Music and the Jewish Soul
by Rabbi Todd Berman
Young David, before he became king, used to play the harp to ease King Sauls feverish melancholia. Musicians play at the arrival of Heads of State. And, we play music to ease our rush-hour burdens. Whether Beethovens Fifth or Simon and Garfunkels Sounds of Silence, music grips the imagination and, as the philosopher of religion Rudolph Otho points out, alters emotional states in an unparalleled manner sometimes changing how we feel, think, and even act. In a word, music sings to our very soul.
Given the power of this phenomenon, are there dangers involved in our love affair with music? Here, Hazal enlighten us with a strange story:
Acher, (literally the other, the nickname for Elisha ben Abuyya, the 2nd Century rabbi who became a heretic) why [did he become a heretic]? [Because,] Greek songs never left his lips. They say regarding Acher, that when he arose to leave the Beit Midrash, many heretical books fell out of his cloak. Nemos the weaver asked R. Meir, [Does not the dye become] absorbed into all the wool which is placed in the vat? R. Meir responded [The dye becomes] absorbed [only] into the wool which was originally pure while still on the sheep, [however,] the wool which was not originally pure when on the sheep does not absorb the dye. (Hagiga 16a)
The gemara relates that Elisha ben Abuyyas continual singing of Greek song led him to stray away for Judaism. How so?
Rashi enigmatically explains that he should have ceased from singing because of the destruction of the Temple as we learn from the verse do not drink wine with song (Is. 24:9 ).
Rabbi Shlomo Eidles, in his commentary to the Aggadot raises several difficulties with Rashis explanation:
(1) According to Rashi, Acher violated a general prohibition on singing in commemoration for our loss of the Beit HaMikdash; however, asks Maharsha, this is a prohibition of singing in general and not directly connected to Greek songs. Why does the Talmud specify Greek songs?
(2) Also, what does this prohibition have to do with heresy per se?
According to Maharsha, therefore, there must be something intrinsically heretical about the songs Acher was singing. He quotes the famous story in Baba Kama (82b) to illustrate a similar problem with Greek Wisdom.
Here the Talmud tells the story of the final days of the Hasmonean rule of Judea and the City of David in 63 B.C.E. The two remaining heirs to the kingdom of the Maccabies, the brothers Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, were engaged in a civil war. Hyrcanus, the older brother, held the city while the younger Aristobulus laid a bitter siege. A black market between the besieged and the outside enabled the continued function of the city and especially the Temple. Those on the inside would send out money and in exchange receive animals for the Beit HaMikdash. A crafty old man inside the city versed in Greek Wisdom signaled to Aristobulus men their great folly. As long as Hyrcanus men could offer korbanot, they would hold fast and the siege would continue. The following day in place of the proper animal for an offering, Aristobulus men loaded a pig in the basket. When the pig arrive half way up the wall, it wedged its hooves in the stones and the earth shook...at that time they said cursed be he who raises pigs and cursed be he who teaches his son Greek Wisdom.
Commentators explain Greek Wisdom in this passage in many different ways; none-the-less, Maharsha informs us that it must be something intrinsically problematic. According to Hazal, this form of knowledge is uniquely antithetical to Judaism and seductive to the degree that an elder of the community could succumb to such treachery. Greek Wisdom leads to an alienation from basic Jewish values. Here it led to the end of the sacrificial order. In 63 B.C.E. the Roman general Pompey ended the Jewish civil war by taking over Judea and ending Jewish independence.
Maharsha explains that this must be true of Greek music as well. In Hagigah, Hazal tell us that Acher was seduced by Greek song from an early age and that led to his reading, even in a place of Torah study, alien books. When he arose to leave, the damage had long been done. The dye of Torah cant enter once seduced by Greek music and Greek learning.
What did Rashi mean?
An analysis of the prohibition to which Rashi refers only heightens the perplexity. Rashi alluded to the Talmudic passage relating to the prohibition of music after the destruction of the Temple. Here in Gittin 7a the Talmud states:
They sent [a query] to Mar Uqba: How do we know that song [in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple] is prohibited? He etched [on a piece of parchment] writing Rejoice not, O Israel, As other peoples exult; (Hosea 9:1) [The Talmud asks:] Let him reply from here: Do not drink wine with song, let the beer be bitter to its drinker. (Is. 24:9) If [he had replied from] this verse, I would have thought that [the prohibition] applies to song with musical instruments but that [unaccompanied] vocals were permissible, the [other verse] comes to teach me that even vocals [alone are prohibited.]
The passage is a bit confusing. At first glance, the last line implies that even vocals are always prohibited. But, which verse teaches me that vocals are prohibited? And what does wine have to do with it? Another Rabbinic passage sheds light on this perplexity.
The Mishna in Sotah 48a reads: From when the Sanhedrin was annulled, song ceased in Beit HaMishtaot [lit. drink houses, commonly refers to wedding or party feasts], as the verse says Do not drink wine with song etc.
Here we see that music seems to be a problem only at weddings and parties. How can we resolve this complication?
