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The Halachic Status of Music: During the Year and in the Sefirah (Part 1)

The time of the Omer count is not inherently a time of mourning. On the contrary, according to the Ramban (Parashas Emor) the time of the Omer count is like Chol Ha’moed, connecting the festivals of Pesach and Shavuos.

Yet, as the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 493:1) records, the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, which occurred in this period of time, is cause of several mourning customs that are followed during the Omer count.

We would like to discuss one angle of the customary mourning: The prohibition on dancing and music. It is well known that one may not listen to music during the sefirah period. It is less known that this prohibition is not mentioned in any of the leading poskim, from ancient times until the Mishnah Berurah!

Of late, many questions were submitted to the site pertaining to this issue, and it is important to clarify the origin and nature of this customary prohibition. To what degree is it forbidden to listen to music? Is there a prohibition even on listening to music in private? Is even soothing or calming music included in the prohibition? We will attempt to address these questions below.

In order to gain a clear perspective on the question of music in the sefirah period, it is essential to first gain an understanding of the halachic status of music throughout the year. The topic of music throughout the year will occupy us in this week’s article, whereas next week we will please G-d turn to music in the sefirah period.

Listening to Music During the Year: Primary Sources

The primary source for a blanket prohibition on music is the Mishnah in Sotah (48a). Based on the biblical verse, “In song they shall not drink wine” (Yeshayahu 24:9) the Mishnah states that when the Sanhedrin ceased to function, “the songs of the banquet halls” also stopped.

The Gemara questions how we know that the verse refers to the time when the Sanhedrin was abolished, and explains that the connection between the Sanhedrin and song is based on another verse: “The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their music.”

As to why the ceasing of music should be contingent on the passing of the Sanhedrin, the Yerushalmi explains that while the Sanhedrin functioned the Sages could supervise the content of the songs. After the Sanhedrin was abolished, the content of songs deteriorated into divrei nevalah (obscenities), and therefore it was prohibited.

A second source for the prohibition on song after the Destruction is found in the Gemara (Gittin 7a), where Mar Ukva was asked the source of the prohibition. Mar Ukva responded with a different verse to that mentioned by the Mishnah, from which the Gemara concludes that both verses are required: One verse is required to teach the prohibition on music, and the other is required to include even vocal singing without musical accompaniment.

Which Song is Prohibited?

According to Rashi, the prohibition mentioned by the Gemara, like that mentioned in the Mishnah, applies specifically to a ‘banquet hall.’ This implies that outside the particular forum of wine-related celebrations or event, there would not be a prohibition on singing or on playing musical instruments.

Tosafos add to that even outside the banquet halls the prohibition applies to those who derive intense pleasure from music—those who go to sleep and rise to musical accompaniment. This ruling is quoted by the Tur, who states that the prohibition applies to those that are ragil (used to music). Rema (Orach Chaim 560) writes that the prohibition refers to princes and royalty—those who have the custom of retiring and awakening with music.

Tosafos also mention a leniency, whereby for the purpose of a mitzvah, such as at a wedding feast, it is permitted to sing and to play instruments (even with wine).

The most lenient opinion is found in the glosses to the Mordechai (beginning of Gittin), who writes that the prohibition applies only to song at a wine-banquet in which a meal is not served. Citing from Tosafos, Rema explains that this is the way of non-Jews, and is therefore prohibited. Where a meal is served, singing and musical accompaniment is permitted, even if wine is also drunk.

The explanation of this lenient opinion is presumably that an event at which wine is drunk but no meal is served is likely to be a venue for uncontrolled drunkenness. It is only this form of singing and drinking, and not the controlled singing and drinking at a meal, which Chazal forbade. This opinion is not, however, mentioned by halachic authorities.

