Shabbat in Amsterdam

April 13, 2018

Three hundred years ago, the Jewish community ofAmsterdam was a unique one. The Jews had originally come from Spain and Portugal, escaping the inquisition. Amsterdam at the time, had been conquered by Spain, but since it was in a Protestant country, the Catholic inquisition never reached it. Since a huge number of Jews in Amsterdam at the time, had been secret Jews in Spain, and had attended churches where they were accustomed to a rich religious musical life, they wanted to bring that richness to their lives as Jews in their new country. Part of the richness of the Christian music that they associated with the spiritual moments of worship included musical instruments: organs, solo instruments such as flute or violin, harpsichords, full orchestras, choirs, soloists. The spiritual crisis for these former “New Christians” who had fled the inquisition was the fact that returning to a traditional Jewish synagogue in a land in which Jews had more freedom, meant returning to the tradition . . . a tradition which forbad the playing of musical instruments on the Sabbath. How could these Jews incorporate musical instruments in the Sabbath Service?

The solution to this spiritual conundrum was invented by the mystics of Tsfat . . . they created a Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony for Friday nights – a ceremony welcoming the Sabbath Queen. They would introduce the Sabbath with special prayers and songs. Technically, this ceremony is BEFORE the Sabbath . . . it ends with the sunset and moves on to the Sabbath evening service.

So . . .  during the Friday Night Kabbalat Shabbat service in the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, huge orchestras and choirs greeted the Shabbat with music commissioned by the synagogue. Most of the composers who wrote works to be performed in the synagogue were, in fact, not Jewish – but they composed music to be sung in Hebrew! The instrumental and choral music continued through the “Lecha Dodi.” It was timed so the song was completed moments before the exact setting of the sun. The moment the sun set and it was actually the Sabbath, the choirs continued without the orchestra, so they never broke the Jewish laws which forbid the playing of instruments on the Sabbath.


Caption of photo:

The Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam



Kol HaNeshamah (Psalm 150) – excerpts

Sung in Hebrew

By Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti

Composed for the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam