Levitical Song in the Jerusalem Temple

"Why were the Levites selected to sing in the Temple? Because the name Levi means cleaving. The soul of him who heard their singing at once cleaved to God." (Zohar 2:19a)


Music as part of the cultic service in Temple times is given little mention in the Bible. Even the description of the inauguration of Solomon's Temple in the first chapters of I Kings lacks an explicit reference to music.[1] The Books of Chronicles, however, provide a very detailed description of Temple; the detailed rosters and genealogies of Levitic singers and instrumentalists (planned by King David and established by Solomon) give the Levitical singers a prominent status which almost overshadows that of the priests themselves. According to Chronicles, David chose 4,000 Levites to constitute an orchestra and chorus for performing sacred music to complement the sacrificial cultic rituals.

The nature of Temple music at the dedication ceremony of Solomon's Temple is described in most impressive terms.

There are many scholars who claim that these reports were but a projection back from the chronicler's own time. By stressing the prominent role the musical element played in the Temple service, the Chronicler attempted to afford the Levitical singers with Davidic authorization so as to strengthen their position and prestige after the return from Babylon. According to this approach, the "weepers by the waters of Babylon" (Psalm 137) were not simply mourning exiles, but the Levitical singers who were forced to entertain the Assyrian and Babylonian kings.

graphic hebrewWhile biblical references are few, Rabbinic literature has much to say about the use of music in Temple worship during the late Second Temple period.[2] Much of the narrative in the Mishnah is based on eyewitness accounts, with descriptions of the daily morning sacrifice and the Levites' singing of texts from the Psalms, the numbers of instruments in the Temple orchestra, and of particular singers, such as the virtuoso Hogras ben Levi who kept his secret techniques of voice development to himself.[3]

We learn that the Levitical singers went through a training period from the age of 25 to 30 and usually participated in the Temple service between the ages of 30 to 50; young Levites often joined the choir to "add sweetness to the sound" but were not permitted to stand on the same platform with the adult Levites.[4] The rabbis of the Talmud discuss whether the vocal or instrumental aspect of the service most significant, and vote in favor of the former.[5] It is unclear from the sources whether the Levitical singers sang together with the instruments mentioned (nevel, harp; kinnor, stringed instrument; and cymbal) or a cappella, although we do learn that there were many more singers than instrumentalists.


[1] Only the trumpets are mentioned in the reconstitution of the Temple services in the time of Joash (II Kings 12:14) [back]
[2] Contemporary writers such as Philo of Alexanderia, Josephus and the writings of the sectarians of the Qumran, document this period as well. [back]
[3] Mishnah Tamid, Mishnah Arakhin, Shekalim 5:1, Yom 3:11 [back]
[4] Ar. 2:6; M Hullin 24a; M. Yoma 3:11; M. Sota 5:4, BT Sot. 30b; M. Sukkot 3:11, Sukkot 38b [back]
[5] BT Sukkot 50b [back]

The Encyclopedia of Judaism (Leiden: Koninklije Brill NV: 2000) Available on-line from:

Barnes & Nobles linkThe Book of Psalms, Nahum Sarna (Schocken Books, 1993)

Encyclopedia Judaica

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