Gershwin’s Place in the Bait HaMikdash


Rabbi Bernie Fox





Also in the day of your rejoicing, and in your appointed seasons, and in your new moons, you shall blow with the trumpets over your burnt-offerings, and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be to you for a memorial before your G-d: I am Hashem your G-d.

(Sefer BeMidbar 10:10)


1. The commandment to create trumpets and their functions

In Parshat BeHa'alotecha, Hashem commands Moshe to fashion two trumpets of beaten silver.  The parasha explains that these trumpets had a number of functions.  They were to be used to signal the nation to assemble.  They signaled the camp to commence its journey to its next   destination. These trumpets were to be sounded at times of war or affliction. The above passage explains that they were also sounded on festivals, new months and times of rejoicing when the sacrifices for that occasion were offered. In all of these instances the trumpets were sounded to alert the people or to awaken their awareness. Their sounding was a call for action.  This action may have been the movement of the camp or its assembly.  At a time of war or danger, the trumpets directed the people to call out to Hashem. On the festivals and joyous occasions they summon the people to direct their thoughts to Hashem at the time that their sacrifices were offered.[1]


Trumpets were also used in the Mishcan and in the Bait HaMikdash on a daily basis. They were among the instruments that accompanied the leveyim when they sang songs of praise.  When the communal sacrifices were offered, the leveyim – the levites – would sing songs of praise to Hashem and their singing was accompanied by instruments. These included trumpets.  What does the use of music – vocal and instrumental – in the service of the Mishcan and Bait HaMikdash indicate about the Torah's attitude toward music and as a source of religious inspiration?





After that you shall come to the hill of G-d, where is the garrison of the Philistines; and it shall come to pass, when you come there to the city, that you shall meet a band of prophets coming down from the high place with a psaltery, and a timbrel, and a pipe, and a harp, before them; and they will be seeking prophesy.  (Sefer Shemuel I 10:5)


2. Music and prophecy

Before addressing this issue, it is appropriate to note another context in which music plays an important role. Maimonides explains that prophecy is received only by those who are transcendent in their wisdom, character, and behavior. However, even one who is exceptional in all of these ways is not yet prepared for prophecy. A proper state of mind is also essential to the prophetic experience.


This principle is illustrated by the life of Yaakov. During all of the years that Yaakov believed that his beloved son Yosef was dead, he did not experience prophecy. Maimonides explains that this is because Yaakov was unable to escape his deep sorrow over the loss of Yosef. Only when he learned that Yosef was alive was his sorrow shed and replaced by happiness and contentment. Maimonides explains Yaakov's experience reflects an important principle regarding prophecy.  Prophecy requires a specific state of mind.  It can be experienced only by a person who is content and happy. One who is burdened with sorrow and torment cannot achieve prophecy.[2] 


Maimonides explains that those transcendent individuals who aspired to achieve prophecy, would utilize the influence of music in order to secure their objective. What was the function of the music?  It helped them achieve the requisite state of mind. Music helped them achieve the state of contentment and joy that is requisite to achieving prophecy.


Maimonides cites the above passage as an illustration of this principle. Shemuel tells Shaul that during his upcoming journey he will encounter a group of students who are seeking a prophetic experience.  The pasuk describes the various musical instruments that they will have in their company. Why does the passage mention that these aspirants for prophecy will travel with musical instruments?  Maimonides responds that those seeking prophecy used musical instruments as an aid in achieving prophecy.[3] 


The message that emerges from this discussion is that the Torah recognizes the capacity of music to impact one's mood and state of mind. It can help us achieve joy and a sense of well-being. Presumably, melodies can evoke other states as well.  In the context of the prophetic experience, music is not used as a source of religious inspiration.  It is used to create a mood or state of mind. 




