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Does synagogue prayer include music and singing?

by Rabbi Yosef Resnick

  

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The short answer is yes. But it’s not so simple. (Is anything in Judaism?) Let’s take a deeper look at the answer.

“There are Nigunim (songs) of joy, and nigunim of bitterness. Both of these, joy and bitterness, have known and fixed times, each one in its own proper time. However, in general, the concept of song is revelation of the essence.”

Music and singing are one way we express emotion. Music can express joy or sadness; profound peace when we feel close to G-d, or bitterness when we feel distant from G-d. In general, we are enjoined to serve G-d through joy – “Ivdu et Hashem b’simchah”1 – and Chassidut especially emphasizes the trait of joyfulness. So it would seem natural to include singing and music in the context of our prayers.

In the Temple, the daily services were accompanied by the singing and musical instruments of the Levites. They would sing and play while offerings were brought, inspiring the Jewish people and enriching their prayers
So, you ask, the last time I went with my uncle Moishe to his Shul in Yahoopitsville, why was there no singing at all; instead everyone seemed somber and quiet? We'll try to answer that in a moment.

Jewish music, including klezmer, cantorial, and other styles, actually has its roots in the synagogue. This traces all the way back to the time when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. In the Temple, the daily services were accompanied by the singing and musical instruments of the Levites. They would sing and play while offerings were brought, inspiring the Jewish people and enriching their prayers.

In the Book of Psalms, King David mentions several different kinds of musical instruments, and it is explained that musical instruments were used to inspire prophets to reach the heights of their prophetic connection to G-d. The Torah itself is sung in the synagogue with “trop,” a tune based on special musical notation.  Music and Torah are seemingly inseparable.

However, after the destruction of the Temple, some Halachic opinions forbade listening to music. The reasoning for this opinion is that music brings joy, and there can be no true joy until the Temple is rebuilt. Even for those today who are not stringent about this, there remain certain times during the Jewish calendar when we observe periods of semi-mourning – such as during the "Three weeks" leading up to Tishah b'Av in the summer, and during sefirat ha'omer (the counting of the 49-day period from Passover to Shavuot)  – when most Jews refrain from listening to music.

Footnotes

  • 1. Psalms 100:2 "Serve G-d with joy".

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Mitzvot » Prayer » About

Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Passover
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.
Chassidim
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) Following the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Chassidic
(Pl.: Chassidim; Adj.: Chassidic) A follower of the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of "Chassidut." Chassidut emphasizes serving G-d with sincerity and joy, and the importance of connecting to a Rebbe (saintly mentor).
Rebbe
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
Chassidut
The teachings of the Chassidic masters. Chassidut takes mystical concepts such as G-d, the soul, and Torah, and makes them understandable, applicable and practical.
Shul
(Yiddish) Synagogue.
Shavuot
Early summer festival marking the day when the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai in the year 2448 (1312 BCE).
Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), Polish mystic and founder of the Chassidic movement.
Hashem
"The Name." Out of respect, we do not explicitly mention G-d's name, unless in the course of prayer. Instead, "Hashem" is substituted.
Yom Tov
Jewish Holiday.
Av
The fifth month of the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to July-August. The saddest month of the year due to the destruction of the Temples, and the many other tragedies which befell the Jews in this month.
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
David
King of Israel who succeeded Saul, becoming king of Israel in 876 BCE. Originally a shepherd, he became popular after he killed the Philistine strongman, Goliath. He is the progenitor of the Davidic royal dynasty -- which will return to the throne with the arrival of King Messiah.
Psalms
The Book of Psalms. One of the 24 books of the Bible. Compiled by King David; mostly comprised of poetic praise for G-d. A large part of our prayers are culled from this book.
Chazzan
A cantor, or any individual who leads the congregation in prayer.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
Nigun
A (Jewish) melody.
Nigunim
Plural form of Nigun. Jewish Melodies.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.