Secular Music and the Jewish Soul

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Todd Berman

Before he became king, young David used to play the harp to soothe King Saul’s feverish melancholia. Musicians play at the arrival of heads of state. And we play music to alleviate our rush-hour burdens. In a word, music sings to our very souls.

Given the power of this phenomenon, are there dangers involved in our love affair with music? Here, the Talmudic rabbis (Hagigah 15b) enlighten us with a strange story:

Aher (literally “the other,” the nickname for Elisha ben Abuyah, the second-century rabbi who became a heretic)―why [did he become a heretic]? [Because] Greek songs never ceased from his lips. They say regarding Aher that many heretical books fell out of his cloak when he arose to leave the study hall. 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.”

The Talmud relates that Elisha ben Abuyah’s continual singing of Greek songs led him to stray away from Judaism. How so?

The medieval commentator Rashi enigmatically explains that “[Elisha] should have ceased singing because of the destruction of the Temple as we learn from the [Isaiah 24:9] verse: ‘Do not drink wine with song.’”

Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555-1631), also known as Maharsha,  raises two difficulties with Rashi’s explanation. First, according to Rashi, Aher violated a general prohibition of singing during mourning for our loss of the Temple; however, this is a prohibition of singing in general and not directly connected to Greek songs. Why does the Talmud specify “Greek” songs? Also, what does this prohibition on music have to do with heresy per se?

Maharsha therefore advances a different interpretation. There must be something intrinsically heretical about the songs Aher was singing. Greek music must be similar to Greek wisdom, which the Talmud (Bava Kama 82b) finds deeply problematic.

There the Talmud tells the story of the final days of the Hasmonean rule of Judea and Jerusalem in 63 B.C.E. The two remaining heirs to the kingdom of the Maccabees, John Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, 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 city’s continued functioning and especially the Temple. Those on the inside would send out money and, in exchange, receive animals for the Temple. A crafty old man inside the city versed in “Greek wisdom” signaled to Aristobulus’s men their great folly. As long as Hyrcanus’s men could offer sacrifices, he said, they would hold fast, and the siege would continue. Therefore, the following day, in place of the proper animal for an offering, Aristobulus’s men loaded a pig in the basket: “When the pig arrived halfway 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 over the years have interpreted “Greek wisdom” in this passage in several different ways, but Maharsha’s read is that it must be intrinsically problematic: a form of knowledge 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 fundamental Jewish values. Indeed, subsequent to the old man’s advice, in 63 B.C.E. the Roman general Pompey the Great 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 the Talmudic passage in Hagigah about Aher mentioned above, the sages suggest that Aher was seduced by Greek song from an early age, and that led to his reading alien books, even in a place of Torah study. When he arose to leave, the damage had long been done. The dye of Torah cannot enter once seduced by Greek music and Greek learning.

But Maharsha’s approach, although elucidating the connection between Aher’s heresy and Greek songs, does not explain Rashi. What does Rashi mean when he suggests that Aher “should have ceased singing”?

An analysis of the prohibition to which Rashi refers only heightens the perplexity of his comment. Rashi alludes to the Talmudic passage relating to the ban on music after the destruction of the Temple. In Gittin 7a, the Talmud states:

They sent [a query] to Mar Ukva: “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 this verse: “Do not drink wine with song; let the beer be bitter to its drinker (Isaiah 24:9).” If [he had replied quoting] this verse, I would have thought that [the prohibition] applies to a 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 vocal music without instruments is always prohibited. But which verse makes that clear? And what does wine have to do with it? Another rabbinic passage sheds light on this question.

The Mishnah in Sotah 48a reads: “From when the Sanhedrin disbanded, song ceased in Beit Ha-Mishta’ot (lit. “drink houses,” a term that commonly refers to a wedding or party feasts), as the verse says, “Do not drink wine with song, etc.” This Mishnah suggests that music is uniquely a problem at weddings and parties. How does this Mishnah interact with the passage in Gittin?

Maimonides makes sense of the matter by stating that the rabbis developed a multi-tiered prohibition based on the verses from Isaiah and Hosea. He formulates the Halakhah thus:

The rabbis legislated that one may not play a musical instrument. One may not rejoice or listen to all forms of song and music-making on account of the Temple’s destruction. 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 God and similar songs in the presence of wine. (The Laws of Fasts, 5:14)

Maimonides explains that the rabbinic prohibition contains three elements: (1) an absolute prohibition to enjoy instrumental music in any setting, (2) a prohibition on a cappella music limited to cases where wine is present, such as at a party or wedding, and (3) the prevalent custom from Geonic times to allow music of a religious nature, even at parties or weddings.

In a responsum quoted in Tur O.H. (Orah Hayyim) 560, Maimonides broadens the scope of the prohibition further to include even unaccompanied vocal music in any situation. He also prohibits instrumental accompaniment in almost any setting, even for those who would be lenient in the matter. This ruling, which covers almost all music that is not in a mitzvah environment, is not popular or widely followed by most observant Jews today, even though it is preferred by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. In a responsum (O.H. 1:166), in opposition to the prevalent custom, Rabbi Feinstein concludes that “certainly a ‘Ba’al Nefesh’ [scrupulous person] should act in accordance with the strict ruling of Maimonides in his responsum.”

