Abraham Moshe Bernstein

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Abraham Moshe Bernstein

Birthdate: (65)
Birthplace: Minsk, Belarus
Death: June 16, 1932 (65)
Vilnius, Vilniaus miesto savivaldybė, Vilnius County, Lithuania
Immediate Family:

Son of Yekutiel (Yekusiel) Bernstein and Mira Bernstein
Husband of Lina Bernstein (Anzel)
Father of Miriam Mira Bernstein; Aminadav Bernstein; Naomi Punski; Aviasaf Bernstein Barne'a; Segula Kovarsky and 1 other
Brother of Hertzel (Gertzik) Bernstein; Meir Bernstein; Samuel (Shmuel - Leib) Berenstein and Isaac Shmuel Bernstein
Half brother of Herman (Haim Sholim) Bernstein; Gilbert (Gdalya) Bernstein; Boris Bernstein and Hana - Gitl Romanovsky

Managed by: Mona Lantz Levi
Last Updated:

About Abraham Moshe Bernstein

Avraham Moshe



Amongst the giants of Chazanut in Eastern Europe, was the famous Chazan and Composer, Avraham Moshe Bernstein. His name is not well known today, even amongst lovers of Chazanut, as he did not make any recordings. He was, however, a key figure in the development of modern Cantorial music, a man who served his community, the Taharat Hakodesh Shul in Vilna, faithfully and conscientiously for 30 years.

Not only was Bernstein a fine Chazan, he was also a first-class musician, who wrote beautiful compositions, and an erudite Hebrew scholar. He was fluent in several languages, and was known to be a very kind and humble man, and a genial personality.

Avraham Moshe Bernstein was born on Tisha B'Av in 1866 in Shatzk, a small town in West White Russia - Minsker Gubernia, as it was in those days. He was brought up in a strictly orthodox household, and at nine years of age, was already well versed in Gemara. His father was a Baal T'fillah, and Avraham Moshe derived much pleasure in helping his father at the Amud. At the age of ten, he decided to leave his home town, and went to Minsk, where he entered the Yeshivah.

The Chazan of Minsk at that time was the famous Yisrael Minsker, who was a very sweet 'davener', and possessed a very clear diction. Avraham Moshe was deeply inspired with his davening and decided to approach him for an audition, which was granted, and the young lad was accepted as a chorister in Yisrael Minsker's choir. However, he did not 'fit in' with the other choristers, whose ways were far from refined, and decided to leave.

He left Minsk, and entered the Yeshivah of Mir, where he remained for two years. He was yearning to daven and sing, and after leaving Mir, he travelled from town to town until he arrived in Kovno. There, he met the renowned Chazan Raphael Judah Rabinowitch, of the Kovner "Chor-Shul", who combined the qualities of Chazanut, music, scholarship, and Hebrew culture. Bernstein became a pupil of Rabinowitch's, and a close friend of his family. It was Rabinowitch who was his guide and mentor in his future career.

In 1888 at the age of twenty-two, Bernstein became Chazan in Bialystock's "Adat Yeshurun", where he remained for eighteen months, then becoming Choirmaster of the Great Synagogue of Riga, Latvia, where the illustrious Chazan Baruch Leib Rosovsky (1841-1919) (a pupil of Weintraub) officiated. In 1893 as already mentioned, Bernstein accepted the position as Chazan of the "Chor-Shul" in Vilna, known as the "Taharat Hakodesh", where he remained for thirty years.

Bernstein davened in a most delightful and classical manner. He had a first- class choir, and their fine repertoire consisted of the finest classical compositions. The late Moshe Kusevitzky was a chorister there for a number of years, under the leadership of Chanan Glaser (who perished in the Vilna Ghetto). Bernstein composed quite a number of compositions, published in three volumes, named "Avodat Haboreh". He also edited the "Musikalisher Pinkus" - a collection of Zemirot and Chassidic melodies, and a number of Hebrew and Yiddish 'lieder', among them the famous "Zamd un Shtern", words by Frug, and "Hemerel, Hemerl, Kiap", words by Raizen. Among his compositions is the well-known "Yismechu v'malchuscho" for Cantor and Choir, which was included in the repertoire of the famous synagogues in Europe, prior to the last war.

