(Crossposted to Mah Rabu.)
This post addresses popular misconceptions concerning classical halachic sources about playing musical instruments on Shabbat. The purpose of this post is not to promote a particular stance about halacha (what should and shouldn’t be done) or meta-halacha (how one should determine what should and shouldn’t be done). I’m not suggesting (chas veshalom) that the only (or the best) way to justify one’s practices is by finding a pre-modern halachic text that supports them; I’m just clarifying what those pre-modern texts do and don’t say. Of course, people may have all sorts of reasons for their practices, including aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, and cultural/denominational/communal identities. My goal is not to invalidate those reasons, but to knock them off their “halachic” high horse. The intended result is that when we’re discussing questions about musical instruments on Shabbat — in distinguishing one community from another, or talking about where we will and won’t daven, or determining policies for our pluralistic communities — we’ll have to be explicit about those aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, and cultural/denominational/communal identities, rather than simply playing the “I’m halachic and you’re not” get-out-of-jail-free card. (No, I don’t think such a card should exist in the first place, whether it’s the “forbidden” card of Stage 1 or the “uncomfortable” card of Stage 2, but I can’t change the world overnight.) If you find factual inaccuracies in the post, please post corrections in the comments (with appropriate citations), and I’ll update the post. If you have a stance on the issue that differs from mine, then that’s swell — I totally support your right to have different aesthetic preferences, mimetic traditions, logical arguments, or cultural/denominational/communal identities, or to come up with new and innovative halachic interpretations.

(Many thanks to R. Elisha Ancselovits and his Hilchot Shabbat class for introducing me to a number of these sources. However, any mistakes are my own, as are formalistic interpretations that Rav Elisha would almost certainly frown upon. The deeper discussions about what the sources are really talking about are an important conversation, perhaps for a later post, but this post is addressing the sources on the most literal level, in order to clear up misconceptions so that that conversation can start with a clean(er) slate.)
Myth: The reason for prohibiting musical instruments on Shabbat is mourning for the destruction of the Temple.
Fact: In all of Jewish tradition, there is no value of X for which “We don’t do X on Shabbat (but do X on weekdays) because of mourning for the destruction of the Temple.” In fact, many things are precisely the opposite. Public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat, so many personal and communal mourning practices are suspended on Shabbat.
So where does this idea come from in the first place? Perhaps from sources such as the Gemara’s statement in Gittin 7a (codified by the Rambam in Hilchot Ta’aniyot 5:14 and by the Shulchan Aruch in OH 560:3) that in the aftermath of the destruction, all music (instrumental or vocal) is now forbidden (any day of the week). Needless to say, this prohibition is not widely observed. In light of this, later commentators have limited its scope, but none by saying that it specifically refers to Shabbat.
[Yes, there is a principle of àéï ùáåú áî÷ãù (rabbinic prohibitions regarding Shabbat do not apply in the Temple), and this principle may have some relevance to the question of musical instruments on Shabbat (viz. it means that the fact that musical instruments were played in the Temple on Shabbat isn’t sufficient to convince everyone that musical instruments are ok outside the Temple on Shabbat). But it is undisputed that this means in the Temple, not at the time of the Temple. Any restrictions that apply today outside the Temple also applied in the time of the Temple outside the Temple. And Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:1 shows one example of these restrictions being relaxed (not strengthened) after the destruction.]
Myth: The Mishnah explicitly prohibits musical instruments on Shabbat and yom tov, as it says (Sukkah 5:1) äçìéì çîùä åùùä – æäå äçìéì ùì áéú äùåàáä ùàéðä ãåçä ìà àú äùáú åìà àú éåí èåá (“The flute, five or six [days] — this is the flute of simchat beit hashoeivah, which does not override either Shabbat or yom tov”).