Maimonides makes sense of the matter by stating that Hazal developed a multi-tiered prohibition based on the verses from Isaiah and Hosea. He formulates the Halacha thus:
And so they legislated that one may not play a musical instrument. And on account of the destruction of the Temple, one is prohibited from rejoicing or listening to all forms of song and music making. And even vocals are prohibited in the presence of wine, as the verse reads: Do not drink wine with song etc. And all of Israel has become accustomed to saying words of praise and songs of thanks to G-d and similar songs in the presence of wine. (Chapter 8 of Hilchot Taanit Halacha 14)
Here Maimonides explains that the Rabbinic prohibition contains three elements: (1) an absolute prohibition to enjoy music with musical instruments in any setting, (2) a prohibition of a cappella limited to cases where wine is present such as at a party or wedding and (3) the prevalent custom from the Gaonim to allow music of a religious nature, even at parties or weddings.
Maimonides in a responsum quoted in Tur O.H. 560 increases the scope of the prohibition to include even unaccompanied vocals not in a party setting. The severity of this ruling does not seem popular with most observant Jews today for this ban covers almost all music not in a mitzvah environment. Indeed, this is the position, at least de jure, of non-other than HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein ztl. In Rav Moshes responsum, O.H. vol. 1 no. 166 he concludes in opposition to the prevalent custom that certainly a Baal Nefesh should act in accordance with the strict ruling of Rambam in his responsum. He also prohibits instrumental accompaniment in almost any setting even for those who would be lenient in the matter.
Rashi, however, understands the Gemara in Gittin differently. Rashi interprets the entire question to be one of context. Rashi explains the question sent to Mar Uqba to be to sing in a Beit Mishtaot. That is to say a party environment. Hence, Mar Uqbas response is affirmative: one may not play musical instruments at a party. The conclusion of the Gemara regarding vocals, therefore, refers to a party with alcohol. Rashis position opposes Rambam in the extreme. Whereas Rambams prohibition is far reaching, Rashi minimizes the scope in a comparable extreme. Rashis source, or at least his support, comes from the Mishna in Sotah. As we have seen, the Mishna understands the verse from Isaiah limiting song in a Beit Mishteh. Rashi understands the whole context of the prohibition to flow out of this source. Tosafot seem to interpret Rashi this way.
They feel, however, that the issue needs broadening. In Gittin 7a Tosafot s.v. Zimra, they add to Rashis mild prohibition it is fitting for those who rise and rest with music, [i.e. royalty etc. such as the exilarch in Babel, see Yerushalmi Megillah cha. 3 Mishna 2] to be strict [and refrain from doing so] since they derive excess pleasure [from the music.]
While Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulchan Aruk O.H. 560 rules in accordance with Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe Isserles follows the position of Rashi with the added caveat of Tosafot. It would seem that indeed this is the source for the popular custom of listening to music nowadays.
What we may conclude, however, is that Rashi never understood Hazals prohibition to cover singing outside of a party atmosphere. Why then did Hazal so harshly condemn Elisha Ben Abuyya? He was doing nothing wrong. According to Rashi, Achers habitual singing of Greek songs was in accordance with the general permissibility of singing, certainly vocals, in any alcohol free environment. Why does Rashi seem to link Achers life choice of abandoning Judaism to the prohibition of singing in a completely different context?
A closer reading of Rashi may lead us to the answer.
Rashis comment in Hagigah s.v. Greek song never ceased from his mouth: reads ve haya lo lehaniach bishvil chorban haBayit -- But he should have refrained due to the destruction of the Temple. Indeed, Rashi does not say that Acher violated a prohibition; but rather that he should have refrained. Rashi is consistent with his view in Gittin. Acher was within his legal rights. But nonetheless he was mistaken. Rashi is emphasizing a profound truth. Perhaps we may learn from Hazals lead even when they dont prohibit. Just because this act is permissible according to the letter of the law does not mean that it is necessarily desirable.
Rashi informs us that the prohibition stems from the destruction of the holiest site to the Jewish people. The spiritual heirs to Greek culture, the Romans, promulgated this destruction. Yet Acher seemed to take no note of this. He lived in the generation after the destruction. He may even have been a small child when last the Beit HaMikdash stood. Yet his feelings were amiss. Rashi tells us that Acher missed the boat. His singing, usually a sign of deep emotion, was alien to his people. His joys were not Jewish joys and his sorrow, clearly, was not Jewish sorrow. When surrounded by a foreign culture, one may pretend to be immune to alien thoughts. But engaging in the others cultural experiences takes a toll. In Elisha ben Abuyyas case that toll took the form of completely alien thoughts. They say regarding Acher, that when he arose to leave the Beit Midrash, many heretical books fell out of his cloak. Rashi informs us that Acher had become tainted by the cultural experience of foreigners and alienated from his own. Nemos the weaver asked R. Meir, [Does not the dye become] absorbed into all the wool which is placed in the vat? R. Meir responded [The dye becomes] absorbed [only] into the wool which was originally pure while still on the sheep, [however,] the wool which was not originally pure when on the sheep does not absorb the dye.
Rabbi Israel Salanter in his Iggeret HaMussar refers to the mind as an embattled force caught up in the stormy sea of our emotional selves. If we do not take care to protect our intellects from the emotional tempests then the battle is lost. Sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves are we guiding our ships correctly. If the muse plays a discordant note, are we sure of the lack of impact on our minds. Music in our day presents one of these trials.
Playing to the heart and the soul, music effects our entire selves. How do these tunes affect our Jewish growth? Are our joys Jewish joys and our sorrows Jewish sorrows, or is something else mixed in? Ultimately everyone must answer the question for himself or herself. Rashi tells us that Hazal are flashing a warning signal. Perhaps it is best to think before we listen.