Music in the Bible


by Guy Shaked

Keywords: Bible, Biblical music, harp, Hatsotsra, horn, Kinor, Metsiltaim, Mishna, Nevel, Shaked, Shofar, trumpets Talmud

1. Folk music

That is, music preformed by people other than the Levites and Priestes (Khohanim) of the Temple. This group contains a large number of instruments (more than the three kinds of instruments for the temple). Examples for can be seen in 2 Samuel 6:5, Psalms 150:1-6 and 1 Chronicles 13:8. It can be seen from the parallel description in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles of the bringing of the arc to Jerusalem that not all the instruments mentioned in the text were known exactly to the editor of the text. It appears that in processions where the common people participated folk music was played together with the temple music by the Levites and Priests.

2. Temple music

The basic Temple musical ensemble was probably composed of three types of instruments: harps, psalteries and cymbals (Kinor, Nevel and Metsiltaim). These three instruments seem to appear in a number of times together in connection to Temple music. This professional ensemble had developed in the Bible during the processions and festivities of the transfer of the arc of the convenent (Aron Habrit) from Shilo to Jerusalem by King David (Divrei Hayamim 1, 16:5, 25:1,6; Divrei Hayamim 2, 29:25, 5:12). When for example in the times of the Maccabeas the rite at the temple was restored to be like in David's time. They played these three instruments again in the renovated temple (1 Maccabees 4:54). Other instruments (see: folk music, above) were played in the Temple only on special occasions (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin, 2:10,1 Gamra). [on parts in the ceremony]

2.1. The loudness

The sound of some of the instruments played was very loud. This is evident from the sources in the Talmud which speak of the great sounds in the temple that were heard all the way to Jerico (Babylonian Talmud, Tamid, 3). Although these sources are probably an exaggeration they speak of the general property of the music - loud.

2.2 The sonority

The sonority of the sound was important feature of the music, and there is evident an ambition to achieve beautiful (arev, yafe) sound. The sonority was controlled and regulated by restrictions and orders of the number of each instrument to be played of each type as part of the ensemble. So it is said (Mishna, Arachin, 2:3,5) that in the Temple there should be between two to six psalters (nevalin), two to twelth flutes (halilin), and no less than two trumpets (hatsotsrot), and nine harps (kinorot), but only one (cymbles) Zilzal.Thus regulating and achieving a specific and typical sound color. The sound color, it appears, was an important factor also in the playing of single instruments. As is the case with the Abuv that should be of reed and not copper because its sound is beautiful (arev)[2], and when “mahlik” on the Abuv it sould be done on a single instrument because it is pretty (yafe) (Mishna, Arachin, 2:3). And as is in the case of the cymbal (Zilzal) which was fixed, however it changed its color and it didn’t sound as before, and therefor were returned to its former less glorious condition but with better sound (Talmud Yerushalmi, Suka, 25:1 )[1].

As to simultanous notes played together there is in the bible only evidence to monophony, or in the biblical terms, playing and singing (bekol ehad) "with one voice" (2 Chronicles 5:13) and there isn't any reference to polyphony.

2.3 The atmosphere

The music played in the temple and at religious festivities was most gay. As was the case in the inauguration of the walls of Jerusalem (Nechemia 12:27), in festivities over wining a war (Divrey Hayamim 2, 20:27) or in David’s bringing of the arc of the covenant to Jerusalem (Divrei Hayamim 1, 15:16). David also played in front of Saul to relieve his bad mood (depression) - meaning played gay music before him. Also David aulugy to Saul and Jonathan is without music as music was probably not used to express mourning or other sad events.

3. War music

Two musical instruments were used in the bible times as signal instruments in the times of wars. These instruments are the horn (Shofar) and trumpet (Chatsotsrah), the trumpet (the Chatsotsrah) was used by the Priests (Khohanim) and the second (the Shofar)by others. It appears that there were specific sounds for specific purposes (signals) in war.

4. Feast music

5. Prostitution music

6. The instruments

6.1. The horn (Shofar)

The horn is the only instrument to have been used continuously from Biblical times to our day in the synagogue. It is made of "parid"'s horn, it's shape is semi-circular and is capable of producing one tone only and is not a melodious instrument therefore. It's blows are differentiated rhythmically only. They are called trua, tkia and shvarim. The voice of the Shofar is the only sound that remains in our days from the music played in the Temple (see in the section below on the hatsotsra). This is because it reminded the first centuries Jews of the temple as in mosaics it appears frequently with objects connected to the Temple. The Shofar also symbolized the sound of the resurrection when the Messiah will come as it was sounded on most important events to the people like war, holidays and especially the anointment of a new king [3].

6.2. The trumpet (Hatsotsra)

The trumpets were made of silver and were made by Moses, who was ordered to make two of them by God, and later in the Bible they are mentioned only in plural (hatsotsrot). He used them to summon the people, order to what direction their camp should migrate, war and festivities in the tabernacle. (Bamidbar, 10:1-10). The difference between them and the shofar is that they were used in the priests and in the tabernacle and later Temple. In later times they were used by David when bringing the Arc of the Convent from Shiloh to Jerusalem (Divrei Hayamim 1, 13:8), Temple sacrifice to God was established by Solomon (5:11-14) or reestablished after it had stopped (Nechemia, 12:35, Ezra, 3:10, Diverei hayamim 2, 15:14, 29:26-28). In the Mishna it is said that no less than two trumpets (hatsotsrot) were played in the Temple (Mishna, Arakhin, 2:3,5). In Shimchat Bet Hashoeva they were played with psalters, harps and cymbals on the fifteen steps between two ezrot in the Temple (Mishna, Suka, 5:4). The Mishna also described when and how many times they were used in Temple services (Mishna, Suka, 5:5, Tamid, 6:6). In Rosh Hashana two trumpets (hatsotsrot) were played with the horns (Shofarot) (Mishna, Rosh Hashana, 3:3-4). As to their material, it apears they could also be made of the horns of "Hatat" (Mishna, Kanim, 3:6).

