During the time of year that we mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple, it is customary to learn the laws of the Holy Temple as a means to hasten its rebuilding during the final redemption.

A highlight of the Temple service was the Levites’ song and music, which would accompany some of the services. In fact, the Book of Psalms is replete with songs that were traditionally sung in the Holy Temple by the Levites.

Even as we refrain from listening to music during this time of year due to our mourning, let’s explore the songs sung in the Holy Temple, with prayers that we will once again hear the “joyous sounds of music in Jerusalem.”1

Who Sang?

King David divided the Levites into 24 groups, each of which served a different week in the Holy Temple, similar to how the Kohanim were divided into 24 groups.2

They had two primary duties: guarding the Temple and singing during the services. Each one of these was further split into two. “Guarding” consisted of standing guard and opening and closing the gates. “Singing” consisted of vocalists and musicians. A Levite who was assigned to one task was not allowed to change to another.

Following a debate, the Talmud concludes that the singing was the primary service; the music simply accompanied the vocalists.3 In fact, although only the Levites could sing, an Israelite was permitted to be a musician.4

When Did They Sing?

The Levites would sing when wine libations were poured on the altar to accompany the communal burnt offerings (i.e., the daily offerings and the special offerings brought on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and holidays), and the peace offerings brought on Shavuot.5

They would also sing Hallel during the offering of the Paschal lamb,6 during Simchat Beit Hashoeva (the drawing of the water ceremony) on Sukkot,7 and when the bikkurim (first fruits) were brought.8

Most are of the opinion that the Levites would only sing during communal offerings. Some9 are of the opinion (based on the Zohar10 ) that the Levites had the option to sometimes sing (although not necessarily play any instruments) when an individual offering was brought. Furthermore, some Kabbalists explain that if the Levites observed that the pillar of smoke didn’t rise up in a straight pillar, indicating that the person bringing the offering wasn’t sincere in his repentance, they would stop singing.11

What Instruments Did They Play?

The following is a breakdown of the number of instruments the Levites used:12

  1. At least two lyres, but no more than six
  2. At least two flutes, but more than twelve
  3. At least two trumpets, but no more than 120
  4. At least nine harps, with no upper limit
  5. There was only one cymbal used

The Levites used to keep the instruments in the chambers underneath the Ezrat Yisrael (“Court of Israel”), which opened into the Ezrat Nashim (“Court of Women”).13

Platform or Steps: Where Did They Sing?

In some sources, the Levites are described as singing upon a duchan (“platform”) in the Temple courtyard near the altar.14 Elsewhere we read that the Levites sang on the 15 steps— corresponding to the 15 Songs of Ascent in Psalms15 —that led from the Ezrat Nashim (“Court of Women”) to the Ezrat Yisrael(“Court of Israelites”).16

Commentaries explain that the Levites would sing on the platform near the altar year-round. However, on Sukkot during Simchat Beit Hashoevah, the Levites would sing on the 15 steps.17

The Children in the Choir

The Mishnah18 states that there were never less than 12 Levites standing on the duchan, but their number could be increased indefinitely.

While ordinarily no minor was permitted to enter the Azarah (“Courtyard”) to take part in the service, the young Levites were permitted to join in the singing when the adult Levites stood up to sing. However, they were not permitted to play any instruments, they didn’t count toward the minimum requirement of 12 Levites, and they didn’t stand on the platform. Rather, they would stand on the ground so that their heads were between the feet of the Levites.

When Did They Start Singing?

During the era of the Mishkan, the Levites would start training for service in the Tabernacle at the age of 25 and would only begin service at age 30 (retiring at 50).19 This age restriction was lifted during the Temple period, but the Levites still needed to train for five years prior to their service.20

What Did They Sing?

Almost all of the Levites’ songs are recorded in the Book of Psalms. As mentioned above, during the Passover offering, they sang Hallel (Psalms 113-118).

Throughout the year, a different Psalm was sung each day of the week during the morning and afternoon daily offerings:21

Sunday: “The earth is the L‑rd’s and all it contains . . .” (Psalms 24)
Monday: “Great is the L‑rd and highly to be praised in the city of G‑d . . .” (Psalms 48)
Tuesday:G‑d stands in the divine assembly . . .” (Psalms 82)
Wednesday: “O L‑rd G‑d, to Whom vengeance belongs . . .” (Psalms 94)
Thursday: “Sing for joy to G‑d, our strength . . .” (Psalms 81)
Friday: “The L‑rd reigns: He is robed in majesty . . .” (Psalms 93).
Shabbat (only during the morning offering): “A psalm, a song for Shabbat day . . .” (Psalms 92)

During the musaf offering of Shabbat, the Levites would sing one of six parts of the song of Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32), completing the song every six weeks.22

During the afternoon tamid offering on Shabbat, they would sing the “Song of the Sea” from Exodus. They would sing from the beginning until "Who is like You" (Exodus 15:1-11) on one Sabbat, and from that verse until the end the next week. (There is a discussion if the third week they sang the “Song of the Well” or they would begin anew.23 )24

When they would bring the bikkurim (first fruits), they would sing, “I will extol You, O L‑rd, for You have raised me up . . . (Psalm 30).25

According to some, on holidays when the complete Hallel is recited during prayer services, the Levites would sing the Hallel during the musaf offering of that day,26 in addition to the special holiday songs enumerated in Masechet Sofrim.27

Singing in the World to Come

The daily psalms selected for each day of the week praise G‑d for creating the world in six days. The exception is the song sung on Shabbat, Psalms 92, which begins, “A psalm, a song for Shabbat day.” The Mishnah says it is “a song for the future, for the day that will be entirely Shabbat and rest for everlasting life”28 —for Shabbat is a glimmer of the World to Come.

May we merit this time with the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Temple speedily in our days!