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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Joyful Noise: Musical Instruments of the Bible

For thousands of years, musical instruments have played an integral role in Jewish worship.

The sun has just set on a warm evening in mid-September. The light of day lingers. The dark of night delays. Without the sun, nothing casts a shadow; only shades of light and darkness can be seen as the visible world is suspended in the transition of twilight.

The warmth of this day recalled hotter days just past. The slight chill in the air this evening hints of colder weather to come. It is the time between the seasons, the turning point when it is neither summer nor fall.

On the Jewish calendar today is the first day of Tishri, the first month. A man steps from the receding daylight into a synagogue. A prayer shawl covers his shoulders. A small round cap rests on his head. He raises a ram’s horn to his lips and trumpets a staccato series of shrill sounds. His music pierces the darkness of the approaching night to announce the arrival of a new year. For the Jewish people, this is not the beginning of night, but the start of another day. This is not a time between the seasons, but Rosh Hashonah, the “Head of the Year.”

The ram’s horn, or shofar, is one of half a dozen musical instruments mentioned in the early books of the Old Testament. It is a very simple instrument that produces only two tones and requires very skillful players to sound variations on those two notes. The ram’s horn accompanied the Jews when they left Egypt at the time of the Exodus around 1300 B.C. Its strident voice summoned them into battle against their enemies in Canaan. The shofar called people to worship in the Temple. It is the only musical instrument played in ancient biblical times to survive unchanged to the present day.

Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., synagogue worship has used the call of the shofar to usher in the New Year, to begin the Day of Atonement and to mark solemn occasions. In a sense, the shofar has given shape and form to Jewish history. It separates the nights from the days. It heralds the festivals and marks the seasons, year after year, century upon century.

Besides the shofar, two other ancient musical instruments were used in the worship services that were held in the Tabernacle, a tent where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem in 961 B. C. The paamon was a bell that signaled important moments of the service, such as the arrival of the priests or the times when members of the congregation would prostrate themselves. The hatzotzrah was a silver trumpet. In Solomon’s time, special occasions in the Temple called for as many as 120 of them.

The Bible mentions other instruments which were used at the time of the Exodus and afterward. Three of those instruments accompanied the songs and dancing of festival occasions. One of them, the kinnor, was a lyre of Egyptian origin. Its strings, made from the intestines of sheep, were stretched over a sounding board. The musician held a pick in one hand to sound notes and placed his other hand over the strings he did not wish to play so that he could deaden those notes. The ugav was a shepherd’s flute and also had its origins in Egypt. It was a hollow reed pipe with finger holes at one end. The toph was a frame drum, something like a tom-tom.

Jewish music evolved in the home, in the Royal Court and in the Temple. Not one, but three different styles of music developed. In the houses of kings and the nobility, women were the professional musicians. The Book of Exodus relates how Moses’ sister Miriam took a tambourine in hand and led the women in song. The Book of Judges describes the dancing of the prophetess Deborah and of Jephthah’ daughter.

The Levites were the musicians of the Temple. Singers, players and conductors were all Levites. A minimum of twelve singers always performed at a service.

Popular belief gives King David credit for organizing the Temple music service. It was he who placed the Levites in charge of the sacred music used in Temple worship. David composed the Psalms and set them to music. He invented several musical instruments himself.

In the days of the kings, there was an orchestra to accompany religious services. Under Egyptian influence, the Temple orchestra featured more powerful instruments. Harps known as the sabkha and the katos joined the string section together with the psaltery. The wind instruments added depth with an oboe called the halil and strength with a bagpipe known as the mashrokitah. Two new types of cymbals, the shalisha and the metziltayah, came into the tympani.

At the beginning of the Babylonian Exile in 537 B.C., the numbers of singers and of instrumentalists in the Temple were always the same. When the Exile ended fifty years later, the number of players diminished. The form of music changed too, and so did the types of instruments. The orchestra ceased using the drum. It stopped employing trumpets, except for solo pieces. The oboe was banned from the Temple. In synagogue worship only the shofar and the human voice made music from 70 A.D. to modern times.

On this mid-September evening no orchestra greets the arrival of the new year. The shofar proclaims its start. Human voices alone welcome its coming.

Blessed art Thou, O Eternal, our God, King of the Universe, Who has made a distinction between holy and not holy, between light and darkness.

As the evening progresses, one of the voices will recite a passage from the Bible in a monotone chant known as cantillation, which dates from the fifth century B.C. Another voice will carry traditional melodies of the Psalms. Still another voice will sing prayers whose words and music have remained unchanged for centuries. The ancient ritual of Rosh Hashonah, beginning with the timeless cry of the shofar, gives this day a definite place amid the changing of the seasons and the passing of the years.

Father Mulkerin is Coordinator for Volunteers, Refugees and Disasters for Catholic Relief Services.

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