Thursday, January 31, 2008
Now that it's down to Obama and Clinton, I'm not endorsing another candidate in the primary; I look forward to supporting Clinton and/or Obama on the Democratic ticket. They're both strong candidates and I don't want to get involved in intraparty squabbles right now; I'd rather focus on beating the Republicans.
If you were an Edwards supporter and are now totally undecided between Clinton and Obama (and only if you don't have a preference), my endorsement is to vote for Edwards anyway. This way, Edwards may still get some more delegates, and in the unlikely event that neither Obama nor Clinton has a clear majority of delegates, the Edwards delegates will have a voice at the convention. (And in the more likely event that one of them wins it outright, that's fine, because you didn't have a preference anyway.)
Another option is just to split your vote based on which delegates you like and trust, insofar as you recognize their names. On the NYC ballot, many of the Clinton delegates were household names (ok, household names for NYC political junkies: current and former City Councilmembers, state legislators, and such), while I hadn't heard of most of the Obama or Edwards delegates. This is presumably because Clinton is the home-state senator, so the local politicians have loyalties there. I assume the situation is reversed in Illinois and North Carolina, and more mixed up in other states.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Previously on Hilchot Pluralism:
- Taxonomy of Jewish pluralism
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part I
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part II
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part III
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part IV
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part V
- Hilchot Pluralism, Part VI
I wrote in Part III:
I'm also not going to solve the issue of instruments on Shabbat. A service either uses instruments on Shabbat or it doesn't; I can't think of any other options. Some people attend minyanim like Kol Zimrah, where the leader is playing instruments, even though they personally wouldn't use instruments. But I can see how that wouldn't work for everyone. I suggested a "live and let live" approach in Part II using the example of writing on Shabbat, but I can see how hearing instrumental music as an integral part of the communal prayer that you're participating in would be much more conspicuous and harder to ignore than being in the same room as someone who is writing.
And Desh wrote in the comments to Part I:
Nothing comes to mind right now for a potential Part II. But I hope that some future Part addresses kashrut again, giving an alternate method. Because I really hope that the two-table method hasn't "solved" the kashrut "problem"; something about being "finished" with an aspect of pluralism feels unsettling to me.
In that spirit, I'm going to revisit the question of musical instruments, now that I've learned more about this topic. Of course, no universal elegant solution has presented itself since the publication of Part III; it is still the case that an event either includes the use of musical instruments on Shabbat or it doesn't (and the proposed alternative solutions merely involve finessing the definitions of "musical instruments" and "Shabbat" around the edges, but don't get at the root issue). However, I hope to provide some tools to improve the discourse, and along the way, reach some more general principles about pluralistic communities.
In a recent post about musical instruments on Shabbat, I wrote:
This post is similarly intended to move the pluralistic discourse forward and help us be explicit and honest about the bases for our principles and practices. To this end, I am proposing three useful distinctions that we should heed when we're having these conversations.
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.
Playing Instruments vs. Hearing Instruments
Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Mechon Hadar has posted a document that includes a number of sources on the issue of musical instruments on Shabbat, and shows that halachic objections to musical instruments on Shabbat have historically fallen into two paradigms: shema yetakein (lest one come to fix an instrument) and hashma'at kol (making noise). Now halachic texts are not themselves sources of authority for pluralistic communities whose constituents do not share a metahalachic framework. (Does this mean that the stages of pluralism are meta-metahalachic frameworks?) However, I bring this up because these two paradigms are a useful categorization of the larger set of objections to musical instruments on Shabbat, whether or not they label themselves as "halachic" (a label that isn't so useful anyway in pluralistic communities where it has multiple meanings).
Classically, shema yetakein is the idea that music on Shabbat is problematic because of the possibility that it will lead to fixing an instrument (and whatever this means exactly, it is presumed to be something that is problematic on Shabbat). More generally, we can understand this paradigm as encompassing any objections to musical instruments that are based on playing the instrument: playing an instrument will lead to work or other activities that are unacceptable on Shabbat, or is itself work or otherwise an activity that is unacceptable on Shabbat. These objections are from the point of view of the person playing the instrument.