As to their shape there has been a certain standing problem in Musicological and Biblical research. This emanated from the depiction of two trumpets on the Arch of Titus. On this arch of victory that has been constructed in the Roman Forum for the returning conqueror of Judea, there appear scenes from his victory procession in Rome. Two strait long trumpets appear in it as well as the Temple's menorah (lampstand). Therefore it has been assumed, that it is a depiction of the Temple’s trumpets (hatsotsrot). However that the Temple’s trumpets (hatsotsrot) had a strait shape is not supported from any other source, [4] while there is rather support that the strait tubes was the shape of the Roman legions military trumpets. shape of the Roman legions military trumpets. Under such an explanation the trumpets of the Roman legions in the Arch of Titus represent the Roman military force that achieved victory and glory, as does on the other side of the Arch the representation of their chariots and banners. In fact, it seems that trumpets were a subgroup of shofar (with the same shape) that were probably similar in their sounds. This is proven by the fact the Biblical editor did not have any problem to say that Moses made two silver trumpets (hatsotsrot) for the priests and it doesn’t mention any trumpets (hatsotsrot) were used by Joshua’s in his wars. This was acceptable for the Biblical editor because it said Joshua’s priests used the shofarot, and as was already said the trumpets (hatsotsrot) were a sort of subgroup of the shofar.

The conclusion of all of this is that it may be plausible to claim that the call of the shofar has its source in the call of shofarot and hatsotsrot of Temple time, meaning the voice of modern day shofar might be a remnant of the sounds practiced using the hatsotsrot at the Jerusalem temple.

6.3. The harp (Kinor)

The harps together with the psalters (nevel) and cymbels (metsiltaim) were instruments regularely played in the Temple by the Levites (Divrey Hayamim 2, 5:1). The Temple instruments were made of special wood that Hiram of Lebanon donated to Shlomo (Melachim 1, 10:12). The harp and the ugav are mentioned as the instruments played by Yuval, the mythological father of all musicians (Bereshit, 4:21). Later it is mentioned as the instrument that David played before becoming king of Israel (Shmuel 1, 16:23). This sugests the instrument was played also as a solo instrument outside the Temple and not only in ensambles playing. The harp was also played in feasts (Yeshaayahu, 5:12, 24:5-6), and by prostitutes (Yeshayahu 23:16). The instruments playing outside Temple also symbolised gayity (Yeshayahu 24:5-6, Eyov 21:12), and its stop as in the time of the exile in Babylonia (Tehilim 137:1-2) simbolizes grief (also Eyov 30:31).

In the Mishna there is mention of a cover for the harps (Mishna, Khelim, 16:7), and it is said that nine or more instruments would be used in the Temple (Mishna, Arachin, 2:5). In the Temple they were played with the temple ensemble and other instruments on the fifteen steps (maalot) (Mishan, Suka, 5:4) on the feast of simchat bet hashoeva and also below ezrat Israel and open to to the ezra of the women (Mishna, Midot, 2:6). An internal part of the chatat (bnei meav) was used for making the harp (Mishna, Kanim, 3:6).

Learn all about biblical figures in Italian sculpture in the book: Masters of Italian Sculpture - by Guy


[1] Although this phrase seems to be about the faults of Alexandrine (Hellenistic) metals artists, the choice of quality of sound color to exemplify their faults shows also of its importance.

[2] The second word used here to describe beautiful (‘yafe’ denoting both beautiful visualy and musically) sound is ‘arev’ meaning both delicious voice and delicious food (Hoshea, 9:4).

[3] In Jacob's blessing the tribe of Naftali is mentioned as the bearer (fast messenger - like a "sent" dear) of the sayings of the Shofar ("Imrei Shofar") (Genesis 49:21). Meaning, the most important and critical events in the life of the people of Israel. The interpretation of the Tiberian Biblical grammarians from about the 10th century Ben-Asher and Ben-Naftali, who punctuated the word as Shefer (instead of Shofar) which is the only appearance of such word in the Bible, and which was probably influenced by the Aramaic "Shufra" meaning "the best" seems to be wrong. For, it doesn't make sense that Naftali's fast messenger's will run miles and miles just to bring beautiful artistic poems as is suggested by "Shefer". It makes much more sense that they would bring the critical and significant messages - the messages of the Shofar. The interpretation of the Samaritan Bible supports this interpretation as it writes Shofar (with the vowel Vav after the Shin) thus rendering the word as Shofar and not Shefer (reference to the Samaritan Bible).

[4] In fact in his article in the Grove encyclopedia, Joachim Braun, mentions that according to Josephus (Josephus, iii.12, 6) description of the hatsotsra, it did not look much like the instruments depicted in Bar-Khokhva's coins or the Arch of Titus (Joachim Braun, “Biblical Instruments: 3. Old Testament instruments. 3. Hassrah,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music Online, L. Macy ed. (Accessed 1 August 2003) .).

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