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In Search of the ‘Song Of Zion’: Abraham Portaleone on Music in the Ancient Temple

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Abraham Portaleone’s massive disquisition on the Ancient Temple (Sefer shiltei ha-gibborim, 1612) stands alone among Hebrew writings of the early seventeenth century. Of its ninety chapters, ten along with comments in various appendices present his views on the so-called ‘Song of Zion’ (Psalms 137:3), or music sung and played by the Levites for worship in the Temple. Portaleone takes off from the premise that its components, thought to have gradually been forgotten by the Hebrews in their wanderings after 70 CE, were, from earliest times, imitated and preserved by Christians in their art music. He thus described it after the example, however historically incongruous, of late sixteenth-century Italian polyphony (music for two or more voices). But he also spoke of the cantillation of Scriptures in connection with Temple services, even though cantillation—as we know it—evolved mainly in the medieval synagogue. Realizing the contingency of his remarks, he predicted that both polyphony and cantillation will be eclipsed in future times by a return to the original ‘Song’ in its “intrinsic perfection.” By examining Portaleone’s treatise along with writings of his contemporaries, it is possible to unravel some of the difficulties in defining music as practiced or thought to have been practiced in the First and Second Temples.


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