QUESTION: The Mishnah teaches that when the Sanhedrin ceased to convene, the
Chachamim prohibited song at celebrations, like the verse says, "They do not
drink wine with song" (Yeshayah 24:9). The Gemara in Gitin (7a) cites a
second verse and learns from there that the prohibition of song applies not
only to musical instruments but to vocal song (with no musical
accompaniment) as well.
The wording of our Mishnah, and the verse which provides the source for the
prohibition, imply that the prohibition applies only in a Beis ha'Mishteh,
during a party or celebration, or while drinking wine. However, the Gemara
teaches that "an ear that hears song shall be cut off," and that if there is
song in a house "then destruction is at its doorstep." The Gemara continues
and says that even "the song of the weavers" (which accompanies them while
they weave) is prohibited. These statements imply that there is a blanket
prohibition against song which applies even while one is not dining. How are
these Gemaras to be reconciled?
(a) TOSFOS in Gitin (7a) quotes a Yerushalmi which says that a person should
not arise in the morning and retire at night to the accompaniment of song.
Tosfos writes that we see from there that listening to song on a frequent
and consistent basis is prohibited even while one is not dining. According
to Tosfos, these Gemaras that prohibit music in the house (and not only in a
party) might be referring to people who are constantly listening to music.
The song of the weavers was sung on a constant basis, for an extended period
of time each day.
HALACHAH: The SHULCHAN ARUCH (OC 560:3) cites the words of the Rambam in
Hilchos Ta'anis ((b) above), who says that singing without instruments is
prohibited only while drinking wine, and singing with instruments is
prohibited all of the time.
(RASHI, in DH Batel Zimra, writes that when Rav Huna decreed that song is
prohibited, he prohibited it even in one's home. However, it does not seem
that this decree endured.)
(b) The RAMBAM (Hilchos Ta'anis 5:14) seems to rule that although singing
without musical accompaniment is prohibited only while drinking wine (like
Tosfos says), nevertheless listening to music being played by instruments is
prohibited at all times. The Rambam would explain that the Gemaras which
prohibit listening to song even in one's home and not while dining are
referring to song with musical instruments.
This prohibition of musical instruments at any time seems to have been a
later enactment than the one mentioned in our Mishnah. The RI'AZ (see the
following answer) implies that this is the prohibition to which the Mishnah
later (49a) refers when it says that "Irus," a type of musical instrument,
became prohibited after the invasion and conquest of Vespasian.
(c) The RI'AZ cited by the SHILTEI GIBORIM on the Rif in Berachos (Perek 5)
rules even more stringently. He writes that the song of the weavers, and any
song which is sung out of frivolity and is intended to lighten the heart, is
always prohibited, because it draws a person towards bad deeds and character
traits. Song is only permitted when it serves a specific purpose and is not
simply for entertainment.
The TOSFOS RID seems to explain that the prohibition of song even without
musical instruments is not related to the Churban of the Beis ha'Mikdash;
even while the Beis ha'Mikdash is standing, frivolous song is prohibited.
This is the explanation for the statements in our Gemara that deprecate
listening to song.
Why, then, was it necessary for the Chachamim to prohibit song at parties,
when the Sanhedrin ceased to convene? It seems from the Yerushalmi (cited by
the HE'OROS B'MASECHES SOTAH) that as long as there was a Sanhedrin, the
members of the Sanhedrin would oversee the celebrations and ensure that
people would not be drawn to sin. Even though song was a objectionable
practice, it was not necessary to officially prohibit it while the Sanhedrin
convened, because they would keep it in check. After the Sanhedrin lost
power and could not appoint overseers, it became necessary to make a general
prohibition against song so that people would not be drawn to sin during
The Ri'az adds that the Chachamim later made an additional decree
prohibiting "Irus," which refers to musical instruments such as tambourines
and harps. If song was already prohibited even without musical instruments,
then what did this additional decree add? The Ri'az explains that song
without instruments is permitted for a purpose, such as to soothe a baby
when the baby is going to sleep, while song with an instrument is prohibited
even for such a purpose.
(d) The RAMBAM in Teshuvos (#224) cited by the TUR (OC 560) writes that it
is prohibited to sing at any time, even without musical accompaniment (not
like what is implied by his ruling in Mishneh Torah, as cited above in (b)).
According to the Rambam, it is obvious why the Chachamim in our Gemara
attributed such punishments to those who listen to song at any time.
The reasoning and source for the Rambam's ruling are not clear. It is
possible that he rules like the Tosfos Rid, who rules that song is
prohibited at all times because of frivolity. However, the Rambam in the
Mishneh Torah writes that the prohibition of song was because of the
requirement to mourn for the Beis ha'Mikdash. When he prohibited song in his
Teshuvah, it is likely that he also prohibited it out of mourning, based on
Why, though, would the Mishnah mention that song is prohibited during
celebrations if the prohibition applies at all times? The VILNA GA'ON (on
the Rambam, Hilchos Ta'anis, ibid.) explains that the main objective of the
Chachamim was to prohibit song at celebrations. The reason the Chachamim
prohibited song at all times was in order to ensure that no singing would
occur at celebrations.
Why was it necessary to prohibit the musical instrument called "Irus" at a
later time if song without an instrument was already prohibited? The Vilna
Ga'on explains that the "Irus" was a primitive form of musical instrument
which did not make a melody by itself (such as a bell or tambourine), and
thus it was not prohibited by the first decree.
The REMA cites the opinion of TOSFOS and RASHI ((a) above) who are even more
lenient and rule that both singing with instruments and singing without
instruments is prohibited only while drinking wine or when one does it
frequently and consistently.
The MISHNAH BERURAH (OC 560:13) cites the BACH who sides with the more
stringent opinions that singing is prohibited at all times, even without
musical instruments (like (c) and (d) above). In the SHA'AR HA'TZION,
though, he permits singing to lull a baby to sleep (like (c) above). RAV
MOSHE FEINSTEIN zt'l (Igros Moshe OC 1:166) writes that although he
considers the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch to be the primary Halachic
opinion (and it is permitted to sing without instruments when not dining and
when not done regularly), nevertheless a "Ba'al Nefesh" should be stringent
and conduct himself in accordance with the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah.
(All of this refers, of course, to songs which do not contain any form of
profanity or immorality. Such songs are prohibited at all times, even when
just spoken and not sung.)
The Poskim cite the RIF in Berachos (Perek 5, citing the Ge'onim) who rules
that the prohibitions of song after the Churban of the Beis ha'Mikdash apply
only to "love songs" and songs describing beauty. Songs of praise to Hashem
and songs describing Hashem's kindness are permitted even during
celebrations and while drinking wine, and even with musical instruments. The
Rema adds that it is also permitted to play songs for the sake of a Mitzvah,
such as in order to make the Chasan and Kalah rejoice.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin (101a) states that it is prohibited to compose a
song from a verse in the Torah. The Rif in Berachos (ibid.) cites this
Halachah. Although the Shulchan Aruch does not record this Halachah, the
MAGEN AVRAHAM (as cited by the Mishnah Berurah (560:14)) records this
Halachah and says that even at the Shabbos table one should not sing songs
composed from verses, unless the songs are accepted songs that the Jewish
people are accustomed to singing.