The spring and summer are times when there is more time available for leisure activities, including music. Thus, it is appropriate to discuss at this time the propriety of listening to music according to Halacha. The ideas we will share concerning music apply to a great extent to all leisure activities.
Broad Perspectives on Music
Before we explore the Halachic issues concerning it, we should review some basic ideas about music expressed in the Tanach and Gemara. The Bible and Talmud are replete with sources in which music and song play a major role. After the splitting of the Yam Suf, for example, Moshe Rabbeinu led the Jewish men in song, and Miriam likewise led the women. The singing of the Levites in the Beit Hamikdash was of major importance. Our daily prayers make prominent mention of this singing. The Gemara (Megillah 32a) strongly encourages us to sing the Torah we study. Two sources in particular demonstrate that the Torah considers music to be very important.
The first source is the fourth chapter of Bereshit (Genesis). The Torah there (verses 20-22) describes some of humanity’s first great accomplishments and advances. Included in these advances are the breeding of cattle, the use of iron and copper implements (see the translation of Onkelos), and the development of music. This shows that the Torah regards music as a core achievement of mankind.
The second source is a powerful Talmudic passage that appears on Chagigah 15b. The Gemara (see Rashi ad. loc.) asks how come the great Tanna, Rabi Elisha Ben Avuyah, lost his faith. Why did his great knowledge of Torah fail to protect and prevent him from abandoning the Torah? The Gemara answers that the reason is that “Greek music never ceased to emerge from his mouth.” The lesson is obvious. Music has a profound effect on both the idividual and the community. The (mostly negative) impact of The Beatles on society during the 1960’s and 1970’s is a contemporary example of this phenomenon. Music can draw us closer to God and His holy Torah or it has the potential, God forbid, to lead us astray. With this idea in mind, we are ready to explore some of the Halachic issues concerning music.
In light of the above, it is not surprising to find that Chazal issued a number of restrictions regarding music. The Mishnah (Sotah 48a) records that when the Sanhedrin ceased to function in Jerusalem, the Rabbis forbade song in the wine houses. The Jerusalem Talmud (9:12) explains the reason for this decree: “At first, when the Sanhedrin was functioning, it was able to impose discipline and prevent the introduction of inappropriate content in song. When the Sanhedrin ceased to function, it could no longer impose discipline, and people would introduce corrupt lyrics into music.”
The Gemara (Sotah 48a) continues this theme and declares that the song of the chip workers and the farmers was permitted, but the song of the weavers was forbidden. Rashi explains that the permitted songs were not frivolous; they helped the workers and animals perform their tasks. The weavers’ songs were forbidden because they served no constructive purpose; it was an entirely frivolous activity.
The Gemara on Gittin 7a presents a seemingly more drastic prohibition. The Gemara records that Chazal simply forbade listening to all music subsequent to the destruction of the Temple.
Rishonim – Rashi and Tosafot
The Rishonim debate to what extent the rabbis prohibit the enjoyment of music in the post-Churban era. Rashi (commenting on Gittin 7a) indicates that the prohibition is limited to singing in a tavern. Tosafot (ibid) support Rashi’s contention by citing the aforementioned Mishnah in Sotah. Tosafot argue that this source leads us to conclude that the prohibition applies only to playing music in a drinking house. Tosafot also add two important points. First, they state that it is inappropriate to listen to music excessively. Tosafot cite as proof an anecdote that appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 3:2), in which Mar Ukba (a Talmudic authority) chastised the Exilarch (Reish Galuta) for listening to music when going to sleep and waking up – i.e., excessively.
Second, they state that music that is played in the context of a mitzvah, such as at a wedding celebration, is entirely permissible. The Rambam (Hilchot Taaniot 5:14) similarly writes that it is permissible to play music of a religious nature. The origin of this exception dates back at least to the Geonic era, as Rav Hai Gaon espouses this approach. This exception is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 560:3) virtually uncontested.
