Q. When did choirs begin in Jewish worship?
A. Jewish choirs have a long lineage. In the Temple there was instrumental and choral music, directed and provided by the Levites. There was a limit on the number of instruments in the Temple orchestra, but there were no restrictions on the number of singers; the minimum was twelve but no maximum was stipulated (Arach. 11a, 13b; Sukk. 50b-51a).
Singing was considered more essential than instrumental music. The choristers, like other Levites, commenced training at 25, entered active service at 30 and retired at 50 (Num. 4:2, 8:24-25; Chull. 24a). It is unlikely that women formed part of the Temple choir; instead, boys were allowed to take part “to add flavour to the music”. They were known as “assistants to the Levites”, though, by a play on words, their critics called them “tormentors of the Levites”, since they had high, unbroken voices and the other choristers could not reach such high notes (Arach. 13b).
Outside the Temple, there were “singing men and singing women” (e.g. II Sam. 19:36, Eccl. 2:8, Ezra 2:65, Neh. 7:67). They probably did not sing together as mixed choirs but separately, such as at the crossing of the Red Sea where the men sang first, and then the women (Ex. 15:20).
After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis discouraged the use of music as a mark of mourning, and the special exemption permitting instruments in the Temple on Shabbat fell away. Henceforth, until the modern period, choral singing was almost unknown and such choirs as did exist were usually merely small groups of male vocal assistants to the cantor.
With the coming of the emancipation, congregations in various European countries increasingly demanded synagogues with decorum, dignity, vernacular sermons and musical sophistication. Despite the occasional grumbles about choirs turning congregants into almost passive spectators, it was generally found that a synagogue choir with an organised repertoire made important contributions to the service. It provided variety.
The voice of the chazan, no matter how beautiful, could become monotonous or at least lose is impact when heard alone, unaccompanied, over the course of a major service. A choir, with its rich variety of vocal and harmonic colours, refreshed the ear. It helped to renew interest in the liturgy and enhanced the emotional experience of the congregation. And when the chazan resumed chanting, even he benefited from the contrast.