Sukkah 50

What is the essence of song?

One of my favorite parts about studying to become a rabbi at the New York Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion was that every Wednesday the cantorial students would host concerts of exquisite Jewish music throughout the ages. We might hear 16th-century Italian renditions of the liturgy one week, 18th-century German classical compositions the next and 20th-century show tunes composed by Jewish musicians the next. The variety of compositions showcased how religious music can inspire the soul. 

On today’s daf, we learn in a mishnah that music was an essential part of the Sukkot festival — the flute was played in the Temple for five or six days over the course of the week (except on Shabbat). This mishnah inspires a fascinating debate in the Gemara over the essence of song. Which is more important: the vocals or the instrumentation? Cases can be made either way, after all: We can think of a capella songs (without instruments), and likewise instrumentals (without vocals). So which is primary? The sages taught:

The flute overrides Shabbat — this is the statement of Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda.

And the Rabbis say: It does not override even a festival.

As will become clear in the Gemara further down the page, Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda holds that the essence of a song is the instrumental component, so instruments play a crucial role in the Temple service and therefore override Shabbat. The rabbis, however, hold that the essence of a song is the singing and therefore playing instruments, even to celebrate Sukkot, is a practice that does not override Shabbat.

The question of instruments on Shabbat in general was a live debate in the rabbinic period. The Bible, after all, describes musical instruments as beautiful and sometimes essential components of divine worship — especially when words are inadequate to the task, such as at the moment of crossing the Red Sea when Miriam and the women took up their tambourines as they sang and danced (Exodus 15:20). Likewise, a mishnah in Arakhin 10a lists various instruments that were part of Temple worship throughout the course of the year.

Yet, in the rabbinic period, as the rabbis worked to delineate the details of sabbath observance, there was also a concern that playing musical instruments was a violation of Shabbat. In Beitzah 36b we learn that one may not play instruments on Shabbat for fear that one will break and someone will try to fix it (in violation of Shabbat’s work prohibition). Later commentators were concerned that instruments would lead to excessive noise-making on Shabbat, and unseemly joy that was not fit for a community still mourning the destruction of the Temple.

Over the centuries, Jewish tradition ultimately ruled like the rabbis, and Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda loses the argument about flutes on Shabbat over Sukkot. This principle is extended to celebrating Shabbat in synagogues — singing was permitted, but instruments were not.

More recently, some movements, including the Reform movement dating back as early as 1810 in Seesen, Germany, began to integrate instrumentation into their Shabbat services. In fact, in the 19th century, one of the ways you could distinguish a Reform synagogue was by its organ — something Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda might have enjoyed hearing. 

Read all of Sukkah 50 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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