Hashma'at kol is the idea that Shabbat should be a day free of noise (or certain types of noise). More generally, this paradigm can encompass any objections to musical instruments that are based on hearing the instrument. Even someone who is ok with other types of noise on Shabbat might object to musical instruments, because the experience of hearing musical instruments is different from the experience of hearing other sounds.
Therefore, someone might object to musical instruments on Shabbat based on playing, hearing, both, or neither. ("Neither" means that this someone doesn't object to musical instruments on Shabbat. In this case, s/he doesn't need to give a specific reason for his/her non-objection, since in the absence of a reason otherwise, it is assumed that something permitted on weekdays is also permitted on Shabbat. The exception is if someone explicitly or implicitly accepts one of the reasons against musical instruments on Shabbat, in which case s/he needs a reason for why that reason is overridden.) Before we enter into pluralistic dialogue on this issue, we should each consider for ourselves which of these four categories we fall into.
Let's look at some examples of how this could play out in a pluralistic community.
In community A, everyone in the community objects to playing instruments on Shabbat. In this case, the question of whether musical instruments may be played on Shabbat in this community is a moot point, because no one is going to play them anyway even if the community permits it. As a result, in this singular case (and as we'll see, only in this case), people's views on hearing instruments are also moot, because there's not going to be any music to hear. (We'll set aside the possibility that people from outside the community would be brought in to play music, and assume self-sufficient communities.)
In community B, everyone in the community is ok with playing and hearing instruments on Shabbat. This is simple: in this community, instruments may be played on Shabbat, and there's no problem.
In community C, some people (call them Rachel) play and listen to instruments on Shabbat. Other people (call them Leah) object to playing instruments on Shabbat, but don't have a problem with hearing instruments on Shabbat. In this case, Rachel can play, and Leah can listen (or at least be in the same space), and there's no problem. This reduces to the writing-on-Shabbat example from Part II.
Community D is where things get complicated. Rachel is still around and plays instruments on Shabbat, and there are other people (call them Bilhah) who object to hearing instruments on Shabbat. And thus we have the irreconcilable situation described in Part III. The End. But now let's take a step back from the precipice and note that the variable that makes all the difference between community C (where a Stage-3 pluralistic solution is simple) and community D (where a long-term Stage-3 pluralistic solution is impossible) is constituents' stances on hearing instruments. Stances on playing instruments have no practical effect (except in the singular case of community A): communities B and C (which differ only on this axis) are able to have identical instrument policies.
This is important for communities that are attempting to tinker around the edges to come up with a creative solution. If these communities are looking for a pluralistic solution -- and that doesn't only include communities that identify explicitly as pluralistic, but communities that use any form of pluralism (even Stage 1) in their discourse, such as "We want to accommodate different practices in our community, and therefore we don't have instruments on Shabbat, since this allows everyone to participate", as opposed to non-pluralistic discourse (not that there's anything wrong with that) such as "We want to establish uniform standards of Jewish practice for our community, and therefore we don't have instruments on Shabbat, since we have decided that this is a communal value" -- then the question of whether and under what circumstances it is ok to play instruments on Shabbat is utterly irrelevant. If no one in the community thinks it's ok, then we have community A, where there's no demand for an alternate solution, so the conversation isn't happening in the first place. And if some people in the community think it's ok (as in communities B, C, and D), then this is only relevant to anyone else insofar as they have concerns about hearing instruments, as we said in Part II: "If Shimon's practices are contrary to Reuven's values, Reuven has no basis to prevent Shimon from carrying out Shimon's own practices, except to the extent that this interferes directly with [Reuven's participation in the community]." This is equally true even if we're not looking at instruments as a general class, but looking individually at specific types of instruments or specific circumstances under which instruments are played.