3. The function of music in Temple service

As noted above, music was a part of the daily service in the Bait HaMikdash. The leveyim sang songs of praise as the communal sacrifices were offered. They were accompanied by musical instruments. It is notable that the instruments were used during the service only in the accompaniment of the leveyim.  The leveyim sang their songs of praise and they were accompanied by the instruments.[4]  This indicates that the instruments were included to supplement and enhance the singing of the leveyim.[5] It added an instrumental element to their vocal presentation of their songs of praise. In other words, the essential element of the music in the service was the content of the song of praise. Instruments and melody were used to more effectively communicate the message of the songs. 


The use of music in the service in the Bait HaMikdash contrasts with its use by the aspiring prophet. The prophet did not use music for religious inspiration. He used it to evoke the mood consistent with the prophetic experience. The music in the Temple service was intended to accomplish much more than create a mood. It was intended to reinforce and better transmit the message vocally communicated by the songs of the leveyim. The central element of the music was the ideas expressed in the songs; the music served to communicate these ideas.[6] 


It emerges from this discussion of the service in the Bait HaMikdash, that music alone was not used as a source of religious inspiration.  Inspiration was to be derived from the message of the songs of the leveyim. Music was used to facilitate the message of the songs.



4. Synagogue melodies

This observation has a number of practical applications.  We do not use musical instruments in our synagogue services but we do use tunes to enhance our prayers.  If we assume that the service in the Bait HaMikdash is a model for how we should use these melodies, then the tunes selected must be consistent with and reinforce the message of the prayers.  The chazzan – the cantor – should not select his tunes based solely upon their beauty. He must understand the prayers and select melodies and create compositions that reflect and reinforce the content of the prayers. 


Let us consider a simple example. The Kedushah of the Musaf service on Shabbat is a responsive prayer that is commonly recited to some melody. The chazzan and the congregation sing their respective lines using the melody initiated by the chazzan. What is the theme of the Kedushah? What is its mood?  When we recite the Kedushah we are emulating the angels who declare the sanctity of Hashem.  Earlier in the service – in the blessings preceding the Shema – we describe their mood at the moment that the angels declare His sanctity. They utter their declaration in awe.  When we recite the Kedushah we, who are not as close to Hashem as His angels, should feel a deep sense of awe and humility.  If the melody selected by the chazzan is to reinforce the mood and message of the Kedushah it cannot be chosen based solely upon its beauty.  It should inspire the reverence and humility that is the very essence of the prayer. 


Another issue that emerges from this analysis is that our melodies should be scrupulously faithful to the proper pronunciation of the words and the punctuation of the phrases.  The melody must be selected and applied with care.  Each word must be pronounced with its proper accent. Accent cannot be sacrificed in order to preserve the rhythm of the melody.  Each sentence and phrase must be properly punctuated. The punctuation should not be altered to accommodate the melody.


In summary, it is appropriate to enhance our prayers with melodies. Our melodies should reinforce and communicate the message of our prayers. Because this is their purpose, each melody should be consistent with the theme and mood of the prayer it accompanies and it should preserve the proper pronunciation and punctuation of the material. 









[1] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 10:8-10.

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Avot, Introduction, chapter 7.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 7:4.

[4] For a description of the musical element of the service see Rabbaynu Menachem Me’eri, Bait HaBechirah, Mesechet Succah, chapter 5, comments on first mishne.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Succah 50b.      

[6] As a young teenager, I had the opportunity to participate in the choir of Cantor Phillip Brummer.  His only expectation of me was that I not sing and just stand quietly among those who did the singing.  Often, I understood the words only vaguely.  But his melodies communicated to me, with remarkable accuracy, the theme and mood of each of the prayers.  The experience also provided me with the unique opportunity to observe Cantor Brummer as he sang and chanted the liturgy surrounded by his choir.  His expression changed from joy to awe, and to that of a humble petitioner as he progressed though the liturgy.  As a young person, it was a very special intimate encounter with a soulful prayer experience.  It inspired within me a love for music and an appreciation of the power of prayer.