May 24, 2013 ~ Shabbat BEHA'ALOTEKHA. Maqam SIGAH.
Pizmonim (Hebrew פזמונים, singular pizmon) are
traditional Jewish songs and melodies with the intentions of praising God as
well as learning certain aspects of traditional religious teachings. They
are sung throughout religious rituals and festivities such as prayers,
circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other ceremonies. Pizmonim are
generally sung in Hebrew.
Pizmonim are extra-liturgical, as distinct from piyyutim, which are hymns printed in the prayer-book and forming an integral part of the service. Similar songs sung in the synagogue on the Sabbath morning between midnight and dawn are called baqashot (שירת הבקשות).
All pizmonim can be classified under different maqams (musical modes), of which there are about ten in common use. Maqam Ajam, which sounds a little like a Western major scale, is the thematic maqam that contains many holiday melodies. Maqam Hijaz, which corresponds to the Phrygian dominant scale, is the thematic maqam that contains many sad melodies. Maqam Sikah (or Siga), containing many three-quarter-tone intervals, is used for the cantillation of the Torah. Maqam Saba is the maqam used for circumcisions.
Origins of tradition
The origin of the tradition must be seen in the context of certain rulings of the Geonim discouraging the use of piyyutim in core parts of the prayer service. These rulings were taken seriously by the Kabbalistic school of Isaac Luria, and from the sixteenth century on many hymns were eliminated from the service. As the community did not wish to lose these much-loved hymns, the custom grew up of singing them extra-liturgically. Thus, the original core of the pizmonim collection consists of hymns from the old Aleppo ritual (published in Venice in 1560) and hymns from the Sephardic service by Yehuda Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol and others. A few hymns were also taken from the liturgy of the Romaniotes.
Further pizmonim were composed and added to the collection through the centuries. This practice may have arisen out of a Jewish prohibition of singing songs of the non-Jews (due to the secular character and lyrics of the songs). This was true in the case of Arabic songs, whereby Jews were allowed to listen to the songs, but not allowed to sing them with the text. In order to bypass the problem, many composers, throughout the centuries, wrote new lyrics to the songs with the existing melodies, in order not to violate the tradition of not singing non-Jewish songs.
During typical Shabbat and holiday services in the Syrian tradition, the melodies of pizmonim are used as settings for some of the prayers, in a system of rotation to ensure that the maqam suits the mood of the holiday or the Torah reading. Each week there is a different maqam assigned to the cantor according to the theme of the given Torah portion of the week. A pizmon may also be sung in honour of a person called up to the Torah, immediately before or after the reading: usually this is chosen so as to contain some allusion to the person's name or family.
All music is forbidden, even without words, as it says in the Talmud
Sota (48a), 'The ear that listens to music should be uprooted.'...
Any sound that brings pleasure to the soul and stirs emotions is
prohibited... The reason for this is obvious; this [immortal] desire must be
controlled and held in check so as not to arouse it... We have explained and
proven clearly that the purpose of the Jewish people is to become a holy
nation and we should not involve ourselves in actions or speech unless they
are bringing us to perfection or a step toward perfection. We should not
arouse drives within us that bring us to no good and make us uninhibited in
foolishness and merriment... The music that the
Geonim have permitted is that of hymn and praise [to God].
Heaven forbid to include mundane song in that category."
- Excerpt from Maimonides' Letter to the Syrian community, 1100s.
"Syrian Jewry, especially the community of Aleppo has long enjoyed a reputation as lovers of liturgical music and singing; dating back over one thousand years, to the time of Saadiah Gaon. The singing of Baqashot (supplications to the Lord) and Pizmonim (songs of devotion and adoration to God, to Torah, and to Israel). Space limits us to list but a few of the outstanding poets, some of whose selections are in this book. From Twelfth Century Spain, we have selections of the immortal Abraham Ibn Ezra, Yehuda Halevi, and their contemporaries. Israel Ben Moses Najara of the 17th Century Damascus contributed with his very outstanding poems. Rabbi Mordechai Labaton and Rabbi Mordechai Abadi and other poets of the 19th Century Aleppo enriched us with their inspiring compositions. In recent generations, this holy tradition was perpetuated by Aleppo's two outstanding poets,Raphael Taboush and Moses Ashear Hacohen. They developed the usage of tunes and melodies of the Middle East in our Sabbath and Holiday prayers. Thus, led by the gifted Hazzan, the congregants participated in the services and reached new heights in the worship of the Almighty... It is our fervent hope that this tradition will be perpetuated during Holy Worship and in all our communities in an everlasting series of joyous occasions."
- Introduction by Sam Catton A"h, founder of Sephardic Heritage Foundation.
"The custom [of singing pizmonim] is firmly established and well founded in the sources of the Talmud, Halakha, Midrash, and the Zohar...And so it is, "let the righteous ones see it and rejoice"; let the just give praises for the printing- for the children of Israel- of this book of supplications of the community of Aleppo. Anyone who rushes off and makes great effort to this is to be commended- the payback from heaven will be double. [Borrowing melodies and providing them with new, sacred Hebrew texts is done for a] good reason, a reason of fundamental importance, and it is correct that it is said about it "that it is good." This is so because the melody is a holy spark. Because when one plays sensual love songs, the spark is submerged in the kelippot [waste coverings]. It is for this reason that it is necessary to establish a foundation of holy words- drawn from the mouth of scholars and from the mouth of books- for any tune with a non-Jewish source, in order to lead the spark from the realm of evil to the realm of holiness. This is an obligation in the same way that it is an obligation to draw sinners to good, to turn away from iniquity, and to bring out the precious from the vile. It is an obligation to make clear the holy sparks. So it is with holy songs. The holy sparks bring light to the just."
- Excerpt from the Introduction of Jacob S. Kassin A"h, Chief Rabbi of the Syrian Community of New York.
"About thirteen, fourteen years of my life are in this book... So I worked on it only at night, because after all I have to take care of my family. I used to work a lot of times until 1 or 2 o'clock at night. And as it is I used to work with one-sixth of what the average person has sight. I didn't care... I mean, I'm in love with the pizmonim books. You know- I'll tell you- I'm in love with the pizmonim."
- Gabriel A. Shrem A"h, Jan 1986.