Niggun de Yoma – Marking Jewish Time with Music

Posted on January 15, 2021 by Cantor Risa Wallach

On the Shabbat that fell during Chanukah this past year, we sang the traditional melody for Ma’ozTzur, set to “MiChamocha” during our evening and morning services. In the morning, during a brief rendition of Hallel, I used the same melody to chant the text from Psalm 118, “HoduL’Adonai Ki Tov” (“praise God for God is good”).

The tradition of singing a signature melody that marks Jewish time for a specific festival is a longstanding Jewish musical tradition. In my study of what is called nusach, the traditional chant patterns and arrangement of musical motif in Jewish liturgy, I learned that these signature melodies were called a niggun de yoma.

These melodies help to locate us in Jewish time, reminding us that music used for time-bound ritual has a long history in many cultures. In Ashkenazi Jewish liturgical music, specific melodies ground us in the religious calendar. They tell time for us and get us in the spirit of the festival at hand, whether it be the High Holy Days, Sukkot, Chanukah, Pesach, or Shavuot. We even have signature melodies for TishaB’Av, a very mournful day in the Jewish year. We use the niggun de yoma for TishaB’Av to sing “Lecha Dodi” on Friday nights. Notice how many times the words “traditional” and “tradition” have come up in this essay already!

Think of a song that, when you hear it, immediately takes you back to a specific moment in time. Music helps us access our associative right brain, rather than our linear verbal left brain, though we use both hemispheres to perceive music. Patients who have suffered from cognitive decline have been shown to recall entire songs and their lyrics when music was played for them. They might not recognize people, but deep in their memories, entire songs have been preserved.

Music gives us a texture for our lives, for moments of joy, suffering, contemplation, bonding, dancing, and more. It forms the glue of a cultural identity; certainly this is true of our Jewish identity.

In our times, Jewish music tradition (there is that word again), is continuously being reinvented and reshaped.

Most likely, it always has been in the process of evolution. For us, it might seem like the music of Debbie Friedman z”l, is traditional, such as her Havdalah melody, which is used even in Orthodox circles. Melodies by ShlomoCarlebach might feel traditional to us now, though he took Hassidic niggunim (usually, wordless melodies) and simplified them, creating them in his own style. Some melodies are so popular that they become traditional within one or two years, for example, the “Oseh Shalom” or other Shabbat melodies by the Jerusalem Jewish Renewal community Nava Tehila, or “Ma Tovu” by the incredibly gifted living composer, cantor and spiritual leader, Danny Maseng. The Chanukah melody “OchoKandelikas” sounds like it could have been brought from 15th century Spain by Sefardi communities; however, it was composed in that style by the Bosnian-born, 97-year-old Sefardi singer-songwriter, Flory Jagody. (As far as I know, she is still performing!)

Speaking of songs, Shabbat Shira falls on Jan. 29. (See box for link.) On that Shabbat, the Song of the Sea from Exodus is chanted, the text that the Israelites sang and danced to when they celebrated their freedom after crossing the parted sea. We are delighted to share some choir videos of beautiful tunes that will be familiar to many, as well as other music appropriate to the Torah portion for the week of Shabbat. We encourage and warmly invite you to join our online service that evening.

We are so fortunate to have so many musical forms, traditions, and world cultures of Jewish music to use for our experiences of worship and lifecycle events. May we continue to find, treasure, savor and enjoy the music of our many traditions as part of the rich Jewish life of our congregation at Temple Beth-El.


Cantor Risa

Originally published in the January-February 2021 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.