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Jewish Journal

Musical Instruments on Shabbat?

by Dennis Prager

June 30, 2010 | 12:30 am

My 15 years in yeshiva and a lifetime of work with Orthodox Jews and Orthodox organizations have given me an immense respect for Orthodoxy. It is impossible to imagine Jewish life without the Orthodox, their seriousness about Judaism, and their commitment to learning and practice.

But as many Orthodox Jews acknowledge (at least in private), Orthodoxy needs to confront its virtual inability to change rabbinic laws. I do not mean changing Torah laws or Orthodox positions on moral and social issues (for the record, Orthodoxy is confronting the agunah issue). The Orthodox positions on the status of the human fetus, retaining the definition of marriage as man-woman while welcoming gays into Jewish life, nondenominational prayer in schools and school vouchers — all these positions are, within the context of Jewish life, courageous and, within the context of American life, mainstream.

I am specifically referring to rabbinic laws bein adam la’makom, between man and God.

As I learned in yeshiva, it takes little skill or courage for a rabbi to declare something asur (prohibited); it takes learning and courage to declare something mutar (permitted). But it seems that most of the brilliant and learned minds in Orthodoxy today are devoted to reinforcing and increasing the prohibited.

I would like to offer an example of a rabbinic prohibition that deserves to be rethought — the ban on playing musical instruments on Shabbat and other Torah holidays.

It is clear that God thought music on Shabbat and holy days was a good idea, since He prescribed it (instruments were played in the Holy Temple on Shabbat). As Psalm 92 notes: “A psalm, a song, for the Shabbat day. It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name, O Most High ... to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp.”

Yet, what God prescribed, rabbis later proscribed. Why?

The rabbis gave three reasons for banning instruments:

1. We are mourning the destruction of the Temple, and therefore we should not be playing instruments in the synagogue on Shabbat and Holy Days.

The logic of this argument is unclear. If we should be mourning the destruction of the Temple and playing musical instruments is the opposite of mourning, then musical instruments should have been allowed on Shabbat, because on Shabbat, Jews are not permitted to mourn.

Furthermore, if God made it clear that He is more easily approached in prayer accompanied by musical instruments, why would the rabbis deprive Jews of that ability? The Jews’ best place to get close to God — the Temple — was destroyed, and then the best way to get close to God in prayer — with instrumental music — was forbidden. So now, Jews have no Temple and no instrumental music.

2. If an instrument breaks, we might try to repair it, and that would constitute working on Shabbat.

One obvious response to this argument is: We are allowed to use many things that might break on Shabbat. Why allow Jews to sleep on a bed — what if it breaks on Shabbat? Why can we use a refrigerator — what if it breaks on Shabbat? Or the air conditioning and heating systems that all Orthodox shuls use? What if those systems break on Shabbat?

Interestingly, in this instance, Chabad rejects this logic about repairing instruments and changes rabbinic law. On its excellent Web site, AskMoses.com, the question of whether one is allowed to clap on Shabbat is asked. Here is part of Chabad’s answer:

“The Mishnah expressly says that it is forbidden to clap on Shabbat or Yom Tov because it might bring someone to make a musical instrument, which is a forbidden act. However, it is common practice by all Chasidim to clap hands when singing on Shabbat or Yom Tov.” The explanation given for this custom is: “This prohibition applied in Talmudic times, when many people were proficient in making musical instruments. Today, however, there are very few people who know how to assemble an instrument, so there is no reason to prohibit clapping.”

3. Producing sound on Shabbat is prohibited.

To the best of my knowledge, this is noted once in the Talmud, in ruling on whether a certain game was allowed to be played on Shabbat. Later rabbinic rulings on making sounds, including music played by a non-Jew (at a Shabbat wedding meal) are mixed. For example, a leading halachist, the Ravyah (Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel
Halevi, circa 1140-1220), ruled that it is permissible to ask a non-Jew to play a musical instrument at a wedding meal that takes place on Shabbat. And this ruling is later codified by the Rama in the Code of Jewish Law (Orach Chaim 338:2).

I recognize that there are Jews, including non-Orthodox, who oppose musical instruments in shul on other, non-halachic, grounds. For example, Conservative Rabbi Sharon Brous, cited last week in The Jewish Journal, “believes that instruments inhibit spontaneity and create the feel of performance.”

In responding to that argument, I would note that anyone attending a religious Jewish wedding knows how uniquely powerful musical instruments are when playing Jewish music, and they never seem to inhibit spontaneity. As for “the feel of performance,” I am more moved at a powerful instrumental performance than I have ever been when singing alone or with others. But I acknowledge that is subjective.

Perhaps the best argument for musical instruments in Jewish prayer may be found on the Web site of Ohr Somayach, a leading Orthodox outreach organization:

“Musical instruments play a very important role in Torah. They were used by the Prophets to put them in the correct frame of mind to receive prophecy, they are used to enhance and beautify prayers, and they can even be used to inspire people to greater diligence in their Torah studies.”

I am not advocating that Orthodox Jews take matters into their own hands and start using musical instruments on Shabbat. Part of being Orthodox means working within the system of Orthodoxy. What I am advocating is that courageous Orthodox rabbis take the time to reexamine some of these positions and work to change them through consensus. They have done it before and they can do it today.

Regarding prayer with instruments, God knew what He was doing. The power of instrumental music is incomparable. Its absence on the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, in this believing Jew’s view, has not helped most Jews pray.


Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, columnist, author and public speaker. He can be heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) weekdays 9 a.m. to noon. His Web site is dennisprager.com.

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