He Who Chose Melodic Songs

He Who Chose Melodic Songs

By Rabbi Yisrael Pinchas Tirnauer

The care and management of the Beis Hamikdash was the exclusive prerogative of the Kohanim and Leviim, and it was their responsibility to keep the other Jews at a safe distance from the holier sections of the Sanctuary, following the parameters laid out in the Torah and by Chazal. Essentially three tasks were assigned to the Leviim. They stood guard at the entrances to the Beis Hamikdash day and night, locked the doors of those entrances at night and opened them in the morning. They also sang in the Azarah to complement the offering of korbanos.

The Talmud (Arachin 11a) cites several sources from the Torah for the mitzvah of the Leviim to sing in the Beis Hamikdash. The Rambam cites one of those sources — the passuk (Devarim 18:7), “He shall serve with the Name of Hashem, like all his brethren the Leviim,” explaining that “serving with the Name of Hashem” means to praise Hashem utilizing the vehicle of song and melody. Nevertheless, Rashi (Divrei Hayamim II 29:25) declared that the real source for the mitzvah of singing in the Beis Hamikdash is Halachah l’Moshe miSinai, and the pesukim constitute no more than asmachta for the mitzvah.

What exactly is the mitzvah of shirah? Rabi Yose taught that the main mitzvah of shirah in the Beis Hamikdash was the playing of instruments, but the Chachamim said that it is the singing of the Leviim, and that is how the Rambam rules. Even so, the Leviim did play instruments to accompany the singing, and even on Shabbos. In fact, if an instrumental string snapped on Shabbos, it was permissible to repair it in order to continue playing. (This applied only to the music played to accompany the singing that related to the korbanos. Playing music for simchas beis hasho’eivah on Sukkos was forbidden on Shabbos.)

The Leviim sang every day when the nisuch hayayin (wine libation) was poured onto the Mizbei’ach. On an ordinary day, this applied to the korban tamid, morning and afternoon. When a korban mussaf was offered, they sang again for the extra nisuch hayayin of those korbanos. Although there is no obligation to sing when an individual’s korban is offered, it is permissible if they wish.

There is a separate mitzvah for the Kohanim to blow silver trumpets as the korban is being offered. The Kohanim also used their trumpets to accompany the singing of the Leviim, along with those who played various other instruments.

Everyone Line Up!

Every day at least twelve Leviim were assigned to stand on the duchan (stage) and sing while the korbanos were offered. There was no maximum number, and as many as wished could join. Although only Leviim were allowed to sing, anyone from any shevet could serve as a musician, as long as he had a pedigreed lineage (meaning that a Kohen would be allowed to marry his daughter). A Levi could not serve as a singer and musician at the same time.

Any Levi was eligible to serve in the choir, even if he was physically deformed. The Torah forbids people of other shevatim to sing in the Beis Hamikdash; anyone who transgresses this is liable to be punished with an untimely death (misah bidei Shamayim). Children of the Leviim were permitted to sing along with the official choir, but they had to stand on the floor and not on the duchan. Their shrill soprano voices often drew more admiration from spectators than those of the adults, to the chagrin of the latter.

To become an official member of the choir, a Levi had to train for at least five years. Once he became eligible, he might serve in this capacity until his voice was compromised by old age.

According to the passuk (Divrei Hayamim II 5:12), the choir members wore white linen uniforms. The duchan on which they stood was actually three steps leading up from the Ezras Yisrael to the Ezras Kohanim. Each step was half an amah higher than the surface below it. Anyone who entered the Azarah had to immerse in a mikveh first, and no one was permitted to sit down in the Azarah (kings descended from Dovid Hamelech were allowed).

The musical instruments used to accompany the singing were stored in leshachos (storage rooms) located just below the Azarah, and which opened to the Ezras nashim. These rooms also housed the textbooks from which the Leviim studied the methodology of their singing. The instruments were each enclosed in cloth covers and hung on the walls.

To be part of the Leviim choir, one had to study music and song for many hours each day and night, as the passuk tells us (Divrei Hayamim I 9:33). Because of this, the choir members were exempt from all other official duties in the Beis Hamikdash. According to the Chizkuni, those Leviim were not allowed to engage in any other pursuits lest their hands and fingers become calloused and unable to play the notes perfectly on their instruments. The Kuzari (2:64) likewise states that “they [Leviim] did not engage in any occupation other than music…. The originators and composers of this sublime art were Dovid and Shmuel.”

The Original Composers

Dovid and Shmuel lived before the first Beis Hamikdash was built, but they developed the system of the singing and music already in their times. They assigned the Leviim to their tasks, dividing their ranks into 24 mishmaros, each of which served in the Beis Hamikdash for a week at a time, and they trained them to perform. Dovid Hamelech chose members of the choir from those Leviim who had achieved the status of nevi’im. They were expected to be inspired to receive nevu’ah through their singing. In Divrei Hayamim I (23) we find that when Dovid Hamelech crowned his son Shlomo, he took a census of the Leviim. He found that 4,000 Leviim, from all three families — Gershon, Kehas, and Merari — were assigned to sing to Hashem and play the music that he had composed.

