King David introduced the use of instrumental music in temple worship during his reign. God had never instructed it and before David it had not occurred. At the time of Jesus, instrumental and vocal worship at the temple was prominent. However, in the synagogues, singing was limited to chanting of the Psalms.
Why chanting instead of singing or instrument playing that was present at the temple? Here are five possible contributing factors which scholars cite:
- The Babylonian culture may have had some influence on the development of music in Jewish worship.
- It may be that the return from exile was accompanied with the beginning of Rabbinic influence and dominance. In fact, it appears that, from about the 2nd century B.C. onward, the synagogues came to be greatly dominated by the Pharisees who emphasized their legalistic teaching therein. The rabbis apparently taught that a proper life of piety resulted from increased knowledge of Scripture. This may have contributed to the emphasis being more on instruction than on worship through music.
- Perhaps the main reason that the use of instruments in worship ceased in the synagogues was that the Rabbis decided to forbid such. According to their views, such could possibly lead to work on the Sabbath. Musical instruments remained a part of the Sabbath service in the temple because the rabbis apparently could do nothing regarding their presence there. But they could and did prohibit them outside the temple for fear that playing an instrument on the Sabbath, a permissible act in and of itself, might lead inadvertently to the musician’s tuning it, or mending it, or carrying it from one public place to another – all of these being forbidden acts of work. Since the main synagogue service took place on Sabbath mornings, no musical instrument could become an integral component thereof.
- The rabbis gave another reason for banning instruments of music (as well as other types of singing): they apparently felt such joyous or celebratory music would be inappropriate in light of the sorrows that were being experienced by the Jews (i.e., the destruction of the temple and their exile). The rabbis apparently felt that such an attitude of mourning should be carried into the synagogue service as well. They quoted Hosea 9:1, “Do not rejoice, O Israel, with exultation (or “merriment”) like the nations,” and then declared: “An ear listening to songs will surely be cut off…. A song in the house means destruction is at its threshold” (Sotah 48a, as given by Liturgica.com).
- The music of the synagogues was further influenced by the legalistic and puritanical ethic of the rabbis in regards to their concern over promiscuity. They taught, “A woman’s voice is indecency” (Ber. 24a, as given by Liturgica.com); and, “Men singing and women answering is promiscuity; women singing and men answering is like fire set to chaff” (Sotah 48a, as given by Liturgica.com). These excessive fears of promiscuity led to the separation of men and women, and ultimately to only men singing in the synagogue in worship.1
Now, the definition of chanting is probably not what you’re thinking of, the idea of repeating words or phrases in a rather stagnant tone. Ken Collins defines it as this:
“To some people, the word ‘chant’ refers to mindless repetitions of the same words and phrases. But ‘chant’ is actually a technical term for a specific musical form-a simple melody in which you sing a number of words or syllables on the same note. Or you might say that a ‘song’ is words set to music, but a ‘chant’ is music set to words. The most well-known chant is the musical setting of the Lord’s Prayer, which is more elaborate than most chants. Chants were invented to encourage congregational singing, since they require less musical skill than songs. The advantage of chanting is that most any text can be chanted to any tune without modifying either the tune or the text, and that makes it an ideal way to put scripture to music.”2
The Psalms were apparently chanted in the synagogues by alternating verses sung by two groups, or where a soloist alternates with a choir in singing verses.
Consider also the passage in Ephesians that was probably written by Paul with the idea of chanting in mind, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”3
3 Ephesians 5:19