Song & the Jewish People

“The importance of music in the life of the Jewish people is found almost at the beginning of Genesis. … [Musician] is mentioned among the three fundamental professions…. Music was viewed as a necessity in everyday life, as a beautifying and enriching complement of human existence.” Pasternak, Velvel (2003) The Jewish Music Companion p. 9.

The first music director mentioned in the Bible is Jubal ben Lamech v’Adah. (Gen. 4:21) Jubal was a macher musician, known as the “father of all who play the harp and flute.” Jubal was also a pedagogue, one who developed and taught playing techniques.

“Jews have always been a singing people. The Rabbis state: ‘Song in worship is ordained in Torah. When Israel sang a song at their deliverance from Pharaoh’s host at the Sea of Reeds, even the sucklings and the unborn in their mother’s wombs raised their voices in praise.’” (The Complete Book of Jewish Observance, Leo Trepp, pg. 23)

                Miriam’s song may be one of the oldest recorded songs. The book of Exodus notes both a stanza of lyrics and the antiphonal form of the song. Not only was Miriam a great leader of the Israelite women, a woman of courage, incredible faith, talent, strength, tenacity, and independence, she was also the first woman (and second person) in the Bible referred to as a prophet. “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them, ‘Sing to God, for God has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.’” (Exodus 15:20-21)

Ritual singing on the part of both men and women was common in ancient Israel. Philo of Alexandria described Jewish women dancing in rows, chanting rhythmical songs in harmony. They were accompanied by tambourines, tofs, and other instruments.  The timbrel, or tof, is a hand-carried percussion instrument. In the midst of chaos – the plagues, angry Egyptians, packing all their possessions, fearing for their future – the Israelite kept their musical instruments within reach. At a time when everything seemed darkest, they had faith that safety and celebration lay ahead.

We sang in jubilant thanksgiving on the shores of the Red Sea, at Miriam’s Well, and before Moses departed. Joshua commanded the Israelite army to sing and play with such continual vigor that the walls of the city of Jericho collapsed. Similarly, Deborah and her general, Balak, led the army in songs of victory and praise. Saul received music therapy from a young and talented David seated at the harp. Isaiah, Ezekiel, David, and Solomon composed songs; Ezekiel was known for his pleasing voice and virtuosity. Even in Diaspora Ezra gathered a choir of 200 men to continue our tradition of song as prayer.

                It was our bard-king, David, who organized the voice of the Jewish people. Before the Temple was built he appointed musicians and choir masters. He instructed that music and song should precede the Ark when it was moved, established the ritual use of song during worship services, composed and performed a multitude of works during his lifetime.              

During temple times, the honor of singing within the Temple or on its steps belonged solely to the Levites. Miriam, Moses, and Aaron, all descendents of Levi, were born to lead the Jewish people in song. Although the Temple choir was exclusively male, only women were allowed to play the tambourine. The Mevaserot, a group of female singers and dancers, are mentioned twice in Torah: once singing and dancing under the direction of a woman named Mizpah, and once praising David’s victory over the Phillistine Goliath. That these women and their director are specifically mentioned speaks to the importance of song within Jewish life, worship, and tradition.      

Exiled in Diaspora, we sang, although singing during worship was prohibited. To the praises and lamentations of David we added a new category: songs of redemption, hope, and yearning to return to the land promised to our forefathers and, through them, to us. Steadily moved about over the course of history, subjected to cruelty and loss, we kept the precious and exacting Torah committed to memory through the tropes we still chant today. While we refrained from choral or instrumental music during services, because our worship should never approximate the glory we experienced when we gathered at the Temple, we sang with our families on Shabbat. In the 20th century we began to reintroduce psalms, hymns, and folk songs into our worship services, allowing congregants to actively participate in the public musical praise of God.

                Your body is a temple; a dwelling place for your neshamah, that spark of the Divine. Singing in worship enables us to pray with our bodies as well as our souls. Our voices are our instruments; our temples of flesh resonate as we pray aloud with ruach. The Rabbis asked: Why is the song of Miriam only partially stated in the Torah? And in midrash is found the answer: the song is incomplete so that future generations will finish it. That is our task.

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