Music > יצירות מספרות > The Incarnations of the “Avinu Malkeinu” Piyut: from the Talmud to Barbara Streisand

The Incarnations of the “Avinu Malkeinu” Piyut: from the Talmud to Barbara Streisand

A musical voyage through three melodies written to different verses from the “Avinu Malkeinu” prayer, embarking from the widespread Ashkenazi tune, passing through a familiar Chassidic niggun and ending with Max Janowski’s melody.


Written and researched by Tamar Zigman, the Music Collection and Sound Archive of the National Library of Israel.


​The prayer Machzor instructs “The Ark is opened”. The Holy Ark is opened, and the cantor and the congregation begin to intone: “Our Father our King, we have no King other than you… Our Father our King be gracious to us and answer us as we have no deeds…”. The “Avinu Malkeinu” [Our Father Our King] prayer, whose roots reach back as far as the Talmudic era, is one of the most familiar prayers and one of those most closely identified with this period, the “High Holy Days” – the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.


Despite different customs regarding its manner of recital, in various communities (primarily among Ashkenazi Jews), parts of the prayer are sung in different melodies. This time, we will focus on three melodies written to various verses from the “Avinu Malkeinu” prayer. The first, a widespread, familiar tune sung in many Ashkenazi congregations. The second, the melody attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement. And the third, the most recent of the three, the work of the composer Max Janowski.


“Is it known who composed the familiar, widespread and common melody of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’?” I asked Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, the musicologist and cantor. He replied: “I’m sorry to disappoint you… unfortunately I don’t know who composed the well-known tune of ‘Avinu Malkeinu’.” Schleifer referred me to the book “Otzar Neginot Yisrael” [Thesaurus of Hebrew Melodies], of the composer, musician, researcher and ethnomusicologist Avraham Zvi Idelson. The book is comprised of ten volumes of musical notes published between 1914-1932 and distills the results of Idelson’s research, which consisted of collecting and documenting melodies and tunes of the various population groups at the beginning of the twentieth century. Schleifer explained, that the earliest publication of the melody he is aware of appears in the tenth volume of “Otzar Neginot Yisrael” from 1932, whose topic is “Hassidic Songs” (Gesange der Chassidim).


Two different versions of the tune appear in this volume; “In the first version the melody appears as the second part of a Hassidic niggun (the first part is slow and has a 4/4 meter). In this version, the melody is divided into solo parts and choral parts, and at first glance seems completely different than the melody customarily sung today. The second version is also not exactly like we sing today, but if we ignore the introduction, the popular melody is easily recognizable.” The melody makes another appearance in an almost identical version to the one we are familiar with today in the booklet “Shirei Eretz Yisrael” [Songs of the Land of Israel] from 1935 by Jakob Schonberg. It seems the niggun was very popular in the Land of Israel during the Second Aliyah period, and surprisingly, that it was widely sung by the socialist leaders of the Kibbutz Movement.


"אבינו מלכנו" מתוך "אוצר נגינות ישראל", כרך 10, לייפציג, 1932 

The first version of “Avinu Malkeinu” from “Otzar Neginot Yisrael”, Volume 10, Leipzig, 1932 


In this context, Raphael Pischi, one of the long-time members of Kvutzat HaSharon in Ramat David told an interesting story: “The attitude toward May 1 celebrations in Kvutzat HaSharon, was one of uncertainty, and I was among those who refrained. I heard that in Gvat, the festival is celebrated in all its glory. I decided to go along and see how this festival, which does not appear in the Torah, is celebrated, perhaps I will be convinced that it’s worth it. It was May 1, 1932. I took the flock out to pasture near Gvat. While the herd ate, I went to Gvat’s dining hall, above which the red flag flew. I stood at the entrance, and heard fervent singing coming from within: ‘Our Father, our King, be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no deeds.’ I said to myself: OK, I am prepared to celebrate this kind of festival … that is how I began to celebrate May 1st…”.


The source of the familiar melody remains a mystery, but it is unquestionably widely known. Special testimony which shows how widely accepted the familiar melody is appears in the Ben Stonehill Collection, a copy of which can be found in the National Sound Archive. Ben Stonehill, (1906-1964) a Jewish native of Poland who emigrated with his family to America at the beginning of the previous century, took upon himself to collect and document musical material from European Jewish folklore. Stonehill recorded over a thousand songs, including popular songs in Yiddish, excerpts from prayers, Chassidic niggunim and more.


