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Musical Instruments in Biblical Israel

There is a sense in which the Bible is part of every person's heritage. The Bible contains deep insights into the human condition and moral guidance which have stood the test of time. It is also replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. However, in spite of their frequent mention in the Bible, the instruments were hardly ever described.

by Norman A. Rubin

For the choir director; on the Gittith. A Psalm of Asaph. Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, strike the timbrel, The sweet sounding lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, At the full moon, on our feast day. (Psalm 81:1-3.)

instrument5.jpg (460719 bytes)For many generations research into Biblical music and musical instruments was chiefly of a linguistic nature. Only in last three decades, thanks to important archaeological discoveries, have new horizons been opened for research into ancient music. Figures of male and female musicians, dance groups and orchestras as well as musical instruments, appear in paintings, coinage, sculptures, figurines, filling entire mosaics and frescoes, carved in ivory and stone, and molded in pottery. The various finds have supplied scholars with clues to a material culture and an iconographic basis for determining the shapes of the instruments and, in certain cases, even the actual mode of playing them.

Confirmation is by other external sources, such as the writings of the historians Philo and Josephus (musical events even organized by Herod (Josephus, Antiquities 15.8.1 (270), Whiston 1957:463), the Apocrypha, the writings of the sectarians of Qumran, and in the Mishnah.F1 Comparative sources from other cultures also add to the knowledge of Biblical music and instrumentation.

The Lyre and Harp

And his brother's name was Jubal; he was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe. (Genesis 4:2)

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Jewish Lyres. Ancient Jewish coins bearing representations of stringed  instruments.

The first mention of musical instruments in the Bible is to be found in the Book of Genesis. These two instruments, the harp (Hebrew: nevel) and the lyre (Hebrew: kinnor), are the two stringed instruments most frequently mentioned in the Bible. 

The lyre was the chief instrument of the orchestra of the Second Temple.F2 King David, who excelled at playing the lyre), was therefore held in particular honor by the Levites. According to Josephus, the first-century CE Jewish historian, it had ten strings sounded with a plectrum (Josephus, Antiquities 8.3.8 (94), Whiston 1957:463). The lyre is box-shaped, with two arms and a yoke, and of an approximate average height of 50-60 cm.

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Psalteron (harp). Made of wood with ten strings. Heighth 90 cm. Gaza 6th century BCE. Reconstructed according to ancient mosaics. Photo by Advanced Photo and Graphic Service courtesy of the Haifa Museum.

The only iconographic evidence of the harp (psaltery) is on a mosaic from Gaza (6th century CE) showing King David playing a harp and not a lyre. It is assumed therefore, that it is a stringed instrument with a broad resonance body, ten or twelve strings and arms made of horns approximately 60.5 cm in height and 38 cm. in width. Josephus mentions it as an instrument plucked with the fingers.

The carrying of the Holy Ark to Jerusalem by King David was accompanied by the playing of "harps, of tambourines and castanets and with cymbals and trumpets." (II Samuel 6:5, I Chronicles 13:8).

The Pipe

The pipe mentioned in this verse is probably the HALIL - a reed flute that was used for rejoicing and mourning ceremonies. Another theory is that it is the syrinx  - the Greek word for pan-pipes, a row of hollow reed pipes tied together, sounded by blowing across their tops.

The Tambourine

Let them praise his name with dancing... make melody to him with timbrel and lyre. (Psalm 149:2-4.) 

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Woman with Timbrel. Pottery figurine, heighth 10.5 cm. Cyprus 6th century BCE.  Photo by Advanced Photo and Graphic Service courtesy of the Haifa Museum.

The tambourine or timbrel (a frame skin-taut drum) is mainly a popular instrument used for accompaniment of song and dance.

Archaeological finds indicated that it was an instrument mainly played by women. Thus, Jewish tradition opposed the use of the instrument after the destruction of the Temple as it is based on the belief that TIMBRELS, connected to women and dance, were associated with temptation and corruption.

