Instrumental music was an assumed part of worship in the biblical period, but in the rabbinic period Jewish legal authorities began to question its permissibility on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. To this day, the issue of musical instruments in Shabbat and holiday services remains controversial, with different communities embracing divergent practices.
The Biblical Period
In the Bible, music is associated with praising God at times when words do not suffice. Musical instruments appear in this context in biblical narratives, poetry, and legal sections.
Following the recitation of the Song at the Sea, the Book of Exodus famously states that, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.” (Exodus 15:20)
In addition to tambourines, the Book of Psalms lists a variety of instruments that can be used in praise of God. One psalm encourages worshippers to “praise Him with the sound of the shofar!” (Psalms 150:1-4); another states that it is “good to praise the Lord” with a “ten-stringed harp, with voice and lyre together.” (Psalms 92:1-4)
Musical instruments are also an explicit part of the biblical commandments regarding holiday observance: “And on your joyous occasions, your fixed festivals and new moon dates, you shall sound the trumpets… they shall be a reminder before your God.” (Numbers 10:10)
In the first and second Temples, musical instruments were a part of the daily worship–every day of the year, including Shabbat and holidays. The Mishnah even lists the number of instruments used in the Temple during specific holidays (Arakhin 2:3).
The Rabbinic Period
In the rabbinic period, however, the use of musical instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov (major holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Passover, when work is forbidden) was eventually prohibited. A mishnah in Tractate Beitzah states that “one may not smack or dance or clap on Shabbat and Yom Tov” (5:2). The Talmud explains that “one may not smack or clap or dance, lest one fix a musical instrument” (BT Beitzah 36b). Fixing a musical instrument is a prohibited form of work on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Rashi notes that if clapping is forbidden because it might lead to fixing an instrument, playing an instrument would obviously be prohibited as well, for the same reason.