Rashi, however, understands the Gemara in Gittin differently. He interprets the fundamental question to be one of context. Rashi explains that the query sent to Mar Ukva about the permissibility of song explicitly concerned whether one could “sing in a Beit Mishta’ot,” a party environment. Hence, Mar Ukva’s response forbids playing musical instruments at a party with alcohol, but nothing more. The Talmud’s conclusion regarding vocals, therefore, also refers to a party with alcohol. Rashi’s position emphatically opposes Rambam’s. Whereas Rambam’s prohibition is far-reaching, Rashi minimizes its scope based on the Mishnah in Sotah, which understands the verse from Isaiah to limit song in a Beit Mishteh. According to Rashi, the prohibition flows from this source and does not extend to situations other than at a party.

Tosafot understands Rashi in this manner, and largely agrees, but feels that the issue needs broadening. In Gittin 7a, Tosafot (s.v. Zimra) adds to Rashi’s mild prohibition, writing that “it is fitting for those who rise and rest with music [i.e. royalty etc. such as the exilarch in Babel; see Yerushalmi Megillah 3:2] to be strict [and refrain from doing so] since they derive excessive pleasure [from the music].”

While Rabbi Yosef Karo in Shulhan Arukh O.H. 560 rules with Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Rema, follows the position of Rashi with the added caveat of Tosafot. It would seem that Rema’s position is the source for the widespread contemporary custom to listen to music.

It is clear, however, that Rashi never understood the sages’ prohibition to cover singing outside of a party atmosphere. Returning to Rashi’s interpretation of the passage in Hagigah about Aher, why then did the rabbis condemn Elisha ben Abuyah so harshly? He was doing nothing wrong. According to Rashi, Aher’s habitual singing of Greek songs followed the general permissibility of singing in any alcohol-free environment. Why does Rashi seem to link Aher’s abandonment of Judaism to the prohibition of singing at a party?

A closer reading of Rashi may lead us to the answer. `

Rashi’s comment in Hagigah reads “ve-haya lo le-haniah bishvil hurban ha-Bayit” – “But he should have refrained due to the destruction of the Temple.” Rashi does not say that Aher violated a prohibition of listening to music after the destruction of the Temple, but rather that he “should have refrained.” Rashi is consistent with his view about the permissibility of music outside of a party in Gittin. In listening to music, even Greek music, Aher was within his legal rights. Nonetheless, in light of the destruction of the Temple, he was mistaken. 

Like Maharsha, Rashi suggests that the issue was the type of music. Aher lived in the generation after the destruction. He may even have been a small child when the Temple last stood. Yet, he took no note of it. His feelings were amiss. Singing is a sign of deep emotion, and in a time when Jewish solidarity would have been most appropriate, Aher’s songs were alien to his people. Technically, Aher had the right to listen or sing, but problematically, he chose to sing Greek music or Hellenistic songs. The Romans, inheritors of the Hellenic world from the Greeks, destroyed the Temple. As beautiful as the music may have been, Greek music should have been an anathema to anyone who lived after the Romans destroyed the Temple. A more contemporary example might be one constantly playing the music of Richard Wagner, whose work was beloved by the Nazis, in the wake of the Holocaust. (Wagner’s operas, in fact, are not performed in Israel.) Aher was simply out of touch with the crisis of his people. His joys were not Jewish joys, and his sorrow was not Jewish sorrow.

When surrounded by a foreign culture, one may pretend to be immune to alien thoughts. But engaging in foreign cultural experiences takes a toll. In Elisha ben Abuyah’s case, that toll took the form of entirely alien thoughts. The Talmud in Hagigah adds, “They say regarding Aher that when he arose to leave the Beit Midrash, many heretical books fell out of his cloak.” Rashi informs us that Aher had become tainted by the cultural experience of foreigners and alienated from his own people’s situation. 

Rashi is emphasizing a profound truth. Perhaps we may learn from the sages that even when an act is permissible according to the letter of the law, that does not mean it is necessarily desirable.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, in his Iggeret Ha-Mussar, refers to the mind as an embattled force caught up in the stormy sea of our emotional selves. If we do not protect our intellects from emotional tempests, then the battle is lost. Sometimes we need to step back and ask ourselves whether we are guiding our ships correctly. If the muse plays a discordant note, are we sure that our minds are not impacted? Music in our day presents one of these trials. Do the songs we sing and listen to support or challenge Jewish ideals? In the case of Aher, at least how Rashi seems to read him, he lacked basic sensitivity to the meaning of his music on Jewish ears and Jewish souls. 

Jews over the millennia have incorporated various aspects of foreign cultures. Some integration happened unconsciously while other aspects of assimilation occurred with full intent. I am not sure that one could make hard and fast rules about which components one should or should not include in the making of Jewish culture. However, the question remains. In Aher’s case, at least as Rashi may understand it, Aher’s lack of self-reflection about his musical choices is understood by the rabbis to be callous and part of a general lack of sensitivity to the Jewish people. This lack of awareness eventually led to Elisha abandoning Jewish practice.

Music, playing to the heart and the soul, affects our entire being. 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 themselves. Rashi tells us that the sages are flashing a warning signal. Perhaps it is best to think before we listen.

Todd Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi. He has held numerous posts in education from the high school level through adult education. He founded the Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) at Brandeis University and served as rabbinic advisor to the Orthodox community there for several years. Previously, he was a RaM at Midreshet Lindenbaum where he also served as the Rav of the dormitory.