Thursday, January 03, 2008

Myths and Facts: Musical Instruments on Shabbat

(Crossposted to Jewschool.)

This post addresses popular misconceptions concerning classical halachic sources about playing musical instruments on Shabbat. The purpose of this post is not to promote a particular stance about halacha (what should and shouldn’t be done) or meta-halacha (how one should determine what should and shouldn’t be done). I’m not suggesting (chas veshalom) that the only (or the best) way to justify one’s practices is by finding a pre-modern halachic text that supports them; I’m just clarifying what those pre-modern texts do and don’t say. Of course, people may have all sorts of reasons for their practices, including aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, and cultural/denominational/communal identities. My goal is not to invalidate those reasons, but to knock them off their “halachic” high horse. The intended result is that when we’re discussing questions about musical instruments on Shabbat — in distinguishing one community from another, or talking about where we will and won’t daven, or determining policies for our pluralistic communities — we’ll have to be explicit about those aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, and cultural/denominational/communal identities, rather than simply playing the “I’m halachic and you’re not” get-out-of-jail-free card. (No, I don’t think such a card should exist in the first place, whether it’s the “forbidden” card of Stage 1 or the “uncomfortable” card of Stage 2, but I can’t change the world overnight.) If you find factual inaccuracies in the post, please post corrections in the comments (with appropriate citations), and I’ll update the post. If you have a stance on the issue that differs from mine, then that’s swell — I totally support your right to have different aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, or cultural/denominational/communal identities, or to come up with new and innovative halachic interpretations.

(Many thanks to R. Elisha Ancselovits and his Hilchot Shabbat class for introducing me to a number of these sources. However, any mistakes are my own, as are formalistic interpretations that Rav Elisha would almost certainly frown upon. The deeper discussions about what the sources are really talking about are an important conversation, perhaps for a later post, but this post is addressing the sources on the most literal level, in order to clear up misconceptions so that that conversation can start with a clean(er) slate.)

Myth: The reason for prohibiting musical instruments on Shabbat is mourning for the destruction of the Temple.

Fact: In all of Jewish tradition, there is no value of X for which “We don’t do X on Shabbat (but do X on weekdays) because of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.” In fact, many things are precisely the opposite. Public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat, so many personal and communal mourning practices are suspended on Shabbat.

So where does this idea come from in the first place? Perhaps from sources such as the Gemara’s statement in Gittin 7a (codified by the Rambam in Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:14 and by the Shulchan Aruch in OH 560:3) that in the aftermath of the destruction, all music (instrumental or vocal) is now forbidden (any day of the week). Needless to say, this prohibition is not widely observed. In light of this, later commentators have limited its scope, but none by saying that it specifically refers to Shabbat.

[Yes, there is a principle of אין שבות במקדש (rabbinic prohibitions regarding Shabbat do not apply in the Temple), and this principle may have some relevance to the question of musical instruments on Shabbat (viz. it means that the fact that musical instruments were played in the Temple on Shabbat isn’t sufficient to convince everyone that musical instruments are ok outside the Temple on Shabbat). But it is undisputed that this means in the Temple, not at the time of the Temple. Any restrictions that apply today outside the Temple also applied in the time of the Temple outside the Temple. And Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1 shows one example of these restrictions being relaxed (not strengthened) after the destruction.]

Myth: The Mishnah explicitly prohibits musical instruments on Shabbat and yom tov, as it says (Sukkah 5:1) החליל חמשה וששה - זהו החליל של בית השואבה שאינה דוחה לא את השבת ולא את יום טוב (”The flute, five or six [days] — this is the flute of simchat beit hashoeivah, which does not override either Shabbat or yom tov”).

Fact: From the larger context of the Mishnah (Sukkah chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5), it’s not at all clear that the flute itself is the reason that simchat beit hashoeivah isn’t done on Shabbat or yom tov. These mishnayot are built around the short mnemonic phrases in Sukkah 4:1, and “החליל” could simply be synecdoche for the celebration as a whole, much as לולב is synecdoche for all four species, and ערבה is synecdoche for the whole ceremony of encircling the altar. There are certainly other aspects of simchat beit hashoeivah that are more obvious Shabbat prohibitions, such as lighting fire (for non-sacrificial purposes), and perhaps excessive levity.