Distinction by Content

The opinions above address the venue at which the song is sung, but not the actual content of the singing. Other rishonim quote a responsum of Rav Hai Gaon, who focused on the forbidden content of the singing:

The custom of all of Israel, both in regular banquet halls, and certainly at a wedding celebration, is to raise joyous voices in praise of Hashem, remembering His goodness and kindness with the nation of Israel, and hoping for the revelation of His Kingdom and the fulfillment of the good promises and the consolations of the prophets… there is nobody among Israel who does not participate in this. However, the song that Mar Ukva prohibits refers to matters that are unlike these, but to love songs and to praises of human valor and beauty, and other songs that the Ishmaelites sing… which are prohibited with or without musical instrument.

Rav Hai proceeds to explain that there are some non-Jewish songs that are permitted to sing, and this depends on the content of the song. If they have no negative or harmful content, and they serve a purpose for woodcutters and shepherds to sing as they labor, there would be no prohibition in such singing.

The content-based distinction made by Rav Hai is fairly essential, for otherwise it would be prohibited to sing any song. It is thus ruled by many rishonim, including the Rif (Berachos 21b), the Rosh (Berachos Chap. 5, no. 1), the Ran (chiddushin, Gittin 7a), Sefer Ha-Eshkol (Vol. 1, p. 23), the Ra’ah, and others.

Rav Hai himself, as quoted by the authorities above, refers specifically to vocal singing. The Meiri, however (Sotah 48b and Gittin 7a), explains that only songs of lightheadedness, which are not for the sake of Heaven and devoid of praise to Hashem, are forbidden, and applies this distinction both to vocal songs and to musical accompaniment. He concludes with an important ruling for all generations: “A judge can only judge according to that which meets his eyes, according to each place and time.”

The Stringent Opinion (Rambam and Shulchan Aruch)

By contrast with the opinions mentioned above, the Rambam (Laws of Fasts 5:14) records a blanket prohibition on music and singing (in a wine banquet), mentioning virtually no lenient considerations:

“They also decreed that playing musical instruments is forbidden, and likewise forbade any type of song, and it is forbidden to rejoice with anything that produces music, because of the destruction of the Temple. Even vocal singing alone is prohibited… Yet, it is the custom among all of Israel to say words of praise and song of gratitude to G-d, and so on, upon wine.”

Unlike the authorities mentioned above, who make distinctions between vocal singing and playing musical instruments, between music at wine banquets and music outside a banquet, and between songs of different content, the Rambam is stringent in virtually all forms of singing and music. The only leniency he accepts is vocal singing outside a wine banquet, and vocal singing, even with wine, for the sake of Heaven.

This stringent ruling is quoted by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 560:3). The Rema, however, cites the more lenient opinion of Tosafos, according to which the prohibition outside the banquet hall applies specifically to those especially accustomed to music. The Rema also adds that it is permitted to play music for the purpose of a mitzvah.

Stringency of Old and Recent Leniency

Authorities of past generations have generally taken a stringent approach towards the issue of music and singing. The Bach (560), for instance, rules that the principle halachah follows the stringent ruling of the Rambam, and also quotes the ruling of the Rambam in a responsum, according to which even vocal singing outside a wine banquet is prohibited.[1]

Although Orchos Chaim (Tisha Be’av 14) rules that singing is permitted even for light labor, Bach thus warns that this is prohibited, and writes that women who sing as they work are acting improperly. However, the Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Hatzion 25) mentions that singing lullabies is permitted.

The stringent ruling of the Bach is cited by the Magen Avraham (560:9), and the Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin 1:17) also states that “even singing outside of a banquet is prohibited, and it is only permitted on an occasional basis, or to hear a sweet voice, or something new.” The leniencies mentioned (a ‘sweet voice’ or ‘something new’) presumably refer to taking pleasure from the novelty or the sweetness of the voice, rather than from the music. With regard to enjoying singing and music, however, these authorities leave little room for leniency. Iggros Moshe (Orach Chaim 1:166) likewise writes that one should be stringent to follow the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch.

