As Tisha B’Av recedes into the past, we keep the memory of the Bais Hamikdosh fresh in our minds by leaving part of our walls unplastered and placing ash on a chosson’s head. There is one place in the world where the churban’s remembrance goes much further. For the past hundred and fi fty years, the minhag of Ashkenazim in Yerushalayim has been to forbid instrumental music at weddings. Bride, groom, and guests make do with a drum ensemble and vocalist, which, you may agree, is not less conducive to toe tapping than a sixteen piece band. As we will see, this minhag seems to contradict normative halachah. The following discussion is not a halacha guide and will not mention all the leniencies or stringencies of this issue.
Gladdening the bride and groom is vitally important. Chazal tell us that whoever performs this mitzvah is considered as if he built one of the ruins of Yerushalayim (Berachos 6b). Although there is a general prohibition to play and listen to music after the churban, the Remoh (O.C. 560) rules that this does not apply to weddings “because it is impossible for a bride and groom to not have musical instruments.” Indeed, the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 338) cites an opinion that a non-Jew may play musical instruments on Shabbos to gladden the bride and groom, and the Remoh adds that he can even repair them for this purpose.
The Deroshas Maharil (hilchos eiruvei chatzeiros) also emphasizes the importance of wedding music. Once, when the wife of a city governor died and he decreed that no one could play music for a whole year, people asked the Maharil whether it was all right to have a wedding without music in such circumstances. He replied that because music is the principle joy of bride and groom, the wedding party should travel somewhere else to celebrate he chasunah. In obedience to his pesak the celebrants hitched their horses and wagons and traveled to another town.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Y.D. 2:112) rules that if a bridegroom does not want musicians, we force him to bring musicians no less than we would force him to provide a wedding seudah.
So we may well ask: If music at weddings is so important, why did the sages of Yerushalayim forbid regular bands and instruct people to make do with vocals and drums?
The answer is that every rule (almost every rule) has its exceptions, and we indeed find in the Gemara (Shabbos 110a) that it is sometimes justifiable to reduce wedding joy. In Gemara times, people at weddings used to beat myrtle and palm branches on drums that had bells attached to them creating a sort of jingling beat. When Rav passed away, Rav Yitzchok bar Bisna decreed that people should cease this practice for a year as a sign of mourning for the deceased godol hador. The same thing happened more recently when the Avodas HaGershuni passed away in 1700 and the sages of his time decreed that no music should be played at weddings for a year. (Shu”t Nish’al LeDovid )
From all this we see that important as wedding music may be, it is sometimes overridden by other considerations. Now, we will explore when and why wedding music was outlawed in Yerushalayim.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Shalmas Chaim vol. 1 77) writes that the minhag was first instated by Rav Meir Auerbach (author of Imrei Chaim, 1815-1877): “I heard that the Imrei Moshe enacted the prohibition, and someone who is not concerned about it and denigrates it will suffer harsh retribution.”
However, the reason for the decree was not clear to everyone soon after its promulgation. In his sefer, Tal LeYisroel, Rav Yehuda Leib Horenstein (who lived at the end of the 18th century) complains: “But now, the joy of bride and groom is annulled and has turned to sadness, for the beis din has forbidden music for some reason; I do not know if this is permanent or temporary.” Despite the lack of clarity concerning this minhag, there have been attempts to trace its roots.
In The Heavenly City (vol. 3), Menachem Gerlitz (who researched Yerushalayim history by interviewing old timers) writes that the decree was promulgated during a terrible plague that raged in 1865-66 and killed many people including some of Yerushalayim’s finest talmidei chachomim. To find out why Hashem was punishing the city, Rav Meir Auerbach made a sha’alas cholom by writing his question on a slip of parchment, and placing it on his forehead when he went to sleep. At midnight, he suddenly woke and seeing before his eyes the words of the verse, Behold, it is standing behind our wall, looking forth from the windows, peering through the lattices (Shir Hashirim 2:9), he fell from his bed in a faint. After recovering, he went out in the dead of night to ask the kabalist, Rav Rafael Yedidiah Abulafia, what the verse was hinting at.
