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When I say "song", I mean the combination of tune and words; and yes I'm probably thinking Ashkenazically here. It seems like any European old-timer I've met knows the "good old fashioned" tune for Psalm 23 (Mizmor L'Dovid, Hashem ro'i lo echsar). How old is that? More generally, what are the oldest songs still popular today?

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Mentioned previously, but here's a great website for Jewish ethnic music research: jewish-music.huji.ac.il – chaimkut Aug 4 '10 at 12:36
This is very bround, and kind of like a list question... – Adam Mosheh Jul 23 '12 at 14:46

12 Answers 12

up vote 7 down vote accepted

I have heard from my uncle, who has been very active in the Jewish Music industry, that when he played the tune Ashkenazim use for singing the seder (order) of the Seder Night (Kadesh, Urchatz, etc.) for his music professor, the professor exclaimed that the tune was at least 1000 years old.

Then I sang the tune for some sefardic friends who exclaimed that they use the same tune (albeit with some Middle Eastern twists). They sang it and lo and behold it is the same tune Ashkenazim use! Who knows how old that tune is?!

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You got me intrigued... I found a site that has 3 versions of the Kadesh Urchatz song (artmuz.com/Haga_Tape_MAIN.htm), and I can see how they have some similarity. The common Ashkenazic one is the "Babylonian" version, whatever that means. Do you have any way of finding out the name of the 1,000 year old tune the professor had in mind? – Dave Aug 4 '10 at 2:42
The "Babylonian" one is the one my uncle played for his professor. The sefardic one I heard sounds very much like the "Salonika" version. If you listen to the entire Sefardic version you will see they are essentially the same song with different cultural influences. – Yahu Aug 4 '10 at 2:51
How exactly did this professor know how old the tune is, though? Musical notation didn't exist 1000 years ago. (And if you'll say that it's because the "Babylonian" one sounds similar to the Ashkenazic one - well, that's not necessarily a proof; there was always at least sporadic contact between the various major centers of Jewry.) – Alex Oct 5 '10 at 15:28
You are correct regarding musical notation. it was an estimate based on the cadence (I'm not sure if he meant harmonic or rythmic cadence) and other factors. it seems that there is music out there that there is reliable tradition that it is that old. – Yahu Oct 5 '10 at 22:39
As to the sporadic contact theory that does not explain its widespread use in both communities. – Yahu Oct 5 '10 at 22:41

Cantor Sherwood Goffin has an excellent article on these ancient "MiSinai" melodies. One example is the tune for Borchu in Maariv during the Yamim Noraim, which is at least 1100 years old!

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If I'm not mistaken, he has evidence that the tune itself is very old, but how long has it been used specifically for Maariv? (I think he argues "oh the court musicians were Jews so we must have had it first" ... could be, could be not.) – Shalom Aug 3 '10 at 14:31
Right; so a handful of tunes used in the davening -- e.g. half-kaddish before Shabbos musaf -- can be tracked clearly to the 1400s. What about non-davening songs? Zemiros, Ani Maamin, Shalom Aleichem, anything like that? – Shalom Aug 3 '10 at 14:32
Well, 600 years ain't too bad either. – Dave Aug 3 '10 at 14:50
+1, he is a great chazzan. – Adam Mosheh Jul 23 '12 at 14:42
Thanks for citing evidence! – minopret Oct 3 '14 at 12:58

It may be the Trop we Lain the Torah with.

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I've seen sources that the Ashkenazic trop is rooted in ancient Greek chromatic scales. – Yahu Nov 2 '10 at 5:37
@Yahu - Really? I'd like to see evidence for that. – Adam Mosheh Jul 23 '12 at 14:42

I have heard (from a rabbi then in Rhode Island, who apparently had researched this, but I forget his name and, indeed, what city he was in) that many (most? all? I forget) of our (Ashkenazi) nuschaos (tunes used for prayer, not the songs but the, if you will, chants used throughout the prayer to distinguish, e.g., holiday from weekday prayers) are as old as the Maharil, which would be in line with Shalom's comment above that "a handful of tunes used in the davening -- e.g. half-kaddish before Shabbos musaf -- can be tracked clearly to the 1400s".

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Yes that's what I meant, based on the Cantor Goffin piece. – Shalom Aug 3 '10 at 17:11

The Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said in a sicha that the Skarbova niggunim ([literally means "old", these niggunim are traditionally sung on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) were written by the Maharal. In his time there were troubles for Jews, so the Maharal asked Shmayim for davening melodies that would arouse heavenly mercy. Based on those, he established the skarbova niggunim.