Unfortunately, the Synagogue that he had served so faithfully for so many years, treated him very badly and terminated his contract at the age of about 57. In order to survive, he became a teacher in a Jewish High School. He was completely unaccustomed to teaching and the effort undoubtedly shortened his life. He died on the tenth of Sivan in 1932, at the age of 66.

(Based on an article by Chazan Jacob Sherman in the Cantors' Review 1977)




By J. Landenberg.

The world famed Chazan A.M. Bernstein, was one of the Chazanim who attempted to restore the old tradition of Chazanut instead of Western Jewish Music, which had become infested with tunes of Christian origin, introduced into Sacred Services.

He was the follower of the great composers of Jewish liturgy, such as Boruch Shorr, Eliezer Gerowitch, David Novakowski, and, in particular, Pinchas Minkowski. What the latter and striven for in Odessa (Russia), Bernstein endeavoured, and achieved, in Wilna (Lithuania). He was singer, scholar, student of knowledge, a product of the Haskalah Generation of the religious camp, a musician and composer of great talent, and, above all, a true 'Shaliach Tzibur'.

Three personalities had a great influence on him, a 'formative influence', in his heart and mind. His mother - his first 'Melamed' - and his music teacher and spiritual guide, the Chazan of Kovna, R. I. Rabinowitz. His mother died in 1877. From her, he inherited a character of pleasantness and refinement - the term in Yiddish is 'Edelkeit', from his 'Melarned' he learned patience and dedication, and from the Chazan of Kovna, the constant urge to widen his knowledge. He was known in Wilna as a man of morals and nobility, a man of high standards, both in ethics and in relation to his fellow men, but, at the same time, he would not stand the company of ignoramuses, or arrogant people.

Most of his early youth was spent in Torah learning At the age of seven, he was already studying the Talmud, and by nine, knew three 'Masechtot' by heart. His grandparents looked after him when he was away from home, and saw that he should grow into a Ben Torah. When he was ten, he was sent to the city of Minsk, which was known to be a place of advanced study of Jewish Learning.

While in Yeshiva, he also joined choirs of various Chazanim, and began to learn Chazanut. Thus he was able to combine Torah with Neginah, and Limudei Kodesh with Limudei Chol. At the age of eighteen, he came to Kovna, where he met the local Chazan, Rabinowitz. In Chazan Rabinowitz, he found a friend as well as a teacher: to him, the latter personified the 'ideal man' - a living example of man and person which he (Bernstein) wished to be. He admired Rabinowitz's qualities and character, for his knowledge of the Talmud and broad outlook in life: the epitome of a Jewish European scholar and musician.

He began to study music and languages with enthusiasm at the School of Music in Kovna. However, he never forsook the learning of Torah, and continued his regular Shiur in Talmud. At that period, Bernstein's personality began to shape and form.

Not only had he a thirst for knowledge: since his youth, he had been attached to the National Zionist Movement, which was established by the great leader of that time, Asher Ginzberg, internationally known as 'Achad Ha'Am'. In 1899, Bernstein became an active member of the organisation known as the 'B'nei Moshe'. This movement attracted all young members of the Jewish inteligentsia - from the Yeshiva bachurim to University students. This movement kindled the spark of Nationalism in many hearts, and their ideal was to re-educate Jewish youth into a generation of 'Lovers of Zion', to be proud of their origin - not to bend their knees before the cruelty of the Gentiles among whom they lived - not to permit themselves to be underrated by the 'Goyim'.

Bernstein, with his knowledge of music and culture, with his high morality and ethics, was a particular example In daily life: 'Torah with Derech Eretz': 'Idealism with the pride of Nationality'. He became a living example to all who understood the importance of Chazanut within the Jewish culture. His intellectual personality was greatly admired by all his friends and members of the Zionist Movement.

Nevertheless, Bernstein sought to broaden his knowledge, striving to continue his studies and to become a professional musician. He gained knowledge of harmony and composition, and learned the foundatlons and origin of the various 'Nusschaot' of our prayers, and their relation to Jewish Music. From his early teens, he composed songs for existing poems in Yiddish and Hebrew, and many of his compositions were widely acclaimed and accepted all over Europe. Among his works are the music for the poems 'Am Olam' (lyrics) by Z'vi Mane, 'Al Harrei Zion', by Dolizki, and the famous Jewish song 'Samd und shtern' by Prug. All these compositions accompanied the Lovers of Zion In the 'B'nei Moshe Movement' in their activities, and became very popular In the latter years of the last century.

