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Notes from the Moishe House Beit Midrash

No More Music?

Rabbi Shulamit Ambalu

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed. This post is formatted for LiveJournal; if you are reading it on Facebook click on "View original post" for optimal layout.]

For the speaker, the nuances of Jewish theology can be found in the halachic (law) sections of the Talmud: ideas about G-d, and the world, and ourselves. Consider the question: are Jews allowed to listen to music?

Mishna, Sotah 9:11
When the Sanhedrin ceased, songs ceased from party halls1 as it says (Isaiah 24:9), "In song you shall not drink wine". משבטלה סנהדרין, בטלה השיר מבית המשתאות, שנאמר (ישעיהו כד) בשיר לא ישתו יין וגו׳׃

1. Drinking halls. (The Hebrew word is related to the word for "drink".)

The Sanhedrin was the supreme court in the land of Israel, which decided the most difficult cases. The Romans were in charge at the time, but there were lots of autonomous decision-making groups on a village-by-village basis. The Sanhedrin was the biggest judicial body.

When did the Sanhedrin cease? [Discussion.] Most Rabbinical authorities in the Talmud assume it means in the year 70 CE, along with the Destruction of the Temple. However, a passage in Tractate Avoda Zara said the Sanhedrin removed itself from a position of authority forty years before the Destruction of the Temple.

What happened forty years before the Destruction? The Sanhedrin of the time was so against the leadership of the priesthood, which was connected closely with the utterly corrupt Hasmonean monarchy [huh? the Hasmonean monarchy came to an end with Herod a century previously!] that it exiled itself and sat in the market place: it no longer judged capital cases, and no longer took major decisions.

[Hmm, R. Jeremy Gordon said the reason the Sanhedrin moved itself was because though the rabbis of the Talmud were completely behind the idea of capital punishment, they were completely against its execution, and thus by moving itself from the only place it was permitted to pass sentences of capital punishment, they effecitively legislated capital punishment out of Jewish law.]

In the passage from the Mishna, though, the verb used of the Sanhedrin is not "exiled" but "cancelled". It might refer to the Destruction in the year 70, but we don't know.

What does song ceasing from the party halls mean? That nobody was in any mood for partying after the terrible event of the Destruction of the Temple? Is there another way to read this?

There are a number of descriptions in the Babylonian Talmud of what happened after the Temple was destroyed, for example, "Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said Rabbi Joshua testified that from the day the Temple was destroyed there was not a day without curse, the dew has not descended as a blessing, and the flavour is gone from the fruits." The relevant passage for us is in Sotah 48a:

Sota 48a סוטה מח א
Rav Huna said, the singing of sailors and ploughmen is permitted, of weaver, it is forbidden. אמר רב הונא זמרא דנגדי ודבקרי שרי דגרדאי אסיר׃

Rav Huna is very important: he was the leader of his age, and headed one of the top two academies in Babylonia.

Why is singing permitted for sailors and ploughmen? The interpreters of the Talmud say where you're singing for the necessity of your work—enforcing the rhythm needed for tasks like hoisting sails—singing is permitted, but where it's for pleasure it's not. Rav Huna is against singing for fun because he thinks the Mishna says nobody should sing, i.e. that the Mishna is not just saying nobody sang, but that nobody should sing.

The Gemara continues:

Rav Huna abolished singing, and a hundred geese were priced at a zuz and a hundred seahs of wheat at a zuz, and there was no demand for them. Rav Ḥisdah came and ordered the decree be ignored, and a goose for a zuz could no longer be found. רב הונא בטיל זמרא קם מאה אווזי בזוזא ומאה סאה חיטי בזוזא ולא איבעי׃ אתא רב חסדא זלזיל ביה איבעאי אווזא בזוזא ולא משתכח׃

(A zuz was a fairly small coin.) Rav Ḥisda was the pupil of Rav Huna; the two formed a very close partnership. Rav Ḥisda never taught while Rav Huna was alive, out of respect for him; but as soon as he died Huna established himself in his place. But Ḥisda abolished Huna's decree against music in Rav Huna's lifetime.

Why might the price have collapsed in that way? It's bad for the farmers: they cannot sell their geese or wheat! What about the peasants? Maybe it's better for them, as it's a buyer's market. Or maybe they do badly as well because of the trickle effect on the economy.

My explanation was that Rav Huna had said that people had to mourn for the Destruction of the Temple, and therefore they no longer felt it was appropriate to have luxurious foods like goose or wheat. (People ate coarser grains on an everyday basis.) Consequently the price collapsed because there was no demand; and even though the price collapsed people still weren't buying, because it was felt to be an עֲבֵירָה to do so. Then when Rav Ḥisdah said it was all right to sing, the theocratic suppression of having a good time went away, normal market forces reasserted themselves, and demand drove the price back up again.

