Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles: May A Jew Listen To Sacred Western Art Music?

Dear Rabbi. I watched the Coronation (from Sydney) and was mezmerised by one of the pieces the choir sang. A caption told me that it was written by a composer named William Byrd. I felt a bit uneasy listening to it as it was very “churchy”. May a Jew listen to such music? Regards, Si.

Dear Si.

The relationship of Jews to particularly instrumental music, post-Temple, is very complex and beyond the scope of this essay, although I will refer to it again briefly a little later. Basically, most Jews see nothing wrong in listening to what is normally termed classical music but more correctly called Western art music, provided it has no association with the church.

As for music used in Christian worship, whether purely choral/vocal or with instruments: while I am not a posek and have no intention of issuing you with a ruling, I will tell you that the majority of halachic opinion would frown on listening to such music for pleasure.

However, I saw an extraordinary responsum from HaRav Yisrael Moshe Hazzan  (Kerach Shel Romi, Livorno 1876). He writes: I ask Heaven and Earth to testify that when I was in a great city of Sages and writers, namely Smyrna … I saw some of the greatest and most famous Sages who were great singers on the scales of music, headed by the wonderful Rabbi Avraham Hacohen Ariash zlh”h … they would go to the Christian church behind the curtain [presumably not in the Church proper] during their [christian] holiday to learn from them that submissive voice which breaks the heart, and they would arrange from those voices Kaddishim and Kedushot, a thing of wonder. And such a Ma’aseh Rav (i.e., their action proves that it’s permissible) is a great support to all that has been said and explained above [in defense of this position] and that is enough …

Rabbi Hazzan goes on to describe the melodies of the Christian church as truly submissive ….bring[ing] the love of G-D and His oneness.

He also writes approvingly about adapting these melodies to words from our tefilla service and singing them in shul. Discussion of this (and of the adaptation of secular tunes) is not directly relevant to your question. However it should be noted that the well-known Yigdal melody sung in most Anglo-Jewish shuls is believed to be derived from a Christian hymn. Certainly there is no doubt that many of the classic choral pieces sung in high Anglo-Jewish synagogues and recorded in a volume called Kol Rina (popularly known as the “Blue Book”) are written in the homophonic Christian hymnal style.

However, back to our subject. When as a not-yet-fully-observant 18-year-old I pursued my music degree in York, England, I discovered for myself the wondrous English Renaissance music of Byrd, Gibbons and Tallis, much of which was written for the church. While the complex polyphony, the lush harmonies and the riveting suspensions so pleasing to the Western ear were a Renaissance innovation, the mellifluous, prolonged melodic strands were a throwback to the previous-era medieval plainchant. These were usually composed in one of six medieval modes, Aeolian, Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian or Mixolydian (scales corresponding to the white notes of the keyboard). Just a couple of weeks ago when I leyened Megilat Rut on Shavuot, I marveled that its ancient trop is entirely constructed in what became known as the medieval Phrygian mode. (With the small distinction of  a sharpened mediant, i.e. 3rd degree of the scale, this mode is also the “Phreygish” mode of much of our traditional Shabbat liturgy, notably most of Shabbat Shacharit, known in academic circles as the Ahava Raba mode. Furthermore, the trop that Ashkenazim use for the Yamim Noraim is clearly constructed in the loftier Mixolydian mode as is our Ashkenazic Shabbat Musaph Kedusha. )

I do not mean to get too academic or technical. But in short, there is no doubt in my mind that the music of the church is derived – “stolen” may be a more accurate word to use – from us and in particular from the music of our Temple, our Bet Mikdash!

Eminent musicologists believe so. Professor Homer Ulrich (A History of Music and Musical Style, 1963) declares that Hebrew vocal and instrumental music “was of direct and immediate influence on the musical practices of the early Christian church.” He cites Eric Werner (The Sacred Bridge, 1984) who notes that “the connections between Hebrew and Christian chant have been scientifically investigated and proved.”

How did the church succeed in appropriating our music from the Bet Mikdash? The answer is quite simple. Following the Destruction of the Second Bet Mikdash, the most traumatic event in our history, our rabbis proscribed instrumental music (which had been such a feature of the services in the Bet Mikdash) in Jewish life and worship, making an exception only for weddings. As historian Geoffrey Hindley (Larousse Encyclopedia of Music, 1971) observes: “the synagogue music of the Dispersion lost the joyful character of that of the Temple.” He adds that “antiphonal chants between cantor or priest [in the church] and the congregation originated in Hebrew worship methods.” This music, he goes on to say, was “highly elaborate” and performed by a large choir of highly trained men singers, with boys sometimes added.”

All this was abandoned by Jews following the churban Bet Mikdash and thus Temple music, both with instruments and a capella, became neglected and forgotten. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the church (which regarded itself as “the new Israel”) took it over, just like it appropriated (and misconstrued) our sacred scriptures.

As for the music of William Byrd and his contemporaries, the links between its elaborate polyphonic strands and the descriptions of Temple music are too close to be ignored. It would make perfect sense that the musical traditions and styles taken over from us by Rome would be continued and developed by western churches Europe-wide and would, via the plainchant of the medieval era, find their finest musical flowering in the Renaissance period.

This is doubtless the music that the sages cited above by HaRav Hazzan extolled so highly.

I shall conclude with a personal disclosure. Half a century ago, on my first Friday afternoon at my first yeshiva when I was still new to full Torah observance, I searched for something familiar to put me in the mood for the menukha of Shabbat and found a cassette tape of the Kings’ College Choir singing Byrd’s Ne irascaris Domine (a choral setting of Isaiah 64:8-9 in Latin). Today I find Carlebach or MBD does the job much more conventionally! Yet at quiet moments, my inner ear can still conjure up the exquisite polyphonies and luscious yet serene harmonies of that magical work.

I have not yet come to terms with the anomaly that a false and persecutory faith can produce such heavenly music. But knowing that it is of the same DNA as the music of the Bet Mikdash helps a lot!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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