A term in use in the European Jewish musical tradition to refer to the different modal types of Nusahei Hatefilah.


Nusah Hatefilah is the accepted ritual of liturgical singing that is based on structural elements: the combination of motifs that are built from melodic formulas within a scale system and used for improvisation by the cantor or the leader of a service. The research of the traditional music of Nushei Hatefila only began after the melodies had been transcribed into modern notation. This made their treatment difficult because, in the past, these traditions were transmitted down from father to son, and it is possible that changes occurred during the transmission. Additionally, it is possible that some of the liturgical material that existed beforehand was lost and not transcribed. Another difficulty in the notation arises from the custom to notate in fixed meters while the prayers were originally sung in a free meter and flowing rhythm.

The three central Steigers are Magen Avot, Adonay Malakh, and Ahava Rabah.

Each Steiger is connected to specific prayers and their names are derived from the liturgical text that they are most commonly associated with.

1. Magen Avot is named after the opening to the Me'ein Sheva prayer from the Sabbath evening service: "Magen avot bidvaro, mehayeh metim bemaamaro" (He with his word was a shield to our forefathers, and by his bidding will quicken the dead;).[1]

2. Adonay Malakh is named after psalm 93 that is sung at the end of the Kabbalat Shabbats service: "Adonay malach geut lavesh, lavesh hashem oz hitazar" (The LORD reigns, he is robed in majesty; the LORD is robed in majesty and armed with strength;)[2]

3. Ahavah Rabah is named after the prayer of the same name that appears in the prayers of Sabbath morning. "Ahava Rabah (ahava olam ahavtanu Hashem eloheinu" ( with great love You have loves us, Adonay our God)[3]


Musically speaking, each Steiger contains within it the typical musical elements of a scale system: half and full cadences, typical rest notes, and specific notes on which recitatives are preformed.

When praying in accordance to a Steiger, there is room to improvise (this is similar to the Arab Maqam). Cantors and skilled service leaders can facilitate different musical possibilities in accordance to their capabilities and the limitations of the tradition. The performance possibilities differ from one cantor to the next. Following are a few accepted techniques:


Extending the Motif

The musical motifs contain primary and secondary notes. When a textual unit is especially long, it is possible to extend it by adding the secondary notes. Another way of extending a motif is by means of repeating certain notes. The notes that are chosen for repetition are usually those that hold a special function for either the motif or the scale. Additionally, the extending of the motif can be attained through a sequence, that is to say, singing the motif or a section of it, on a higher or lower note.

Joining two motifs into one unit

When the textual unit is shorter, a skilled cantor can join two motifs. Thus we will get a singular unit that consists of both motifs with a pause at the end, while keeping the central notes of each motif.

Melodic Ornamentation

In order to impress the congregation with virtuosic singing, the cantor adds melodic and melismatic ornamentation to the motifs. In some instances, the cantor will facilitate a virtuosic element in order to enhance the pathos of the text. For example, the use of a melodic motif with ascending ornamentations when singing El Melekh Gadol (Great king and God) represents the greatness of God.



Some motifs allow the passage from one Stieger to another, and then back again. There are cantors who perform the modulations simply and by accepted means, and there are more skilled cantors, who perform the modulations by unique, virtuosic, and artistic means.

The Changing of the order of the Motifs

As was mentioned above, the motifs of the Steiger have specific functions within each Steiger. The name of each motif reflects these functions: opening motif, half-cadence motif, ending motif etc. When the cantor changes the order of these motifs, he must be skilled enough as not to harm the overall structure of the Steiger.

Use of Rhythm

The cantor fits the melodic motifs to rhythmic structures. These he chooses from the possibilities available within the tradition and in accordance to the rhythm and emphases of the text.


When listening in sequence to a traditional Ashkenazi service, it can be noted that there are different and permanent modal areas throughout the service. For example, during the Sabbath morning prayers, Psukei Dezimra, also known as Zmirot, are sung in a minor mode. The next unit, which begins with Shokhen 'Ad, is still sung in the minor mode. While singing the prayer Kulam Ahuvim there is modulation to Ahava Rabah. The unit begins with the prayer Kulam Mekablim and continues with the Steiger Ahava Rabah until the Amida Prayer of Hazarat Hashatz (the repetition of the leader of the service). Here there is a modulation to Adonay Malakh Steiger. In the Kedusha there is once again a modulation to Ahava Rabah. Towards the reading of the Torah, during the prayer Barekhu et Adonay Hamevorakh, it is typical to change to a major mode. 

The Question of the Steigers' Ethos

A number of researchers and cantors have discussed the problem of ethos that is connected with Nussachim. Different positions have been maintained pertaining to why certain prayers are sung in specific Steigers. Some have agreed that there is a connection between the Steiger and the character of the text, while others have either not voiced an opinion, or simply not negated that possibility. There is, in fact, no official theory as to the ethos of the Steigers and it is a field that lacks substantial proof and evidence in order to know for sure what lies behind it.



[1] The standard prayer book; English translation by the Rev. S. Singer (1915).

[2] The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. 


Sound Examples: 
'Nekadesh Et Shimkha Ba-'Olam' in Ahava Raba Steiger

The prayer Nekadesh Et Shimkha Ba-'Olam in Ahava Raba Steiger. Sung by cantor Asher Ben Shalom, recorded by Carmela Goldman.

Musical Transcription