The Tzemach Tzedek (third Lubavitcher Rebbe) said that skarbove niggunim were sung by the Levites in the Beis Hamikdash.

This is why these melodies are generally considered "exclusive", and Rabbonim were very Makpid not to change these tunes.

It's much harder to get older than the Levites, yet here is a niggun that has both its melody and words atrributed to the AriZal (1500s).

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@menachem (the generally accepted niggunim sung during the Yomim Noraim) – Shmuel Brin Sep 15 '11 at 19:34
can you explain a little what the Skarbova niggunim are? Maybe a link? To explain. I understand they are "the generally accepted niggunim sung during the Yomim Noraim", but which songs are those? Why are they called Skarbova niggunim? – Menachem Sep 15 '11 at 19:35
Your link at the bottom doesn't seem to work anymore. – Seth J Sep 19 '12 at 15:49
@ShmuelBrin: Do have another link to the niggun of the AriZal, or more information? – Menachem Jun 17 '13 at 14:47
I'm not seeing any particularly compelling evidence that they date from the period of the Beis HaMikdash. – mevaqesh Apr 8 '15 at 0:01

A note in a Moroccan siddur called "Avot uBanim" claims that the traditional Moroccan tune to "Ledavid Baruch A-onai Tzuri," which is recited by most Sepharadim before Arvit on Motzei Shabbat is said to go back to David HamMelech.

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Yes, I have heard the same thing about the ashkenazi tune for L'dovid Baruch, and that in fact it is very similar to the Sephardi tune, having both originated at a common source. It is commonly sung in Yekki shuls and some Eastern European shuls (particularly in some litvish minyanim in Israel). I'm not sure why the singing of L'dovid Boruch has been completely abandoned in most Ashkenazi shuls today when it is mentioned by the Rema, found in most siddurim, and traditionally sung to one of our most ancient (and in my opinion, beautiful) niggunim. – aaron Jul 23 '12 at 15:05

Shlomo Calerbach said the tune we use for Birchas Cohanim is from the Beis Hamikdash if that is true I do not know but Moshav Band lead singer writes it in one of his album Jackets too.

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I've heard that the tune used at the Kotel may go all the way back, but that's a different tune than the one usually used in shuls. No? – Shalom Aug 3 '10 at 13:55
The authoritative shiur on Birchas Kohanim melodies, from Sherwood Goffin: yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/728307/Cantor_Sherwood_Goffin/… Maybe someone can listen and post a summary... – Dave Aug 3 '10 at 14:36
Trivial, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks very much for your answer! Please consider clicking register, above, to create your account. This will give you access to all of mi.yodeya's features and will allow you to take full credit for your contributions. – Isaac Moses Aug 4 '10 at 5:10
@Dave - Thanks for that! – Adam Mosheh Jul 23 '12 at 14:43

I'm not sure if it's still of interest, but regarding a tune for Mizmor L'Dovid (Psalm 23), the popular one typically sung during Seudat Shlishit on Shabbat was composed by Rabbi Ben Zion Shenker.

Here's a link to the song as sung by Cantor Leon Lissek - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJurFRxDTFQ

NPR did a story about him in 2013 titled "The Greatest Living Figure Of Chasidic Music".

People like him are the exact reason why I put so much time into researching the authors and composers of songs when preparing my YouTube videos. If the songs are still under copyright, as his are, it's very important to know.

I hope that's helpful.

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Eli, and thanks for the answer. – Scimonster Mar 8 '15 at 21:17

See here for an article about sheet music found on a 370 year haggadah for a couple of Pesach songs. The tune for Adir Hu is very similar to one commonly used today.

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Adir Hu may date back to the 1400s, melodically speaking – Noach MiFrankfurt Nov 28 '14 at 15:13

The tune that we use for Kol Nidrei (Every place sings it differently, but it's the same idea.) is said to go back many, many years.

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Maoz tzur and it's famous tune have been going hand in hand since the 1450's. According to wiki the tune is an adaptation of an old nonjewish song, but I don't think that would disqualify it from being included here. The content of the song was started to be written in the thirteenth century, during the crusades. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ma'oz_Tzur

What the article doesn't address is that this song and it's tune are commonly sung amongst Sefardim too.

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The tune Abie Rotenberg used for the song "The Place Where I Belong" (about the Sefer Torah wanting a home...) is an unknown tune which is sang in some Shuls on Yom Kippur. I will try to get more info about this a different time.

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Who said that it's old? – Shmuel Brin Jan 26 '12 at 5:35

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