Myth: The Gemara explicitly prohibits musical instruments on Shabbat and yom tov, גזרה שמא יתקן כלי שיר / a rabbinic decree lest one repair a musical instrument [on Shabbat] (Beitzah 36b).

Fact: Not quite. Mishnah Beitzah 5:2 lists a number of activities that are rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat and yom tov, and the list includes clapping and dancing. The Gemara then provides reasons for these prohibitions, and states, as the reason for prohibiting clapping and dancing, גזרה שמא יתקן כלי שיר / a rabbinic decree lest one repair a musical instrument [on Shabbat].

It’s certainly not such a huge logical leap from saying that clapping and dancing are forbidden on Shabbat lest one repair a musical instrument to saying that playing a musical instrument is also forbidden. But that’s not what the decree actually said. So those who think that clapping and dancing are permitted on Shabbat should think carefully before citing this source as a reason for prohibiting musical instruments.

Myth: The reason for prohibiting musical instruments is that one might tune the instrument, or replace a string that breaks.

Fact: Supposing that גזרה שמא יתקן כלי שיר is a reason for prohibiting musical instruments on Shabbat, the question arises as to which repairs are of concern. Tuning is not mentioned in any of the sources (and is not what would ordinarily be considered “repair”), and replacing a broken string is explicitly permitted by Tosefta Eruvin 8:19 (at least under limited conditions, which aren’t 100% clear).

Tosafot (Beitzah 30a) distinguishes between “their time”, when they were expert at making musical instruments, and “our time”, when we’re not. (They even go so far as to say that the decree doesn’t apply in “our time” as a result.) So they clearly understand the prohibited “repairs” to be significant enough to require a luthier or other skilled professional, in contrast to tuning an instrument or replacing a broken guitar string, which any amateur musician can do.

Myth: There is a distinction between playing percussion instruments and playing other (string, wind, etc.) instruments.

Fact: The sources do not mention such a distinction. If the issue with musical instruments is שמא יתקן כלי שיר, then percussion instruments are just as much at issue (since they can be repaired, and since they can accompany clapping and dancing). And if the issue is השמעת קול (making noise), then this category is also construed to include sounds that are percussive (or otherwise non-melodic) in nature, such as letting a mill run during Shabbat (Shabbat 18a), knocking on a door (Eruvin 104a), and a baby’s rattle (Shulchan Aruch OH 339:3). (In fact, the Me’iri cites a view that the prohibition is only on loud percussion, and not on other music.)

Myth: There is a distinction between playing instruments during kabbalat shabbat and playing instruments during ma’ariv or other Shabbat services.

Fact: First of all, the classical sources about musical instruments on Shabbat don’t mention anything about prayer at all. The question of which (if any) prayers are being accompanied never comes up. Second of all, kabbalat shabbat didn’t even exist before the 16th century.

Yes, there are communities where instruments are played during kabbalat shabbat (BEFORE SUNDOWN) and not during ma’ariv (before or after sundown). But the relevant distinction here is between playing instruments on Friday (universally acceptable, except among those who hold by the opinion above that all music is forbidden) and playing instruments on Shabbat. Two possible ways for Shabbat to begin are 1) the setting of the sun, 2) the recitation of Psalm 92 at the end of kabbalat shabbat. Once either of these has happened, it is Shabbat, and the community’s Shabbat practices (whatever those may be) go into effect.

This means that if the entire service takes place after sundown (for example, during the winter), there is no basis in premodern sources for distinguishing between kabbalat shabbat and ma’ariv. Of course, one might have an aesthetic (or other) basis, which is not the subject of this post.


  1. Excellent post--I'm sure that many (me included) appreciate the organization of this material for all to access.

    I'll allow others to comment on your reading of M Sukkah, which may be challenged by parallels in the T, though it is certainly a possible read.

