish community of Iraq.

The musical and textual character of these poems is more varied than the style of the baqqashot piyyutim. The texts were written by various poets, beginning in the 19th century, and composition of piyyutim and pizmonim continued throughout the 20th century and still exists today.

Two central, modern figures in this tradition, that is, composers of piyyutim and teachers of the tradition to the next generation, were Rabbi Rafael Antebi and Asher Mizrahi.

Rabbi Rafael Antebi was born in Aleppo in 1830 and died in Cairo in 1919. He composed many texts for melodies that become an integral part of the Aleppan Jewish community piyyutim repertoire and of other Eastern communities around the world. Not only a poet, he was very active in teaching the pizmonim tradition, and his students continued this path after this death.

Asher Mizrahi was born in Jerusalem in 1890 and died in 1967. He was a significant and central figure in the Jerusalem Sephardic community. This important poet traveled to Tunis twice and taught the Jerusalem Sephardic tradition to the community there.

A good portion the pizmonim melodies are drawn from well-known Arabic music composers, mainly from the first half of the 20th century, such as Sayed Darwish, Zakaria Ahmed, Riad al-Sonbati, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and others. A great portion of the melodies were recently adopted from Turkish and Arab music.

The influence of the Arabic music that came out of Egypt and Syria was described by the Jerusalem cantor Avraham Caspi, who relates that in Jerusalem, during the period from the 1930s to the 1950s, Arabic music (especially Egyptian singers), was listened to and absorbed in private residences and in coffee houses. This music, Caspi said, “entered hearts and souls” and became revered and popular among the Sephardic and Eastern Jews in Jerusalem. According to Caspi, many melodies sung by the Arabic singers were adopted first for piyyutim, and afterward were used for prayers and utilized in places where the whole congregation could participate.


Today, the poetry tradition of the Jerusalem-Sephardic piyyutim is an important component in the central stream of prayer and piyyut performance among most of the Eastern Jewish communities in Israel and the Diaspora. This performance tradition was definitively formed during the first half of the 20th century in Jerusalem and is a combination of the Hebrew language, which forms the base of prayers and piyyutim, and musical performance based on Arabic music, with additional influences such as the older level of Turkish music and of other Eastern traditions of various paytanim and hazzanim. The Jerusalem-Sephardic tradition accompanies prayer, the Friday night baqqashot song ritual, and all of the Sephardic and Eastern Jewish community life-cycle and calendar events.


Barnea, Ezra. “Music and Cantillation in the Sephardi Synagogue.” Musical Performance-The Performance of Jewish and Arab Music in Israel Today. Edited by A. Shiloah. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997. pp. 65-80.    

Katz, Ruth. “The Singing of Baqqashot by Aleppo Jews.” Acta Musicologica, 1968. XL: 65-85.

Kligman, Mark L. “Modes of Prayer: Arabic Maqamat in the Shabbat Morning Liturgical Music of the Syrian Jews in Brooklyn.” Phd. diss., New York University, 1997.              

Seroussi, Edwin. “The Turkish Makam in The Musical Culture of the Ottoman Jews, Sources and Examples.” Israel Studies in Musicology 5, 1990: 43-58.          

Shelemay, Kay K. Let Jasmine Rain Down – Song and Remembrance among Syrian Jews. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. 


* Translated from the Hebrew original in "An Invitation to Piyut" website, by Elie Adelman.

Sound Examples: 
Male pi shira (My mouth is full of song)

From the JMRC cd set: A Song of Dawn. Recorded in the Har Tzyion synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2003.

Ani ashava' ba-boker (I shall cry out in the morning)

From the JMRC cd set: A Song of Dawn. Recorded in the Har Tzyion synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2003.

El Be-yado

El Be-yado, a piyyut of Rabbi Eliahu Leniado, sung by Moshe Habusa. Listen in invitation to piyut website.

Video Gallery: 
Havdala in Ades synagogue