Instruments on Shabbat and Holidays

Are they permitted?

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Jewish Communities Today

In keeping with the normative legal position, Orthodox communities do not use instrumental music on Shabbat or Yom Tov, although many use vocal music as a means of enhancing worship.
While many Conservative communities do not permit the use of instruments on Shabbat or Yom Tov, there have been a series of Conservative teshuvot (responsa) which have permitted various types of instrumental music In 1958, the Conservative Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) published a paper from Rabbi Philip Segal, which permitted playing organ music in synagogue on Shabbat. This paper cited the ways that organ music could enhance services, categorizing an organ as a permissible "mitzvah accessory" (d'var mitzvah or machshir). The paper also pointed out that the prohibition of musical instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov was rabbinic (shvut), and argued that the principle that rabbinic prohibitions do not apply in the Temple sanctuary (ein shvut ba'mikdash) could be extended to include the synagogue sanctuary as well.

In 1970, the CJLS published another responsum which echoed the 1958 resolution and asserted that one could play other acoustical instruments, such as the guitar, as part of Shabbat services.  Finally, Rabbis Elliot Dorff and Elie Spitz wrote a teshuvah in 2008 that would broadly permit musical instruments on Shabbat, but that responsum, to date, has not become an accepted halakhic position in the Conservative Movement. Though the main arguments for and against this most recent responsum have not been made public outside the CJLS, the fact that the responsum was not accepted by the rest of the CJLS seems to indicate continued disagreement about what should be Conservative practice.

Indeed, there is significant diversity among Conservative congregations on this issue--some continue to prohibit the use of musical instruments on Shabbat, while others are known for their instrumental music. For example, Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a Conservative congregation, was made famous by Craig Taubman's "Friday Night Live," an instrumental Friday evening service with modern melodies, replicated in many communities.

In the Reform Movement, music by composers such as Debbie Friedman and Danny Maseng, accompanied by guitar and other instruments, has become a standard part of services, including on Shabbat and Yom Tov. In fact, Reform Judaism has long embraced the use of musical instruments in synagogue.

The introduction of organ music into German Reform congregations in the 19th century was one of the defining ways that Reform distinguished itself from Orthodoxy, prompting Orthodox rabbis such as David Tzvi Hoffman to assert that music on Shabbat was prohibited not only for the halakhic reasons mentioned above, but also because organ music was considered "imitating the gentiles" (David Tzvi Hoffman, Melamed le-Ho'il 1:16). 

In this sense, Hoffman's debate with the nascent Reform Movement was not simply about halakhah, but also about cultural integration. While the Reform Movement aimed for its worship to be similar to Protestant services, Hoffman favored cultural distinctiveness.  

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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.