Torah for the Times  

Friday, May 24 - Sivan 15, 5773 

Torah Reading: Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1 - 12:16)
Candle Lighting Time: 7:56 PM

Shabbat ends: 9:05 PM  


Sing A New Song


Wine and Song

Music plays an important role in Judaism. And while song and wine are sometimes associated with vice, in Judaism these two go together in a positive way.

In this week’s parsha, Beha’alosecha, the Torah describes the role of the Levites. In Chapter 8, verse 16, the Torah states: “For they are dedicated to Me from among the children of Israel.” A more literal rendition reads: “For they are dedicated, dedicated to Me…” The repetition of the word “dedicated” prompts Rashi to explain that the Levites had two primary functions in the Sanctuary:  One was to carry the Mishkan and the other was to sing.”

At which point in the Temple service did the Levites sing? The Talmud informs us that it was when they would pour wine on the Altar after the daily sacrifice. The Talmud puts it as follows: “One says shirah-song only over wine.”

Music and wine are known to be powerful agents for removing one’s inhibitions. There are things people will not say unless they have allowed their tongues to be loosened by wine. Music, too, allows people to express their feelings in a way that they could not possibly express in prose.

In a spiritual vein, wine and song at appropriate times would allow people to express deeper feelings of devotion to G‑d. 

Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds’ Diverse Views of Song

There is, however, a difference in approach between the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud concerning the role song played in the Temple. The Jerusalem Talmud cites another verse in this week’s parsha (8:19): “I have given the Levites, from among the children of Israel, as a gift to Aaron and his sons, to carry out the service in the Tent of Meeting for the children of Israel, and to atone on behalf of the children of Israel…”The Jerusalem Talmud comments that the atonement mentioned in this verse was procured through song. Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud insists that the offering that the song of the Levites accompanied was not effective in procuring atonement without the Levite’s musical accompaniment. The Babylonian Talmud, however, does not go so far in according song with such atoning power. According to the Babylonia Talmud, the musical accompaniment was a way of embellishing the sacrifice that was brought; it was not, however, indispensable to the efficacy of the atonement process. 

Several questions come to mind:

First, why would the Jerusalem Talmud claim that song was so crucial to the atonement process?

Second, what is the conceptual difference between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds’ approaches concerning the power of song in the Sanctuary?

Third, the requirement of singing during the offerings was restricted to public burnt offerings. When a person brought an offering as atonement for a sin it was not accompanied with music. If music is a form of atonement, why did a sin offering not have that requirement? Why only public burnt offerings?

Kapparah on Two Levels

The answer to the last question is the key to answering the other two questions as well.

Atonement exists on two levels. When one commits a crime, the atonement process requires serious introspection and sometimes brutal honesty with oneself. One cannot blithely dismiss his or her action by waxing poetic and spiritual. The sin was down-to-earth and so too the atonement for the sin must come through down-to-earth recognition of the harsh reality that we did something wrong. If it makes the person feel shame, it is a positive effect because the embarrassment for one’s degradation is a cleansing and cathartic agent.

At this stage in the atonement process, music with its loftiness will merely paper over the underlying flaw, which will simply reappear after the effects of the inspiring musical interlude wear off.

The daily burnt offerings, however, brought atonement on another level. The Hebrew word for atonement “kapparah” has several layers of meaning. The first is simply atonement. A person acts improperly towards another. To get the offended individual to forgive the offender, he or she must apologize. However, the apology, even a sincere apology, will not restore the good relationship that existed before the offense was committed. How does one restore the warm relationship he or she enjoyed previously?

The answer is by following the apology with a positive gesture such as sending the offended person a gift as a sign of good will.

When the relationship is thus restored to its original positive state the meaning of kapparah assumes a deeper character. It is no longer translated as forgiveness but as “wiped off” or “scoured.” Not a trace of the previous negative relationship remains.

Similarly, the Talmud states, the Olah, burnt offering, was a form of a gift that would bring about the higher form of kapparah after the sin offering was brought. The Olah was the offering that restored our relationship with G‑d to the highest level.