Fact: From the larger context of the Mishnah (Sukkah chapter 4 and the beginning of chapter 5), it’s not at all clear that the flute itself is the reason that simchat beit hashoeivah isn’t done on Shabbat or yom tov. These mishnayot are built around the short mnemonic phrases in Sukkah 4:1, and “äçìéì” could simply be synecdoche for the celebration as a whole, much as ìåìá is synecdoche for all four species, and òøáä is synecdoche for the whole ceremony of encircling the altar. There are certainly other aspects of simchat beit hashoeivah that are more obvious Shabbat prohibitions, such as lighting fire (for non-sacrificial purposes), and perhaps excessive levity.
Myth: The Gemara explicitly prohibits musical instruments on Shabbat and yom tov, âæøä ùîà éú÷ï ëìé ùéø / a rabbinic decree lest one repair a musical instrument [on Shabbat] (Beitzah 36b).
Fact: Not quite. Mishnah Beitzah 5:2 lists a number of activities that are rabbinically prohibited on Shabbat and yom tov, and the list includes clapping and dancing. The Gemara then provides reasons for these prohibitions, and states, as the reason for prohibiting clapping and dancing, âæøä ùîà éú÷ï ëìé ùéø / a rabbinic decree lest one repair a musical instrument [on Shabbat].
It’s certainly not such a huge logical leap from saying that clapping and dancing are forbidden on Shabbat lest one repair a musical instrument to saying that playing a musical instrument is also forbidden. But that’s not what the decree actually said. So those who think that clapping and dancing are permitted on Shabbat should think carefully before citing this source as a reason for prohibiting musical instruments.
Myth: The reason for prohibiting musical instruments is that one might tune the instrument, or replace a string that breaks.
Fact: Supposing that âæøä ùîà éú÷ï ëìé ùéø is a reason for prohibiting musical instruments on Shabbat, the question arises as to which repairs are of concern. Tuning is not mentioned in any of the sources (and is not what would ordinarily be considered “repair”), and replacing a broken string is explicitly permitted by Tosefta Eruvin 8:19 (at least under limited conditions, which aren’t 100% clear).
Tosafot (Beitzah 30a) distinguishes between “their time”, when they were expert at making musical instruments, and “our time”, when we’re not. (They even go so far as to say that the decree doesn’t apply in “our time” as a result.) So they clearly understand the prohibited “repairs” to be significant enough to require a luthier or other skilled professional, in contrast to tuning an instrument or replacing a broken guitar string, which any amateur musician can do.
Myth: There is a distinction between playing percussion instruments and playing other (string, wind, etc.) instruments.
Fact: The sources do not mention such a distinction. If the issue with musical instruments is ùîà éú÷ï ëìé ùéø, then percussion instruments are just as much at issue (since they can be repaired, and since they can accompany clapping and dancing). And if the issue is äùîòú ÷åì (making noise), then this category is also construed to include sounds that are percussive (or otherwise non-melodic) in nature, such as letting a mill run during Shabbat (Shabbat 18a), knocking on a door (Eruvin 104a), and a baby’s rattle (Shulchan Aruch OH 339:3). (In fact, the Me’iri cites a view that the prohibition is only on loud percussion, and not on other music.)
Myth: There is a distinction between playing instruments during kabbalat shabbat and playing instruments during ma’ariv or other Shabbat services.
Fact: First of all, the classical sources about musical instruments on Shabbat don’t mention anything about prayer at all. The question of which (if any) prayers are being accompanied never comes up. Second of all, kabbalat shabbat didn’t even exist before the 16th century.
Yes, there are communities where instruments are played during kabbalat shabbat (BEFORE SUNDOWN) and not during ma’ariv (before or after sundown). But the relevant distinction here is between playing instruments on Friday (universally acceptable, except among those who hold by the opinion above that all music is forbidden) and playing instruments on Shabbat. Two possible ways for Shabbat to begin are 1) the setting of the sun, 2) the recitation of Psalm 92 at the end of kabbalat shabbat. Once either of these has happened, it is Shabbat, and the community’s Shabbat practices (whatever those may be) go into effect.
This means that if the entire service takes place after sundown (for example, during the winter), there is no basis in premodern sources for distinguishing between kabbalat shabbat and ma’ariv. Of course, one might have an aesthetic (or other) basis, which is not the subject of this post.