Music Instruments on Shabbat

Music Instruments on Shabbat

Back in January we held a parlor meeting to discuss the use of musical instruments on Shabbat.  Despite the rain and wind, more than 40 people came to talk about music as well as to brainstorm ideas for reinvigorating our Friday night services.  I know there were more people who were interested in the discussion but unable to join us on January 16, so below you will find a brief recap of the evening. 

We began the conversation with an historical overview of the usage of musical instruments on Shabbat.  Here are some highlights:

· Musical instruments were used during worship in Temple times (e.g. Psalm 150)

· Rabbi Boaz Cohen: “There were occasions at the Temple service when musical instruments were played even on the Sabbath.  Every day no less than twenty-one blasts of the shofar were blown, three at the opening of the gates, nine each at the morning and evening daily sacrifice (Sukkot 53b, Rosh Hashanah. 29b).

· “At special occasions the flute was played, e.g. at the time of the slaughtering of the Paschal Lamb (which took place even on the Sabbath), on the first day of Passover, on the Pentecost and on the eight days of Sukkot (Arakhin 10a).”

· Rabbi Phillip Sigal: “Instrumental and vocal music were always of equal importance.  Both were used simultaneously in ancient times, and the prohibition of ‘music’ after the destruction (of the Temple) in 70 C.E. was actually meant for both instrumental and vocal music.  When vocal music returned to usage, it should have been as legitimate to restore instrumental music.”

· The prohibition on instruments continued, however, out of fear that if one’s instrument broke on Shabbat, one might be tempted to fix it, and fixing something that is broken is prohibited on Shabbat.

· There is evidence that some of the Tosafists of the 12th century allowed instruments, but the major law codes continued the prohibition because of concerns about fixing as well as carrying the instruments on Shabbat.

· There is evidence of organs being used in synagogues in Europe in the middle of the 19th century.

I then explained the process by which the Conservative Movement answers halakhic questions and sets policy.  Here is an overview from the Rabbinical Assembly website:  

“The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) sets halakhic policy for Rabbinical Assembly rabbis and for the Conservative movement as a whole. Its membership consists of twenty-five rabbis who are voting-members, as well as five non-voting lay representatives of the United Synagogue and one non-voting cantor representing the Cantors’ Assembly. The Committee discusses all questions of Jewish law that are posed by members of the Rabbinical Assembly or arms of the Conservative movement. When a question is placed on the agenda, individual members of the Committee will write teshuvot (responsa) which are discussed by the relevant subcommittees, and are then heard by the Committee, usually at two separate meetings. Papers are approved when a vote is taken with six or more members voting in favor of the paper. Approved teshuvot represent official halakhic positions of the Conservative movement. Rabbis have the authority, though, as marei d’atra, to consider the Committee’s positions but make their own decisions as conditions warrant. Members of the Committee can also submit concurring or dissenting opinions that are attached to a decision, but do not carry official status.” 

We continued with an exploration of the use of musical instruments on Shabbat in Conservative synagogues:

· As early as 1959, there is a teshuvah on record for the CJLS that organ music on Shabbat as part of services is not halakhically prohibited.  The discussion began in the 40s. The reasoning was that no one was going to carry an organ, it was unlikely to break and therefore be fixed on Shabbat, and with the creation of the state of Israel more than 10 years earlier, there was no need to hold onto the prohibition because of the destruction of the Temple.

· There were also papers written about playing music during B’nai Mitzvah celebrations on Shabbat – some rabbis said it was inappropriate, while others permitted it, if it meant the party would remain at the synagogue and therefore, at a kosher venue.

· According to Rabbi Elie Kaplan Spitz (Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin, CA), “the minutes of the CJLS expanded the organ ruling to include the use of guitars” in 1970.

· In 2013, USCJ ran a survey entitled “Use of Musical Instruments on Shabbat / Yom Tov.”  365 synagogues filled it out, and wouldn’t you know – 50.1% said no and 49.9% said yes.

We then turned our attention to Beth David’s practices over the years:

· Allowed cello in the 1970s

· As early as 1981 and as recently as 2012, the policy has been to allow prerecorded or live music at a seudat mitzvah (for example, a lunch following a Bar/Bat Mitzvah) as long as the music is b’ruach Shabbat (in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat).

· The current policy use of percussion instruments at events like “BBQ and Barchu.”

At the meeting in January, people had the opportunity to ask questions and to express their opinions on whether or not they would like Beth David to try including musical instruments on Shabbat.  There was overwhelming support for using instruments on Friday night, and strong support for using instruments on Shabbat morning in an alternative service or Netivot session.  There was also support for using prerecorded music at certain services.

There was less agreement when it came to what type of music we might want to have.  Some people love the guitar while others favor the piano.  Some people want a full-blown band, while others want a duo or trio as accompaniment. 

What is clear from the conversation is that regardless of the type of music, the music should enhance participation.  It should invite people into the prayers and the service.  It was also suggested that not every musical service needs to be the same.  We can try different types to see what appeals to people, as long as the music is of quality.

Following the discussion about music, we held a brainstorming session about how to reinvigorate Friday nights, because we often do not make minyan.  Here are some of the ideas that were generated:

· Different templates on different weeks to try to attract a variety of demographics; including varying the types of programs as well as different start times

· Serve food (ranging from cocktails and hors d’oeuvres to a potluck dinner)

· Friday night in peoples’ homes (in lieu of a synagogue service)

· Guest speakers

· Affinity groups “host” a service to galvanize participation

The parlor meeting on January 16 was an energizing first step toward envisioning future services.  My plan is to gather a small committee over the next few weeks to plan a few pilot services/programs in the months to come.  I look forward to sharing an update with you as we move forward.

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