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Why is Jewish music in minor?

Why is Jewish music in minor?



It seems that Hebrew music is always in minor. Is that correct, and if so, is there a spiritual significance?


I also found this intriguing. Even more intriguing is the explanation I found in Shaarei Teshuva, a mystical work written by Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch in the early 19th century.

First of all, some preface: Western music is generally divided into major and minor modalities. Music in minor can express sadness, yearning, bitterness or some such dark mood, whereas music in major expresses joy, victory, strength and the like. (To keep it simple: major modes are those with major thirds, while minors have minor thirds.)

Generally speaking, you are right about the repertoire of Jewish music with which most of us are familiar. While there are many traditional melodies in the major modes, the minor modes (including something called Dorian and another called Moorish) certainly seem dominant.

On the other hand, Arabic and East Indian music have many more of those qualities that give the minor modes their melancholy and yearning tone. Thinking about it, the music with which Jewish people generally identify seems to fall somewhere smack in between European and Arabic culture. It's true that this is where we have been for the past 2000 years--dancing back and forth between these two mega-cultures. And it's true that much of Jewish-identified music comes from southeastern Europe, an area occupied by the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and heavily influenced by Turko-Arabic culture. Yet it's hard not to think that there must be much more to it than that.

The music of a people reflects its soul. Plato and Aristotle believed that you could overturn an entire nation simply by changing the modalities of its music. The music with which we identify as a people should give us some major clue as to who we are at a soul level. This is where the commentary from Shaarei Teshuva comes in:

The Zohar tells us that the souls of the Jewish People are split into two branches: Those related mostly to Abraham and those most related to Isaac. The Abraham souls descended into exile among the spiritual descendants of Esau--meaning Christendom and European culture, while the Isaac souls are exiled among the spiritual descendants of Ishmael--meaning the world of Islam and Arabic culture.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob reflect the three principal modalities of the sefirot: Abraham embodies Chesed—a positive, giving flow of light . Isaac embodies the Divine aspect of Gevurah--a negative, powerful restraining of light. Jacob, who embodies the entire Jewish People, also embodies the middle path of beauty, compassion and truth, which harmonizes and synthesizes Abraham and Isaac as one.

Here's how Ishmael and Esau fit into the picture: They are the modalities of their respective fathers gone wild. Ishmael is the son of Abraham, so he takes this positive flow to an extreme, being "a wild man, his hand on all others and their hand on him." Esau is the son of Isaac, and he takes Isaac's negative, restraining power to its extreme, with a powerful drive to conquer and subdue.

It would seem then, that Ishmael should love upbeat, joyful music and Esau should be attracted to harsh and bitter music--yet in fact, we see the opposite. But this is the way things work: Enjoyment always comes from opposites. Just like on a hot day, an ice cream is pleasurable, and on a cold day, a hot chocolate does the job, so too the hot, exuberant soul of Ishmael finds pleasure in cold, bitter music and the cold, harsh soul of Esau finds pleasure in hot, sweet music.

Now, you ask, what are the positively charged souls of Abraham doing among the negatively charged souls of Esau, while the negatively charged souls of Isaac are stuck within the positively charged souls of Ishmael? The answer is that they are there to heal them, and healing can only come from an opposing force.

After all, the problem of Esau and Ishmael is that they are extremists. Placing their opposites among them is meant to temper and heal that extremism. The other, related problem is that their joy and pleasure is by nature directed selfishly. This too, can be healed through their music.

The Abraham souls living with Esau, take his music and play it in a deeper, tempered way. Esau is rejoicing over his own happiness and wealth, and Jews play back that music rejoicing in the sweetness of the soul and of life, tempered with a touch of melancholy. Meanwhile, the Isaac souls living among Ishmael take his unending bitterness over the tragedies that affect him and play it back to express the bitterness of the soul over the tragedy of its descent to this world, far from its home--tempered with hope that its longing will be fulfilled and it shall return.

Although the U.N. lists 192 nations, the Torah lists seventy families of humankind. This, R. Dov Ber writes, is because there are ten facets of seven different modes of emotion. Each people has its particular facet, reflected in its flavor of music. In order for the world to reach its ultimate messianic state, each nation's music must be uplifted and refined. Esau and Ishmael are simply the two branches of chesed and gevurah upon which all these smaller branches grow.

