Nusach (Hebrew: ? nusa?, modern pronunciation nusakh or núsakh), plural nuschaot () or nusachim (), is a concept in Judaism that has two distinct meanings. One is the style of a prayer service (or "rite") (Nosach Teiman, Nusach Ashkenaz, Nusach Sefard, Nusach Edot Hamizrach, or Nusach Ari); another is the melody of the service depending on when the service is being conducted.
Nusach primarily means "text" or "version", the correct wording of a religious text or liturgy. Thus, the nusach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or in a particular community.
In common use, nusach has come to signify the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition. It is one example of minhag, which includes traditions on Jewish customs of all types.
It may be subdivided into the German, or western, branch ("Minhag Ashkenaz"), used in western and central Europe, and the Polish/Lithuanian branch ("Minhag Polin"), used in eastern Europe, the United States and among Ashkenazim, particularly those who identify as "Lithuanian", in Israel.
The form used in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, known as "Minhag Anglia", is technically a subform of "Minhag Polin" but has many similarities to the German rite. See Singer's Siddur.
Nusach Sefard is the style of service used by some Jews of central and eastern European origins, especially Hasidim, who adopted some Sephardic customs emulating the practice of the Ari's circle of kabbalists, most of whom lived in the Land of Israel. Textually speaking it is based on the Sephardic rite, but in melody and feel it is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi.
Nusach Ari is a variant of Nusach Sefard, used by Chabad Hasidim.
The nearest approach to a standard text is found in the siddurim printed in Livorno from the 1840s until the early 20th century. These (and later versions printed in Vienna) were widely used throughout the Sephardic and Mizrahi world. Another popular variant was the text known as Nusach ha-Hida, named after Chaim Yosef David Azulai. Both these versions were particularly influential in Greece, Iran, Turkey and North Africa. However, most communities also had unwritten customs which they would observe, rather than following the printed siddurim exactly: it is easy, from the printed materials, to get the impression that usage in the Ottoman Empire around 1900 was more uniform than it really was.
Other variants include:
Under the influence of the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, a common nusach appears to be emerging among Israeli Sephardim, based largely on the Nusach Edot Hamizrach but omitting some of the Kabbalistic additions.
A "Temani" nosach was the standard among the Jews of Yemen. This is divided into the Baladi (purely Yemenite) and Shami (adopted from Sephardic siddurim) versions. Both rites are recited using the unique Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew, which Yemenite Jews, and some scholars, regard as the most authentic, and most closely related to the Hebrew of Ancient Israel.
The Baladi rite is very close to that codified by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah. One form of it is used by the Dor Daim, who attempt to safeguard the older Baladi tradition of Yemenite Jewish observance. This version used by dardaim was originally used by all Yemenite Jews near the time of Maimonides.
In addition, there are other nuschaot.
It is said among some mystics that an as-yet undisclosed nusach will be revealed after the coming of the Mashiach, the Jewish Messiah. Others say that the differences in nusach are derived from differences between the twelve tribes of Israel, and that in Messianic times each tribe will have its proper nusach.
The whole musical style or tradition of a community is sometimes referred to as its nusach, but this term is most often used in connection with the chants used for recitative passages, in particular the Amidah.
Many of the passages in the prayer book, such as the Amidah and the Psalms, are chanted in a recitative rather than either read in normal speech or sung to a rhythmical tune. The recitatives follow a system of musical modes, somewhat like the maqamat of Arabic music. For example, Ashkenazi cantorial practice distinguishes a number of steiger (scales) named after the prayers in which they are most frequently used, such as the Adonoi moloch steiger and the Ahavoh rabboh steiger. Mizrahi communities such as the Syrian Jews use the full maqam system.
The scales used may vary both with the particular prayer and with the season. For examples, there are often special modes for the High Holy Days, and in Syrian practice the scale used depends on the Torah reading for the week (see The Weekly Maqam). In some cases the actual melodies are fixed, while in others the reader has freedom of improvisation.