However, kapparah is a term that has infinite application. No matter how good we may be and no matter how ideal our relationship with G‑d, there is always a sense that we are still lacking in our devotion to Him and, therefore, there is always the need for a higher and deeper form of kapparah.

Moreover, when we grow in appreciation for and closeness to G‑d, what seemed to be ideal in the past can be wanting now.  This realization then elicits from us a need to rectify the newly discovered “flaw” in our relationship. In other words, the more we are atoned, the more sensitive we become and the more we detect small hairline cracks in our connection to G‑d. These cracks can only be seen by the person who is endowed with superior vision because he or she has so purified himself or herself. In simple language: the more refined we become, the more refined we feel we need to become.

And it is concerning this deeper level of kapparah that the Jerusalem Talmud establishes the indispensable role of music. To disentangle ourselves from evil, music is not as crucial as rolling up our figurative sleeves to deal with the reality of that negativity in our lives. However, when we deal with the more sophisticated levels of kapparah, it is then that the Jerusalem Talmud demands that we use music to rise above the most subtle and refined flaws.

Talmud of Exile and Talmud of Light

We can now understand the difference in approach to the role of music between the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud.

The Babylonian Talmud is the Talmud of exile. It was written in the Diaspora in a dark country—Babylonia—and about which the Sages of the Talmud applied the verse in the Book of Lamentations: “He has made me dwell in dark places.” The Babylonian Talmud is described by the Talmud as the Talmud of darkness because it relates to the challenges that we have in galus, the nadir of darkness. 

From the position of darkness, mired in exile, song is not that crucial. A person who is lost in a dark forest would never get out if they would just sing. He or she must look for ways to get out of the dark place. In this context, music is important but not indispensable.  Music will certainly help alleviate some of the feelings of fear that accompany the person who is trying to climb out of the morass and make the trip more pleasant and smooth, but it is no substitute for the basic survival requirement of extricating oneself from the moral quagmire he or she is in.

Music - the Pen of the Soul

The Jerusalem Talmud, by contrast, is the Talmud of the Land of Israel, the Land that is associated with and characterized by light. In this enlightened mode, music plays a much more crucial role. In the world of light, the emphasis is on climbing to greater heights and not being content with the most significant achievements of the past. In this context, music is an integral part of the process. As the Alter Rebbe stated, “speech is the pen of the heart, but melody is the pen of the soul.”

When dealing with the desensitized heart that leads us astray we need, first and foremost, proper speech; words of Torah and prayer to effect our emotions. However, when our objective is to reveal the deeper spiritual dimensions of our soul enabling us to soar to greater heights, spiritual music is an integral part of the process, not just an enhancement and support.

 Living in Two Worlds

We are now living in two worlds. On the one hand we are still affected and challenged by galus values that are quite lowly and despicable. All of the immorality around us is real and we must, in the Babylonian Talmud mode, roll up our sleeves and combat all of the negative influences in our society, utilizing spiritual melodies and music as an aid, but not a substitute for helping to liberate ourselves from galus darkness.

However, we are also, paradoxically, beneficiaries of the light of the future Era of Redemption. We can already see and feel the more sophisticated light and influence of the Jerusalem Talmud’s obsession with lighting up the light. We are able to feel the light of our souls yearn for more light. In this “Jerusalem Talmud of Light” mode, music is an indispensable part of the process of experiencing the sophisticated energy of Redemption.

It is important to recognize that the degree to which music can assist us in liberating ourselves from dark places and especially the extent of music’s ability to energize our soul to reach higher levels depends on the nature of the music itself. The more spiritual the music is—composed by holy people or sung by people in their pursuit of spiritual goals—the more effective the music is.

The proper use of music is certainly one very significant preparation for the future Redemption, which is associated with the “new song” that we will all sing. It will be the song of unmitigated and unadulterated spiritual growth.

 Moshiach Matters 

In the days of Moshiach, "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid... Ramban takes this verse literally and documents his stand profusely. Yet he maintains that such coexistence will not necessitate great changes in creation, because wild animals were originally peaceful creatures, becoming predatory only after Adam's sin.

Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit