Friday, February 18, 2011

Thoughts on The Spirit of Shabbat, Part 1

Imagine I asked you to pasken the following question:
We're having a Friday afternoon wedding this summer (late Friday is the ideal time for the wedding, as everyone's available and there's no rush to leave). The only problem is, what's a wedding without music? So, would it be alright to hire a non-Jewish band to play music during the wedding on Shabbat?
I already know what you're thinking: of course not. Who would imagine allowing live music on a Friday night? At the very least, it's not shabbosdik- in the spirit of Shabbat, and there must be some type of prohibition against music, or non-Jews, or non-Jews playing music. Right?
Actually, wrong. Because while we're all certain that non-Jewish musicians at a Friday night wedding would be a no-go, one person wasn't so sure: the author of the Shulchan Aruch.
That's right. It's explicitly permitted, black and white in the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Yosef Karo writes (Orech Chayyim 338:2),
יש מתירים (ח) לומר לעכו"ם לנגן בכלי שיר בחופות. הגה: ואפי' (ט) לומר לעכו"ם ד לתקן הכלי שיר, שרי משום כבוד חתן וכלה, (י) אבל בלא"ה, אסור (מרדכי פרק משילין). ומיהו בזמן הזה (יא) נהגו להקל
Some permit one to tell a non-Jew to play with a musical instrument at chuppahs. (Rama adds) And even to tell the non-Jew to fix the instrument is permitted for the sake of the honor of the groom and bride, but without this [cause] is forbidden. Yet, in this time they customarily are lenient...
Why is one permitted to invite non-Jewish musicians to a wedding? Chafetz Chayim in his commentary on Mishnah Berurah (338:8) explains:
דאיסור השמעת קול בכלי שיר אינו אלא איסור דרבנן גזירה שמא יתקן כלי שיר ואמירה לא"י ג"כ אינו אלא איסור דרבנן והוי שבות דשבות ובמקום מצוה היא דאין שמחת חתן וכלה אלא בכלי שיר ושרי וכנ"ל בסימן ש"ז ס"ה ע"ש ויש מקומות שנהגו להחמיר בזה אם לא שהכינום לזה מע"ש ולא יאמר לו בשבת כלום או שבא מעצמו לנגן [כה"ג]:
For the prohibition of hearing the sound of musical instruments is a rabbinic prohibition - a decree lest on come to fix the instrument. And telling a non-Jew [to violate the Shabbat] is also only a rabbinic prohibition. [So combining the two] is a decree on a decree in the situation of a mitzvah, for there is no joy of groom and bride without music, and for this reason, it is permitted...and some places had the custom to be stringent in this matter if they had no prepared [the musicians] from before Shabbat, but they should not say anything to [the musicians] on Shabbat...
I found these comments almost shocking. Here's an activity that we'd never imagine would be permitted today (try it - ask your rabbi if you can have music at a Friday night Sheva Brachot), and yet the Shulchan Aruch allows it explicitly by using well-known and universally accepted halachic reasoning. What if I didn't want to hire a band, but simply wanted to put background music on a Shabbat timer, playing through a speaker system in the shul's social hall? We'd never consider that appropriate either, but doesn't the same logic apply?
What then determines what we consider "in the spirit of Shabbat" and that which we consider inappropriate? If an activity once considered appropriate can somehow shift, can our attitudes move in the opposite direction? Can something once considered inappropriate later become appropriate?
The answer to that question clearly seems to be "yes." I'll elaborate in my next post.