Congregation Beth Shalom, the area’s largest, and arguably most traditional Conservative synagogue, has introduced instrumental music to its Kabbalat Shabbat service one Friday each month.
Since 2006, the congregation has been using simple percussion instruments during the Kabbalat Shabbat portion of Shabbat Alive, a monthly family-oriented service. But in recent months, Assistant Rabbi Michael Werbow and musician Julie Newman have led the musical Shabbat Alive service with the aid of a guitar.
Newman uses her guitar throughout Kabbalat Shabbat, “then puts it away for Maariv,” said Werbow. “We use it in a limited sense.”
To address the needs of congregants “who want a traditional service,” said Werbow, a second service, without the use of musical instruments, is also offered on the nights of Shabbat Alive.
Musical instruments are not part of Beth Shalom’s Saturday morning service. The instruments are “specific to Kabbalat Shabbat,” Werbow said.
Beth Shalom decided to add instruments to its Friday night service in response to some congregants’ requests.
“I think it was certainly something some people in the congregation were looking for — a new way to approach prayer,” Werbow said. “Very few people have come to me and said we don’t agree with it.”
Werbow said that about 150 people typically attend Shabbat Alive, while the traditional service draws only about 20.
Instruments were used during Shabbat services in ancient times, but were discontinued after the destruction of the Second Temple, said Rabbi Danny Schiff, Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning.
“It became a practice not to play instruments on Shabbat since the destruction of the temple,” said Schiff. “That was the rabbis’ halachic response to the destruction of the temple.”
Another reason for refraining from playing instruments on Shabbat, according to Schiff, is the prohibition of carrying things in areas where there is no eruv.
Playing instruments on Shabbat is not new to Conservative theology.
“Years ago [the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards] laid the foundation for the use of musical instruments based on the halachic permission to include an organ in Jewish prayer services,” wrote Rabbi Stephen Steindel in an explanation to his congregation of the synagogue’s integration of instruments into its service.
“This is something that many of our congregations have been doing for a significant amount of time,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “I would say there are a significant number of congregations that have this type of instrumental music. It’s not for entertainment. It’s to help facilitate the joy and the simcha and the singing during services.”
Other Conservative synagogues in the area have also incorporated the use of instruments into their Shabbat services. Tree of Life Congregation has its own musical ensemble one Friday night each month.
At Adat Shalom, congregant musicians play monthly on Friday evenings, and there is a musical contemporary service every few weeks on Saturday mornings. A service without the use of instruments runs concurrently with the contemporary service on those mornings, said Cantor Yaier Lehrer.
Beth El Congregation of the South Hills recently decided to allow “instrumental but non-electric instruments on Friday nights,” said Rabbi Alex Greenbaum. “This is experimental. It does not guarantee that two years from now we’ll have instruments in the service.”
“We haven’t implemented it yet,” said Greenbaum, “but the plan is once a month. And for any service that we have instruments at, we’ll have a non-instrument service as well.”
“We decided to try it out because halachically it’s an option, and in the Conservative movement it’s an option. We felt that if there’s a request for it, and a congregational need for it, we should do it. We know it’s been successful in other synagogues throughout the country, so we’re willing to give it a try. But we will offer another service so that those who don’t want music should have a place to go.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)