From the speaker's understanding, what the Talmud is telling us, by contrast, is that things were good: As a reward from G-d for not singing, things were more plentiful, and there was no need to buy geese or wheat, as everyone was growing their own. When the prices went back up after the decree was abolished, this was probably not a good thing: people were back to poverty. Alternatively, people were now no longer willing to sell at a low price because the demand had gone back up.

So, is music allowed? For Rav Huna, the mourning for the Temple had to be maintained and people had to be sad all the time; for Rav Ḥisda people had to get back to normal life.

Maimonides, writing seven/eight hundred years after this, comes at the end of a long tradition of law following Rav Huna. He is absorbing also traditions which have sprung up from this saying we shouldn't sing, or not use instruments. He is the most stringent of the commentators on this issue. His Laws of Fasting, 5:14 says:

And the rabbis decreed that all kinds of instrumental music and all vocal music is forbidden for celebration/enjoyment and it is forbidden to listen to them because of the destruction of the Temple;
and even unaccompanied singing with wine is forbidden, as it says in Isaiah, "in song you shall not drink wine"
but all of Israel is already accustomed to recite words of praise and songs of thanksgiving to G-d, and the like, with wine!

The middle part is related to the Mishna; but what is the context of the Isaiah? Isaiah is talking about the devastation that may overcome the Jewish people, and talks about the bad things that may happen. Maimonides interprets this as prescriptive, as a law. He Maimonides then extends this to imply there should be no music at all. [Though that's from the previous verse in Isaiah, which wasn't in the handout.]

In the last section, however, Maimonides recognises that people are so used to singing and dancing that there's no chance he's going to be able to make his proposed new law stick. [Though to me the reference to "prase and songs of thanksgiving to G-d" implies he was talking about davening and bentshing and zemiros rather than secular songs.]

The Shulchan Oruch talks in Orach Chayyim 560 about the laws of how to to remember the Destruction of the Temple (זֵכֶר לְמִקְדָשׁ):

From 560:1: Since the destruction of the Temple, one should never again build a solid building like one fit for a king, but leave it unfinished... one should plaster it and leave a space, a cubit by a cubit, opposite the door, unplastered.

From 560:2: They also decreed that one who lays a table for guests should always diminish it a little, one should leave over a space that would normally hold a tasty dish; when a woman puts on her gold and silver jewellery, she should always leave one piece off, so she is not fully adorned; and when a man marries he should take a little of the dust from the fireplace and place it on his forehead in the spot where he would wear his tefillin... and there are places where it is customary to smash a glass under the chuppah... and all of these are done in order to remember Jerusalem, for as it is said, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem" (Psalms 137:5).

In regard to music, it says (560:3):

They also decreed that one may not play music with a musical instrument of any kind in order to enjoy happiness through them.

And it is forbidden to listen to them because of the Destruction. If there is wine being consumed, then even a purely vocal song is forbidden to sing, as it says "with song wine shall not be drunk".

It is already the custom of all of Israel to sing songs of praise or songs of thanksgiving and remembrances to the faithfulness of the Holy Blessed One on wine. (Similarly, everything is permitted if used for a mitzvah like at the house of the bride and the groom.)

Member of the audience: Chassidism, it seems, took a different view! [The speaker:] Though that might not hold for secular singing.

Again, this interprets "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem" as prescriptive. There is an element of brokenness, and self-consciousness, integral to post-Destruction Judaism in this worldview. This ritualising of remembering the Destruction of the Temple makes you constantly aware of what was lost. Ritual helps you feel emotions you might not otherwise do.

There is tremendous halachic disagreement about whether one should listen to music. Some people say it's fine unless you're completely partying. Others say you should never listen to music. Others say the mishna is wrong; it's descriptive of the time after the Destruction of the Temple, and not applicable to today.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2010-03-02 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] nancylebov.livejournal.com
Do you see any cultural effects from those rulings? It may just be my very sketchy level of knowledge, but I can't think of any Jewish folk musical instruments.

Date: 2010-03-02 02:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Not a lot; though I suspect in times and places where religious fundamentalists are in charge that may not have been the case. The custom of breaking a wine glass at weddings is universal nowadays, and I have seen houses with an unplastered patch of wall opposite the door; but I've never come across the other customs, and such ultra-Orthodox opposition to music as exists these days seems to derive more from its content and the possibility of listening to women singing than because of the Destruction of the Temple.

As for Jewish folk musical instruments, I don't know of any, but there is plenty of Jewish folk music. Maybe other peoples' instruments were considered good enough.


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