The first time that we’re introduced to King David’s musical talent, he is a young lad and has just been anointed in a private ceremony by the prophet Samuel. Immediately afterward, G‑d’s spirit departs from King Saul and melancholy and anxiety descends upon him. Acting on the advice of his servants, King Saul sends out messengers to seek a harpist to help cheer him up. Young David finds favor in the eyes of the king, and he is appointed Saul’s arms-bearer and tasked with playing the harp to cheer up the king whenever the need arises.1

Additionally, a number of psalms are preceded by the words “To the conductor with melodies on the sheminith2 or “Give thanks to the L‑rd with a kinor; with a neivel . . . ,”3 indicating that King David had composed them to be accompanied by the harp.

It should be noted that although in modern-day translations kinor and neivel are usually (and at times interchangeably) translated as a harp and a lyre, the instrument that King David used was probably more similar to the lyre, as it was a portable instrument that he played by hand.

At the end of his life, King David is described as the “sweet singer of Israel”: “And these are the last words of David; the saying of David the son of Jesse, and the saying of the man raised on high, the anointed of the G‑d of Jacob, and the sweet singer of Israel . . .”4

David’s Alarm Clock

The Talmud relates that a lyre hung over David’s bed, and once midnight arrived, the northern wind would come and cause the lyre to play on its own. David would immediately rise from his bed and study Torah until the first rays of dawn.5

Provenance and Number of Strings

The Midrash shares a tradition that the strings were made out of the tendons taken from the ram that was offered as a sacrifice instead of Isaac by the Akeidah.6

There are various opinions as to the number of strings on the harp. In some places in Psalms, we read that the harp had seven strings.7 But based on the verse “To the conductor with melodies on the sheminith, a song of David,”8 some commentators explain that the word sheminith means “eight” and therefore the harp had eight strands.

And elsewhere in Psalms the verse reads, “Upon a ten-stringed harp and upon a psaltery, with speech upon a harp,”9 implying that the harp had ten strands.

Commentators explain that King David usually played on a seven-string instrument but at times would use one with eight strings, and in the World to Come he will play on one with ten strings.10

These varying instruments of King David parallel the instruments played by the Levites in the Temple. The Talmud relates:

The harp used in the Temple was an instrument of seven strings, as it is stated: “In your presence is fullness [sova] of joy . . .” (Psalms 16:11). Do not read the word as “fullness [sova]” but as seven [sheva]. And in the days of the Messiah it will have eight strings, as it is stated: “For the Leader, on the eighth: A Psalm of David” (Psalms 12:1). On the eighth string. In the World to Come it will have ten strings, as it is stated: “ . . . With an instrument of ten strings and with the lyre, with a solemn sound upon the harp” (Psalms 92:1–4).11

At this point, you may be wondering why we are making such a big deal about a harp, and what difference does it make how many strands it has or will have in the future?

Musical Heights

One of the most refined things in this otherwise physical and mundane world is music.12 Music evokes deep emotions and longing, transcends thought and language and has the power to reach to the very depths of the soul.

The Zohar explains that the Hebrew word כנור (“harp”) is a compound word made up of the words נר , “lamp,” a reference to the soul (referred to in Proverbs as the “lamp of G‑d"13) and כו, the number 26, the numerical value of the name of G‑d.14

The different number of harp strings correspond to the different stages and levels of refinement and spiritual attunement.

The number seven represents creation and nature: seven colors of the rainbow, seven days of creation, seven years in the cycle of the sabbatical year, etc.

The mystics explain that the number seven corresponds to the seven sefirot (divine attributes) that G‑d emanated to define and characterize His relationship with our existence. Since we were created in the “image of G‑d,” the human character also comprises seven attributes: kindness, severity, harmony, perseverance, humility, foundation and royalty.

Thus, the seven-string harp that was played by the Levites in the Holy Temple as well as by King David reflected the spiritual refinement of these seven attributes.15

The number eight, however, is above nature. It is the power of holiness that supersedes the natural order (it is for this reason that a brit milah is done on the eighth day). Thus, in the days of Moshiach (a level of consciousness that King David presumably already attained at times) the Levites will play an eight-stranded harp, for we will reach deeper and higher than just these seven attributes.

The World to Come, which in this context refers to the time after the Moshiach already came and the world has finally reached its complete refinement, is represented by the ten-stranded harp. The number ten is a complete number; the world was created with Ten Utterances, which correspond to the Ten Commandments.16 And in the World to Come, the world will be solely occupied with Torah, endeavoring to comprehend the divine.

May it be speedily in our days!