What this means is that any distinctions based in the shema yetakein paradigm -- for example, allowing only non-tunable instruments, or insisting that instruments not be tuned on Shabbat -- have no place in pluralistic discourse. It is to be assumed that whoever is playing an instrument will grapple with these issues on his/her own, or not grapple with them, as s/he sees fit, and it's no one else's business. On the other hand, distinctions based in the hashma'at kol paradigm -- distinguishing among instruments based on what they sound like -- are fair game. For example, there may be a basis for distinguishing between percussion and non-percussion instruments, because the experience of listening to them is clearly different (though if we're talking purely about the hashma'at kol paradigm, then it's not obvious which is more acceptable than the other; this is in the ear of the beholder), or between electric and acoustic instruments. On the other hand, there is no basis for distinguishing between a tunable drum and a non-tunable dumbek, or between a regular guitar and a hypothetical non-tunable guitar (manufactured perhaps by Mechon Zomet), since it's inconceivable that these distinctions make a difference in the experience of the listener.
In short, if Rachel wants to play an instrument, and Bilhah doesn't want the instrument to be played, then it has to be because Bilhah doesn't want to hear it, rather than because Bilhah doesn't want Rachel to play it.
This leads us to a corollary (which is a stronger version of axiom #2 in Part II): living in a pluralistic community necessitates suspending the principle of kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh (all Jews are responsible for one another). Instead, you have to take responsibility for yourself, and let other people take responsibility for themselves. If this isn't possible (for a given set of positions on a given issue), then you're not meant to be in a pluralistic community (or a community that is pluralistic on that issue and includes that set of positions), as we have said in Part VI. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Instruments on Shabbat vs. Instruments in Prayer
The question of playing/hearing instruments on Shabbat (which might be in a prayer context or a non-prayer context) is different from the question of playing/hearing instruments in prayer (which might be on Shabbat or on a weekday). These questions are often conflated because prayer on Shabbat is a core activity of many of our communities, but really they're separate. (Though fewer people would object in theory to instruments in weekday prayer than to instruments in Shabbat prayer, it's a question that comes up less because, outside of special events, weekday minyanim are more likely to be hurried and with fewer frills.)
A common set of objections to musical instruments is based on prayer aesthetics. Fine. That's an important conversation to have (and even among those who think that instruments are ok, there are better and worse ways to utilize instruments in prayer), but it should be acknowledged that this isn't a Shabbat issue. If your objection to instruments is based solely on prayer aesthetics, then 1) you shouldn't have a problem with non-prayer use of instruments on Shabbat, 2) to be consistent, you should be equally opposed to instruments in weekday prayer. On the other hand, if you think instruments are ok in weekday prayer and not in Shabbat prayer, then you should look for a reason other than prayer aesthetics to explain your position.
Fundamental Opposition vs. Aesthetic Preference
When we have an open Stage-3 environment, we can be honest about the basis for our personal positions. Are they based on fundamental principles or aesthetic preferences? The answer to this question, which is different for each person and for each issue, can also inform our discourse.
And I'm not saying (as it might appear on the surface) that one is always more important than the other. To be sure, there are cases in which aesthetic preference is less significant. For example, if some people in a community prefer raisin challah and others prefer sesame-seed challah, then there are a whole host of solutions -- have both kinds available every week; alternate every week; decide on one and let everyone else deal with it; compromise on plain challah -- and in the end, it doesn't matter that much. On the other hand, as we showed in Part VI, there are cases in which aesthetic differences are significant enough that they make a pluralistic solution not worthwhile even if one is possible. Indeed, we can all think of cases in which an aesthetic mismatch makes us uninterested in participating in a given community even if there is no principled objection on paper.
Differences in principles and values lend themselves more to the kind of rational analysis that characterizes the Hilchot Pluralism series. Aesthetic differences can defy this kind of analysis, and are both more bridgeable and less bridgeable.
So let's see how this applies to musical instruments.
