Monday, August 30, 2004

Contemporary Jewish Music II

In my previous post, I distinguished between songs that inspire and songs that entertain. Astute readers questioned, in the comments section, whether either of these two types of songs are permissible today, living in a state of mourning for the Temple.

I. The Prohibition

The Gemara in Gittin (7a) states that making music is prohibited, both instrumentally and vocally. Rashi and Tosafos (ad loc.) explain that this is referring to making music in a pub (beis ha-mishta'os). However, Tosafos add that it is proper to be strict for the view expressed in the Yerushalmi that making music is also prohibited outside of a pub in the case of someone who wakes up and goes to sleep with music, who enjoys it overmuch (she-mis'aneg be-yoser). Even though there are other views that are stricter, the Rema (Orah Hayim 560:3) rules according to Tosafos' view that making music - and listening to it - outside of a pub is permissible to those who do not enjoy it overmuch, i.e. those who wake up and go to sleep with music like kings. (Note that all agree that for the sake of a mitzvah, such as at a wedding, music is not only permitted but a religious imperative.)

Based on this, it is fairly clear that, according to the Rema, there is nothing wrong with casually listening to music, as long as it is outside of the context of drinking alcohol in a group. Other posekim disagree with the Rema's lenient ruling, but as the Tzitz Eliezer (15:33) emphasizes, contemporary practice is clearly - and permissibly - in accordance with the Rema's view.

II. Exceptions

R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin (Ha-Mo'adim Ba-Halakhah, p. 441) points out that in recent history, particularly since the advent of the Hasidic movement, song has become much more of an integral part of Jewish life. He offers what is certainly a common explanation - the inspiration derived from such song is in itself a mitzvah. In other words, without such inspiring music it is quite possible that, in our orphaned generations, the Jewish religious experience would deteriorate and become much less common. Enhancing religious life is sufficient reason to invoke the mitzvah exception.

R. Shlomo Zalman Braun (She'arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah, Sotah 48a) suggests that listening to music is also permissible if done in order to relieve depression or anxiety, to relax from one's troubles. The Piskei Teshuvos (560:11) lists the following posekim who rule similarly: Shu"t Maharshag 2:125; Helkas Ya'akov 1:62; Shevet Ha-Levi 6:69, 8:127; Mishneh Halakhos 6:106; Le-Horos Nassan 4:46.

There are posekim, such as R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Orah Hayim 1:166), who rule very strictly on this issue but the minhag clearly does not follow their rulings.

III. Blaspheming the Bible

There is, yet, an additional consideration. The Gemara in Sanhedrin (101a) states that one may not sing verses from the biblical book Shir Ha-Shirim as a song because one is turning holy words into a song. The Ra'avyah extends this to all biblical verses. However, my impression (and I believe I heard this in the name of R. Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik) is that most posekim reject this extension and apply this statement only to Shir Ha-Shirim. It is very easy to take that particular book out of context and use it as a love song. This is obscene and sacrilegious (and I have seen it done, but that is another story). On this, see R. Reuven Margoliyot's Margoliyos Ha-Yam on Sanhedrin 101a.

IV. Conclusion

We have already seen that many posekim permit songs that inspire, and contemporary practice is certainly to allow them. What about songs that entertain? It depends on how they are used. If they are overused, i.e. one enjoys them too much and listens to them constantly, then that practice is prohibited unless one is doing so to relax and relieve one's troubles. If one is not relaxing but is still only an occasional listener, then according to the Rema such practice is permissible. Are there stricter views? Yes, but the minhag does not seem to follow them.

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