Yet, the prevalent custom today is to be lenient concerning playing and listening to music, and certainly concerning singing, to the extent that many (even strictly observant Jews) are entirely unaware of the Talmudic prohibition that poskim warn of. What is the cause of this sudden switch in halachic outlook?

Changes of Modern Life

In addressing this thorny question, Rav Yakov Breisch (Chelkas Yaakov 1:62), Rav Shmuel Wosner (Shevet Halevi 6:69; 8:127), and Rav Menashe Klein (Mishnah Halachos 6:106) all suggest that considering the fact that we live in difficult and sad times, and depression is fairly common in our community, one may listen to music to help raise his spirits and overcome feelings of depression.

Rav Wosner (ibid.) points out further that as we have seen, songs that bring people closer to Hashem are not included in the prohibition, and it is therefore permitted to listen to songs that raise our spiritual sensitivities and connect us to G-d. It might also be suggested that this type of music, in particular circumstances, is considered a devar mitzvah. According to Iggros Moshe (ibid.), the leniency of the Rema to listen to play music at a wedding applies to any devar mitzvah.[2]

Yet, these lines of halachic reasoning are somewhat strained, and they clearly come to defend a common practice rather than to initiate a halachic ruling.

The general leniency with regard to music probably evolved from the invention of the gramophone, and subsequently cassette and compact disc systems, which brought the sound of music into every living room in the world. From being something remarkable, to which only princes are accustomed, music became a regular and integral part of everyday modern life.

It might be possible to suggest that after music pervaded everyday life, its halachic status would also undergo something of a change. Unlike times of Chazal, music today is quite unexceptional, and does not inspire the same joy and exuberance it probably used to. This would perhaps permit us to rely on the more lenient opinions concerning the prohibition of music and singing.

Thus, although past authorities generally sided with the Shulchan Aruch, Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer 15:33) writes that the common custom is to rely on the Rema, whereby the prohibition (outside a wine banquet) is limited to royalty, who retire and awaken with music. According to Rav Wosner (Shevet Halevi 6:69) today, in an age of home stereo systems, all of us are ragil (well-used to music, even if we don’t fall asleep with it), and we cannot rely on the leniency of the Rema. Tzitz Eliezer clearly did not accept this stringent line of reasoning.

Another point worth mentioning is that the Shulchan Aruch makes specific mention of “rejoicing with music.” Much of the music we listen to, and in particular classical music, is not made to rejoice with, but rather to sooth and to bring a calming into our hectic lives. It is therefore possible that this would not be included in the prohibition—though the distinction is not found in early authorities, who mention “taking pleasure” from music.

We are yet to deal with the halachic status of recorded music, and with the question of music in the sefirah period. Please G-d, we will discuss these questions in the next article.


The halachic question of music presents a highly unusual circumstance, in which the common custom does not appear to match the halachic rulings of accepted authorities (such as the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, the Bach, Magen Avraham, and Mishnah Berurah).

According to several rishonim, however, the prohibition of music (throughout the year) applies only to wine banquets, and outside the banquet hall it is permitted to play and listen to music. This opinion is ruled by the Rema, with the exception of those who take intense pleasure from music. The common custom to be lenient relies on the Rema, and assumes that ordinary people, despite their being used to music, do not fit into this category.

Yet, one may not sing or play musical instruments together with drinking wine, for there are (virtually) no opinions that permit doing so, and this would involve a direct infringement of the Talmudic law.

[1] The Bach supports this position from a ruling of Rav Huna (Sotah 48b) that only permits singing that is part of a working routine. However, see Iggros Moshe (1:166) who defers the proof, yet writes that one should preferably be stringent for the Bach’s ruling.

[2] See Yam Shel Shlomo (Gittin 1:17), who does not appear to concur with this assessment.

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  1. Thank you so much for this article!

    I once heard that the Baal Shem Tov allowed niggunim,in order to serve Hashem with joy. Do you know of this?

    1. I heard this once from a Chabad shaliach somewhere, but I have not checked it out. I have not seen that this is common practice among Chassidim.

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