Why were the Leviim chosen for this exalted responsibility? The Sfas Emes (Likutim, Parashas Bamidbar) cites the Chazal that when Moshe Rabbeinu grew up and saw how the Jews were enduring such terrible slave labor, he went out to assist whoever he could and lighten his burden. The Rebbe suggested that Moshe Rabbeinu was not the only one who did this. The entire tribe of Levi, exempt from slave labor, acted in much the same way, to one degree or another. In that merit, they were granted the honor of singing and playing music in the Beis Hamikdash.

Moreover, the Sfas Emes (Pesach 5641) pointed out that at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim all of Bnei Yisrael were able to sing to Hashem, as they did at Krias Yam Suf. After the sin of the Golden Calf, however, this privilege was taken from them. It remained in the hands of Shevet Levi, who played no part in that sin.

Of course these were no ordinary musicians. The tunes they composed were not simply a convenient way to express the pesukim in an enjoyable manner. Every musical note, high or low, staccato, allegro or adagio, signified deep kabbalistic concepts. The Shiltei Hagiborim (authored by 16th-century physician Avraham Portaleone) cites Rav Saadya Gaon explaining that the various titles on each mizmor of Tehillim signify the style of music to be played when it was sung. The tune simulated the desired message, be it one of joy, reflection, supplication, declaration and so forth. Rav Saadya Gaon identified a total of 22 distinct styles in Tehillim.

Each of the 12 requisite Leviim in the choir was expert in a particular type of singing. Sometimes the singing was divided into two groups of six who alternated between pesukim, and sometimes they were divided into three groups of four. The accompanying instruments were always in multiples of 12, corresponding to the 12 Leviim. For example, during the inauguration of the first Beis Hamikdash the choir consisted of 4,000 Leviim — four groups of 334 and eight groups of 333. And, as the passuk states (Divrei Hayamim I 5:12), they were accompanied by 120 Kohanim blowing trumpets.

Flutes, Violins, Harps
Flutes, Violins, Harps

Some of the musical instruments used in the Beis Hamikdash were those fashioned in the wilderness during the life of Moshe Rabbeinu. Chazal taught (Arachin 10b), “There was a flute in the Beis Hamikdash. It was straight and thin, made of bamboo, and it remained from the time of Moshe. The king had it plated with gold, but then it failed to produce a fine tone. The plating was then removed, and it produced a tone as fine as it had done previously.”

Chazal chose not to tell us to which king this passage is referring, but Shlomo Hamelech made many musical instruments from gold for the Beis Hamikdash. He also fashioned stringed instruments from coral imported from overseas (the land of Ofir, which has not been positively identified). Josephus claimed that Shlomo Hamelech fashioned 200,000 trumpets and 40,000 stringed instruments using an alloy of silver and gold (electrum).

The minimum number of instruments, as listed in the Mishnah (Arachin 2:5), is nine kinoros and two neivel. It is permissible to have extra kinoros (there is no limit) but not more than six neivel. We do not know what these instruments looked like, but it is certain that a kinor is a stringed instrument. Rashi (Yeshayahu 5:12; Tehillim 81:2) writes that a neivel is similar, but has more strings than a kinor. Rabbeinu Gershom (Arachin 11a), however, described a neivel as a percussion instrument.

The Kedushas Levi (Parashas Vayeitzei) suggests that when the Leviim sang high tones, their intent was to shut the flow of abundance to the wicked, and they sang low tones to encourage the flow of Heaven’s bounty to the entire world, even to the undeserving.

Today, we have no record or tradition preserving the tunes used in the Beis Hamikdash. The famed traveler, Binyamin of Tudela, testified that when he visited Baghdad he met Harav Elazar ben Tzemach, who claimed to be a direct descendant of Shmuel Hanavi. He and his brothers were reputed to know how to sing the mizmorim of Tehillim in the same tunes that were used by their ancestors in the Beis Hamikdash.

The Rebbe Rav Nachman of Breslov pointed out that only human beings are capable of song and music. All animals and birds can make sounds and calls, but none can compose or sing any real tune. Therefore, he said, it is important for a shepherd to play music or sing while he is tending to his flock in the pasture. Otherwise, since he is totally alone with his flock, he could be drawn to imitate the beasts’ base nature. Harav Shlomo Zalman of Liadi likewise taught the hidden meaning of the Mishnah (Shabbos 5:1), kol baalei hashir yotzin beshir: “This is a reference to the human soul, for only human beings are baalei hashir, meaning that they are capable of singing. People can rise from the level of dumb beasts through song.”

How Does It Work?

The Ma’or Vashemesh (Parashas Korach) cites the Bris Menuchah, teaching that when someone brought an animal to the Beis Hamikdash to be offered as a korban, the officiating Kohen was able to read the person’s thoughts. If he saw that this person had not repented sufficiently, he would give a signal to the Leviim, who would then adjust the tune of their singing in such a way that it inspired the person to complete his teshuvah. They would direct their thoughts to the World of Binah, which is the realm of teshuvah in Shamayim. (The passuk Divrei Hayim I 25 refers to the choir members as meivinim — those who possess binah.)

The Sanzer Rebbe, cited in Shaar Yissachar (p. 287) describes the follow-up: Once the person realized the gravity of his sin and fully regretted it, the Kohen would again signal to the Leviim. They would then switch to a happy tune so that the korban would be offered with sincere simchah and gratitude for receiving Hashem’s forgiveness.

We pray that we will soon have the opportunity to be inspired to teshuvah and joy through the Leviim’s singing once again.

(Kinyan magazine, Sukkos edition, pages 41-45)