Three years ago, as part of our involvement in Synagogue 2000, groups within the congregation began discussing the possibilities of including instrumental music in our Shabbat services. After some false starts and roiling controversy, the Ritual Committee voted to pursue a limited inclusion of instrumental music for Kabbalat Shabbat.
As I often say, just because something is permitted, does not necessarily mean it is advisable. Before we embrace this new (to us) approach to Kabbalat Shabbat, some issues need to be addressed. This column will begin that process.
The first question to answer must be on what basis is music permitted or prohibited on Shabbat? The answer is not very clear-cut. It is well-documented that there was instrumental music on Shabbat in the Temple, accompanying the choir of male Levites. It is also clear that the most common musical instrument still played in the synagogue – the shofar – is not to be sounded on Shabbat.
Some connect the prohibition of instruments to our perpetual mourning for the Temple. By this reasoning, until the Temple is restored, instrumentation should be prohibited at all worship, not just Shabbat. In fact, in most very traditional congregations, musical instruments are never played during t’fillot.
Some connect the prohibition of instruments on Shabbat to the rabbinic decree known as “shemah y’takein,” meaning “lest he repair.” The principle is a secondary prohibition to protect the sanctity of Shabbat: since most instruments are stringed, the impulse might be to fix a broken string or bow in violation of the strictures of Shabbat. Therefore, we remove the temptation by eliminating it altogether.
Some connect the prohibition of instruments on Shabbat to the reason we do not sound the shofar: it might be carried to the synagogue on Shabbat, a violation of one of the 39 prohibited labors.
And some, by the process of reasoning, object to music on Shabbat because of its potential for abuse and the blurring of the demarcation between weekday practice and the uniqueness of Shabbat.
All of those reasons are valid, attested at various places and in various times in our history. Whether or not you find them compelling depends less on your understanding of Jewish law and more on your predisposition. That is to say, I doubt anyone, myself included, begins neutral on this subject and allows the halakhic underpinnings (or lack thereof) of these arguments to decide the matter.
In fact, the reasons themselves are reactive, rather than proactive. They begin with the presumption that musical instruments are or were a part of Jewish worship and should be no longer. As prohibitions of music, they are not grounded directly in Torah, nor even in rabbinically-defined negative commandments. The prohibitions are derivative.
Of course, the tradition of our ancestors is in our hands. Just because something does not strike us as immediately compelling, does not mean it is invalid. On what basis and under what conditions might we decide that instruments are permitted for Shabbat worship? More in my next column.