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Instrumental Shabbat

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The first time a musical instrument was played to enhance a Shabbat Service was well before the Common Era. In days of yore, it was customary that the Levites would both sing and play instruments to enhance the Shabbat service in the Temple. Why, then, did the Jewish community react so strongly when Isaac Jacobson installed an organ in a German synagogue in 1810?

The primary objection to the organ was that, since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., the playing of instruments on Shabbat was universally prohibited as a shevut, a rabbinic prohibition of an activity that is permitted by the Torah but incongruous with the spirit of Shabbat. The problem with playing an instrument on Shabbat, according to the sages, was the concern that, should the instrument break, the musician might immediately try to repair the instrument (which would be a creative labor forbidden on Shabbat).

If that is so, how is it that the Levites played instruments in the Temple on Shabbat? The rabbis also declared: Ein Shevut ba’Mikdash, the rules of shevut do not apply in the Temple. One of the numerous examples of Ein Shevut ba’Mikdash cited in the Talmud is: “A string (to an instrument) may be tied up [re-tied] in the Temple, but not in the country [outside the Temple]”(Eiruvin 102b).

There is also a secondary consideration concerning musical accompaniment during prayer: Both the Shulchan Aruch (OH 560:3) and Mishnah Torah (Shabbat 23:4), discuss the prohibition of musical instruments, and limiting music in general (not only on Shabbat), as a means of demonstrating mourning for the destruction of the Temple. While this restriction has been observed less stringently with the passage of time, the placing of an instrument in a synagogue negates this underlying principle, which is to always feel that the loss of the Temple affects the world even to this day.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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