Rethinking Music Making: A Teshuvah for the Conservative Movement

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June 1, 2011
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Elie Kaplan Spitz

“Proclaim your love each morning; tell of your faithfulness each night, to the music of the lute and the melody of the harp.” Psalm 92

These words are from the psalm for Shabbat. During Temple times, a pilgrim would hear sounds of the Levite musicians as he came upon the Temple Mount. Those musical sounds ceased to exist as Shabbat worship — in memory of the Temple’s destruction and also as a preventive measure, lest the playing of musical instruments lead to fixing (shema yetakein), a task that is prohibited on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, all music was forbidden. Third-century Babylonian rabbis are recorded in the Talmud as saying, “The ear that listens to music should be torn off; when there is song in a house, there is destruction on its threshold.” (B. Sotah 48a) So great was the fear of repairing an instrument on Shabbat during the first centuries of the Common Era that the early rabbis of Israel even forbade clapping or slapping the thigh on the holy day. (Mishnah Beitzah 5:2) But because of the natural desire to celebrate, and to do so with music, the observance of the blanket prohibition eventually waned. Clapping during moments of active singing or deep emotion was a natural response, and hard to monitor. In the 12th century, the Tosafot commentators of the Rhineland wrote, “For us, who are not experts in making musical instruments, it is not appropriate to make this decree in our days,” (B. Beitzah 30a) thereby removing the protective decree, at least for clapping. The major codes continued to forbid the playing of musical instruments on Shabbat, because of the concerns about fixing and public carrying. Consequently, for much of synagogue history, Shabbat liturgy was sung a cappella.

For the past five years, Rabbi Elliot Dorff and I have worked on a teshuvah, a legal responsum, revisiting the question of whether instrumental music is permitted on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Our responsum seeks to define the permissible uses of a broad array of instruments, prescribing certain limitations (which many may feel are too restrictive) and offering permission for others (which will disturb some). The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) was scheduled to vote on the 50-page teshuvah as Sh’ma went to press in mid-May.

In the Conservative movement, the CJLS permitted the use of the organ in synagogues in 1959, a response to the creation of the State of Israel and the decision that it was no longer necessary to mourn the Temple’s destruction. The organ did not raise questions of “carrying” or even “fixing.” In 1970, the minutes of the CJLS expanded the organ ruling to include the use of guitars without an analysis of the different violations of Shabbat that portable instruments might entail. During recent decades, the use of musical instruments has grown among synagogues in the movement. Although most Conservative synagogues still forbid musical instruments on Shabbat, some synagogues affiliated with the movement have introduced instrumental music, feeling that the music fosters communal singing, offers beauty, spiritually uplifts, and draws participants. Some argue that the introduction of musical instruments may put a damper on introspection and communal singing. But these dangers are also present with cantorial music and choirs, which are commonly accepted.

The key concerns in our teshuvah are whether instruments may be played on Shabbat and, if so, how to protect the sanctity of the holy day. We conclude that music making, itself, is not forbidden; only making an instrument or fixing it is prohibited. In that regard, the sources forbid replacing a musical string on Shabbat but may permit tuning. We encourage synagogues to provide for instruments or storage for instruments in order to avoid the need for musicians to carry their instruments from a private to a public domain. And we ask that stage set-up and electrical equipment be put into place before Shabbat. Our goal is to provide a balance between enabling music and honoring Shabbat.

As pointed out by Rabbi Bahya ben Asher in the 15th century, the Hebrew words for “prayer” and “song” have the same numerical equivalent (515) or gematria. Words of prayer are emotionally amplified, personalized, and made more full-bodied through song. For those in our movement who wish to use musical instruments to encourage singing and as a tool to engage the heartstrings of worshippers, we offer guidance and reinforce some restrictions. If, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel has taught, Shabbat is a palace in time, then there is a need for an architecture of restraint in which to craft holy space. Such an architectural plan is subject to review and reconfiguration, while keeping in mind the ultimate goals of setting aside holy time and permitting the removal of unnecessary barriers. We honor differences in our movement, while retaining a commitment to Shabbat as a time set apart from the remainder of the week for spiritual uplift.

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Elie Kaplan Spitz is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, Calif. He is the author of two books, Healing from Despair: Choosing Wholeness in a Broken World and Does the Soul Survive?: A Jewish Journey to Belief in Afterlife, Past Lives & Living with Purpose. He is serving his third five-year term as a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

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