Singing Scriptural Verses
Moshe Ben-Chaim
The Rabbis in Talmud Sanhedrin, 101a, allegorized the singing of verses of the Written Torah as an evil:
"One who reads a verse of "Song of Songs" and makes it into a (personal) melody, or one who reads a verse at a party not in its time, he brings evil to the world. Because the Torah garbed itself in sackcloth and stood before God and said, 'your children have made me like a harp that is sung to by scorners.' God responded, 'My daughter (the Torah) what should the Jews involve themselves in when they eat and drink?' The Torah responded, 'If they are masters of written texts, let them engage in the Five Books, the Prophets and the Writings......If they are masters of Oral law, let them engage in Oral Law, edicts and stories......if they are masters of Talmud, let them engage in the laws of Passover at its time, Shavuos at its time and Succos at its time.' Rabbi Shimon son of Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Shimon son of Chananya, 'One who reads a verse in its proper time brings good to the world, as (King Solomon) said, 'A word (davar) in its time, how good (it is)."
The reasons this portion of the Talmud may be surprising, is due to the overwhelming popularity of this violation today. Concerts, records and many forms of commercially available recorded music sung to verses of the Torah can be found everywhere, and in a majority of religious, Jewish homes. Again we find that masses following their neighbors blindly leads everyone to believe that numbers makes right. But the Torah finds no validation through ignorant masses. We must follow what the Torah prescribes, and we find the Talmud quite clear on this topic.
Let us keep perspective on this sensitive topic, and analyze these words of the Rabbis, the brilliant and devoted Torah scholars who explained the Torah according to God's Will. As we see all of the greats, Rambam, Ramban, Ibn Ezra and countless others quoting the Rabbis of the Talmud, let our estimation of the Rabbis be no less great than theirs.
What are the questions on this section of Talmud?
1) What is the "evil" brought to the world by singing verses? What does it stem from in man?
2) What is God's argument defending the Jews? How can God defend the Jews if the gemara holds that it is an evil?
3) Why is the Torah the one responding, and not God Himself? Doesn't he have the answer?
4) What does the metaphor of mourning indicate?
To start, let us understand the evil involved in singing verses.
It is clear that singing is not God's desired purpose for Scriptural verses, not even if the verse is from Song of Songs, an area which is more inclined to a musical overtone. What is His purpose for the Scriptural verses? Most definitely it is the understanding of the concepts therein enclosed, written to imbue man with awe and appreciation of his Creator.
Verses serve to communicate God's ideals and true ideals to man as far as man can understand. Verses were written cryptically so that man digs for those concepts through careful analysis of the texts and their nuances, sharpening his mind even further as he investigates. As King Solomon stated, "If you dig for it like silver, and search it out like a buried treasure, then you will understand the fear of G-d, and the knowledge of G-d will you find" (Proverbs, 2:4-5). Not only does this verse teach that knowledge can be found only after effort, but it may also teach that knowledge is found only if one engages in the study of Torah - the one Divinely written set of books which was assembled in such a formulation that by definition, it sharpens one's intellect as one studies. No other writings can make this claim.
To take a verse and match it to a melody - which serves only to appeal to some emotion - is the farthest thing from God's plan of making mankind a beneficiary of the Torah system. This explains why the Torah sits in sackcloth. It is mourning the loss of of its true counterpart - i.e., man's intellect. It is replaced by man's emotional drive for sensual appeal. The Torah mourns the intelligent man, and complains to God that she is made into a musical instrument sung to by scorners, not studied by philosophers. This is the evil. Man following his instincts, not his intelligence. The same sin of Adam and Eve.
It should not be light in our eyes that the Rabbis chose to portray the Torah as mourning. This is truly a devastating state of affairs for man when man is involved in emotional gratification. Do not be fooled into thinking that singing verses is a religious experience, since the words are from the Torah. This is a superficial analogy, and there is absolutely no comparison between one who sings a verse, and one who studies it. As well, be not impressed with the supposed caliber of those who sing Torah verses. For the gemara was written by highly perfected individuals - Rabbis of caliber much more perfected than our present day co-religionists. Do not be caught by the wave of masses who would scorn this gemara, as they herein reportedly scorned. Think about your own ways and consider the possibility that even masses can go off the path of Torah. It happened numerous times to the Jews who witnessed the Splitting of the Red Sea? They were prophets! More perfected than we. We certainly err?! We are erring here, the gemara is right. Give thought to the Rabbis words before you dismiss them so as to be right only in your eyes.
The evil brought into the world therefore is due to the absence of man's pursuit of intelligent life - now replaced by the emotional drive to satiate the senses. This drive goes so far as to include the Divine Torah to its menu of emotionally appealing appetizers. The Torah in man's eye's is no better than a tasty dish with which to indulge the senses. This is why the Torah mourns. She sees that her sole distinction as a vast sea of beautiful, Divine concepts is completely overlooked, and is ignorantly viewed as "a harp for scorners".
The Torah herself responds instead of God answering, as a lesson to us that the Torah itself contains the answers. God designed it perfectly so if one seeks out wisdom, she will bear the fruits of the search without Divine intervention. The words and formulations of the texts will provide both question and answer for the true investigator of God's wisdom. "Because God gives wisdom, from His mouth come knowledge and understanding (ibid)
What is God's statement, "what should the Jews involve themselves in when they eat and drink?" Perhaps this teaches that God's design of man includes the emotional, therefore He defends this aspect of man's nature which seeks satisfaction of these desires. But the Torah is not responsible for this element in man. The Torah's goal is ultimately to satisfy the intelligence. Therefore she is the one who must answer man's dilemma, as this is her role, to address man's synthesis between his emotions and intelligence, thereby raising man from an instinctual being to "tzelem Elokim", a being with intelligence.
"One who reads a verse at a party not in its time: This statement teaches that even if one does in fact engage a verse for learning, but does so in a party as part of his joking, even though it was discussed as verses should be, nonetheless, since the learning was functioning as a means to frivolity, and not for learning as an ends, the Talmud scorns this as abuse as well. So there are two forms to this error, 1) A total misunderstanding of the nature of the Scriptural verses displayed by a fool's singing of the verses, and 2) the engagement in the true nature of verses as a source of learning, but only used for personal means, as opposed to the true ends for which the were Divinely intended.

    Reader's Response: There is no indication that any text besides Shir ha-Shirim falls under this discussion. If Rashi meant the issur to include other texts he should have mentioned them, but he did not. The "even though", as I see it, just reinforces the point I made in my last letter. Even though Shir ha-Shirim is a song, it cannot be sung because it is inappropriate to take a text meant to be taken metaphorically and use it as a literal love song, especially given the "adult" nature of some of the lyrics. Therefore you can only "read" it, so you can delve into its allegoric meaning. That reasoning, though, only applies to shir ha-shirim and not text whose religious meaning is apparent on a text level.

    Mesora: Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l prohibited the singing of verses and based his ruling on the quoted section in Talmud. His response can be found in Yoreh Daya II, Siman 142. Rav Moshe expressed that although the practice of singing scriptural verses is widespread, and even respected men engage in this practice, he states that it is certainly prohibited and he does not see a just reason for those who violate. Rav Moshe added that some might read Rashi as singling out Shir HaShirim alone as the only prohibited text, but Rav Moshe makes it clear that Rashi means to say that if Shir HaShirim is prohibited, certainly all other scriptural passages are prohibited.

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