I. Extent of the Prohibition
Music, the Talmud says, is forbidden. How do we know this? The Gemara (Gittin 7a) answers with a few possible verses, including “Do not rejoice, Israel, to joy like the nations” (Hosea 9:1). Commentators disagree about the extent of this prohibition. Rashi (Gittin 7a s.v. zamra) explains that this discussion revolves around singing while drinking liquor. Tosafot (ad loc.) agree with some additional details, and the Rema (Orach Chaim 569:3) rules this way. In particular, Tosafot and the Rema permit singing for a mitzvah need. Rambam takes a different, more philosophical approach that I would like to examine.
In Mishneh Torah (Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:14), Rambam writes that after the destruction of the Temple, the Sages forbade playing musical instruments—even singing over wine is forbidden. Some take this to mean a two-tiered rabbinic prohibition: music with instruments is always forbidden, music without instruments is only forbidden with liquor. The reason seems to be that the underlying problem is joyous music. With instruments, the music is more joyous. Liquor also adds to the joy. This is the standard understanding of Rambam’s ruling in his code, which Rav Ovadiah Yosef advocates in a responsum on the subject (Yechave Da’at 1:45). However, Rav Yosef acknowledges that some read this passage differently.
Ma’aseh Rokei’ach (ad loc.) suggests that Rambam forbids all music, whether with instruments or not. He mentions non-instrumental music over wine because that is a common occurrence, which one might have thought is allowed due to its natural part of friendly drinking. However, Rambam discusses singing at length in two other texts, one written early in his career and the other very late. These two philosophical treatments deserve examination.
II. Types of Songs
In his commentary to Avot (1:16), in the context of discussing the value of silence, Rambam differentiates between five types of speech, which he then applies to songs. Some words are obligations, like prayer and Torah reading. Others are forbidden, like false testimony and slander. A third category is inadvisable, which includes meaningless stories and the denigration of specific attitudes and character traits. A fourth category is proper and includes praise of good behavior and attributes and denigration of negative attitudes. Also within this category are stories about the righteous and denigration of the wicked. The fifth category is optional—details about life, food, business, etc. These are part of getting along in the world, things we need to discuss sometimes and about which there are no limits or general restrictions.
Similarly, Rambam writes, songs can be divided into these groups. While he does not directly elaborate, Rambam seems to mean that songs praising good behavior and attributes are praiseworthy (the fourth category); songs that are slanderous or profane are forbidden (second category); songs about meaningless activities or stimulating desires for physical gratification are inadvisable (third category). Rambam emphasizes that the subject of the song is important, not its language. If anything, inappropriate songs are worse in Hebrew because they profane the holy language. And if biblical verses are sung inappropriately, the songs are not just inadvisable but forbidden because the Torah prohibits turning words of prophecy into lowly songs.
III. Forbidden Songs
In a late responsum, Rambam goes further. In this letter, he references Moreh Nevuchim, showing that this was written toward the end of his life. Rambam explains that music is powerful, evoking desire. What we hear affects us deeply, otherwise we would not care about music. However, we have to take care about what we allow into our souls. Nonsense, Rambam says, is forbidden to hear, whether in prose or in song.
Some people may find music about nonsense uplifting, inspiring them to greater religious and intellectual heights. However, echoing Moreh Nevuchim (3:34), Rambam explains that the Torah’s laws are based on the majority of people. In this case, most people find secular music stimulating but not religiously uplifting. Therefore, the Torah prohibits this music despite the minority that derives positive benefit from it.
Rather, Rambam finds five possible reasons to forbid inappropriate music. First, the prohibition against hearing nonsense and profanity. Additionally, we are forbidden to listening to singing, even without instruments. Then there is the prohibition against listening to musical instruments. If we sing while drinking liquor, there is a fourth prohibition. And if the singer is a woman, Rambam says explicitly, there is a fifth prohibition of kol ishah.
IV. Permitted Songs
However, the power of music can be harnessed for good. Regarding the Temple songs of the Levi’im, Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:45) writes: “The object of the singing is to produce certain emotions; this object can only be attained by pleasing sounds and melodies accompanied by music, as was always the case in the Temple.” Because of its ability to alter emotional states, song can be used to set an uplifting religious tone. Rambam quotes the Rif (Berachot 21b), who in turn quotes one of the Ge’onim who says that the prohibition only applies to songs about love and beauty. In contrast, no Jew refrains from songs of praise and commemoration of God’s kindness.
Even though most authorities do not follow the Rambam’s commentary and responsum, his logic remains worthy of serious consideration. The incredible power of music compels us to use it judiciously. If we fail to do so, we risk filling our minds with profoundly non-religious lyrics, often lurking in our subconscious and emerging into our thoughts against our will.
On the other hand, secular music that praises good behavior influences us positively. This requires us to think carefully about the music to which we listen, judging its merits and deciding whether it can influence us positively. Just like we scrutinize the food that enters our body, we must examine carefully the sounds and ideas we allow into our minds.
By Rabbi Gil Student
Rabbi Gil Student is editor of TorahMusings.com.