Was there a choir in the Temple in Jerusalem?

July 18, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple


Q. Prince Charles once praised Chief Rabbi Sacks Z”L as “a light to the nation”. The words are obviously based on Isaiah’s prophecy (chapter 49 verse 6) that Israel would be “a light unto the nations (plural)”. How does one go about being a light to the nation or nations?

A. You don’t necessarily convert them to Judaism, though a Jewish mission to the gentiles would not be a bad idea.

You teach them Jewish ideas, ideals and values even if they will never adopt the full program of Judaism.

Sometimes you work by means of direct contact: sometimes, you enlist other agencies and groups, even other faiths.

Maimonides says that Christianity and Islam, though theologically erroneous, deserve respect because they help to teach monotheism and ethics.

Every serious thinker recognises that Judaism is the source of spirituality and ethics. So if we are indispensable to the world, why do we get criticised and misunderstood?

One of the factors behind antisemitism is the human experience that some pupils turn on their teachers.

It is ironic, on the other hand, that there are Jews who are so busy working with and on the world that they forget to be Jewish “far sich” – for themselves.


Q. Was there a choir in the Temple in Jerusalem?

A. Temple worship included instrumental and choral music, directed and provided by the Levites.

The number of instruments in the orchestra was restricted, but there was no maximum limit to the number of singers; the minimum was 12 (Arach. 11a, 13b; Sukk. 50b-51a). The singing was more essential than the instrumental music.

Like other Levites, the choristers commenced their training at the age of 25, entered active service at 30 and retired at 50 (Num. 4:5 etc., 8:24:25; Hull. 24a).

There were male singers only. Boys, who could normally not enter the court of the Sanctuary, were allowed to join the choir “k’dei littein tevel bane’imah”, “to add flavour to the music”.

They were known as “so’adei halevi’im”, “assistants to the Levites”, though, by a play on words, their critics called them “tzo’arei halevi’im”, “tormentors of the Levites”, since they had high, unbroken voices, and adult choristers could not reach such high notes (Arach. 13b).

After the Temple was destroyed, as a mark of mourning the sages discouraged the use of music. Henceforth, synagogue officiants generally chanted the services; instrumental music vanished, and there was no organised choral singing for many centuries.

Such choirs as did exist were small groups of male vocal assistants to the cantor.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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