Syn­a­gogue Song: An Intro­duc­tion To Con­cepts, The­o­ries, and Customs

Jonathan L. Friedman
  • Review
By – September 21, 2012

Who can­not enjoy an enthu­si­as­tic dis­course infused with love of music? The Ram­bam in his respon­sa on music notes music’s ther­a­peu­tic impor­tance to heal as King David played the Kin­ur to cure Saul of his melan­choly, and lat­er estab­lished the Levit­i­cal choirs and instru­men­tal­ists for sacred ser­vice (I Chr. 15:16). Praise of G‑d peeks in Psalm 150 via var­i­ous instru­ments. Devarim Rab­bah (80:2) notes, where there is song there is prayer.” Rab­bi Yehu­dah Halevy could find no more pow­er­ful metaphor to describe his writ­ings than that his pen was his harp.” Jonathan Fried­man under­stands that music is the most spir­i­tu­al of all expre­sions. Yet tra­di­tion­al halakhah often banned music as a sign of mourn­ing as in the Respon­sa of the Rosh and as not­ed in the exam­ple of a Levit­i­cal fam­i­ly who cut off their thumbs rather than hav­ing to teach the Baby­lo­ni­ans sacred Tem­ple music echo­ing Psalm 136, we hung up our harps.” Fried­man has not hung up his harp” but employs music to recov­er the well­springs of Judaism and con­struct a the­o­ry of its impor­tance to the syn­a­gogue.

The Bible men­tions song in con­nec­tion with well dig­ging (Num 21:17 – 18) and con­struc­tion (Job 38:6 – 7), so Fried­man notes it is like­ly that the Levites were appoint­ed to super­vise the Tem­ple repairs (2 Chr. 34:12 – 13). Fried­man sights the book of Job (38:4 – 7) where G‑d retorts to Job, Where were you when I cre­at­ed the world and the morn­ing stars sang togeth­er and all the divine beings sang togeth­er in joy?” The idea of celes­tial angel­ic choirs finds itself in the genre of the Hechalot texts, to which Rash­bi refers when writ­ing in the Zohar, Hear­ken well to the music of the spheres, there are choirs of angels inton­ing the music of the har­mo­ny of the spheres.”

More exten­sive and uni­form foot­not­ing in ref­er­ence to Friedman’s good appen­dix and bib­li­og­ra­phy would have enhanced the book.

David Levy (B.A. Haver­ford Col­lege, MLS UMCP, Ph.D. Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty) cur­rent­ly serves as the librar­i­an at TC. LCW. David has pub­lished over 1,800 book reviews and var­i­ous papers in Judaica library sci­ence includ­ing, most recent­ly, Halakhic Eth­i­cal Issues of the Online Envi­ron­ment” (AJL, 2011, Mon­tre­al) and Teach­ing Judaica Library Sci­ence” (AJL, 2010 Seattle).

Discussion Questions