Jewish Perspectives on Music by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Broad Perspectives on Music

Before we explore the halachic issues concerning music, we should review some basic ideas expressed in the Tanach and Gemara concerning music.  The Tanach and Gemara are replete with sources in which music and song play a major role.  After the splitting of the Yam Suf, Moshe led the Jewish men and Miriam led the women in song.  The singing of the Levites in the Beit Hamikdash was of major importance.  Our daily prayers make prominent mention of this singing.  The Gemara (Megilla 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.  The Torah here (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 translation of Onkelos), and the development of music.  We see how the Torah regards music as a basic achievement for humanity.

The second source is a powerful Talmudic passage that appears in Chagiga (15b).  The Gemara asks (see Rashi) how the great Tanna, Rabbi Elisha Ben Avuyah, lost his faith.  Why did his great knowledge of Torah fail to protect and prevent him from abandoning Hashem?  The Gemara states 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 individual and the community.  Music can draw us closer to Hashem and His holy Torah or can, God forbid, lead us astray.  With this idea in mind, we are ready to explore some of the halachic issues concerning music.

Talmudic Sources

In light of our discussion, it is not surprising to find many restrictions regarding music in the Talmud.  The Mishna (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) develops this theme and declares that the song of the chipworkers 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 À___ À_À _____, "They served no constructive purpose; it was an entirely frivolous activity."

The Gemara in Gittin (7a) presents a seemingly more drastic prohibition. The Gemara tells us of a Rabbinic decree that forbade listening to 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 after the destruction of the Temple. Rashi, commenting on Gittin (7a), indicates that the prohibition is limited to singing in a tavern.  Tosafot (ibid.) supports Rashi's contention by citing the aforementioned Mishna in Sotah.  Tosafot adds two important points.  First, it is inappropriate to listen to music excessively.  Tosafot cites an anecdote that appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 3:2), in which Mar Ukba (a Talmudic authority) rebuked the Exilarch (___ ____À) for listening to music when going to sleep and waking up - i.e., excessively.

Tosafot concludes his remarks by presenting an exception to this rule.  He states that music 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 goes back at least to the Gaonic era, as this approach is espoused by Rav Hai Gaon.  This exception is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 560:3) and is virtually uncontested.

The Rambam's View

Although Rashi and Tosafot rule 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 a content of drinking wine is prohibited.

The dispute between Rambam on one hand and Rashi and Tosafot on the other continues to be debated among the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries, nineteenth century codes, and contemporary authorities. We will now explore these sources.

Shulchan Aruch and its Commentaries

Rav Yosef Karo (Orach Chaim 560:3) rules in accordance with the Rambam's view, but the Rama 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 Mishna 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 a 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 Mishna Berura (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, and he does cite the opinion of the Rama.  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.

Contemporary Authorities

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 ruling 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 Rama (the view of Rashi and Tosafot) that music in a moderate degree is permitted outside a tavern.  Rav Yehuda Amital (Rosh Yeshivat Har Etzion) told this author that he believes this approach to be correct.

An interesting argument appears in Rav Yaakov Breisch's responsum on this issue (Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov 1:62).  He suggests that the rabbinic decree to avoid music applies only to live music and not to recorded music.  This ruling has been applied in practice by some to the periods of time in which it is our custom to refrain from listening to music (during Sefira, the Three Weeks and periods of mourning).

Rav Shmuel David (a contemporary Israeli authority) writes in Techumin (13:187) that it is very possible that classical music is not included in the Rabbinic decree forbidding 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. 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 not, God forbid, detract from it.

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