This situation is asymmetric, because as I said in Part III, no one holds a mandate for musical instruments as a principled position (unless they've been backed into a corner by Stage-1 discourse), though they might have a principled position against a permanent prohibition on musical instruments. In the short term, the pro-instrument position is primarily based on an aesthetic preference, not that there's anything wrong with that.
As for the anti-instrument position, there are some people who won't take part in any event in which musical instruments are used on Shabbat for principled reasons (or if they do, then it's with the understanding that their identity is not represented in that community and they are there as a visitor), and there are some people who have an aesthetic preference against instruments (whether Shabbat aesthetics, prayer aesthetics, or both). For the former group, there is a good chance that we reach the insoluble situation that we started with. For the latter group, there might be more flexibility or there might not. It depends on the specific individuals and the specific community.
For communities in which the presence or absence of musical instruments is an important part of their communal identity, they've chosen not to be Stage-3 pluralistic on this particular issue, so there's nothing to discuss. For individuals whose aesthetic preference for the presence or absence of musical instruments is so strong that it's a dealbreaker, there's also not much to discuss; these individuals will be limited to participating in some communities and not others. May many diverse communities flourish.
Other possibilities arise if the community takes no single stand on the issue, and individuals see instruments vs no instruments as a preference but not a dealbreaker. For example, Tikkun Leil Shabbat alternates each time between instruments and no instruments, and most regular participants go to both styles of services, even if they like one better. This is possible in a specific context in which certain conditions are met, and wouldn't work in other contexts.
The point is that, in Stage-3 discourse, we should be honest about our motives. We shouldn't claim a more extreme position than we actually hold in order to shift the goalposts in our direction. On the flip side, we should also be honest about saying that a given development would make us less interested in participating in something, even if we can't claim a principled reason for it.
Coming in Part VIII: I don't know. Maybe something with an actual concrete solution?
All was well.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
So the Israeli university strike ended at the 11th hour (or as they say in Israel, the 90th minute), and classes began on Sunday. So this is the first week of the semester for all the classes that have been on strike (i.e. classes taught by senior professors), and the last week of the semester for classes that haven’t been on strike (classes taught by junior faculty, everything at Rothberg and other special programs exempted from the strike, etc.).
The Hebrew University has announced the calendar for the rest of the year, and I assume the other universities are doing something similar. This is too insane to be believed.
- The “fall” semester will be from January 20 to April 4.
- Then there will be a long break for Pesach, exams, Yom Ha’atzma’aut, etc.
- The “spring” semester will be from May 11 to August 1.
- Exams will go through September, and the new school year will begin after the holidays. (Given that the academic year is somewhat tied to the Jewish calendar, i.e. classes begin in the fall after the holidays, they’re lucky that they have an extra Adar to play around with this year.)
Wow. Estimates of the number of people who went from Gaza to Egypt today range from 200,000 to 350,000 (out of a total population of 1.5 million).
I’m probably missing something big, but I’m finding it hard to see how this isn’t a good thing for both Israel and Palestinians. The right-winger in me says that after 60 years, maybe this will finally force Egypt to take some responsibility for the situation in Gaza, and the left-winger in me says that Gaza is a shithole so who wouldn’t want to leave. We’re not talking about the West Bank, with ancestral villages and olive groves and such.
Whether one sees all Palestinians as terrorists, or whether one sees them as human beings to whom the Israeli government has a responsibility as long as they’re living in Israeli-controlled territory, one way or the other it seems like Israel is better off letting this be Egypt’s problem.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Here, no one calls it Tu B'Shvat or Tu B'Shevat; here it's ט"ו בשבט and nothing else. Happy new year!
Monday, January 21, 2008
For example, the latest email from Darkhei Noam contained this interesting locution:
Darkhei Noam is delighted to welcome to the community Rabbi Dr. Elie Holzer, founder of Congregation Shira Chadasha in Jerusalem, who will be visiting us on Shabbat January 25-26, and will be addressing the kehila several times.Why is this interesting? Because "Shira Chadasha style" generally has only one meaning (and a google search for this and other variant spellings confirms this): partnership minyanim, i.e. a service in which men and women participate equally in Torah reading, women may/must lead parts of the service in which the sheliach tzibbur has no formal role, and men lead parts of the service in which the sheliach tzibbur has a formal role.
