Maftirim: Judeo-Sufi Connection

lovely detail from Turkish Synagogue Maftirim
Kalan CD 234, 2001

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I don't know if there is more research going on into the variety of Jewish religious music in recent years, or if I have coincidentally become more aware of it. Certainly, work done by Kay Kaufman Shelemay and Mark Kligman, as presented at the recent Yale Conference on Jewish Music was illuminating. David Biale's recent "Cultures of the Jews: A New History" has also opened up thought about the variety of Jewish cultures and Jewish religious expression to me. Here, we are introduced to "Maftirim", mystical poems sung as a prelude to the Sabbath service (or on other similar occasions). According to the liner notes, the first of these compositions were written in the 16th century by the rabbi, composer, and poet Shlomo Ben Mazaltov. "The tradition was revived in Edirne in 1696-1703 where cooperation with the Mevlevi dervishes enabled the composition of mystic hymns in more than 50 different modes and various forms." Several of these pieces are credited to ancients in Israel: Abraham, Moses, King David.

Those already familiar with the Sabbath singing of piyutim will find much that is familiar here: lovely sacred poems set to Turkish (in this case) music. The music is well-performed by the Maftirim Chorus, and the voice of Hazan Aaron Kohen Yaskak is one that should become more familiar to everyone already familiar with, say, Emil Zrihan. Those unfamiliar with the sanctuary offered by the Ottomans to Jews after the expulsion from Spain (and prior, after the Almohades conquered Spain and introduced an intolerant strain of Islam that ended the Golden Age and drove Jews north into Christian Spain, or East) will be pleasantly surprised to find Jewish compositions in the style of the Ottoman culture--Jews integrated deeply into the surrounding and initially welcoming culture. Those who are familiar with Ottoman music will be pleased and intrigued to hear it in a religious Jewish context, and performed so well.

The Jewish community in Istanbul, and throughout the Ottoman empire, did initially thrive. As the Ottomans lost vigor, and as the empire stagnated, religious intolerance rose. By the last century, the situation had deteriorated considerably. According to the liner notes to this album, Jews reacted, in part, by becoming involved with political change within the empire as it began a slow change towards modernity. They suffered further after the establishment of the modern State, under laws designed for force all minorities to speak Turkish and adopt secular Turkish ideals and culture. After the founding of the State of Israel, about half of the remaining Turkish population emigrated (including, among others, the popular Israeli artist Miki Gavrielov, I believe--but that's another story).

Here, the maftirim are tastefully arranged. I have thoroughly enjoyed the sparseness of the instrumentation, letting the songs, and the quality of the voices expressing them, to be apparent. At times, as on "Akav Brihateha," it is Hazan Yasak and ney only. At the most arranged, the Hazan and the chorus are accompanied only by Aziz Senol Filiz on ney, bendir, kudüm, zikir, and by Birol Yayla on tambur, with Taner Sayacioglu on kanun, as on the instrumental conclusion to "Hishavti". The liner notes don't relate whether such accompaniment would be used in the synagogue, or whether local custom follows the Talmudic dictum prohibiting instrumental playing on the Sabbath.

The liner notes are in Turkish, with somewhat adequate English translation. They include biographical paragraphs about the composers of the pieces, as well as information about which mode and accompaniment were used in each recording, as well as noting the occasion (Shabbat, specific Sabbath or holiday) on which each piece would be sung. The notes are most attractively packaged in a lovely hard-bound, lavishly-illustrated booklet.

Reviewed by Ari Davidow 7/27/03


  1. Ses Taksim (trad.) 1:08
  2. Azkir Hasde El (Abraham) 5:19
  3. Yismah Ar Tsiyon (Yehuda) 2:31
  4. Hadesh Kekedem (Chaim) 3:16
  5. Mizmor Shir LeYom AShabat (King David) 2:35
  6. Meulal Shem (Behor Mevorah) 3:50
  7. Maru Kol Sharim (Moses) 2:23
  8. Eloe Tsidki (Abraham) 2:54
  9. Hishavti (Shapsi Hayim) 8:15
  10. Ahare Nimkar (trad.) 2:11
  11. Ya Shalad (trad.) 3:06
  12. Yistmah Shalom (Isaac Varon) 2:59
  13. Akav Birhateha (Isaac Varon) 2:51
  14. Yeme Levavi Biroti (Neyzen Yusuf Pasha) 4:35
  15. Yishlah Mishamayim (Tanburi Itzhak) 2:04
  16. El Ar BatSiyon (Avtalyon) 1:48
  17. A_u E_ _u--Lord, our G-d (Moshe Ben Natan) 3:17
  18. El Shelah et Tishbi (Avtalyon) 2:36
  19. Hag Amarkabim (Moshe Beccerano) 3:33

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