Evocation and Expression: Music and Song in Judaism
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Torah as Song
We would expect the Torah to conclude with a seminal law or philosophical idea. Instead, it ends with Shirat Ha’azinu – with song. Chazal understood this usage of the term shirah as referring not just to Ha’azinu, but to the whole Torah. Like song, the Torah has many layers of meaning and harmonizes variant voices. We express our appreciation of this aspect of Torah by singing Torah – to many different tunes.
We, The Singers
G-d and His word are the subjects of the song; His world is the singer. Tehillim 19:2 describes how Hashem’s handiwork sings His praises. Man, the greatest of Hashem’s creations, provides the music for this song. When describing the development of civilization, the Torah includes those who fashioned the first musical instruments (Bereishit 4:21). Music and song are central parts of man’s existence.
Though we sing many songs, our most important ones are about Hashem, His world, His miracles, and His assistance. Our world and our lives are full of Hashem’s presence for which we show appreciation through song. David Hamelech, author of the “sweetest Jewish songs,” (Shmuel II 23:1) exclaimed: “I will praise Hashem with my life, I will sing to Him as long as I exist.” (Tehillim 146:1–2)
Without song, our service of G-d is incomplete. When King Chizkiyahu failed to sing shirah to Hashem for saving him and the people of Jerusalem from Sancheriv’s army, he squandered his opportunity to become the Messiah. (Sanhedrin 94b) He believed his Torah learning was enough; clearly, it was not.(Midrash Shir Hashirim)
How We Are Impacted
Music deeply impacts the soul; it soothes, heals, and inspires. King Shaul brought the young David before him to play music in order to dispel the terrifying “bad spirit” that had engulfed him.(Shmuel I 16:14–23) Music reduces stress and eases depression.
Music also inspires. Elisha used music to prepare him for prophecy. (Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim 5:2) Similarly, many Chassidic masters describe how music facilitates spiritual growth. (Tzav V’ziruz, Ot 36) Niggunim are a ladder we can use to climb spiritually. This happens when the soul, inspired by our singing, sings in response. (Bnei Machshavah Tova, Ot 18)
How We Express Ourselves
Song and music evoke emotion, but so do other phenomena, such as Torah learning and powerful messages and experiences. Music and song are unique in that they are also the way we express emotion. They are how we show that we care, how we engage, and how we express our feelings. The Gemara links “Avodat Hashem with happiness and goodness of heart” to song. (Arachin 11a) Although Torah impacts the heart, song and music are how we express happiness and celebration.
Rashi makes this point regarding the first time shirah is mentioned in the Torah – the song of Az Yashir after Kri’at Yam Suf. When Am Yisrael saw the miraculous splitting of the sea and their subsequent salvation from the Egyptians, song spontaneously rose from their hearts. (Shemot 15:1)
We sing our prayers to show that we care about what we are saying, using different melodies to distinguish between the emotions of the various prayers and seasons. Just as we use distinct tunes to show our appreciation for the uniqueness of each area of Torah, so we employ distinct songs to express different emotions in our various prayers.
Song is also at the heart of our Shabbat experience. Shabbat is meant to be more than just a day of rest. It is meant to be a day of enjoyment and appreciation. Rabbi Sacks tells a story that shows how important zemirot are to the character of Shabbat:
A previous Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, once told me a story about two great rabbinic sages of the nineteenth century, equally distinguished scholars, one of whom lost his children to the secular spirit of the age, the other of whom was blessed by children who followed in his path. The difference between them was this, he said: “When it came to se’udah shlishit, the third Sabbath meal, the former spoke words of Torah while the latter sang songs.” (Torah as Song)
A Shabbat without song lacks the warm atmosphere so critical to holistic Jewish life and education. We must express our appreciation for the truly meaningful things in life. We do so through song.
Each person has his or her own song. We sing about what we are most passionate about, which itself reinforces them as our passions. May we merit to sing about the things that are truly important to us.
● In memory of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l, who deeply felt and beautifully sang the song of Torah, Jewish life, and Hashem’s world.
● With thanks to Adina Lev for her assistance with this article.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.