Nussach (Hebrew: נוסח nusaħ, modern pronunciation nusakh or núsakh), plural nuschaot or nussachim, is a concept in Judaism that has two distinct meanings. One is the style of a prayer service (or “rite”) (Nussach Teiman, Nussach Ashkenaz, Nussach Sefard or Nussach Ari); another is the melody of the service depending on when the service is being conducted.
Nussach primarily means “text” or “version”, the correct wording of a religious text or liturgy. Thus, the nussach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or in a particular community.
In common use, nussach 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.
Traditionally, the nussach or style of prayer services is tied to the practices of the community from which ones ancestors stemmed. Though in current times there has been some standardizing of each nussach, vast differences can still be found within each given style.
Commonly used by Ashkenazi Jews – typically those of Western and Central European decent
The Ashkenazi rites largely encompass practices of the Jews of Central and Western Europe. The origins of Nussach Ashkenaz itself date back to medieval times – with practises and rites that were documented and written down somewhere in and about the 9th century. There are differing opinions as to who derived and first recorded the Ashkenazi liturgy, but it is clear that the origins date to practises derived from Babylonian times. Amongst the different Nussachs or styles, the Ashkenazi Nussach is more uniform with less variance from community to community than many of the others.
Commonly used by Ashkenazi Jews and by most Chassidic sects
In the 17th century, there was movement amongst the Ashkenazi Jews to incorporate some of the Kabbalistic aspects of the Sephardi Jewish rites and liturgy – the result – Nussach Sepharad . Early Ashkenazi Chasidim incorporated aspects of the Kabbalistic practises of Sephardim, but the text was not in widespread use until sometime later towards the 18th century. The Sepharad nussach is not uniform, versions of Nussach Sepharad will range in similarity from Nussach Ashkenaz to Nussach Eidot Hamizrach, although by design, all incorporate Kabbalistic aspects of Nussach Eidot Hamizrach, particularly those which are part of the teachings of Rabbi Issac Luria – a.k.a. H’Ari Hakadosh or the AriZal. Rabbi Issac Luria lived from 1534-1572 in Sefad, Syria and is arguably the father of Chasidut. (This title is typically attributed to the Ba’al Shem Tov, who used a siddur attributed to the Ari as the basis for his Chassidic rites and beliefs.) The text and ideas of Nussach Sepharad became widespread in the 18th century with the widespread growth of Chasidut and ultimately became the Nussach of choice for Chassidim. The nussach is also commonly used by many non-chassidic Ashkenazi groups. Though the text may be similar to Eidot Hamizrach, the actual rites and style of prayer is much more strongly Ashkenazi in style.
Nussach Eidot Hamizrach
In modern times commonly used by most Sephardi Jews
Though the Nussach or text of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews is not at all uniform, many of the various rites are closely related and generally similar. Nussach Eidot Hamizrach is the style of rites of the Sephardi Jews stemming from Iraq, but has become popular in many other Sephardi communities. One of the draws of Nussach Eidot Hamizrach is it’s strong Kabbalistic leanings. (In contrast, the customs of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Jews have a little to no Kabbalistic elements though their texts are still more similar to those of Eidot Hamizrach.) In modern days, with the influence of Rav. Ovadia Joseph, former Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel, the Sephardi Jews of Israel seem to be coming together with a common text that is under the umbrella of Nussach Eidot Hamizrach with some of the more Kabbalistic elements removed.
Typically used by Chabbad Chassidim / Lubavitch and also used by some other Chassidic sects
Though Nussach Sepharad was intended to be a compilation of the teachings and practises of Rabbi Isaac Luria aka H’Ari, in practise, many of it’s texts were found to be inconsistent with the actual teachings of the Ari. In the 18th century Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi undertook the task of compiling more accurately the actual teachings of the Ari together with other Kabbalistic-Chassidic customs of Zalman’s time, thus this compilation included not only the Sephardic practices of the Ari but also the Kabbalistic and Chassidic learnings of Rabbi Zalman and others. The Siddur compiled by Rabbi Zalman a.k.a. the Alter Rebbe was published in 1803 and to acknowledge the multiple sources and the fact that it was not purely a compilation of the practices of the Ari, Rabbi Zalman described it as Al Pi Nussach H’Ari or according to the teachings of the Ari. This text became the cornerstone of prayer for the Chabad or Lubavitch Chassidim.
And Many More …
Though each Nussach described above is in widespread use today, these do not nearly begin to encapsulate every nussach. There are many more minhagim/customs and nussachs, each one functionally documenting the customs of a particular community or region.