This coming Saturday night, Ashkenazic Jews across the world will begin reciting selichot. In our shul, for the first time, we have invited a baal tefilla, Binyamin Apsan, to lead our selichot and to uplift our community with his beautiful melodies and his guitar as accompaniment. In recent years, a number of shuls have had kumsitzes before selichot. Additionally, ba-alei tefillah in some shuls have played musical instruments during the recitation of selichot, Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, and the tefilla chagigit of Yom Ha-Atzmaut. Is it proper to play musical instruments in shul during these tefillot?
In the nineteenth century, musicians in reform congregations started playing instruments during prayer services on Shabbat. We could make a halachic argument to permit telling non-Jews to play musical instruments on Shabbat because it’s a “shevut d’shevut l’tzorech mitzvah.” This principle means that (1) asking a non-Jew to do work on Shabbat is only a rabbinic prohibition (2) playing a musical instrument on Shabbat is only a rabbinic prohibition, and (3) generally we may tell a non-Jew to violate a rabbinic prohibition for the purpose of a mitzvah. However, in 1819, the rabbinic court in Hamburg published a series of letters by a number of leading halachic authorities under the name of Eleh Divrei Habrit in which they prohibited playing the organ in the synagogue even if the organ was played by a non-Jew and even if the organ was played during the week.
The Chatam Sofer wrote a responsum about this topic (volume 6, #86) in which he provided reasons why one may not play the organ in shul during davening even during the week. Among the reasons that he cited was that this activity is a violation “chukat akum,” or a pagan practice. After all, churches used an organ as part of their services. Additionally, it was forbidden to use instruments for prayer since the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash (the Temple). Furthermore, musical instruments should only be used in the beit ha-mikdash and not outside mikdash grounds. As mentioned, the context of his responsum was that it was in response to the reform congregations using organs for their prayer service, so perhaps we can wonder whether there would have been such strong opposition if this wasn’t the case.
In 1860, Rav Chaim Palaggi of Izhmir, Turkey, wrote a responsum (Lev Chaim, vol. 2, no. 9) about this topic, as well. He was far removed from the struggle between the traditional and reform congregations in Germany and in his responsum, he does not address the socio-religious context of this question. He just focuses on the halacha as it emanates from prior halachic sources. He writes that while it is true that music accompanied the sacrifices in the beit ha-mikdash, he argues that we never find that music accompanied synagogue prayer. Additionally, he argues based on passages from Tanach and the gemara that we should serve God both in a state of joy and in a state of fear and musical instruments cannot create an atmosphere of fear. Therefore, he sees no place for musical instruments in synagogue prayer.
There were some notable exceptions to the almost unanimous opposition to musical instruments during synagogue prayer. Based on the halachic ruling of the Prague beit din, the Altneuschul in Prague had an organ play music during Kabbalat Shabbat, but the organ stopped playing before sunset. A number of halachic authorities have objected to the use of musical instruments during synagogue prayer in various repsonsa, including Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman, Rav Ben-Zion Uziel, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and Rav Yitzchak Weiss.
Last year, several leading charedi rabbinic authorities (Rabbi Yehuda Silman, Rabbi Sariel Rosenberg, Rabbi Tzvi Webber, Rabbi Yitzchak Mordechai Rubin and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein) released a statement effectively banning musical Selichot events which have become prevalent on the first night of Selichot. This is a translation of the statement:
“Regarding those who ‘breach boundaries’ to change and overturn the sacred gatherings of the Selichot davening, [by transforming it] into a recreation event by holding ‘Selichot evenings’ with the participation of singers and orchestras, both in shuls and [outside] in the streets, who, rather than fulfilling ‘shaking and trembling from the day of your coming (before Hashem for judgment),’ replace the prayers and pleas [being practiced] in all communities of Israel to prepare and approach the Days of Judgment, with a musical performance, while destroying the tradition of ‘Yisrael Saba.’” The letter essentially states that what is supposed to be a sacred gathering has become an entertainment event.
The question remains, though, what if a musical instrument accompanying a tefilla enhances the prayer and creates a more powerful, spiritually appropriate experience for the entire congregation? In today’s generation in many orthodox spaces the desire to use music is not motivated by nor does it generate any stirrings of religious reform. Can we really make a strong argument that using music violates “chukat akum” today? Regarding the question of playing musical instruments after the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash, the Rema writes (Orach Chayyim 560:3) that for the purpose of a mitzvah, one may play musical instruments. Will music during synagogue prayer make us forget the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash such that we should be stricter in this context than in a regular context of playing music? Maybe, but shouldn’t it depend on the nature of the music and what mood it creates?
Rav David Lau, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, wrote a teshuva last month about this topic and he ruled that we shouldn’t prevent people from using musical instruments during selichot if the music draws them to tefillah. He thought that a major underlying reason opposing musical instruments was that the opposition was in the context of the struggle to stop the reform movement from spreading. He cited the Altneuschul and the beit din of Prague as precedent to permit playing musical instruments. He thinks that playing specifically an organ would be a violation of chukat akum because that was used initially by the reform movement to copy the organ used in church services, but not other musical instruments.
I asked Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon whether we may introduce in our shul musical instruments in the context of a tefilla chagigit for Yom Ha-Atzmaut, Hallel on Rosh Chodesh or selichot. He had a similar perspective as Rav Lau. He was not concerned with the issue of playing music during tefillah after the destruction of the beit ha-mikdash. He was concerned about what this type of experience looked like in practice. He felt that we may use musical instruments if doing so enhances the authentic spiritual mood of the tefillah and is done in a manner that reflects yirat shamayim, or fear of God, but not if doing so is perceived as an act of rebellion against traditional Judaism, like playing the organ was when the reform temples introduced this practice in the early nineteenth century. He did feel, however, that one should not play musical instruments during chazarat ha-shatz, when the ba-al tefillah himself is repeating the Amidah.
I am aware that we are often challenged to find meaning and inspiration in a tefillah from the words of Chazal and using a musical instrument can be perceived as an artificial and inauthentic method of trying to achieve meaning and inspiration. After all, we have an almost unanimous tradition until recent years of praying in synagogues without the use of a musical instruments. That being said, we also live in a world where people naturally struggle to find meaning in their prayers. As much as we tell people to study the deeper meaning of these prayers to help them find meaning, many people will not engage in this study. Additionally, even those who engage in this study may not find the meaning personally inspirational. It is always challenging to meet competing needs of different congregants who may find inspiration in different ways and every community needs to decide how to balance those various needs. That being said, if musical accompaniment to selichot: (1) adds to the authentic mood of the tefillah, (2) is supported by one’s posek, and (3) likely will not cause division in the congregation, then I think that we should celebrate this innovation as one that will hopefully draw people closer to their Father in Heaven.