Ye Sacred Muses

By Simon Gordon
Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are Jewish mourners forbidden from listening to music?  On the face of it, the prohibition is absolute. Certainly, it is forbidden for mourners to attend concerts, or performances in general. Indeed, even recorded music should be avoided during the first 30 days of mourning, as well as during the Three Weeks of national mourning for the destruction of the Temple which we are observing at the moment.  But does this mean that all music is prohibited?  What about liturgical music, the music of the synagogue?

A mourner during shivah, the first week of mourning, cannot attend the first part of Kabbalat Shabbat; the mourner thereby misses most of the psalms and hymns of celebration, which are intended to be sung, although he is invited to enter before the recitation of the psalm for the Sabbath day.  Beyond the shivah, a mourner generally does not lead Shabbat or festival services for the rest of the mourning period, though this is not an outright proscription: If he is usually the cantor, he may continue to perform his duty.

Yet there is liturgical music which exists specifically for mourning, such as the El Malei Rahamim, usually sung by the cantor in the Yizkor service, which takes place on major festivals and on Yom Hashoah.

Judaism does have a tradition of elegy and lamentation.  It features most prominently in the liturgy of Tisha b'Av, when we read Eikhah, the book of Lamentations.  Eikhah has its own specific trope or cantillation: In fact, the middle section of the m'gilah has a separate melody of its own.  We also sing an elegy—or, more specifically, a martyrology—on both Tisha b'Av and Yom Kippur, called Eleh Ezkerah, which commemorates the ten talmudic rabbis who were executed, supposedly all on the same day, by Roman authorities.  The Tanakh contains another elegy, which does not feature in the liturgy: that of David for Saul and Jonathan, well-known for its refrain, "How the mighty have fallen."

There is, however, no tradition in Judaism of a funeral march. The funeral march might be said to encapsulate the Jewish concern about the use of music in times of mourning, as it risks straying into fanfare.  Compare, for instance, David’s elegy in the second book of Samuel to the "Dead March" from Handel’s oratorio Saul.  David’s song is pure lament, denying the glory of the kingdom and making no mention of his own preordained accession to the throne: "Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on the heights; how the mighty have fallen!  Tell it not in Gath, do not proclaim it on the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult."  In Saul, by contrast, in between the scene of the execution of the Amalekite who killed Saul and the elegy, Handel interpolates a march whose brass-heavy middle section engenders a pomp and ceremony that shatter the sobriety and solemnity of the original narrative.

The proscription on musical instruments in Jewish mourning, and consequent focus on the voice alone, is part of what fosters an austere, plaintive tone in the liturgical music surrounding mourning.  But it is not the only factor, for even vocal music is forbidden for the mourner outside of a liturgical context.  The aim of these prohibitions is to convey the gravity of the situation, the immersion of the mourners in their loss, and their ultimate acceptance of divine will and dominion.  Music can express grief in this context but must not be a way to escape from it.

We might wonder, though, whether Judaism goes too far in restricting music.  Perhaps music is a necessary part of the mourner’s consolation and reconciliation with God.  We would never recite Eikhah without the cantillation; yet mourners read psalms but never sing them, despite the fact that they are designed to be sung.  Does the consolation offered by the psalms come only from studying them, or might it come from singing them, too?   

The challenge is to sing while acknowledging the inappropriateness of music.  Here, we can take a lead from the Renaissance-era English choral composer William Byrd.  Upon the death of his friend and mentor Thomas Tallis, the foremost composer of the day, Byrd was faced with the challenge of composing not only for a time where music could be inappropriate but for the extinction of a great musical talent.  His resulting elegy, "Ye Sacred Muses," appeals, therefore, to the choir of Heaven, since the voices on Earth are choked by grief:

Ye sacred Muses, race of Jove,
whom Music's lore delighteth,
Come down from crystal heav'ns above
to earth where sorrow dwelleth,
In mourning weeds, with tears in eyes:
Tallis is dead, and Music dies.

Sung by a single countertenor, the last two lines are repeated once, and the last phrase—"and Music dies"—five times, in three different formulations.  But if music lives thereby, Earth has nonetheless not forgotten Tallis or sought to supplant him; rather, Earth sings to bridge the gap with Heaven, which has taken him away. 

Mourning in Judaism involves accepting the will of God: Upon witnessing or hearing of the death of a family member, the incipient mourner is commanded to bless the True Judge.  But it also obliges the community to console the mourner and focus on his grief; hence the greeting, "May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."  The gap between the powerlessness of the mourner before God’s will and the significance accorded to his suffering is vast; but communal prayer and song for the sake of Heaven provide one way to bridge it.

You can find this online at:

© Copyright 2024 Jewish Ideas Daily. All Rights Reserved.