Music to the Tune of Judaism – A History of Music in Judaism

February 24, 2012 5 min read

In the last years of his life, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch organized a group dedicated to the preservation of Chassidic melodies. Considering that vast majority of these tunes were created and spread by mouth and ear alone, many were in danger of being lost. For all we know, many of these tunes probably were lost to the winds of time. This work was led by Rabbi Shmuel Zalmanov. After many years of research, Kehor Publication Society produced a work of two volumes, entitled Sefer Haniggunim, which consisted of 347 niggunim written out in musical notation. The book was first published in 1956, and has enjoyed many reprintings. (It is, however, currently sold out –

One of the under-appreciated aspects of the book is its introduction, which collates the history and philosophy of Judaism and music. We thought this would be a great continuation of our series, “Music to the Tune of Judaism”, and to that end, we’d like to thank Rabbi Dovid Olidort and the Kehot Publication Society for their permission to translate that intro and present it here.

It is quite well known that music holds quite an important place in the Torah. The proof is in the multitude of times both vocal and instrumental music is mentioned in Tanach, in the Talmud, in the books of the Geonim, Rishonim and Acharonim, and of course in tracts of Kabbalah, Chassidus and Mussar.

We find music even at the very outset of life on earth, during just the eighth generation of mankind. The Torah records the creation of instrumental music by stating, “And Adah gave birth to Yaval, who was the father of all roaming shepherds; and his brother was Yuval, who was the father of those who play harp and flute.”* (Gen. 4:21)

The juxtaposition of the shepherd with music is meant to tell us that just as cattle-raising is integral to civilization, so is civilization in need of musical instruments. It also points out the relationship between shepherds and music, which may be the reason that Chassidim took many motifs from the music of shepherds, as we will discuss later.

When the Jewish people left Egypt and the sea split before them, they expressed their deep appreciation to G-d and joy through music. (Ex. 15:1) And the Jewish women took out their tambourines and sang and danced at the Song of the Sea. The Jews also sang once again, after seeing the miracles that occurred on the Arnon River, between the border of Moav and Emor, as recounted in Numbers 21:17.**

Among the Prophets we likewise find major musical experiences. Devorah sang her song after winning the battle with Sisserah and Yavin, king of Chatzor (Judges 5:1). King David, of course, was the Sweet Singer of Israel, and his magnum opus of sorts is repeated in Samuel II 22:1 and Psalms 18. But it was his extraordinary expression of joy and music that truly is remarkable on the occasion of the movement of the Ark from the home of Avinadav to Jerusalem. Samuel II 6:5 records this experience, and recounts the specific instruments that were played at that occasion.

Music has the power to cause prophecy to rest upon a prophet,*** and it has the ability to remove evil spirit from upon a person. Elisha asked for music when he wanted to receive prophecy, as we see in Kings II 3:15. King Saul, on the other hand, asked for music to remove an evil spirit from his mind, in Samuel 1:16.****

We see the Jewish custom of singing during prayer established clearly in the Book of Psalms. That book includes songs which were played on specific instruments of yore, that are actually enumerated in the psalms themselves, including Nechilot, Sheminit, and others. (See Rashi on Psalms 5:1 and on other verses.) Psalm 150, the final chapter of that book, enumerates many other instruments upon which are worthy to praise G-d. However, it seems that it was the harp that was King David’s favorite instrument with which to play, as we see in Samuel 1:17. The Talmud recounts, “A harp hung over David’s bed. At the stroke of midnight, a northern wind would blow over it, and it would play by itself.” (Brachot 3b)

To King David, music was not only important when praying, but even when studying Torah, as he writes in Psalm 119:54. (To be continued next week.)


*See Torat Chaim, Gen. vol. 1, discourse that begins “Veteled Adah”. Rabbi Dovber of Lubavitch writes a deep Kabbalistic dissertation on this verse: “First, we must understand the concept of ‘the father of all flute and harp’, which is the source of all higher music… For in this music lays the level of ascent and utter nullification in its source. For any ascent from a lower to higher state can only happen through the nullification of the lower into utter nothingness. And this occurs through music… And this is understood by that which is hinted to in the Mishna, (Tractate Shabbat ch. 5, Mishna 1), ‘All animals that wear collars’, or translated literally, ‘All masters of song go out and are drawn in through song.’ This refers to the higher angels, which are called the Chayot of the Merkavah, or the ‘animals of the Chariot’. These angels “go out”, meaning they rise higher and are gathered in to their source as they leave their original state. This occurs when their original comprehension of G-dliness is nullified. This, as we explained, happens through their music. They are ‘drawn in with song’ afterwards, as once their first state is annulled, they can receive from a state of G-dliness that is beyond comprehension…” The discourse then quotes a number of other verses across Tanach from where these ascensions can be understood, and talks about four types of songs and four types of voices.

** See Tractate Sotah 30b for the disagreement between Rabbi Akivah and his colleagues exactly how Moshe and the people sang the song.

*** The Zohar writes, “When the verse says ‘To David, a song’, it means that David first sang, and then prophecy rested upon him. When the verse says, ‘A song, to David’, it means that David first experienced the Divine spirit, and only afterwards sang.” See Zohar Noach 67a. Tractate Pesachim 117a has this quote written in the inverse, but this seeming contradiction is clarified in the book Shivrei Luchot.

****See Livnat Hasapir, Noach: “Before the soul was decreed to descend, it was accustomed to hearing the songs of the angels and of the spiritual spheres. Once it is in a body and it hears a song, it finds pleasure and enjoyment as it had been accustomed to when it was yet joined with its source. From the great pleasure, it is fitting that a G-dly spirit should rest upon it, as it did in its original source.”