At a special Friday Night Tefila in the Chapel at Heschel, Rabbi Holzer will speak before he leads us in a "Shira Chadasha style" Kabbalat Shabbat. [emphasis added]
But this can't possibly be what Darkhei Noam meant in the email, for two reasons:
1) Darkhei Noam is always in this format. And they wouldn't label their usual minhag as "Shira Chadasha style" (as would minyanim that are explicit offshoots of Shira Chadasha), since Darkhei Noam and Shira Chadasha started within a few months of each other, and developed independently.
2) Rabbi Holzer is a dude, and "Shira Chadasha style Kabbalat Shabbat" (in reference to a one-time event) pretty much definitionally means that a woman is leading.
Ergo, "Shira Chadasha style" must be referring to the actual style of prayer (which I assume is different from Darkhei Noam's typical style, though I haven't been to either minyan frequently enough to judge for myself), a trait that is sometimes forgotten when minyanim are defined only or primarily on gender-based axes. The style of prayer is often orthogonal to these gender issues; e.g., here in Jerusalem, there are at least 3 partnership minyanim with very different styles: one is done in 1 hour 45 minutes or less on Shabbat morning, one takes at least 5 hours, and Shira Chadasha itself is in the middle. So Darkhei Noam is making an interesting statement by reassigning this label to refer to a new characteristic. It's important to remember that people who agree on egalitarianism, lack thereof, or degree thereof may agree on little else in their prayer preferences.
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Mah Rabu's official endorsement for the 2008 presidential election is whoever the Democratic nominee is. All three of the major Democratic candidates are far superior to any of the Republicans, and I look forward to seeing one of them as our next president, exactly one year from today!
In the primary, I voted for John Edwards. In explaining this endorsement, I'm not going to speak ill about any of the Democratic candidates, because I'm going to be wholeheartedly supporting the nominee whoever it is, so I'll just say that I support Edwards's plan for universal health care, his call to get the US out of Iraq, and his rhetoric about addressing economic inequality.
This is my second time voting for Edwards (the first, of course, was for vice president in 2004, and I helped the Democratic ticket carry New York!) and second time voting for Jonathan Tasini (who is running as an Edwards delegate; the first time was in the 2006 Senate primary). I haven't heard of the other Edwards delegates from my congressional district.
Rereading that post from 2006, I'm delighted to see that there wasn't a single media-crowned frontrunner after Iowa and New Hampshire, and that "electability" hasn't been part of the narrative at all (perhaps because all of the Democratic candidates are equally electable and have a strong advantage in November). This means that my vote on Super Duper Tuesday will actually mean something!
Don't forget to vote! If you're a US citizen living outside the US and haven't registered to vote absentee in your state, you can vote in the Democrats Abroad primary, which elects actual delegates (though your state primary is likely to have more influence). Republicans, you're out of luck.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
In Arabic, as in many languages, every noun has a gender. Verbs, adjectives, pronouns, etc., have to agree with their subjects in gender and number (though Charley can tell us about an important exception). Fine. I'm used to that. That's not the crazy part.
When nouns become plural, one would expect them to keep the same gender (or perhaps lose their gender entirely, as we see in the limited examples of grammatical gender in English: he/she/they). And in Arabic, that is indeed what happens for animate nouns (nouns that describe people). However, for inanimate nouns, regardless of whether the singular is masculine or feminine, the plural is treated (for the purpose of verb/adjective/pronoun/etc. agreement) as feminine singular.
boy = masculine singular
boys = masculine plural
girl = feminine singular
girls = feminine plural
bus = masculine singular
buses = feminine singular
car = feminine singular
cars = feminine singular
(And this means that all of the plural pronouns, verb forms, etc. are only used when talking about people.)
