Divinity and Music

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Towards the revaluation of the Cantorial Art

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Divinity and Music

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A new exponent of the
Hebrew chant

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The Shema and its
musical setting

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obj2124geo1561pg111p9Divinity and Music – A Jewish conception

by

Jacob Beimel

The human soul, which expresses itself in religious beliefs and customs, finds a medium for the utterance of its varied impressions in  music also. Moreover, even its nourishment, the human soul itself, receives from these two attributes, religion and music.

There exists, therefore, in the human mind, from time immemorial, a strong and unseparable bond between Divinity and the Art of Music.  In the pagan world and among nations with polytheistic beliefs, the religious services were accompanied by music. This art was so  endeared to the ancient nations that among their many gods, there was always one who took care of it and was its special patron. In  ancient Greece, for instance, among the nine Muses presiding over the Arts, there was one who presided over the art of music especially.

Among the nations confessing a monotheistic religion, of whatever beliefs and customs it may consist, music, vocal, instrumental or both  combined, continued and still continues to constitute an integral part of the divine services. The Christian religion knows even of a saint,  St. Cecilia, who is the patron of musicians. In Judaism, the religion of pure monotheism, there can be no approach to the Almighty without  song, because it is He “Who maketh choice of song” (Habocheir B’shirei Zimro).

The principal morning prayers which begin with “Bor’chu”, are preceded by “Verses of Song” (P’sukei D’Zimro) consisting of psalms  referring to song as praise to the Almighty. Special glorifying hymns are added to these psalms in the Sabbath morning services. We read  then: “With song shall be glorified Thy name, O our King, in every generation.” The prayers for Sabbath eve likewise commence with  psalm (95) referring to song and praise, the first verse of which begins with the words, “Oh, let us sing unto the Lord” –  L’chu N’ranenoh  Lashem.

The importance of using music in the approach of God is abundantly illustrated by many passages in the Bible and Talmud, upon few of  which we shall dwell here.

The High Priest, whose qualifications for his office could not be conditioned, of course, by the ability to sing or play a musical instrument,  while entering the sanctuary, had to make himself audible at least by the pleasing sound of golden bells which were attached to his  vestment, for the purpose of avoiding danger of death: ” . . . and bells of gold between them round about; a golden bell and a  pomegranate . . . upon the skirts of the robe round about. And it shall be upon Aaron to minister; and the sound thereof shall be heard  when he goeth in unto the holy place before the Lord and when he cometh out that he die not” (Exodus 28, 33-35).

It seems that it was considered dangerous to the life of the High Priest to enter the sanctuary without any sound, even if the sound was  only of golden bells.

Many explanations of the purpose of these bells were offered by scholars of the Bible and archeologists. History tells us that the early  Christians used bells at their services, a custom which has remained in the Catholic Churches to the present day. Students of the history  of religion derive this custom from the bells which were attached to the robe of the High Priest.

A musical instrument had to be used also when Israel wished to be especially remembered before his God both in times of gladness and  distress. Israel then had to sound the trumpet: “Also in the days of your gladness and in your appointed seasons and in your new moons,  ye shall blow with the trumpet over your burned offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace offerings; and they shall be to you a  memorial before your God” (Numbers 10, 10).

Then again: “And when ye go to war in your land against the adversary that oppreseth ye, then ye shall sound the trumpets and ye shall be  remembered before the Lord your God and ye shall be saved from your enemies” (Numbers 10, 9).

We see that the Jews used music to approach their God, not only in usual prayer, but in all events, whenever they desired to be  remembered by Him.

Assuming this predilection of God for music, the Prophets often utilized this art for the purpose of having the divine spirit come to rest  upon them and thus to be able to prophesy.

The Prophet Elisha, a disciple of Elijah, for instance, was asked to prophesy whether the war against the Moabites would be won. Elisha,  after some hesitation, was willing to prophesy, provided a musician would be called to play before him; “And it came to pass, when the  musician played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him” (Second Kings, 3, 15).

An apparent indication of the connection between music and prophecy, we see also in the story about Saul before he became King of  Israel, when his father sent him to look for the lost asses. As a sign that he would become King, he was told thus: “Thou shalt meet a band  of prophets coming down from the high place with psaltery and a timbrel and a flute and a harp before them and they will be prophesying.  And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee and thou shalt prophesy with them” (First Samuel 10 5-6).

Evidence of the kinship between prophecy and music can also be found in the fact that the title Chozeh was applied to the prophet as well  as to the musician (Second Kings 17, 13; Second Chronicles 25, 30). Moreover, the Hebrew verb denoting prophesying (Numbers 11, 25,  etc.) as well as playing a musical instrument (First Chronicles, 25, 1).

This fact may be explained perhaps by assuming that the prophets used to deliver their prophecies before the people in a sort of chanting  which was accompanied by a musical instrument.

Music was also employed when it was necessary to make the Divine Spirit rest once again upon a individual. Melancholy, for instance, was  considered in ancient times as the result of the fact that th spirit of the Lord had left the one afflicted and that an evil spirit came to rest  upon him instead (First Samuel 16, 14). Of course, this affliction could then be remedied by inducing Divinity to make its spirit rest upon  the sick person once more and thus cause the evil spirit to depart. This could only be achieved by the one means in which Divinity found  its greatest favour, namely by music.

Thus we find that when the evil spirit terrified King Saul, the latter was advised to have a musicia play before him. Such a musician was  found in the person of the young shepherd David, the son ofJesse: “And it came to pass, when the (evil) spir from God was upon Saul, that  David took his harp and played with his hand; so Saul found relief and it was well with him, and the evil spirit depart from him” (First  Samuel 16, 23).

David later became the illustrious King of Israel and by virtue of his psalms and musicianship, the Jewish folklore titled him the “Sweet  singer of Israel.” He gave the impetus to the glorious development of the art of music during the time of the first Temple and even of the  second, and when we speak of David the Psalmist, we speak at the same time of David the musician.

Among the many legends and commentaries regarding the poetical and musical genius of David there is a touching explanation why some  of the psalms are headed by the words “David’s Psalm,” with the word “David” first and the word “Psalm” second, while others are  headed “A Psalm of David”, with the word “Psalm first and the word “David” second. The Talmud explains that where the headline of the  psalm is “David’s Psalm”, it means that the divine spirit, the Schechinah, came to rest upon him before began to compose the psalm,  while the headline, Psalm of David” indicates that the divine spirit came upon him, after the composing of the psalm had already begun.

Indeed, a wonderful explanation of the tie between divine inspiration and creative work.

The inseparable bond between God and the art of music is expressed time and again in the whole vast post-Biblical literature, such as the  Talmud, the Midrashim, the Piyutim, and especially in the Kabbalistic and Chassidic writings.

“The gates of song precede the gates of repentance, ” said a Chassidic saint, Rabbi Pinchos of Koretzer.

“The Temple of Song is nearest to the source of holiness,” said Rabbi Nachman Bratzlawer, another Chassidic sage.

“There are gates in heaven which can be opened by song alone,” is a well-known Kabbalistic saying.

Indeed, the Jewish conception of the relationship between Divinity and the art of music is as old as Israel. No wonder that a people,  cherishing such a conception was destined to occupy a distinguished place in the world of this divine art – the Art of Music.

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