I used to go to a temple where they would play musical instruments during the Friday night prayer service. I’ve since joined an Orthodox congregation, but I think that listening to music and song while connecting to G‑d is the one thing I long for the most.

Was it always prohibited to play musical instruments on Shabbat? If so, why is there explicit mention of singing and playing musical instruments on Shabbat in Psalms (92:1–4)?


Music was an essential part of some of the services in the Holy Temple. And since, as you point out, music enhances the environment and one’s emotional as well as spiritual state, music accompanied even those Temple rituals that didn’t essentially require musical accompaniment.

Nevertheless, at some point (most likely during the Second Temple era) it was decided that musical instruments should not be played on Shabbat. The reason given: An instrumentalist, swept away by the rapture of his music, may come to replace a snapped string or otherwise repair his instrument—an act which is biblically prohibited on Shabbat. (“Repairing a utensil” is one of the 39 categories of activities forbidden on Shabbat.)

[I should add that any rabbinic enactment or decree remains in effect until a rabbinic court of greater stature and numbers than the one that initiated it reviews the case, regardless of what the reasons behind it may be. One of the reasons for this restriction is that not everyone can truly understand all the reasoning behind the original decision—as we see in our case, where there may well be much more behind the enactment than we first imagine.]

This kind of rabbinical enactment—a prohibition designed to prevent desecration of Shabbat—is called, in Talmudic parlance, a shvut. In general, a shvut does not apply in the Holy Temple—since it was assumed that those working in the Temple were careful and did not require such preventive measures. This shvut, however, was an exception: instrumental music was not played on the Shabbat during any ritual or service of which it was not an essential component. (And although there is debate in the Talmud as to which services required music and for which services music was merely an enhancement, the fact remains that wherever it was nonessential to the service, music was not played in the Holy Temple on Shabbat.)

Perhaps one could understand this better based on a distinction made by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi between instrumentally produced music, zemer, and vocally produced song, shir.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that while both angels and souls sing praise to the Almighty, there is a difference between the two forms of praise. Angels, though not physical like earthly creatures, are nonetheless bound within some numinous, ethereal body. Therefore, their song is also invested within the medium of that body. This is why their song is audible to the refined ears of the prophet. As we describe in our daily prayers, the angels offer their praise with great pomp and ceremony together with mighty fanfare:

And the ophanim, and the holy chayot, with a mighty sound, rise toward the seraphim, and facing them, offer praise.

Soul-praise, on the other hand, is an entirely different sort of music. It is purely spiritual, unadulterated by any medium, nothing more than an expression of the simple desire of the soul to rise up in its praise, surrendering its existence to be reunited with its source. In other words, instrumental music is music of the body, and song is the music of the soul. In the Holy Temple, the revelation of G‑dly light was extreme enough to contain both the source of souls and of angels—which is why there was both instrumental music as well as song.

Based on this idea, perhaps it could be said that on Shabbat, a day that is devoted to our soul while physical pursuits are provided a rest, it is only fitting that the song and praise offered be soulful rather than physical and instrumental.

So, while playing music on Shabbat and holidays is forbidden, song and dance are permitted and encouraged. In fact, most synagogues do have uplifting singing during the services, not to mention during the festive Shabbat meals. Try joining in, and you will likely be pleasantly surprised to find that pure song without musical accompaniments can be even more spiritually uplifting and rewarding.

Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chayim 339; Talmud, Sukkah 50b (see commentaries there); Tosefta, Erachin 1:6; Encyclopedia Talmudit, s.v. Ein Shvut Bamikdash; Likkutei Torah, Vezot Haberachah 98d.