    One very minor comment regarding the KS/Maariv distinction:
    the SA (OH 342:1) rules, based on a gemara at Eruvin 32b, that anything forbidden rabbinically may be permitted during bein hashemashot if it is for a devar mitzvah. Some will thus claim that to improve one's tefillah experience, musical instruments may be permitted during this (relatively brief) post-shekiya time. I believe that there have been some attempts at "community" davenings that intended to take advantage of this claim, though I think that they did not happen in the end.

  2. One more comment about the KS/Maariv piece:

    One can accept Shabbat even prior to sunset, so long as it is after pelag haminha. SA OH 263:10 cites a number of views, but states that "for us" (referring to those who say KS) it begins with Mizmor Shir leYom haShabbat. Thus, one could _never_ use instruments for Maariv (and the last two psalms of KS), whereas they would be forbidden for KS only sometimes (e.g. your winter case). Again, if one were to make an argument based on OH 342 cited above, then you could presumably permit even in Ma'ariv where you began early.

  3. And, to extend your argument: Many shomrei shabbat will put dirty shirts in water on shabbos to make sure the stain won't stick (otherwise known as מלאכת מלבן) or sort their photos or cutlery (מלאכת בורר), but will not use musical instruments (שבות/עובדין דחול) or electricity (עובדין דחול/מלאכה דרבנן), and would hesitate doing so even in cases of pikuach nefesh.

  4. Well done on this post. There is much more to say; what you have clarified in this post is an important start.

    The synecdoche reading of Mishnah Sukkah is possible as a local interpretation of the phrase without considering its implications. Indeed, the permissive view cited by Meiri in his Magen Avot (for a fairly full list of sources, including this one, and a basic narrative, I invite you to go look at the still crude, soon-to-be-launched Halakhah Think Tank ( that I am starting up) must assume something like this reading. But close attention to the phrase זהו חליל של בית השואבה שאינה דוחה indicates that there is another kind of חליל—not part of excessive levity or unnecessary pyrotechnics—that is דוחה Shabbat and/or Yom Tov. But when something is דוחה, that means that it is basically forbidden unless another principle overrides the prohibition. Therefore, the most straightforward reading of this phrase is that the Mishnah is implying that a חליל itself is something forbidden that is only played on Shabbat or Yom Tov if there is an overriding principle at work, such as the importance for beautiful music to accompany sacrifices (which the Torah itself already seems to demand in Bemidbar 10—again, see sources).

    It seems pretty straightforward to me to say that once clapping is feared to lead to the fixing of a musical instrument, playing an instrument would produce the same fear. But we don’t need to speculate here, Rabbah/Rava (depends on manuscripts) on Eruvin 104a explicitly forbids any musical noise, which would clearly include playing instruments. Also, I don’t think Tosefta Eruvin 8:19 is helpful, since that is a mikdash-specific source and might be a case of the דוחה rule implied in Mishnah Sukkah. But I confess to thinking, like Amit, that the original issue here has nothing to do with a fear of fixing things and everything to do with creating a certain kind of atmosphere.

    Regarding Tosafot’s understanding of why the prohibition no longer applies, it is important to note 2 things: 1) They are justifying an exisiting practice that was already going on in the time of the gemara and is attested to in Massekhet Beitzah. Therefore, they will try to come up with any theory that is remotely plausible. 2) Arukh Hashulhan attacks the Tosafot precisely because he assume that tuning and replacing a string is a problem and that there is no plausible way to claim that this is beyond an average person’s expertise. So I wouldn’t build too much on that Tosafot, but that’s also because I don’t think shema yitakein exhausts the issue here.

  5. My custom has always been to bring in Shabbat with "Bo'i Kallah" at the end of Lecha Dodi. The reason, as delineated in my Sephardi siddur, is that upon bowing to and greeting the Shechina, one should take upon the yoke of the Sabbath laws (if one hasn't already done so at candle-lighting!). I also know of other communities that begin Shabbat with Barechu - Potomac is one of them. (Of course, these are communities that wouldn't use musical instruments ANYWAY, so it's all moot point...)

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