Friday, August 5, 2011

A World Without Music

There are various times during the year when orthodox Jews don't listen to music. Most of the time, it's a practical matter. For instance, on Shabbat and yontif, my iPod is quiet simply because I don't manipulate electricity. Other times, it's a matter of custom (which some hold to be so pervasive as to qualify as halacha). Sefira (the counting of the Omer) and the Three Weeks/Nine Days, for example.

When I became Shabbat observant, the lack of background music/sound was what struck me the most. I lived alone, and life became silent for 25 hours a week. I went into sound withdrawal. In the beginning, I left the radio on a timer so that I could wean myself more slowly. To be honest, I don't see why leaving music or a TV on is any different than putting a lamp or crockpot on a timer. I see that it's not Shabbosdich (in the spirit of Shabbos), but is it actually prohibited halachically? People tell me that it is. Some say it's not technically, but it's just not done. (Unless there is a seriously major sports game on Friday night.)

It seems like everyone has a different way of observing this no-music custom during Sefira, the Three Weeks, and the Nine Days. Assuming they've even accepted the custom for one, two, or all of those time periods, just about everyone rules out concerts. However, maybe a cappella concerts and CDs are fine. (The Maccabeats try to catch that crowd.) For the amateur musician, maybe it means not practicing, going to a class, or listening to others. Some also don't listen to recorded music. (Halachically, things can be different when recorded, but that is a very complicated discussion for another day.)

This gets more complicated when you're not in control of the music. Some don't go to the movies (which could also be avoiding celebrations, enjoyment, etc). Some avoid places where music is played. In most of the world, that seems nearly impossible. I'm sure some people stop watching TV because of the possibility of commercial jingles and intro music, but I don't think I know those people. I do know many who don't go to movies, and frankly, I don't see the distinction, unless it's the other people and a more "festive" atmosphere.

Supposedly this is about mourning. Mourners don't listen to music for various time periods, depending on custom. I get that, at least for a time. When my friend passed away, I wrote on here about how cheap and meaningless music seemed. But after a couple of weeks, I needed it again, cheap or not. I looked at music differently, but I knew that it still fulfilled something I need.  

This year, the lack of music really got to me. In prior years, I was working. I had things to distract me, people to see. This year, I'm unemployed and spending many hours job-hunting at my computer in addition to my normal hours at the computer. Maybe I would feel differently if I had a roommate, were married, had children, or otherwise had long time periods of human interaction. I don't. So maybe the music is a stand-in for communication and the human connection. I don't know. I do know that I'm calling my dad three and four times a day. Thankfully, he doesn't seem to mind.

My world became very silent very quickly. And I didn't like it. Worse, my subconscious rebelled. Any comment that my subconscious could connect to a song, no matter how tenuously, immediately went on repeat in my head. Usually, I only know one or two lines without the actual song to guide me.

Day 1, Song #1: "Puff the Magic Dragon." I woke up, and there was the song. A full day of only knowing one line of that song is enough to send you to a mental institution. Also guilty: "When I think about you, I touch myself" and "Oklahoma! Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain."

In short, an internal living hell.

And on that note, Shabbat shalom?


  1. I think one problem Rabbis are worried about with having a tv or radio go on via a timer is that you'll be tempted to adjust the volume, channel, or station. I think that's a pretty reasonable concern, especially by a radio, where if the station isn't tuned into perfectly, there can be static.
    An interesting thing happened in Israel during the first Gulf War: When Israel detected that Iraq had fired a scud missile at them, they would announce on the radio which zone (Israel was divided into several zones for this) had to make their way to sealed rooms. At first, I think many frum Jews had to leave a radio on during Shabbos to hear these announcements. Then Israel created a radio station that would be totally silent, except for these scud missile announcements. (A good novel about this time period is Cactus Blossoms by Rachel Pomerantz.)
    Oh, and thanks for having the post up early in the morning – I hated having to wait until the afternoon the past few days.

  2. We are only commanded to ensure our family, animals, and servants rest, not our vessels. This means you can setup a vessel to start working before shabbos and continue on shabbos.

    However the Rabbis forbade doing this (at least right off the bat) when the vessel makes noise, since this leads to "zilzul shabbos", a degradation of the holiness of shabbos. It appears they might also be concerned that other people may walk by your house, hear the noise and think that you are working on shabbos.

    There are some exceptions, CYLOR.

    I'm sure The 39 Melochos by Dovid Ribiat discusses this issue (I bring it up since I saw it on your bookshelf: ). And, if you want check out Shulchan Oruch Orech Chaim 252:5

  3. There is a prohibition known as השמעת קול, hashmaas kol, which forbids many activities that many noise, on shabbos, even though they were started before shabbos in a permissible fashion (this may be an issue in setting a dish washer to run on a timer, for example). Regrettably, I don't know of any English seforim that have a good discussion of these halachos; Shmiras Shabbos does not cover it well, nor do any of the R' Simcha Bunim Cohen books I just looked in. Perhaps, as Menachem said, R' Ribiat covers it (at least l'chumra ).

  4. Yosef Karduner has lovely A Capella music on a CD that is ok to hear during the three weeks. It's all either Psalms or prayers.

    Also, "The Chevra" singing group from Brooklyn has a wonderful A Capella CD with beautiful harmonies. It's all prayers and religious songs, of course.

    These are all ok except on Tish B'Av.