A collection of singers with trained voices who take part in divine service and who are separated from the congregation. The first choir mentioned in the Bible is the one organized by the Levites for the Temple service, to be accompanied by musicians. The choir also sang at the offering of public sacrifices ("when the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began," II Chron. xxix. 27) and at the wine-libation (Maimonides, "Yad," Kele ha-Miḳdash, iii.). Two priests with silver trumpets gave the signal for the choir to begin (Tamid vii. 3).Levitical Choir in the Temple.
The prophet Samuel and King David are said to have subdivided the Levites into twenty-four orders, each to serve a certain day (Ta'an. 27b; compare I Chron. xxv.). Some acted as doorkeepers, and others were engaged as either singers or musicians. Each one was assigned his post in the choir or orchestra, and was not permitted, under penalty, to assume the position of another. Hence the choristers could not be instrumentalists, nor vice versa. Five years' preparation, from the age of twenty-five to thirty, was required of every Levite; this preparation included instruction in singing. This limitation, in vogue at the Tabernacle, was, according to the Talmud, eliminated in the Temple service, where ability to sing, and not age, was the qualification of the Levite chorister(Ḥul. 24a). At the dedication of Solomon's Temple the sons of the Levites accompanied the choir in singing the praise of God (II Chron. v. 13). These young Levites "sweetened" the music with their soprano voices, but were not permitted to use instruments, and were restricted from entering the priests' hall in the Temple before the adult Levites had begun to sing. They were not allowed to stand on the same platform with the latter, but had to take up a position on the ground below ('Ar. 13b). The Temple choir was composed of no less than twelve adult singers besides the young assistants.
The question whether vocal or instrumental music formed the principal service is decided in favor of the choir (Suk. 50b; Maimonides, ib.). Graetz infers that the twelve Levites mentioned in the Mishnah served in the dual capacity of singers and players "Kritischer Commentar zu den Psalmen," p. 65, Breslau, 1882), which is contrary to Maimonides, who states: "The instrumentalists were not included in the number of twelve. . . . Others who stood there were playing the musical instruments" ("Yad," ib. iii. 3).Female Choristers.
Women took an active part in choir-singing. At the exodus from Egypt, Miriam formed a chorus composed of women, and sounded the praise of God to the accompaniment of drums and dance-music. It is said: "God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the Lord" (I Chron. xxv. 5), from which passage some writers erroneously infer that women were included in the Temple choir. But the words "all these" refer only to the sons, and not to the daughters, as is proved by the number of choir members mentioned in the list (ib. 7-31; Weisel, ad loc.). Ezra mentions 200 singing men and singing women among those that returned from Babylon to Jerusalem(Ezra ii. 65); but for the Temple service only the sons of Asaph are counted (ib. iii. 10; compare Neh. vii. 67-xi. 22). The women choristers, however, were heard in dirges in honor of the dead. "All the singing men and the singing women spake of Josiah in their lamentations" (II Chron. xxxv. 25). R. Meïr says those were the wives of the Levites (Pirḳe R. El. xvii.).After Temple Times.
The Rabbis, after the destruction of the Second Temple, issued a decree prohibiting all instrumental or vocal music, as a sign of national mourning: "The ear that listens to music should be [barren] deaf; any house where there is song should eventually be destroyed" (Giṭ. 7a). Later on, however, R. Hai Gaon contended that this referred only to Arabian love-songs. Maimonides permitted the choir to sing in God's praise at the synagogue and at all religious feasts ("Yad," Ta'aniyot, v. 14; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ ḥayyim, 560, 3).
R. Isaiah Hurwitz (died in 1573 at Safed, Palestine regrets the choir's custom of prolonging their singing at the end of the benedictions, thus interfering with the prompt response of "Amen" by the congregation; also their arbitrary connection and division of the words and syllables, which produce a wrong and meaningless reading. "Surely the choir of our holy Temple was sweet and pleasing both to God and to men, with due respect to precision and correct pronunciation of every letter of the words. This example we must follow" ("Shene Luḥot ha-Berit," p. 253b, Amsterdam, 1698). See also "Sefer Ḥasidim," § 158, on the necessity for singing prayers and the praises of God.Scientific Musical Choir in Later Times.
The modern musical scale was introduced into the synagogue at Venice about 1600. Six to eight members, who became masters of music, formed a choir and sang on every holiday the "Hallel," "En Kelohenu," "'Alenu," "Yigdal," and "Adon 'Olam." Some members objected to this innovation; and the question, submitted in 1605, was decided favorably by R. Judah Aryeh Modena, who was supported by the opinion of the following rabbis: Benẓion Ẓarfato, Leib Saraval, Baruch b. Samuel, Ezra Panu of Mantua, and Judah b. Moses of Venice ("Te'udat Shelomoh," xxiv.).
Solomon Ḥazzan of Metz, in his manual for cantors, admits that a cantor can not get along without choristers, "just as it is impossible for the earth to exist without wind"; but he deprecates the low character of some of the singers, and their misbehavior in frequenting drinking-places, in neglecting to pray in the synagogue daily, and in chatting during the prayers when they attend on Saturdays and holidays (ib. xxiii.). He admonishes the choir to be careful in singing the Sabbath "Zemirot" at home, lest it appear that they praise God for remuneration only (ib. xvi.).Among Ḥasidim and Reformers.
The beginning of the nineteenth century gave birth to two extreme parties: the Neo-Ḥasidim in Poland and the Reformers in Germany. While diametrically opposite in their views, both agreed that singing in the house of prayer is an essential part of the service. The Ḥasidim, however, opposed the church music and the special, organized choir, as they all joined in singing at prayers and sang the "Zemirot" at home. On the other hand, the Reformers not only chose a trained choir, but, through the influence of Israel Jacobsohn at Berlin in 1817, introduced the organ to accompany them (see Organ); and afterward permitted even a mixed choir of men and women. This action, according to Graetz, "History of the Jews," v. 563-572, called out strong protests from the Orthodox rabbis headed by R. Moses Sofer, as being prohibited according to the Talmud: "to listen to the voice of woman is leading to lusting after her" (Ber. 24a; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 75, 3). The male choir is still maintained in Orthodox synagogues. A far more important question than that raised by the employment of female choristers, is whether non-Jewish choristers of either sex should be engaged in a Jewish synagogue; whether the most sacred parts of the service should thus be sung by persons unable to enter into the spirit of the religious community which they represent. It is greatly to be deplored that this question has never received the serious consideration on the part of modern congregations which it really deserves.
- Abraham Portaleone, xii.-xiii. Mantua, 1612;
- Solomon Ḥazan, , Offenbach, 1718;
- Eliezer Lieberman, , pp. 14-18, Dessau, 1818;
- Abraham b. Löb, , Responsum i., Amsterdam, 1820;
- Joseph Levin Saalschütz, Gesch. und Würdigung der Musik bel den Hebrüern, Berlin, 1829;
- Abraham Zuṭra (Klein), pp. 40, 109, Hanover, 1834;
- Leopold Löw, Lebensalter in der Jüd. Literatur, Szegedin, 1875;
- idem, Gesammelte Schriften, 1898, iv. 108-119;
- P. Smolenskin, part ii., pp. 267-269;
- Meïr Rabbinowicz, , pp. 215-221, New York, 1888;
- Cantoren-Zeilung, vii. No. 3.