Many Holocaust survivors served as experts, their voices bearing the musical memory of what had been. On the recordings, various survivors appear one after the other as if on a conveyor belt, are asked their name, place of origin and age, and sing their song. In a recording from the summer of 1948 is the voice of a young boy aged 16, a survivor of the horrors of the War who managed to reach New York. There, in the Marseilles Hotel in Manhattan, Stonehill recorded him. “Eir naman? (Your name?), the boy was asked, “Un vy alt bistu? (And how old are you?). The boy replied “Zachtzen” (sixteen). “Un vat vestu zingen?” (And what are you going to sing?) – “Avinu Malkeinu”. Here the boy’s voice can be heard singing the well-known tune, the words fit into the melody slightly differently than we are used to today, but the tune is the same tune.


Performance from the Ben Stonehill Collection



The ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer begins with the words “Our Father our King, we have sinned before You”, followed immediately by the words “Our Father our King, we have no other God than You”. These words too received their own melody. One of the most famous tunes is the one attributed to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1813), known as the “Ba’al HaTanya” or the “Alter Rebbe” by followers of the Chabad movement which he established. In addition to being a great Torah scholar, he was known as have many talents, including a special musical talent. Chabad tradition attributes ten “Niggunim Mechuvanim” [Precise Melodies] to Rabbi Shneur Zalman.


As the book “Sefer HaNiggunim” (a unique anthology which complies many of the Hassidic tunes) attests, the tune to ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ is one of these ten songs. The melody has three parts: an opening phase without words, a middle phase with the words of the prayer, and a closing phase – also consisting only of a tune. The entire congregation sings the niggun immediately after the Ark is opened, before the Cantor begins reciting the prayer.

"אבינו מלכנו" בלחן רבי שניאור זלמן מליאדי, מתוך "ספר הניגונים", כרך א', 1948 

‘Avinu Malkeinu’ in Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi’s tune, from “Sefer HaNiggunim”, Volume 1, 1948 



In a clip recorded during a Hassidic “Hitva’adut” thirty years ago the voice of the leader of the Chassidut, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad can be heard signing the niggun. The recording begins with the second phase of the melody, which includes the words of the prayer in the Rebbe’s voice. The Chassidim then join in the song, and then the other two sections are heard, the end section and the opening section, which appears at the end in this recording. 


In a recording from the collection of Shmuel Zalmanov, who was also appointed as editor of “Sefer HaNiggunim” by the Sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the voice of one of the chassidim – probably Zalman himself – can be heard over the introduction announcing “Avinu Malkeinu – Einer fun di tzan niggunim fun di alten Rabbin” (One of the Alter Rebbe’s ten niggunim).


This is followed by the introductory section without words, after which the second part of the niggun is heard (sung like the version which appears in "Sefer HaNiggunim", slightly different to that sung today) and finally the concluding section is sung.


Another familiar melody of the ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer is that of the musician, composer, conductor and arranger Max Janowski (1912-1991). Janowski was the son of the musician Chaim Chaikel Janowski, who was a wealthy merchant, musician and cello player, and of Miriam Rap-Janowska - the “prima donna of Israeli opera”. In Professor Schleifer’s words, Janowski was “the king of synagogue music in Chicago, primarily among the Reform and Conservative, but also in Orthodox congregations. Janowski used the Reform text of the ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ prayer for Rosh Hashana, which contains only selected verses from the traditional prayer, and wrote a work for a soloist, a mixed choir and an organ, in a style considered innovative in the Reform Temples of the time, who were still singing the repertoire of 19th century German synagogues. In contrast, in this work, like in others he wrote at this time, Janowski combined a style taken from Eastern European Cantorial music with elements borrowed from professional and grassroot Israeli music.”  


"אבינו מלכנו" בלחן מקס ינובסקי, שיקגו, 1950 

“Avinu Malkeinu” in Max Janowski’s melody, Chicago, 1950


The concept behind the work is “intimate and not extroverted song”. Schleifer notes that Janowski told him personally that he wanted the singing to be calculated, not with a free beat, but dictated by the beat of the organ which accompanies it: ‘He wanted the organ to mark his heartbeats…’ The work ends with the words “Hear our voices”, and the choir’s role gives the effect of an echo. It seems that his main public exposure came from this melody in the famous performance of the singer Barbara Streisand, which was arranged differently than the original. An early publication of the work from 1950 is found in the Yaakov Michael Collection “for solo, mixed choir, organ or piano.” 


May all the requests and prayers be accepted, as the prayer says – “Our Father our King, inaugurate a good year upon us”.