However, numbers are gendered based on the gender of the singular noun. Thus, "three boys" and "three buses" have the masculine form of "three", and "three girls" and "three cars" have the feminine form of "three".
Also, collective nouns are generally masculine singular, but when you're talking about a single item, it becomes feminine.
apples (collectively, like English "rice") = masculine singular
apple = feminine singular
(three) apples = feminine singular (since it's an inanimate plural)
Saturday, January 12, 2008
On Thursday night we went to see the Hebrew version of Avenue Q in Tel Aviv.
feygele has posted some thoughts. Having seen the original version in New York, we had been wondering how they would translate the cultural references — how many Israelis have heard of Gary Coleman? And the answer is that they replaced American cultural references that Israelis wouldn’t get with Israeli cultural references that we (as North American expats) didn’t get. Instead of Gary Coleman (played by a woman in the New York production), Avenue Q’s va’ad habayit [sic] was headed up by Michal Yannai, played by herself in a comeback role. As best we can tell, Michal Yannai is the Israeli equivalent of Gary Coleman: a former child TV star with a checkered history. The Israeli version of Avenue Q is still in New York (the sign on the front says “FOR RENT” in English, and the Empire State Building is still the Empire State Building), and the (American) characters have inexplicably heard of Michal Yannai, who is pursuing acting roles in the US, until the end when she decides to go back to Israel. The puppet characters are all the same as in the American version (including Katie-fletzet and Trekkie-fletzet, based on Oogie-fletzet, the Israeli version of Cookie Monster), but Christmas Eve (a Japanese character who speaks Engrish) has been replaced by Latina (that’s her name). We hypothesized that this is because a stereotyped Asian character may have hit a nerve for Israeli audiences, because of all the current issues with Thai and Filipino guest workers in Israel. In several instances when Latina sings solos, the music suddenly turns into salsa-style. Latina and Trekkie Monster both speak in ungrammatical Hebrew, botching gender agreement, and using infinitives instead of conjugated verbs (”אני לעשות”, etc.)
The songs, of course, have all been translated into Hebrew. “What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?” has become “תואר ראשון, זה נחמד… בשביל אמא” (”A bachelor’s degree, that’s nice … for Mom”). Instead of reading a book about Broadway musicals of the 1940s, Rod is reading a book about Eurovision, and the ensuing song, “If You Were Gay”, may contain the best line of the show: “אם הלב בחר / במשכב זכר”. Lines like this, permeated with biblical and rabbinic references that have become part of the everyday language, convinced me that the Israeli Avenue Q is the true culmination of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s achievement. I mean, the translation of “The Internet is for porn / The Internet is for porn” was “האינטרנט זה פשוט / גן עדן של אוננות”, which contains not one but two references to Sefer Bereishit.
We also cracked up at the wedding scene, which the Israeli audience didn’t seem to notice anything odd about. I don’t remember the ritual details of the American version, but this one was a strange mix of American and Jewish wedding customs. The male humans and puppets were all wearing white kippot, and Brian and Latina entered the chuppah to the tune of “Here Comes the Bride”. Michal Yannai officiated, wearing a black hat, jacket, and tie. She pronounced them husband and wife, Latina broke the glass, and everyone shouted “Mazal tov!”. As they left to go check out the buffet, Yannai said “Is it kosher?” and Latina said “No. Sorry.”
"I Wish I Could Go Back to College" became "תנו לי לחזור לבית-ספר" ("Let me go back to school"). As I understand it, בית-ספר generally refers to elementary and secondary school, not to college/university. We're guessing that this change was necessary for the Israeli version because Israelis don't think of university as an idyllic return to the womb -- it's something they do after the army, when they're already (relatively) independent adults.
Oh, and the untranslatable “one nightstand” gag was left out entirely.
Wednesday, January 09, 2008
Friday, January 04, 2008
Thursday, January 03, 2008
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.