Happy New Year! And why I’m struggling with 5777 years of research material.

I can hardly think of a more perfect thing to do today than to write about the shofar on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and in some communities during the morning services of the month of Elul). While certain aspects of my research on the shofar have proved fairly straightforward, pinning down facts from Hellenistic times has posed a challenge.

In my research, I’ve been trying to discover why, out of all possible instruments, the shofar has survived as the sole instrument used in Jewish religious services. I have found several general sources explaining its symbolism and role in Jewish faith, both historical and current. Jewish Musical Traditions by Amnon Shiloah (author of “Music and Religion in Islam”), Passport to Jewish Music by Irene Heskes, and several other books that survey Jewish music have helped me justify the shofar’s importance in Jewish tradition. According to Shiloah, the shofar has historically been used to scare enemies, make announcements, and convey messages from God. In Joshua 6:6-20, the wall of Jericho comes down with the blast of the shofar. Furthermore, Jewish mystics historically imbued it with special powers, for example awakening the “celestial shofar.”1 Reading specific passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and other parts of the Bible have also helped me to develop my perspective.

One part of my research has presented a particular challenge, however: I didn’t anticipate having so much trouble nailing down when instruments were or weren’t played in Jewish religious services. A citation in an article by Ethan Tucker (“Musical Instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov”) led me to read fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even within this single primary source, no consensus emerges on how instruments were used in religious services in Second Temple Judaism. This source encompasses a variety of opinions, and I have struggled to decide which ones should get my focus.

Narrowing in on why (or if) the Jewish perspective on religious instrumental music changed has also received a lot of my attention. Several sources indicate that most forms of sacred instrumental music were banned at some point around the destruction of the Temple. None of the sources I’ve encountered, however, say who banned it. Many of them give convincing arguments for why instrumental music might be prohibited. For example, playing or fixing an instrument requires the use of tools (banned on Shabbat). Or music might make too much noise. Nevertheless, I am still looking for a good explanation of why these worries surfaced only after the destruction of the Temple (or if that’s what happened at all).

In order to understand these questions, I’m planning to read about how Jewish communities changed after the destruction of the Temple. I hope that reading about non-musical religious shifts will help me assess how and why Jewish instrumental music nearly disappeared from religious contexts.

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