Music and Matzeivah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


Ever wonder why mainstream communities do not play instrumental music to accompany and enhance Hallel on Chol HaMoed or Rosh Chodesh? A careful investigation of the prohibition of Matzeivah (one-stoned Mizbei’ach) as well as a landmark responsum of Rav David Zvi Hoffman will help us understand this phenomenon.

Major Problem with the Matzeivah Prohibition

The Torah (Devarim 16:22) states, “VeLo Takim Lecha Matzeivah Asher Sanei Hashem Elokecha,” “Do not establish a Matzeivah that Hashem hates.” Instead, we must build only a Mizbei’ach (multi-stoned altar) in the Beit HaMikdash (or Bamot, private altars, during the time periods when it is Halachically permissible to do so). This prohibition is simply shocking since none other than Yaakov Avinu made a Matzeivah (BeReishit 28:18). In addition, at Har (Mount) Sinai, Moshe Rabbeinu made no less than twelve Matzeivot to correspond to the twelve tribes! Why then does Hashem forbid Matzeivot in Sefer Devarim? Moreover, why does Hashem go so far as to hate Matzeivot if none other than Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu made one-stoned altars?

Ibn Ezra’s Solution

Ibn Ezra explains that the Pasuk in Devarim refers only to a Matzeivah that is made for the purpose of Avodah Zarah (idol worship). He explains the Pasuk as “a Matzeivah that Hashem hates,” as a Matzeivah made for Avodah Zarah. Hashem, according to Ibn Ezra, does not hate all Matzeivot but only those made for Avodah Zarah. Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu’s Matzeivot, of course, were not made for Avodah Zarah purposes and therefore were entirely acceptable.

While Ibn Ezra solves the contradiction with Yaakov Avinu and Moshe Rabbeinu, there are at least two problems with his explanation of the Pasuk in Devarim. One problem is that it is obviously prohibited to make a Matzeivah for Avodah Zarah. Why, according to Ibn Ezra, is it necessary for the Pasuk to inform us of this prohibition? Would we have thought otherwise had the Pasuk not stated this prohibition?

A second problem is that Ibn Ezra’s explanation does not fit with the Ta’amei Mikra, the cantillation marks to the Pasuk, which not only teach us how to sing the Pasuk for Torah reading but also teaches us where to punctuate the Pasuk. The Ta’amei Mikra place an Etnachta, the most intense pause of the cantillations, after the word “Matzeivah,” and before the phrase “that Hashem hates”. This indicates that the phrase “that Hashem hates” does not limit the prohibition of Matzeivah to one which Hashem hates. According to the Ibn Ezra’s interpretation the Etnachta should have been placed after the words, “Do not establish.” The Pasuk would read (using a comma as an equivalent to the Etnachta) “Do not establish, a Matzeivah that Hashem hates,” instead of “Do not establish a Matzeivah, that Hashem hates”. The traditional punctuation of “Do not establish a Matzeivah, that Hashem hates” indicates that Hashem hates all one-stoned altars, even if they are made to serve Him.

Seforno’s Solution

The Seforno explains (as do almost all of the commentaries other than Ibn Ezra) that the prohibition of Matzeivah applies even to a Matzeivah that is used to serve Hashem. He explains the change in Sefer Devarim regarding Matzeivah as a consequence of our spiritual fall after the Cheit HaEigel (the sin of the golden calf). The idea of restrictions in the manner in which we serve Hashem is certainly familiar to us. Our sins caused the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and afterwards we could serve Hashem through Tefillah (prayer), but not Korbanot (sacrifices). Similarly, before Cheit HaEigel, we could serve Hashem using either a Mizbeiach or a Matzeivah. After the Cheit HaEigel, we may serve Hashem using only a Mizbei’ach.

The Seforno, elsewhere in his commentary to the Torah, notes the permanent spiritual impact of the Cheit HaEigel. In explaining BeMidbar 28:6, he notes that Nesachim (libations) were required only after the Cheit HaEigel. One could no longer offer a Korban without accompanying Nesachim after the Cheit HaEigel, manifesting yet another restriction in our access to Hashem as a result of this terrible sin. Indeed, the basis for this idea is the replacement of the Bechorim (first born) by the Levi’im as the ones who serve in the Mishkan, due to Cheit HaEigel (Yechezkeil 20:20).

