The Baqashot (or "bakashot", שירת הבקשות) are a collection of supplications, songs, and prayers that have been sung by the Sephardic Aleppian Jewish community and other congregations for centuries each week on Shabbat (Sabbath) morning from midnight until dawn. Usually they are recited during the weeks of winter, when the nights are much longer. The duration of the services is usually about four hours. The Ades Synagogue, Jerusalem, is the center of this practice today.
The custom of singing Baqashot originated in Spain towards the time of the expulsion, but took on increased momentum in the Kabbalistic circle in Safed in the 16th century. Baqashot probably evolved out of the tradition of saying petitionary prayers before dawn and was spread from Safed by the followers of Isaac Luria (16th century). With the spread of Safed Kabbalistic doctrine, the singing of Baqashot reached countries all round the Mediterranean and became customary in the communities of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Rhodes, Greece, Yugoslavia, Egypt, Turkey and Syria. It also influenced the Kabbalistically oriented confraternities in 18th-century Italy, and even became customary for a time in Sephardic communities in western Europe, such as Amsterdam and London. (In Amsterdam the Shabbat service still begins with a small number of baqashot. In London the tunes for one or two of them have been preserved in the literature but the practice no longer exists.) By the turn of the 20th century Baqashot had become a widespread religious practice in several communities in Jerusalem as a communal form of prayer.
In communities such as those of Aleppo, Turkey and Morocco, the singing of Baqashot expanded to vast proportions. In those countries special books were compiled (such as "Shir Yedidot" in Morocco), showing the tunes and maqamat together with the text of the hymns, in order to facilitate the singing of Baqashot by the congregation. In these communities it was customary to rise from bed in the night on Shabbat in the winter months, when the nights are longer, and assemble in synagogue to sing Baqashot for four hours until the time for the morning service.
In Aleppo, Syria this custom seems to go back about 500 years. Most of the community would arise at 3:00AM to sing Baqashot and to listen to the voices of the Hazanim, Paytanim, and Meshorerim. When they arrived at Mizmor Shir LeYom HaShabbat they would break to listen to a sermon by one of the Rabbis who discussed the Parashah of the week. When he concluded they would begin Mizmor Shir LeYom HaShabbat and sing all the rest of the Baqashot.
The Syrian tradition was introduced to Jerusalem by Raphael Altaras, who came to that city from Aleppo in 1845 and founded a Baqashot circle at the Kehal Tsiyon synagogue. In this way the custom of Baqashot became part of the mainstream Jerusalem Sephardic tradition. Another important influence was Jacob Ades (1857-1925), who immigrated to Jerusalem in 1895 and introduced the tradition to the Persian and Bukharan communities. The main centre of the tradition today is the Ades Synagogue in Nachlaot, where the leading spirit was Shaul Aboud, a pupil of Moshe Ashear.
The Aleppian Baqashot did not only reach Jerusalem. The Jews of Aleppo took this custom with them wherever they went: to Turkey, Cairo, Mexico, Argentina and Brooklyn, New York. Each of these communities preserved this custom in the original Halabi style without all the changes and embellishments that have been added to the Baqashot by Jerusalem cantors over the years. Though these communities do not perform the Baqashot on a weekly basis, nevertheless, they use the melodies of the Baqashot throughout Saturday morning prayers.
There is a total of 66 songs in the Syrian Baqashot book, and the collection is now regarded as closed, unlike the general body of pizmonim, where new pizmonim are still composed for special occasions. Each song is shown with its maqam, but they follow a fixed order of recitation which does not depend on the maqamat of the different songs. There are many sections within the Baqashot. The sections are separated by different Biblical verses to be chanted in a different maqam.
The songs principally consist of the praise of God, songs for Shabbat, songs of longing for the Holy Land and so on, and include some piyyutim taken from the main body of the prayer book. These songs are considered more ancient and sacred than other pizmonim (Hebrew songs). Many of the songs contain acrostics identifying the author of that specific composition.
Baqashot are full of mystical allusions and traditions. Some of the songs contain references to some of the most sacred Jewish traditions. The following are examples of thematic songs:
The baqashot are interrupted after Song 34 to sing Psalm 92, the Psalm of the Sabbath, one verse at a time, using a different maqam for each verse. There are many other verses of the Psalms scattered throughout the different songs, called "petihot", to serve as markers. Unlike the baqashot themselves, these are rendered by the hazzan or by the elder people as a non-rhythmical solo cadenza.
Included in most baqashot collections is a poem by Elazar Azikri (1533-1600), a kabbalist who lived in Safed. The poem “Yedid Nefesh”, or "faithful friend", was one of several which were published in 1601 in Venice in his “Sefer Haredim”. The collection also includes other famous poems of similar date, such as "Yom Zeh Leyisrael" by Isaac Luria and "Yah Ribbon Alam" by Israel Najara. Other composers, from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, include Hakhamim: Abraham Maimon (student of the kabbalist Moses Cordovero), Yosef Sutton, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Yaacob Abadi, Mordechai Labaton, Eliyahu Hamaoui, Ezra Attiah (head of Porat Yosef Yeshiva for 45 years), Abraham Ibn Ezra (who wrote "Agadelcha"), David Pardo, David Dayan, Shelomo Laniado (who wrote "Shalom vatzedek"), Yitzhak Benatar, Eliyahu Sasson, David Kassin, Shimeon Labi, Mordekhai Abadi and Shelomo Menaged.
More recent composers of baqashot from the Aleppo community are Refael Antebi Tabbush (1830-1919), the leading pizmonim composer, his pupil and foster son Moshe Ashear (Ashqar) and Ashear's pupil Haim Shaul Aboud.
Song 46, "Yah Melech Ram", alludes to the names of the Baqashot composers.
Living classical composer Yitzhak Yedid is known for his combining of baqashot with contemporary classical writing.
According to Sephardic tradition, the Baqashot are unique in that the melodies were composed for pre-existing texts, unlike many more recent pizmonim where the words were composed to fit an existing, often non-Jewish, melody. It is also believed that the melodies of the Baqashot, unlike those of many pizmonim, are not borrowed from foreign sources.
The tradition of waking up before dawn and singing the Baqashot still survives today in Jerusalem, in the Ades Synagogue in Nachlaot and the Moussaiof synagogue in the Bukharan quarter. The service is held only in the winter months, starting with the night of Shabbat Noach (the second Sabbath after Simchat Torah).
In communities throughout the world not so committed to the idea of waking up before dawn, the Baqashot melodies, or sometimes the actual songs, are still sung either in the course of the prayers or casually on certain occasions.
In some settings, the honor of singing the Kaddish goes to the highest bidder.
In Turkey the equivalent tradition is known as "Shirat Hamaftirim", and the songs are performed by choirs of "maftirim". The music and style of singing are based on Sufi and Ottoman classical music. This tradition originated in Adrianople (present-day Edirne) in European Turkey. The tradition persists and is practised to this day in Istanbul.
Tape recordings of the Baqashot were made in the 1980s in order to facilitate preservation. The recordings were made vocally; that is, without music instrumentation. They were recorded by three prominent community cantors: Isaac Cabasso, Mickey Kairey and Hyman Kairey. The project was organized by the Sephardic Archives, in association with the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn, New York.
David Betesh, coordinator of the Sephardic Pizmonim Project, more recently released the Baqashot from these recordings onto the project's website (link below) for the general Internet public. Dr. Morris Shamah, Joseph Mosseri, and Morris Arking are responsible for putting the recordings together.
There are also DVD and CD recordings, with instrumental accompaniment, produced by the Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem.