Jewish Society in the Land of Israel and the Challenge of Music in the Roman Period

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism
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During the Second Temple period, music had an important role in Jewish society. Alongside it was Greek music, which at times made inroads into Jewish cultural life. However, the Jewish institutions of the time managed to filter out the religious and cultural influences of this foreign musical tradition. After the destruction of the Temple, by contrast, Hebrew sources point to pagan ritual music that had significant, damaging influence on Jewish society. The sages tried to counter this influence through sermons, but, surprisingly, not by absolute prohibition. The influences of pagan music increased in the Talmudic period, even as the halakhic prohibitions waned. This paradox requires an explanation. This article suggests that the way the sages treated pagan music was an aspect of their complex attitude toward the Greco-Roman culture, one that alongside prohibitions increasingly tended toward leniency once it became clear that prohibitions did not provide a defense against pagan cultural influences.

Jewish Society in the Land of Israel and the Challenge of Music in the Roman Period

in Review of Rabbinic Judaism




JosephusAnt. 7.305–306 (trans. Ralph Marcus; LCL) vol. 5 pp. 522–523.


JosephusBell. 2.15.4 (trans. H. St. J. Thackeray; LCL) vol. 2 pp. 446–447.


JosephusBell. 4.9.12 (LCL) vol. 3 pp. 172–173.


JosephusBell. 3.9.5 (LCL 698–699): “thus Josephus himself was reported to have fallen [. . .] This intelligence filled Jerusalem with the profoundest grief [. . .] and many of the mourners hired flute-players to accompany their funeral dirges.”


See e.g.1QS 10.9 (trans. Geza Vermes The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English [New York: Penguin 1997] p. 112): “and all my music shall be for the glory of God. (My) lyre (and) my harp shall sound for His holy order;” and similarly in 1QM 5.4 (Yigal Yadin The Scroll of the War of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness [trans. Batya and Chaim Rabin; Oxford: Oxford University Press 1962] pp. 274–275): “Upon the banner of the ten they shall write ‘Rejoicings of God upon the ten-stringed lyre.’ ” Although the mention of the lyre (or the ten-stringed lyre) sounds allegorical this might be a realistic description since at that time the sect members were almost certainly familiar with the music played in the Temple. See Batya Bayer “The Biblical Nebel” in Yuval 1 (1968) p. 119. 1QH 21.23–25 (Vermes Complete Dead Sea Scrolls p. 289): “Then will I play on the zither of deliverance and the harp of joy [on the tabors of prayer] and the pipe of praise without end.”


Saul Lieberman“Ben-Sira à la lumière du Yerouchalmi,” in REJ 97 (1934) pp. 50–57 who cites the opinion of Lévi.


See also Moshe Zvi SegalThe Complete Book of Ben Sira (Heb.; Jerusalem: Bialik Institute1972) p. 56: “תדמוך: to lie as in the Aramaic.”


Lieberman“Ben-Sira” p. 53.


Saul LiebermanHellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America1962) p. 142 n. 22.


LiebermanHellenism pp. 142–143.


Lee Israel Levine“Toward an Evaluation of Herod the Builder,” in Cathedra 15 (1980) p. 54 (Heb.): “The construction of the Temple followed a clearly Roman model;” idem Jerusalem in Its Splendor: A History of the City in the Second Temple Period (Heb.; Jerusalem Carta 1998) p. 120.


Franz Joseph Dölger“Klingeln, Tanz und Handelklatschen im Gottesdienst der christlichen Melitianer in Aegypten,” in Antike und Christentum 4 (1934) pp. 245–265; Pierre Boyancé Le culte des Muses chez les philosophes grecsÉtudes d’histoire et de psychologie religieuses (Paris: de Boccard 1936) pp. 64ff.; Erwin Rohde Psyche: Seelenkult und Unterblichkeitsglaube der Griechen vol. 1 (Darmstadt: Kroner 1980) p. 287; Hendrick F. Stander “The Clapping of Hands in the Early Church” in Elizabeth A. Livingstone ed. Studia Patristica—Papers Presented at the Eleventh International Conference in Patristic Studies Held in Oxford 1991 (Leuven: Peeters 1993) pp. 75–80.


Henri GraillotLe culte de Cybèle: Mère des dieux à Rome et dans l’empire romain (Paris: E. Leroux1912) 258 ff.; Panayotis Pachis “ ‘Γαλλαῖον Κυβέλης ὀλόλυγµα’ (Anthol. Palat. VI 173): L’élément orgiastique dans le culte de Cybèle” in Eugene N. Lane ed. Cybele Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of Marteen J. Vermaseren (RGRW 131; Leiden New York and Cologne: Brill Academic Publishers 1996) pp. 213–216.


Joseph Garfinkel“Dancing Scenes in Early Rural Societies,” in Qadmoniot 130 (2005) pp. 66–80 esp. 80 (Hebrew). On the important place that rhythmic dancing occupied in the pagan processions in the Canaanite Syrian and Phoenician rites see William Oscar Emil Oesterley The Sacred Dance: A Study in Comparative Folklore (Cambridge 1923) p. 116.


Charles Clermont-Ganneau“Le temple de Baal Marqod à Deir El-Kala,” in Recueil d’archéologie orientale (Paris: E. Leroux 1888) vol. 1 pp. 101–114; Franz Cumont “Baalmarcodes” in PW 2 (1896) cols. 2834–2835; Jean-Paul Rey-Coquais Inscriptions grecques et latines de Syrie 6 (Paris: Geuthner1967) 68no. 2739. This idol was originally Phoenician. See Jonathan N. Tubb “Phoenician Dance” in Near Eastern Archaeology 66/3 (2003) pp. 122–125.


Józef Tadeusz MilikDédicaces faites par des dieux (Palmyre Hatra Tyr) et des thiases sémitiques à l’époque romaine (Paris: Geuthner1972) p. 55.


Henri JeanmaireDionysos—Histoire du culte de Bacchus (Paris: Payot1991) p. 320.


Joachim Braun“Die Musikikonographie des Dionysoskultes im römischen Palästina,” in Imago Musicae 8 (1991–1995) pp. 109–133. It would be interesting to compare this with the musical instruments depicted in a mosaic in the mystery villa discovered at Pompeii; see Gilles Sauron “La musique dionysiaque sur la grande fresque de la villa des Mystères à Pompéi” in Pierre Brulé and Christophe Vendries eds. Chanter les Dieux: Musique et Religion dans l’antiquité grecque et romaine (Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes 2001) pp. 219–230.


GraillotLe culte de Cybèle pp. 255–260; Quasten Musik und Gesang pp. 54–56; Gunther Wille Musica Romana: Die Bedeutung der Musik im Leben der Römer (Amsterdam: Schippers 1967) pp. 56–62; Robert Turcan Les cultes orientaux dans le monde romain (Paris: Les belles-lettres 1992) p. 45.


Harald von PetrikovitzNovaesium: Das römische Neuss (Cologne and Graz: Böhlau1957) pp. 38–40; 92 and fig. 32.


Robert TurcanReligion romaine (Leiden: E.J. Brill1988) Pl. XXV: 52.


Marcel BulardLa religion domestique dans la colonie italienne de Délos d’après les peintures murales et les autels historiés (Bibliothèque des écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome, vol. 131, Paris: E. de Boccard1926) p. 48: “On sait quelle importance les anciens attachaient à l’accompagnement musical du sacrifice qu’il fût destiné dans leur pensée soit à apaiser les dieux en les disposant favorablement soit à écarter les puissances malfaisantes soit encore—et cette hypothèse paraît des trois la plus plausible—à imposer aux fidèles le silence qui est la condition du recueillement et d’une manière générale à couvrir tout bruit qui en distrayant l’attention du fidèle donnerait lieu à un piaculum.”


Walter BurkertGreek Religion (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press1985) p. 237.


Franz CumontLes mystères de Mithra (Paris: Les introuvables1985) p. 172.


Robert J. Bull“A Mithraic Medallion from Caesarea,” in IEJ 24 (1974) pp. 185–190; Baruch Lifshitz “Césarée de Palestine son histoire et ses institutions” in Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase eds. ANRW II 8 (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter 1977) p. 605 and more. As regards Aelia Capitolina see A. Cabezón Martin “Las Grutas del parque de la Independencia de Jerusalen Un Mithraeum?” in Liber Annuus 52 (2002) pp. 297–306; Jodi Magness “A Mithraeum in Jerusalem?” in Govianni Claudio Bottini Leah Di Segni and Leslaw Daniel Chrupcala eds. One Land: Many Cultures—Archaeological Studies in Honour of Stanislao Loffreda (Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press 2003) pp. 163–171; contra: Emmanuel Friedheim “The Religious and Cultural World of Aelia Capitolina: A New Perspective” in Archiv Orientální 752 (2007) pp. 145–146 n. 108.


Kallah 1.18 (ed. Higger pp. 150–151; trans. Yosef Rabbinovitch [London: Soncino 1984] 51a[1]): “R. [Eliezer b. Jacob] said: Whoever changes his word is as if he worshipped idols as it is stated ‘My father peradventure will feel me and I shall seem to him as a mocker (metha`tea`)’ and metha`tea` means nothing else than idolatry;” Kallah Rabbati 2.5 (ed. Higger p. 196); B. San. 92a: “R. Eliezer said: Whoever changes his word is as if he worshipped idols;” Midrash Haggadol on Genesis Toledot 27:12 (ed. Margulies 470); Midrash Lekah Tov (Pesikta Zutarta) (ed. Buber 132 and n. 72) and more.


LiebermanHellenism p. 120.


Pierre Boyancé“Sur le mystères phrygiens—J’ai mangé dans le tympanon, j’ai bu dans la cymbale,” in Revue des études anciennes 37 (1935) pp. 161–164 (reprinted: idem Etudes sur la religion romaine [Rome: Collection de l’école française de Rome vol. 11 1972] pp. 202 204). In this context see the description by Herodotus of Anarchasis holding a drum and figurine in his hand: Herodotus Hist. 4:76 (LCL pp. 274–275). The mystical and cosmic dimension of music in the rite of Kybele is also indicated in the description of the goddess’s attributes by Varro (ca. 116–27 B.C.E.) cited by the Church Father Augustine. He speaks of the goddess’s timbrel as representative of no less than the circle of the earth (orbis terrae). See Aug. Civ. D. 7:24 (trans. W.M. Green LCL pp. 458–459; 460–461) and similarly mentions the cymbals made of bronze and not of iron; see Ibid. (Incidentally elsewhere in this work [2:4] Augustine mentions that in his youth he was present at a procession to the goddess the virgin Caelestis that is identified with the Anatolian Kybele in North Africa and listened closely to the singers in honor of the goddess. See Marcel Le Glay Rome: Grandeur et chute de l’empire [Paris: Perrin 1992] p. 456). For an exacting discussion of the various musical instruments used in the mystery rites of Kybele in the Greek and Roman sources see Kirk Summers “Lucretius’ Roman Cybele” in Eugene N. Lane ed. Cybele Attis and Related Cults: Essays in Memory of Marteen J. Vermaseren (RGRW 131; Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers 1996) pp. 358–361.


Michael Avi-YonahHistorical Geography of Palestine from the End of the Babylonian Exile up to the Arab Conquest (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute1984) p. 118.


Paul Corby Finney“Orpheus—David? A Connection in Iconography between Greco-Roman Judaism and Early Christianity,” in Journal of Jewish Art5 (1978) pp. 6–15; Asher Ovadiah “Orpheus Mosaics and Early Byzantine Periods” in Assaph—B1 (1980) pp. 43–56 [rep. Idem Art and Archaeology in Israel and Neighbouring Countries—Antiquity and Late Ant¬iquity London 2002]; Jean Starcky “Un Orphée juif ?” in Le monde de la Bible 34 (1984) pp. 16–17; Bezalel Narkiss “Pagan Christian and Jewish Elements in the Art of Ancient Synagogues” in L.I. Levine ed. The Synagogue in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia 1987) pp. 183–188: “Thus the identification of a pagan cult with a Jewish or a Christian messianic figure was very common in the syncretistic milieu of late antiquity and serves as but one example of the adoption by one cult of the pictorial symbolic language of another. The Orphic figure symbolized for the Jews an image of salvation and eternal life; it was legitimized by identifying him with David the musician the Messiah to come;” Salles Quand les dieux p. 325; Asher Ovadiah “The Symbolic Meaning of the David Orpheus Image in the Gaza Synagogue Mosaic” in Liber Annuus 59 (2009) pp. 301–307.


B. Hag. 15b. See Werner“Conflict” p. 415.


Emmanuel Friedheim and Shimon Dar“Some Historical and Archaeological Notes about Paganism in Byzantine Palestine,” in Revue Biblique 117/3 (2010) pp. 397–409.


FriedheimRabbinisme et paganisme pp. 1–152.


Y. A.Z. 3:3 42d col. 1396.


LiebermanGreek in Jewish Palestine pp. 15–67; see also pp. 20–21; idem Hellenism pp. 100–115. On the relationship between Rabbinic dicta and the aphorisms of Greece and Rome that might express outside influence see e.g. E.A. Halevi The World of the Aggadah: The Aggadah in Light of Greek Sources (Heb.; Tel Aviv: Dvir 1972); idem Topics in the Aggadah in Light of Greek Sources (Heb.; Tel Aviv: Dvir 1973); idem The Historical-Biographical Aggadah in Light of Greek and Latin Sources (Heb.; Tel Aviv; Dvir 1975).


Yaron Zvi Eliav“Did the Jews First Abstain from Using the Roman Bath-House?” in Cathedra 75 (1995) pp. 3–35 (Heb.); Emmanuel Friedheim “Rabban Gamaliel and the Bathhouse of Aphrodite in Akko: A Study of Eretz-Israel Realia in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries C.E.” in Cathedra 105 (2003) pp. 7–32 (Heb.); idem “The Roman Public Bath in Eretz-Israel: Research Dilemmas Relating to Its Definition as a Sacred Institution” in Cathedra 119 (2006) p. 180 n. 37 (Heb.); Friedheim Rabbinisme et Paganisme pp. 69–107.


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