The Rambam’s View
Although Rashi and Tosafot rule fairly leniently on this issue and permit music to be listened to on a moderate basis outside of taverns, the Rambam adopts a much stricter approach. He writes (Hilchot Taaniot 5:14) that instrumental music is entirely forbidden (except in the context of religious music), and vocal music without instrumental accompaniment is permitted only if the singing takes place in a context in which wine is not being consumed. The Tur (Orach Chaim 560) cites a responsum of the Rambam in which he adopts an even stricter stand – even vocal music unaccompanied by instruments and not sung in the content of drinking wine is prohibited.
The dispute between Rambam and Rashi/Tosafot continues to be debated in the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries, nineteenth century codes, and contemporary authorities.
Shulchan Aruch and its Commentaries
Rav Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 560:3) rules in accordance with the Rambam’s view, but the Rema cites the opinion of Rashi and Tosafot. The Magen Avraham (560:9) cites the Bach, who rules even more strictly than the Mechaber does. Whereas Rav Yosef Karo rules in accordance with the Rambam’s view presented in the Mishneh Torah, the Magen Avraham and Bach believe that the Rambam’s view presented in his responsum is normative. They rule that music is always forbidden unless it is of religious content and nature.
Nineteenth Century Codes
This issue continues to remain a matter of controversy between the great nineteenth century authorities. While the Chayei Adam (137:3) and Mishnah Berurah (560:13) cite the ruling of the Magen Avraham and Bach as normative, the Aruch Hashulchan (560:17) seems to adopt a more lenient approach. He does not cite the opinion of the Magen Avraham and the Bach, but he does cite the opinion of the Rema. Whereas the Magen Avraham and Bach are critical of women who sang while doing their work, the Aruch Hashulchan does not criticize them. The Aruch Hashulchan appears to regard the lenient approach of Rashi and Tosafot as acceptable.
This dispute continues to be debated by contemporary authorities. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe 1:160) adopts a fairly strict ruling in this matter. Although he writes that it is not required to follow the most stringent opinion of the Bach and the Magen Avraham, he regards the strict opinion of Rav Yosef Karo to be normative. On the other hand, Rav Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:62) endorses the common practice to follow the ruling of the Rema (the view of Rashi and Tosafot) that music in moderation is permitted outside a tavern. Rav Yehudah Amital (Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion) told me that he agrees with this approach. In addition, Rav Moshe (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe O.C. 3:87) writes that one should not object to one who follows the ruling of the Rama regarding music.
An interesting argument appears in Rav Yaakov Breisch’s responsum on this issue (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:62). He suggests that this decree applies only to live music and not to recorded music. This ruling has been applied in practice by some individuals to the periods of time in which it is our custom to refrain from listening to music, such as the Sefirah period, the Three Weeks, and twelve-month mourning period for a parent. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (in his aforementioned responsum and Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:137:2) clearly indicates that he does not subscribe to this approach. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 6:34) explicitly states that he does not permit listening to music Rav Shmuel David (a contemporary Israeli Halachic authority) writes in Techumin (13:187) that it is very possible that classical music is not included in the rabbinic decree against listening to music subsequent to the destruction of the Temple. He bases this suggestion on the Maharshal (Yam Shel Shlomo 1:17) who writes that listening to music “to hear pleasant sounds or hear something fresh” is permitted. It is similarly reported in the name of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik that music of the sublime (classical music) was not included in the Rabbinic decree. The decree, in the Rav’s opinion, applies only to music of revelry.
What should emerge from this review of Jewish perspectives on music is that we must take care that the music we listen to is in harmony with our Torah lifestyle and goals. Music with lyrics such as “she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine” is very obviously incompatible with a Torah Hashkafa and lifestyle. The same can be said regarding all leisure activities. Care must be taken to ensure that one’s leisure activities enhance one’s relationship with God and Torah and do not, God forbid, detract from it.