Several years later, he composed the music to a poem by S. Prug which was a Lamentation for the Martyrs of the Kishinev Pogrom. His was a fruitful source and a mountain-stream of music. He published compositions for many poems of the great poets of Hebrew contemporary literature: Byalik, Tshernichovski, Kipnis, Yehoash, and Shneyur. His attachment to Hebrew Literature inspired him to compose hundreds of songs for adults as well as for children, for solo and also for choirs.

For a short time, he was Chazan in Bialistock (Russia) and from there went to Riga, where he conducted the choir of the famous Chazan Boruch Leib Rozovski. During the four years of his work as a choir-conductor, he had the opportunity to further his knowledge in Jewish Music and in Chazanut, thanks to the friendly co-operation between himself and Chazan Rozovaki, and the contacts with the elite of the Jewish Folk-musicians in Riga.

In 1893, he was invited to Wilna by the "Taharat Hakodesh" Shool, to accept the position of Chazan, which he held for thirty years. His compositions of Chazanut were already sung all over the world. The outstanding pieces are known today as the Hashkiveinu in F Minor, Yismach Moshe in C Minor, for Chazan and choir, Ahavat Olam, in E Minor, and HaShem, HaShem, in A Minor. His composition 'HaShem HaShem', which was sung by Sirota with choir, was acclaimed in his time by the famous Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who said that he found in this the most interesting tune of Jewish Liturgical Music. Among those who spread his songs were Joseph VInogradov, Mordechai Hershman, Menachem Kipnis, Zimra Zelingfeld, and Gershon Siroa, Sirota's daughter, Helena, and many other singers.

In 1914, Bernstein published two books of his works under the title "Avodath Habore". His third book came to light in 1931. Today, these books are a rarity, although, some years ago, they were re-printed among many other Classics of Chazanut and Liturgical Music.

A great work of research was done by him in the field of Jewish Folk-lore Music. This was made possible by the establishment in Wilna of an Institute for research of the History of Ethonography. Bernstein became a member of the Committee which was in charge of all the work, and was given the task of researching the Music Section.

He devoted eight years of bard work in collecting and classifying the origins of the many melodies. At the end, he published a bock named the 'Musikalisher Pinkas' - a collection of Lieder and Nigunim from the storehouse of Jewish Musical Treasure. (This book has been re-published by the Cantors' Assembly of America). He was the composer of the famous 'Oath-song' of the Poalel Zion "Mir Schweren, Mir Schweren". He also compiled a book for music sight-reading 'solfege', which was accepted in all Jewish schools in Wilna.

It is to be regretted that this article has to end on a sad note, but one must state the truth. Chazan Pinchas Sherman (who was for many years the Chazan Sheni in the famous Tlomazki Shool in Warsaw) in 1934 wrote an article in the "Chazonim Velt" on the great Bernstein: "It would have been logical and a normal practice of a great Congregation like the 'Taharat Hakodesh' in Wilna" (stated Chazan Sherman) "to provide an honourable livelihood for a person who brought so much pride, honour and joy to this community, and served it faithfully for thirty years. However, they did not fulfil their duty So, at the age of about fifty-seven, Bernstein had to leave his post, and was compelled to become a teacher In a Jewish High School, which degradation undoubtedly shortened his life".

Chazan Bernstein was a prolific composer in the fields of Liturgy and Folklore, in fact, he was second to none. He was a great 'Maskil', a Ben Torah, and an extraordinary musician in the field of Chazanut. His creations are not only theory and dry Harmony, but rich in their context within, and beautiful in their melodies. He always strove to be in the middle-stream, between the Classic and Modern, while, at the same time, his compositions are religiously most expressive.

He had a great and wonderful soul.

(This article was published in the March 1972 edition of the Cantors' World)

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Abraham Moshe Bernstein's Timeline

July 21, 1866
Minsk, Belarus
November 20, 1894
Age 28
Vilnius, Vilnius city municipality, Vilnius County, Lithuania
January 13, 1896
Age 29
Vilnius, Vilnius city municipality, Vilnius County, Lithuania
February 1, 1899
Age 32
January 25, 1902
Age 35
Age 38
March 26, 1909
Age 42
Vilnius, Vilnius city municipality, Vilnius County, Lithuania
June 16, 1932
Age 65
Vilnius, Vilniaus miesto savivaldybė, Vilnius County, Lithuania