Seforno, however, does not explain why Hashem hates a Matzeivah. Hashem has denied us access to a Matzeivah due to our sins. Why would He hate a Matzeivah because of this? We move now from the approach of the Pashtanim (the commentaries on the Chumash who focus on Peshuto Shel Mikra, the straightforward meaning of the text without the aid of Midrashim) to the approach of Chazal, as presented by Rashi.

Rashi/Chazal’s Solution

Rashi, in accordance with the Sifrei (the Halachic Midrash to Sefer Devarim), understands the Matzeivah prohibition to apply even if it is built to serve Hashem. The change of attitude regarding this prohibition is because after the time of the Avot and Har Sinai, there emerged a practice among the Canaanite nations to serve their gods using a one-stoned altar. Thus, explains Rashi “although it [Matzeivah usage] was beloved in the time of the Avot, now it is hated after the Canaanites made it into an idolatrous practice.”

Ramban’s Supplement to Rashi

Ramban, however, notes that the Canaanites served their gods not only with Matzeivot but also multi-stoned altars, as stated explicitly in Devarim 12:3. That Pasuk states our obligation to destroy the Asheirot and Mizbachot of the Canaanite nations. The Ramban adds to Rashi’s approach by explaining that the Canaanite practice was to place a single stoned pillar and a tree (Asheirah) in front of their places of worship as a symbol or “logo” to inform those passing by of the location of the idolatrous center. The Matzeivah and Asheirah served as the golden arches do for McDonalds today, a well-known symbol to draw the attention of potential customers. Evidence to the Ramban may be brought from Torah’s juxtaposition of the prohibition of Matzeivah and the prohibition of Asheirah. The Ramban writes that this was the practice of the Notzrim until his day (thirteenth century Spain; for other examples where Ramban elsewhere interprets Chumash in light of the practices of his day, see his commentary to Breishit 29:12 and Breishit 46:29).

Rav David Zvi Hoffman’s Landmark Responsum

Before we present Rav Hoffman’s responsum we must understand a bit about Rav Hoffman. He was the leading Halachic authority in late nineteenth century and early twentieth century Germany. He was steadfastly Orthodox, earned a doctorate from a German university and quotes secular scholars in his writings. His rulings are renowned for their moderation and in no manner may be characterized as extremist or reactionary.

Rav Hoffman (Teshuvot Melamed LeHo’il 1:16) addresses at length the issue of using an organ in the synagogue. He concludes that it is forbidden to play the organ to accompany Tefillot even during weekday services since it mimics both Nochri and non-Orthodox practice. In the course of discussion, he cites Rav Akiva Eiger who compares playing music during Tefillah to the prohibition of Matzeivah. Although music was beloved to Hashem in the Beit HaMikdash it is now hated due to its having emerged as a Nochri and deviationist practice.

Rav Hoffman stresses that not only are we forbidden to mimic idolatrous practices as stated in VaYikra, 18:3, but we are forbidden, as well, to mimic the practices of heretical Jews, as evidenced in Chullin 41a. Rav Hoffman noted that introducing an organ into our Tefillot is forbidden not only due to mimicking Nochrim but to copying non-Orthodox practice as well. The same applies introducing a guitar to Tefillah or a Chupah in our time as well.


Although music has the potential to add to the “spiritual energy” of the Tefillah, authentic Jewish spirituality, as explained by Rav Soloveitchik in his classic work Halakhic Man, is expressed not by following the whims of each individual’s imagination. Rather, it is expressed by adherence to the Halachic norms whose focus is the fulfillment of the Divine will rather than fulfilling what we deem to be our personal spiritual needs. Minhag (custom) is also a major part of Jewish Law, as stated by none other than the Rambam (Hilchot Shemittah VeYoveil 10:6), “Tradition and traditional practice constitute great pillars in Halachic adjudication.” We dare not deviate from the practices of previous generations and detract from the solemnity of Tefillah or a Chuppah by introducing musical instruments to supposedly “enhance” the experience. Great and authentic spiritual energy can be generated by adhering to the age old and venerated practices of Tefillah, with proper education and focus. Artificial sweeteners are not necessary to achieve such a state.

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