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04 January 2006


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Chazzanut Online - Nusach/mp3s

Sung Nusach - mp3


What is Nusach?

An important part of the cantorial repertoire consists of Nusach: the basic collection of traditional, melodic motives used to recite Jewish prayers. The specific pattern to be used for a prayer depends both on the holiday on which it is to be sung, and on the type of service (e.g. morning or evening service). In this way Nusach sets the mood for the entire service.

Each Jewish community traditionally had it's own local variation of Nusach. Today, in a globalizing world, much of that variety is getting lost. Within the Ashkenazi (i.e. occidental) branch of Judaism, there can be distinguished two main types of Nusach: the Western European and the Eastern European tradition. On this page I'll illustrate the Western European Nusach as it can be heard in Amsterdam.


As an example, I've sung a short fragment ("Retseih") from the Main Prayer. While the text remains the same on all occasions, the Amsterdam Nusach has no less than six different melodic patterns for it. Below, you can listen to mp3 recordings of all six variations:

Mussaf of Shabbat 501k
Minchah of Shabbat 528k
Pilgrimage Festivals 620k
High Holidays 752k
Normal Weekdays 380k
9th of Av fast-day 520k

Each pattern has its own distinctive character. Notwithstanding that, there are striking similarities in phrasing and accentuation; in opening and closing formulas. An often encountered mistake is that people tend to use the Nusach from the Pilgrimage Festivals on the High Holidays as well; while the closing formulas are indeed roughly similar, the rest of these two patterns differ a lot.


I've also sung a short fragment ("Venismach") from the evening service. Again, the text remains the same on all occassions. Accidentally, also this time there are six different patterns and thus six different mp3 recordings to listen to:

Shabbat 636k
Pilgrimage Festivals 684k
High Holidays 904k
Solemn Weekday Services 652k
Normal Weekdays 380k
9th of Av fast-day 368k

The "Solemn Weekday" Nusach is used during Chanukah, Purim, and on other solemn weekday occations such as inaugurations and commemorations. On the Pilgrimage Festivals a liturgical poem can be inserted into the text which it's own Nusach; for clarity I haven't sung such a poem on the recording. As you might have noticed, the 9th of Av is the only day on which the Nusach for "Venismach" is exactly the same as the Nusach of "Retseih." On that day, all the main prayers of the evening and the morning service are sung to the same Nusach. Due to the fact that "Venismach" forms the direct introduction to the main part of the evening prayer---the "Shema"---most patterns end here somewhat more triumphant than normally.

I noticed above that much of the variety in Nusach is getting lost. One of the symptoms is that the traditional Western European "venismach" for Shabbat is often replaced by a totally different variant of Eastern European descent:

Eastern Venismach
Shabbat 540k

Mark Slobin noticed this striking symptom already in his book "The Story of the American Cantorate."


The Dutch Nusach is known for its melodic Kedushah tunes. The Kedushah is the section from the main prayer in which the praying community sanctifies God, by echoing the words of the angels: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Eternal One, Master of Legions, the whole world is filled with his glory" (Isaiah 6:3).

The Mussaf service of Rosh Hashannah (New Year) features an extra long version of the Kedushah. Below you can listen to a mp3 recording of it. For practical reasons, I've split the recording into three files:

Kedushat Mussaf
Rosh Hashannah-part 11.3M
Rosh Hashannah-part 22.0M
Rosh Hashannah-part 31.4M

The melody is based on the theme of "Vehakohanim," part of the Mussaf service of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

Note that the central verses of the Kedushah are said responsive: these verses are first sung by the community, after which the cantor repeats them. I've only sung the cantor's repetition, which is virtually the same as what the community sings. A small difference is that unlike the cantor, the community does not say the word "Echad" in the sentence "Echad hu elokeinu." Since the verse "Addir Addireinu" is repeated by the cantor to a different tune than initially sung by the community, I sang this verse twice.

Kaddish and Priestly Blessings

Another striking feature of Dutch Nusach is that each holiday has its own tune for the "Kaddish" prayer and for the Priestly Blesssings. The different melodies for the Priestly Blessings were all transcribed by Berlijn. Lissauer transcribed three of the many different Kaddish tunes.

Below you can listen to a rare recording of the Minchah Kaddish of Yom Kippur, sung by the late Amsterdam chief cantor Bentsion Moskovits:

Minchah Yom Kippur 1.7M

This piece comes from a private gramophone recording of the wedding of his son. The bridegroom fasts on the day of his wedding, and says parts of the Yom Kippur liturgy during the Minchah service preceding his wedding. Therefore it's an old custom that the cantor sings the kaddish of the wedding Minchah service according to the tune of the Yom Kippur Minchah service.

Read More

  • You might want to read my introduction to my collection of notated Nusach.
  • The patterns of Nusach are on their turn based on the basic motives of the Prayer Modes, or Staygers. Josh Horowitz wrote an excellent article on these Staygers and their significance for Jewish music in general.
  • Josh Sharfman has recorded an Eastern Ashkenazi nusach of more or less the whole year. He made it available on his website in no less than 725 MP3 tracks!
  • See the Encyclopedia Judaica (Vol.12, p.1283) for a more elaborate definition of Nusach.
  • Cantor Sam Weiss highly recommends Sholom Kalib's "The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue" for a study of Eastern European Nusach.
  • Kol Tefilah has also some online Nusach recordings.
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