Making music on Shabbat


There were three rabbis and no shortage of opinions at the 60+ Luncheon and Program supported by the St. Louis Conservative Synagogue Joint Initiative for 60+ Programming. The subject was the complicated issue of whether musical instruments can be used on Shabbat and holidays. Rabbis Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, Mordecai Miller of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Carnie Shalom Rose of Congregation B’nai Amoona tackled the difficult topic by addressing its history, the Halacha (collective body of Jewish religious law) and the present day interpretations.

Each rabbi agreed he was bound by Halacha and always needed to address that first.

Access MO advertisement

“Congregations look to their rabbis for how to read Jewish law,” Fasman said. “Since the beginning of rabbinic times, no instruments were used for Shabbat and festivals. That’s what we inherited, by Jewish law and tradition.”

However, musical instruments are not directly prohibited in the Mishna, Fasman added.

“In 1959, perhaps even earlier, an organ was permitted in Conservative synagogues, as long as it was fixed, you did not tune it on Shabbat and you turned it on before Shabbat,” Fasman said. “In 1970, though it was not an official response from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism law committee, when asked if it is permissible for non-organs on Shabbat and holidays — an affirmative response in the minutes.”

Each local rabbi must make his or her own decision, which includes discussions with lay leadership and memberships. Some of the items up for discussion include which services to permit the instruments, how often, which prayers, professional or amateur musicians and can they be Jewish or non-Jewish as well as the need to evaluate the choices and their effect on the congregation.

“Getting from the theory to actually making music involves a lot of discussion,” Fasman said.

They have examined the issues at Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel to try and identify what people want in their synagogue, why they enjoy services and what makes them want to come to services.

“They want a traditional Jewish atmosphere which provides continuity and yet are willing to try a balance of things,” Miller said. “There is a reason it is called a service — we are trying to confront the eternal.”

The congregation has experimented with music over the years. However, it feels part of the essence of Shabbat is its uniqueness.

“Our sense is creating a musical atmosphere without musical instruments helps create that uniqueness,” Miller said. “Hearing people singing together without instruments, hearing their voices create the music is very beautiful.”

Rose agreed on general principles with the other two rabbis but admitted he is in a slightly different place.

“I am always looking for ways in which to accommodate and engage our community,” Rose said. “Each generation looks at this differently. Our younger individuals view the use of music differently than we do: for them, musical instruments offer a different approach to the spiritual experience.”

Rose looked at the original restrictions and codes which clearly say musical instruments are prohibited except for the purpose of hiddur mitzvah (to beautify the mitzvah) such as the bells on the Torah crowns.

“If music is there to enhance the experience then ultimately I am comfortable with it,” Rose said.

The synagogue is exploring ways to help make the decision on where and when the music will be allowed said Rose. They are experimenting with new approaches on a weekly basis and will “see what sticks.” He said music is currently allowed outside the primary service when permission is obtained from the Klei Kodesh (clergy team).

The rabbis acknowledged the issue involves so many other factors including: who is leading the service and when is the service taking place. There were several comparisons to Reform Jewish services which tend to include musical instruments.

“The Conservative movement has a more traditional, early service on Friday night so people can go home and have dinner with their families,” Fasman said. “The Reform movement tends to have their Friday night service after dinner.”

The luncheon participants also had a wide range of opinions.

“Music is in everybody’s heart,” Peggy Rosenthal said. “If you feel it belongs there — then bring it in. Singing is not the same.”

There were questions on the importance on the use of music as a way to attract young families to congregations.

“We must consider all families,” Rose said. “The message is for the older generations to model and bring the excitement to the next generation. It is a pattern of everyone being engaged and involved.”

Elaine Schneider said it shouldn’t be an “either/or” decision.

“It is a way to use different opportunities to help open minds and souls,” Schneider said.