Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The nuance in halacha regarding listening to music

Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak has been vocal for the past few years about concerts. Most recently, he blamed the murder of Baba Elazar on Jewish singers, and on the Jewish people, for listening to those Jewish singers. Thus, as an excerpt:
There was a decree of destruction, after the beis hamikdash was destroyed the shechina was gone, millions were killed, the beis hamikdash was burned and the chachomim decreed to not listen to music with instruments until the ultimate redemption would come, except for in a seudat mitzva. It says in Shulchan Aruch that except for in seudat mitzva and during holidays listening to music is assur all year long. So, if the destruction of the beis hamikdash isn't difficult for us, so much so that we sing songs of the goyim and their tunes, and every day of the year has become like a holiday, so if the destruction of the beis hamikdash is not too difficult for us, so now we have been hit harder - the death of tzaddikim is worse than the destruction. Maybe this will wake us up.
In the comment section of a recent post referencing this, a fairly knowledgeable poster asserted that R' Amnon Yitzchak was right, at the very least about the halachic part of it. And so I realize that there is the possible need for countering these assertions.

Perhaps a straightforward reading of Shulchan Aruch seems to indicate like this. However, many of these Jewish singers are themselves talmidei chachamim, and / or have their own posekim who they listen to. And camps, who have poskim they consult, have had concerts. Is it not possible that there is another side to this, such that many of these have a tzad of heter, and such that one should not endorse this kitrug of klal Yisrael?

He referred to Shulchan Aruch. It says what is says, though there is room for justification even there. Yet, the "problem" with Shulchan Aruch is that it often flattens gemaras and halachic discussions to a conclusion, often one which harmonizes all the stringencies of different shittos of Rishonim. The Aruch HaShulchan would often (though not always) see klal Yisrael acting in a certain way and justify their actions by explaining how it works according to certain shittos of Rishonim. (For one instance of many, folding one's tallis on Shabbos.)

In Tur, Orach Chaim, Siman 560 (the gematria of Asher Dahan when spelling Dahan without the aleph), the Tur begins:
When the Temple was destroyed, they ordained that every matter of joy should have in it a remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. Therefore... [and halachot about finishing one's house]...
Then, later in the same siman, we read:

And they forbade all sorts of song, whether with musical instruments of just with the mouth. And Rashi explains such as to sing in the drinking house {=bar / tavern}. And Tosafot explain that even without drinking, as well. And this is specifically to one who is accustomed to this, like that which is in the Yerushalmi, that "the Exilarch would arise and go to bed with music". To explain, when he went to sleep and when he got up, they performed music before him. And from the language of the Rambam, za'l, it is implied that with a musical instrument, it is forbidden to hear in any way, and with just the mouth, it is specifically upon wine. But he explains in the responsum to a query that even just via the mouth it is forbidden, even without drinking. And it does not matter whether it is in Hebrew or in Arabic; all the more so if they are disgraceful words {=nivul}, which it is forbidden even without melitza and niggun. And all this is regarding love songs, such as to praise a beautiful person for his beauty, and the like. But it is permitted to sing songs and praises, on wine, in the house of drinking. And it is forbidden for a person to fill his mouth with joy nowadays, for it is stated, 'then, will our mouths be filled with joy.' "
We can readily see justifications for the present practice. For example, if we hold like Rashi rather than Tosafot, this is only referring to songs said on drink, and the like. Regarding a concert, where no one is drinking, but rather people are coming to hear inspirational songs of praise to Hashem, it is not necessarily the same. And the Tur's (Tosafot's?) restriction to continuous song, such as what the Exilarch had. This is a specific type of glorification, which seems to me akin to the restriction on wearing laurels. There is room for navigation here, too. Less so, perhaps, according to the Rambam, but there is also room for navigation. Finally, the Tur says (even according to Rambam) that this is referring to love songs, but shirot veTishbachot, even on wine in a beit hamishteh, is permitted.

Back then, Jewish poets would compose piyutim, and they would be adopted into the synagogue liturgy, and so people would have opportunity to hear these tunes and words. Nowadays, our liturgy has more or less solidified, and so we hear these instead on CDs or in concerts. But they still are shirot veTishbachot. And these were permitted (as the Tur writes), even on wine in the bet hamishteh. It therefore seems quite plausible that the Tur would similarly allow Mordechai ben David and Schwecky to perform.