Ultimately, through a refinement of Esau and Ishmael and all their branches, the mission of the Jewish People for which they entered exile is complete, and their time of redemption arrives. The Shaarei Teshuva concludes:

"With all this, we understand how at the end of this era, the ultimate redemption is not through the seed of Abraham, but through the seed of Isaac who are in the exile of Ishmael, singing their melancholy melodies…"

"Even though most of the exiles live among the nations of Edom and Yavan [Rome and Greece--meaning Western culture] etc., nevertheless, the main redemption depends upon the fall of the angel appointed over Ishmael, as written in the Zohar. And this is sufficient for those that understand."

I can't say I am really among "those that understand," but what I do get is that:

1. Jewish music is the music of the nations among whom we live, invested with a Jewish soul to temper that music. If so, the music of Ashkenazi Jews, living in Europe, will be slightly more minor than the music of the people around them.

2. The principal purpose of Jewish music is to refine and transform humanity, thereby bringing the messianic era. This is accomplished chiefly through the minor mode, which elevates the side of gevurah and transforms Ishmael.

Let me know if this is as fascinating to you as it is to me.

If you are looking for selections of Jewish music on our site, you'll find that at our music site. And here's a list of more essays on music, including the Kabbalistic perspective.

Source: Shaarei Teshuvah 89d

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a member of the Ask the Rabbi team.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (7)
November 23, 2014
more please!!
I see that this article is years old, but this is so fascinating that I really hope there's more material like this! I shared this with all my musician friends, jewish and non-jewish alike, and they (and I) definitely found it as interesting as you do, Rabbi. Is there more from Rabbi Dov Ber on music? Or other sources?
Laura Melnicoff
New York
May 13, 2014
Why do Minor Chords Sound Sad?
The Theory of Musical Equilibration states that in contrast to previous hypotheses, music does not directly describe emotions: instead, it evokes processes of will which the listener identifies with.
A major chord is something we generally identify with the message, “I want to!” The experience of listening to a minor chord can be compared to the message conveyed when someone says, "No more." If someone were to say the words "no more" slowly and quietly, they would create the impression of being sad, whereas if they were to scream it quickly and loudly, they would be come across as furious. This distinction also applies for the emotional character of a minor chord: if a minor harmony is repeated faster and at greater volume, its sad nature appears to have suddenly turned into fury.
The Theory of Musical Equilibration applies this principle as it constructs a system which outlines and explains the emotional nature of musical harmonies. For more information you can google Theory of Musical Equilibration.
Bernd Willimek
Bernd Willimek
November 28, 2013
I am not an expert but I wonder Is it somehow a reflection of Judaism's conservative nature and a reflection of the misfortunes that Jewish people have faced in the past i.e. loss of temple is search of a homeland etc.
james chicken
May 30, 2011
Just play Harmonic minor
Nothing more JEWISH than that! This generally gives the freedom of Major OR Minor Backing Chords!

Paul J
Huntsville, Al.
December 1, 2010
Modes, Major and Minor
Nearly all traditional Ashkenazi Music comes in four modes, only one of which is minor. Minor is a mode, not a kind of mode, so the notion that Dorian and Moorish modes are minor modes doesn't actually work.

Anyway, the four modes are named for tefillos traditionally sung in those modes, I'll give both traditional and western names: Ahavah Rabbah ("Fregish", Modified Phrygian), Mi SheBeirach / Av HaRachamim (Altered Dorian), Hashem Malakh (Mixolydian), and Magein Avos (Minor).

I don't know as much about Sepharadi music, but I know they use Fregish under the name "Tefillah".

Ahavah Rabbah / Fregish has a Yiddish name beciase it's central to Klezmer and the most used mode of any "Jewish Sounding" music. Not Minor.

Also, it's not from the west, it's provably been in Jewish use since at least the Second Temple period.
Passaic, NJ
September 7, 2008
minor or major?
i think you will find that even though many nigunim seem to be in major, you will find that you are in fact playing a minor scale. This is the true in most fast niggunim, and they might be sweet too! This is my observation: even though minor is generally considered sad, it can be very joyous, and likewise major can be melancholy. however there is a ditinct diference between a minor sadness, which is mournfull and wailing, and a major sadness which nostalgic and sorrowfull. very interesting article.
August 20, 2008
what a great article ...
I never thought of things that way. Wow!

And not that I ever did a study, but it seems a decent chunk is largely major, with some tempered with a minor flavor. Not sure how you would figure the %ages, but a big proportion of the Nigguns are major ... and exceptionally sweet!