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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).

Geographical background

Pizmonim are traditionally associated with Middle Eastern Sephardi Jews, although they are related to Ashkenazi Jews' zemirot. The best known tradition is associated with Jews descended from Aleppo, though similar traditions exist among Iraqi Jews (where the songs are known as shbaִhoth, praises) and in North African countries. Jews of Greek, Turkish and Balkan origin have songs of the same kind in Ladino, associated with the festivals: these are known as coplas.

History of texts

The texts of many pizmonim date back to the Middle Ages or earlier. Many are taken from the Tanakh, while others were composed by poets such as Yehuda Halevi and Israel Najara of Gaza. Some melodies are quite old, while others may be based on popular Middle Eastern music, with the words composed specially to fit the tune.[1] A prolific composer of pizmonim of this last kind was Hakham Refael Antebi Tabbush (Aleppo 1830-Cairo 1919), who is regarded as the founder of the tradition in its present form. The tradition has since been exported to Syrian Jewish communities in the Americas by his pupils, principally Moses Ashear. Pizmonim are composed for special occasions such as weddings and bar mitzvahs by Cantors in the past, as well as the present, by Ezekiel Albeg, Gabriel A. Shrem (a student of Ashear), Eliyahu Menaged (a student of Tabbush), Rabbi Raphael Yair Elnadav, and others.

Maqamat (maqams)

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.

Liturgical use

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.

Pizmonim, or any melodies, are generally not applied throughout the week during prayer services.


Sephardic Pizmonim Project.

Sephardic Pizmonim Project

The Sephardic Pizmonim Project, founded by David M. Betesh, is a foundation dedicated to the scholarship, restoration and preservation of the ancient music of the Sephardic-Syrian Jewish community. The project is dedicated to the memory of Cantor Gabriel A. Shrem, the former director of Yeshiva University's Cantorial Institute (Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music) and cantor of B'nai Yosef Synagogue. The idea of the project began in the late 1970s when Shrem started teaching a course at Yeshiva University. As a demonstration tool, Shrem recorded the bulk of the pizmonim for classroom distribution. The collection resulting from these recordings encompassed roughly 70% of the Sephardic pizmonim liturgy. The collection of recordings in this project serves Syrian Jews today as the official canon of pizmonim.

The Sephardic Pizmonim Project organisation re-released all of Shrem's recordings on a large CD collection in September 2004 selling approximately 6,050 CDs throughout the world. The organisation opened a website in 2006 with the goal of "continuing the work that Gabriel Shrem started and preserving any obscure [Middle Eastern Jewish] tradition possible". In the process, cantors throughout the world have contacted the organisation and provided recordings to further enhance the project. The project's website contains recordings of the Biblical taamim and the baqashot, together with pizmonim not included in the CD collection.

More recently, the project has announced that it has reached the benchmark of only missing 118 melodies of pizmonim from the 'Shir Ushbaha Hallel VeZimrah' pizmonim book. When the project first began, they were missing over 300 pizmonim. The last 118 pizmonim that are still missing will be more difficult to obtain due to the aging population and the general difficulty of those specific pizmonim.

Further reading

Pizmonim books

  • Aboud, Ḥayim Shaul, Sefer Shire Zimrah, Jerusalem, 1936.
  • Aboud, Ḥayim Shaul, Sefer Shire Zimrah Hashalem im Sefer le-Baqashot le-Shabbat, Jerusalem, 1953, repr. 1988.
  • Antebi Tabbush, Refael Yiṣḥaq, Shirah Ḥadashah, Aleppo, 1888.
  • Ashear, Moshe, Hallel Vezimrah, Jerusalem, 1928.
  • Cohen, Refael Ḥayim ("Parsi"), Shir Ushbaḥah, Jerusalem, 1905 and 1921.
  • Shrem, Gabriel, Shir Ushbaḥah Hallel Vezimrah, Sephardic Heritage Foundation, New York, 1983.
  • Sefer Shirah Ḥadashah Hashalem (second edition), Zimrat Ha'Aretz Institute, New York, 2002.
  • Shir Ushbaḥah, Machon Haketab, Jerusalem, 2005.
  • Sefer Pizmonim Hameforash - Od Yosef Ḥai, 2006/7.

Secondary literature

  • Langer, Ruth, To Worship God Properly: Tensions Between Liturgical Custom and Halakhah in Judaism. Hebrew Union College Press, 1998. ISBN 0-87820-421-0
  • Shelemay, Kay Kaufman, Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance among Syrian Jews. University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0-226-75211-9
  • Sutton, David, Aleppo - City of Scholars. ArtScroll Publications, 2005. ISBN 1-57819-056-8
  • Kligman, Mark, Maqam and Liturgy: Ritual, Music and Aesthetics of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, Detroit 2009
  • "Pizmonim Book Goes Digital", Community Magazine, Aleppian Publication Society, November 2004.


  1. Occasionally, pizmonim are set to popular Western tunes such as Frère Jacques or Santa Lucia.

See also

External links

lt:Pizmonim simple:Pizmonim