Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Forbidden Songs

When I was in yeshiva, I was one of a small groups of guys who would regularly stay in yeshiva for Shabbos rather than go home or to a friend's. Until probably my last year, when a number of my friends were married and living in the neighborhood, I would eat all of my Shabbos meals in the cafeteria. Whenever a particular rabbi was the official speaker of that Shabbos, he, and usually his family, would eat with the students in the cafeteria. I remember noticing that R. Hershel Reichman (who, aside from being a rosh yeshiva and authoring five books of Rav Soloveitchik's commentary to the Talmud, was one of the originators of the Math Made Easy tutorial program) would sing a particular zemer (Shabbos song for the meal) with a minor variation. While everyone was singing the chorus of "Ha-Shomer Shabbos", instead of singing "La-Kel, la-Kel, la-Kel yeratzu" he would stretch out the first "La-Kel" to last for the three and then join everyone else for "yeratzu". This struck me as weird. Was this some kind of odd variation of the song? I thought so. But later I realized that he was probably just following the Mishnah in Megillah.

The Mishnah (Megillah 25a) states that a prayer leader who says "Modim modim" must be silenced. The reason for this, the Gemara explains, is that by repeating the word he implies that there are two gods to whom he is praying. The Gemara adds that one is also not allowed to say "Shema shema" for the same reason (there is a debate over whether this applies to repeating just the one word or the whole verse, and the Beis Yosef [Orach Chaim 61] rules to be strict according to both opinions]).

Therefore, I assumed that R. Reichman was following this Mishnah and refusing to repeat a word used to refer to God in a song, so as not to imply that there are multiple Gods. There was a song a few years ago called "Ribbono Shel Olam" (Master of the World) in which the phrase "Ribbono Shel Olam" is repeated a number of times. I remember hearing (and this goes back over 15 years) that R. Hershel Schachter held that it is forbidden to sing this song (as well as the song "Aibishter"). A guilty pleasure of mine is enjoying a recent remake of the song when it is played on one of the online Jewish music stations. I also remember that my parents used to play a song from a Chassidic Music Festival in which the verse of "Shema" was actually made into a (pretty good) song and repeated over and over, in clear contradiction to the explicit words of the Gemara.

Is this still a concern or is this law just a throwback to the political battles during the emergence of the Christian religion? First of all, the Mishnah and the Gemara were both compiled long after Christianity separated from Judaism (as was the Shulchan Aruch -- see Orach Chaim 121:2, 61:9). Second, I have seen articles on Messianic Jewish (i.e. Christian) websites that have attempted to deduce from various repetitions in the prayer service (such as at the end of Yom Kippur) that Judaism really asserts belief in a trinity. This is not some long-forgotten concern.

So, now at my Shabbos table, we stretch out "La-Kel" like R. Reichman used to do. And since my son recently learned that Mishnah, he appreciates the reason for it.

[Then why is repetition allowed in the prayer service? I seem to recall that Rav Soloveitchik was against such repetitions. However, I assume that a justification for them is that there is a general rule that "chashad" -- concerns of impropriety -- does not apply to an entire congregation.]

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