Author Archives: Joshua Rabin

Joshua Rabin

About Joshua Rabin

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He received his Rabbinic Ordination and an MA in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011, where he served two terms as student president of the Rabbinical School. Josh lives on the Upper West Side with his wife, Yael, and their daughter, Hannah.

Instruments on Shabbat and Holidays

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.

Physical Movement in Jewish Prayer

The idea that body movement can express devotion to God appears in the Book of Psalms: “All my limbs shall say ‘Who is like You, O Lord?’” (35:10) In Midrash Tehillim, an 11th century exegetical text, the rabbis interpret “all my limbs” quite literally:

With my head, I bend my head and bow down in prayer…And I also wear phylacteries [tefillin] on my head. With my neck, I fulfill the precept of wrapping oneself in fringes [tzitzit]. With my mouth, I praise You, as it says: “My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord” (Psalms 145:21)…With my face, I prostrate myself, as it says: “He fell down on his face to the earth” (Genesis 48:12)… With my nose, when I smell spices with it [during the havdalah blessing said] at the outgoing of Shabbat. With my ears, I listen to the singing of the Torah. 

In this text, the body is presented as a tool for praising God, mostly in terms of the way ritual objects are used on the body, but also in terms of the body’s own movements. Today, the physical actions listed in this midrash, as well as a number of other body movements, have become an established part of Jewish prayer.


Though many Jewish prayers can be recited while seated, standing is perhaps the most essential physical position of Jewish prayer. When the rabbis of the Talmud refer to prayer, they are almost always referring to the “Amidah,” or “Standing Prayer.” Like its name suggests, this prayer is recited while standing in silent devotion, as if one were standing before God. It is also customary to take three steps back and three steps forward when beginning the Amidah, as if approaching God, and when ending the Amidah, as if returning to the world of the profane.

In synagogues today, standing is required during some common daily prayers such as Barkhu and Aleinu. One special service, Neilah at the end of Yom Kippur, is traditionally recited entirely standing.

There is some variation in how communities decide when to stand. For example, while many communities have the custom to stand every time the Kaddish is recited, some communities only stand for the Mourners Kaddish, or only when the Torah is moving. Additionally, it is the general practice of Conservative and Orthodox communities not to stand for the Shema. Sitting helps one maintain concentration and the Shema is considered Torah study, which is traditionally done sitting.

Shaharit, Minhah, and Maariv

In traditional Jewish practice, the daily tefillot or prayers are divided into three separate services, Shaharit (the morning service), Minhah (the afternoon service), and Maariv (the evening service).

Origins of the Daily Prayer Services

 By the talmudic period, the institution of praying three times day was an assumed part of Jewish life. The Mishnah records that there are three daily services, each connected to a particular time of day (Mishnah Berakhot 4:1).

The Babylonian Talmud also declares that one should pray three times a day, and a famous dispute emerges about the origins of this practice. Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Hanina says that the weekday prayers were instituted by the patriarchs: Shaharit by Abraham, Minhah by Isaac, and Maariv by Jacob.
weekday jewish prayer

In opposition, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi cites Rabbi Hanina, who says that the three daily prayer services were instituted in accordance with the daily sacrifices of the Temple period (Berakhot 26b). Shaharit corresponds to the morning offering, Minhah corresponds to the afternoon offering, Maariv corresponds to an offering made on the evening, and Musaf corresponds to an offering brought on certain special occasions. Though a consensus was never reached, rabbinic authorities agreed that three daily services are the basic requirement of Jewish daily prayer.


For the majority of the rabbinic period, when the Mishnah, Talmud, and other early rabbinic sources refer to “tefillah,” they are always specifically referring to the Amidah prayer.

For much of the rabbinic period, the three services most likely only consisted of the Amidah and nothing else. However, by the beginning of the geonic period, and with the assemblage of the first complete liturgy for the synagogue–Seder Rav Amram Gaon in the ninth century–the content of all three services expanded significantly in both breadth and depth.

In terms of content, Shaharitis the most extensive of the three services. The morning prayers begin with a series of blessings meant to start the process of thanking God for our most basic needs. The most notable of these blessings is the Birkot Hashahar. The early portion of the services offers blessings for various fundamental needs, such as clothing, and freedom, and includes textual references to sacrifices and other core Jewish texts. Practices vary regarding how much of these early passages are recited.

Bedtime Shema

The Bedtime Shema or Kriat Shema al Hamitah, is an extended version of the traditional Shema prayer and is recited before going to sleep. The Torah prescribes that one should recite the Shema “when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:7, 11:9).

Nowadays, this is manifested in the inclusion of the prayer in the Shaharit (morning) and Ma’ariv (evening) services. However, an additional practice of reciting the Shema before going to sleep developed in rabbinic times.

Talmudic Sources

The source of the bedtime Shema can be found in the Talmud, where Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asserts that one should recite the Shema before bed, even though it was also recited with the evening prayers (Berakhot 4b). In explaining the biblical source of the practice, Rav Assi brings a verse from the book of Psalms, “So tremble, and sin no more; ponder it on your bed, and sigh” (Psalms 4:5).

Night was considered a time of vulnerability, when one’s soul returned to God. In attempting to understand the motivation for saying the Shema at this time, Rav Yitzchak asserts, “If one recites the Shema before bed, demons are kept away from him” (Berakhot 5a). The general consensus of the rabbis from the time of the Talmud to the time of the halakhic codes is that reciting this Shema offers not only praise of God, but a request of God’s protection from dangers and demons that may emerge at night.

During the Geonic Period, the siddur of ninth century Rav Amram Gaon records that one should recite a significantly longer liturgy rather than simply the first line of the Shema. This longer form became the basis for the traditional bedtime Shema still used today. However, when discussing the nature of Kriat Shema al Hamitah, Rav states a person can simply recite the first line of the Shema and fulfill the obligation for the entire Bedtime Shema (Berakhot 13b), and this has become a popular practice.

Liturgical selections

The extended version of the bedtime Shema is composed of a combination of selections from daily prayers, particularly from the Ma’ariv service, interspersed with biblical verses and other prescribed liturgies. Many of the passages recited are taken from the commentaries on the bedtime Shema in the Talmud.