“The verse, Behold, He is standing behind our wall, refers to the Kosel,” Rav Abulafia told him. “The Kosel is complaining of its denigration — how can the Jews of Yerushalayim celebrate weddings with musical instruments when the Bais Hamikdosh is lying in ruins! This is why they are being destroyed by a plague.” The next day, Rav Meir hurriedly gathered his beis din to enact a decree that from now and forever, no musical instruments should be played at Yerushalayim weddings, and within a few days the plague ceased.
Although a recent halachah work, Beis Chasanim (ch. 17, 1982), mentions Rav Gerlitz’s explanation of the decree, in his sefer, Mo’adim Lesimcha, Rav Tuviah Freund argues that if this explanation were true, why do no seforim or newspapers from that era mention the story? The plague itself is well documented — surely someone would have recorded how it ended.
Rav Freund says he asked the ziknei and chachmei Yerushalayim, including Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, about the matter, and they told him that the main reason for the decree was tzeni’us. Not that men and women were sitting together at wed dings, Rav Freund explains. Rather, due to the novelty of musical instruments in Yerushalaym at the time, women and girls would draw near to get a better view and this sometimes led to mixing of men and women. To put an end to this, Rav Meir forbade music altogether.
Although the Maharil Diskin says that this minhag is in remembrance of the churban (Shalmas Chaim ibid), Rav Freund explains that this rationale is in addition to the considerations of tzenius.
There was a time when wedding music was forbidden not only in Yerushalayim, but in the whole of Eretz Yisroel. The sefer, Shaarei Yerushalayim of Rav Moshe Reisher (printed in 1868) records this surprising fact in detail (sha’ar 9).
“In the whole of Eretz Yisroel,” he writes, “there is no one who knows how to play the harp or flute. Some people came from the Diaspora to Eretz Yisroel and played on the flute at weddings but did not live for long there. A flute player came to Tzefas for about two months and was hired for weddings. He then returned to the Diaspora and returned with a new small flute, a large bass flute, and a clarinet, and passed away after two years. Through this, people clearly saw that it is forbidden to play a flute during the time of the churban as Chazal have said.” “In Eretz Yisroel there are troupes that gladden the bride and groom with a drum,” he adds. “When there is a wedding of either rich or poor, they go there and beat the drum, sing with all their might, and dance with all sorts of simcha until daybreak. So it is with the Ashkenazim.”
In a similar vein, an 1882 calendar of Eretz Yisroel instructs that “no musical instrument may be used in the room during a wedding, except women who beat upon drums of leather stretched over small earthenware pots.”
What is the difference between musical instruments and drums? Rav Wosner explains that unlike most instruments, drums do not play the melody of a song but only provide a beat. On the basis of this distinction, he ruled that even though the electric organ was invented after Rav Meir’s decree, since it is similar to an accordion, it is automatically included and may not be played at Yerushalayim weddings. The custom of having music-free weddings in Eretz Yisroel dates back as far as the Radbaz who lived in Egypt and Eretz Yisroel during the 16th century. He writes (vol. 4:132) that although Chazal say that “there is no joy except with a musical instrument,” this perhaps applied to their lands [Bavel], whereas in our land [Eretz Yisroel] people can rejoice with meat, wine, and song, and also praise Hashem with songs and with kerovos [poems] instated by Rishonim.”
Rav Freund theorizes that as immigration to Eretz Yisroel increased, newcomers celebrated weddings in chutz la’aretz style, replete with musical instruments, and the old custom was forgotten.
Restrictions against music at weddings even existed outside Eretz Yisroel. In the 19th century, the Maharam Shik of Chust in the Ukraine ordered all those who listened to him (which did not include everyone in his community as the Haskalah was on the rise) to not take musicians at weddings. He feared that the levity induced by music might lead to mixed dancing (Likutei Mahari’ch).
Until this day, many Yerushalmim make do with a poiker (drummer in Yiddish) at their weddings. Others hold their weddings in Beit Shemesh, Brachfeld, or as far away as Bnei Brak. May we merit speedily the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdosh.
(Source: Rav Tuviah Freund. Sefer Mo’adim Lesimcha; Otzar Haposkim, Yerushalayim, 5770)