Looking at Bet Yosef, we can see a little further backwards, into the gemara, and how these positions formed:

And they forbade all sorts of song, whether with a musical instrument of just with the mouth: It is as the end of Sotah (48a): They taught {in a Mishna}: When the Sanhedrin was nullified, they cancelled the song from the houses of drink, for it is stated {in Yeshaya 24:9} "with song, they do not drink wine". And in the first perek of Gittin (7a; in Hebrew here), a
An inquiry was once addressed to Mar 'Ukba: Where does Scripture tell us that it is forbidden [in these times] to sing [at carousals]? He sent back [the following quotation] written on lines: Rejoice not, O Israel, unto exultation like the peoples, for thou hast gone astray from thy God.8  Should he not rather have sent the following: They shall not drink wine with music, strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it?9  — From this verse I should conclude that only musical instruments are forbidden, but not song; this I learn [from the other verse].
And Rashi explains that zimra means to sing in the houses of drink. And Tosafot write, "and so is implied from that which was stated, 'Should he not rather have sent the following: They shall not drink wine with music, strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it?'. And it is fitting to be stringent in things which are like it. For this which it stated in the Yerushalmi, that he {=the Resh Geluta} would arise and rest with zimra, that he was excessively enjoying himself. And a song of mitzvah is permitted, such as at the time of the bridal canopy which they make to cause the groom and bride to rejoice. And also the Sefer Mitzvot Gedolos wrote in hilchot Tisha Be'Av that to cause the groom and bride to rejoice, which is a song of mitzvah, is permitted. And Rabbenu {=the Tur) wrote in siman 338 in the name of Avy"a that it is permitted to say to a gentile on Shabbat to perform music with musical instruments at bridal canopies, for speech to a gentile in a case of mitzcah is permitted, and there is no rejoicing of groom and bride without musical instruments.
 This gives us greater insight into why these Rishonim permitted in these cases. The Mishna in Sotah pretty clearly establishes it as drinking songs. And the gemara in Gittin certainly lends itself to such an interpretation. So if we were to establish like Rashi, it would not be the end of the world. We can also see the distinction some Rishonim make between with and without musical instruments, and depending on locale.

The Beis Yosef continues:

And that which Rabbenu {=the Tur} wrote, "and from the language of the Rambam is implied that with a musical instrument it is forbidden in all manner, while with just vocals, it is specifically {forbidden} upon wine, such is what it seems from that which he wrote at the end of the laws of Taanis, and this is his language {Taaniyot, 5:14}:
And so did they decree not to perform with musical instruments and all minei zemer, and anything that creates a sound of song, it is forbidden to rejoice with them, and forbidden to cause them to make noise, because of the destruction {of the Temple}. And even song with the mouth upon wine is forbidden, for it is states, "With song they shall not drink wine." And all of Israel already are accustomed to say words of praise or songs of thanks to Hashem, and the like, upon wine.
And that which Rabbenu {=the Tur} said that 'it is permitted to say songs and praises upon wine in the house of drink', so wrote the Rif and the Rosh in perek ain Omedin, in the name of the Gaon. And so wrote ה"ה in the name of the Gaon, as well. and so are the words of the Rambam which I wrote just above.
This is just a taste of the halachic background and discussion. Someone just citing a seif in Shulchan Aruch, without any of this nuance, and using it to blast others, who are relying on their own halachic guides, is problematic. It seems that these singers can rely on Rashi, on the Rif, on the Rosh, on the Gaon, on the Rambam, since these are words of praise and songs of thanks to Hashem.

Note also the words of the Rambam, that כבר נהגו כל ישראל. There is sometimes halachic force to the widespread practice of klal Yisrael. Such that it might have been possible to restrict even this, according to certain readings of halachic sources. But widespread practice lends legitimacy and force to these other ways of interpreting it. Could it be that the common practice, which Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak so rails against, actually empowers those readings of the gemaras that he neglects to mention?

More than this, the state of minhag and halacha is often in flux, and is organic in nature. Even in these laws of mourning the churban. We have adopted all sorts of stringencies (and see here) over the years, and no one protests. And certain leniencies as well. If this is how the laws of listening to music post-churban have evolved, then so be it. Initially, as the gemara mentions, some few people restricted all eating of meat, year-round. But this was not sustained. I am OK with that.

For more on this topic, from another source, see this article I found on the Internet about Music In Halacha.

Please note: I am not your local Orthodox rabbi. Nor is Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak. For matters of halacha, do not rule for yourself based on things you have seen on the Internet. Rather, consult your local Orthodox rabbi.


Yosef Greenberg said...

I once researched this issue thoroughly. IIRC, the Mechaber follows Rashi/Tosafos. Just about every other Rishon isn't stringent. I think that's the source for most heterim. (Besides for the 'shiros vesishbachos' heter.)

joshwaxman said...


Yehoshua said...

An important klal...
It's possible to find by learning Shulchan Aruch and b'frat many teshuva seforim to see achronim argue on Shulchan Aruch and bring many proofs for their position. I've seen teshuvas that are cholek on Shulchan Aruch that will knock your socks off ;)!

Anonymous said...

Isn't the greater problem the arrogance (or simplemindedness) that is involved in trying to associate a particular unfortunate event with a particular violation of Halachah? Engaging those sorts of statements at the technical Halachic level only gives them a legitimacy that they do not deserve!

joshwaxman said...


please choose a pseudonym. i agree to a large extent with that, but there is a wide swath of jews who do not, for which this halachic analysis is useful.

plus, Rabbi Amnon Yitzchak is asserting this even independently of the gematria linking this is Asher Dahan, so it is useful to point out that others have upon what to rely.


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