Shira in the Mikdash

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Halakhic Positions of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik

by R. Aharon Ziegler

Rav Soloveitchik taught that there was a unique Mitzvah and religious experience of Shira BaMikdash, the singing of hymns in the Temple, and this Mitzvah included two components. First, there was an obligation for the Levi’im to sing during the offering of the Korban Tzibbur [communal sacrifices] as part of the sacrificial service. Second, there was Shira which was independent of the sacrificial service, such as the Simchat beit HaSho’eiva, the great celebration which took place in the Temple on Sukkot.

One distinctive aspect of the Shira in the Temple was that It included musical instruments. The Gemara Sukkah [50b] has a debate whether the vocal component or the instrumental component was primary, but all agree that both aspects existed. Although a person may be obligated to recite Shira outside the Temple as well, as when he experiences a personal salvation, in these cases he is only required to recite the Shira with his voice. There is no obligation to enhance his Shira with the accompaniment of musical instruments. What did the instruments of the Temple and their music symbolize in the praise of HaShem? The Rav explained, that while, on the one hand, we must thank GD and praise Him according to our intelligence and understanding, we must also remember that our praises will inevitably fall short. As we say in Tehillim (106:2) “MI YE’MALEL GEVUROT HASHEM YASH’MIA KOL TEHILATO”, “WHO CAN RELATE THE MIGHTY DEEDS OF HASHEM? WHO CAN PRONOUNCE ALL OF HIS PRAISE?”

The music we play in the Beit HaMikdash expresses this idea, that GD’s praise cannot be achieved by words, but rather, “To You, silence is praise” (Tehillim 65:2). Standing in GD’s presence, we recognize that we lack the vocabulary to capture His majesty. The ocean of feelings, of thanksgiving, of awe, and love within one who stands before Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu wants to burst forth, but it cannot be contained by words or forced into the rational order of sentences. Outside of the Temple we recognized and are aware of the inadequacy of our praises, but in the Temple we express those feelings.  The Levi’im would play the holy songs on their instruments to symbolize their desire to endlessly sing to HaShem without the limitation and the inadequacy of words.

About Aharon Ziegler

Rabbi Aharon Ziegler is the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Agudath Achim of Boro Park and the Dean and Rosh Kollel of Kollel Agudath Achim. He is the author of six volumes of Halakhic Positions of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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