Orchestras on Shabbat?

February 20, 2015

Every week, Jody Hirsh, the JCC's Judaic Education Director, provides a Judaic message that is featured at the top of the JCC's weekly email newsletter. Below is the Shabbat message for Friday, February 20, 2015.

Orchestras on Shabbat?

The spectacle at the Temple in Jerusalem was wild. Especially in the days before the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple - days in which there were no synagogues or Rabbis - the Temple in Jerusalem was THE location for religious spectacle. The scale of the building itself, and the sheer numbers of Kohanim (Priests) and Levi’im (Levites) officiating was overwhelming. People brought their sacrifices to the priests who offered them on the altar within the Temple. That itself was a grand dramatic event. However, the grandest spectacle was the singing and dancing of the priests on the great steps at the Southern end of the Temple on Holidays, and more regularly on the steps connecting the women’s court and the main court of the Temple. There were 15 steps, and it was on the steps that the Priests and the Levites performed the fifteen psalms called “Shir HaMa’alot” which is usually translated “a song of degrees” but really means “a song of the steps!” In fact, the core account of Jewish Law, the Mishnah, tells us that:

On the fifteen steps which led into the women’s court, corresponding with the fifteen songs of the steps, stood the Levites with their musical instruments and sang.

Sukkah 5:4-5

Yes… musical instruments, even on Shabbat! What a sight. Not only were the Levites playing musical instruments, but the Priests were singing and dancing the fifteen psalms dedicated to their performance on the steps of the Temple. And the Torah tells us that there were bells on the hem of the High Priest’s robe; so, the sound of those bells contributed to the overall spectacle. It’s hard to imagine, but for those Jews who witnessed the spectacle because they lived in Jerusalem and would frequent the Temple, and those more distant Jews who made a pilgrimage for one or all of the three festivals, it was, no doubt, an unforgettable experience. Psalm 150, the last of the Psalms, captures the thrill of this musical moment:


Praise G-d in His sanctuary;

Praise Him with the blast of the shofar;

Praise Him with the psaltery and the harp.

Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;

Praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe.

Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals;

Praise Him with the clanging cymbals.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.


Shabbat Shalom