The Castanets

The CASTANETS or the POTTERY RATTLES. The numerous finds of pottery rattles (Mena'ane'im - shaking) probably applies to the instrument mentioned in the above passage. The most typical rattles are in the form of a spool, with a loop for suspension and in a fruit or animal shape. Hard objects such as small pebbles or pottery shards were put inside.

The Lute

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The Lute. A bronze figurine, female, playing the lute, heighth 15.5 cm. Beat Shean, 15-13th century BCE.  Photo by Advanced Photo and Graphic Service courtesy of the Haifa Museum.

The lute (Hebrew: Minnim) as written in the Psalms 81:2, 150:3 is a stringed instrument similar to the lyre.

The Sistrum

The sistrum- sliding rattle, pictured on coins, mainly Roman, indicated its usage as a musical instrument in the ancient world.

The Cymbals

The cymbals in the Hebrew text were written 'Mezilayim, Zilzalim, MezillotF3 - bronze plates with a hollow boss and with a metal thumb loop (or with long thin metal arms). Average diameter about 12 cm.. Cymbals were most probably played by the Levites in the Temple.

The Trumpets 

Make two trumpets of beaten silver and use them for summoning the community and breaking camp ....And Aaron, the priests, shall blow the trumpets .... you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt offerings... (Numbers 10:2-10 .) 

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Stone with inscription "To the Place of Trumpeting to..." discovered in 1969 at the Haram esh-Sharif.

Trumpets in this passage were used as a mustering call for the Israelite clans; as a cheering sound into battle; and the sounding was a reminder to the offering on appointed seasons on behalf of the Lord. Later the trumpet was sounded in the presence of royalty; and like the 'SHOFAR' was integral to the service in the Temple. Biblical TRUMPETS may be classified as follows:

  • TEMPLE TRUMPETS - made of silver, long and conical with broadened bell - as shown on the relief on the Arch of Triumph in Rome.

  • MILITARY TRUMPETS - short and broad, with prominent mouth pieces, as depicted on Bar Kokhba coins minted during the revolt with Rome.

The CONCH SHELL found in excavation sites such as Jericho and Hebron indicated it is a form of trumpet for the mustering call to battle.

The Shofar

The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets of ram's horn went marching in front of the Ark of the Lord. (Joshua 6:8-21.)

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Shofar. Ram's horns with silver and gold mouthpieces. The silver one to be sounded on the Day of Atonement. The one with the gold mouthpiece to be sounded on the Feast of Trumpets. Photo by Advanced Photo and Graphic Service courtesy of the Haifa Museum.

The SHOFARF4 - The ritual horn is a natural sound-producing instrument carved from a ram's horn. Its famous appearance was at the siege of Jericho when Joshua blew the SHOFAR, the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. (Archaeologists estimate it was used as a signaling instrument that served as a call to his army.) Only after the SHOFAR was taken into the service of the Second Temple did its sound express spiritual significance.

It is mentioned in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 16) that the SHOFAR for the Feast of Trumpets (Jewish New Year) must be a straight ram's horn with a gold-plated mouthpiece, while on the Day of Atonement, it has to be curved, with silver-plated mouth-piece. Today, the SHOFAR is blown in the synagogue at the final prayer on the Day of Atonement: It is the only live sound preserved from Ancient Israel. "They made BELLS of pure gold and put them around the skirts of the mantle..." (Exodus 28:33-35; 39:25-26).

Musical instruments are frequently mentioned in the Bible, whether relating to ritual ceremonies or to secular festivities. The Temple Priests blew the trumpets on Holy Days and feasts. The trumpets were also used for summoning the congregation and for breaking camp. At coronations the trumpets were blown as part of the formal proclamation. 

The SHOFARS (spiritual horn) were sounded in times of peace and in times of war; the KINNOR was the instrument David played before Saul; and "By the waters of Babylon... there we hung our harps on the willow trees°; the reed flute in numerous legends, is connected to supernatural forces, magic, taboos, hidden desires, and other themes. 

Military commanders, returning victorious from battle, were greeted by song and dances, "his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and dances.." (Judges 11:34). Spontaneous rejoicings after victory in war were accompanied by women who sang, drummed and danced.

The Bible is also replete with songs which were always accompanied by musical instruments. The musical accompaniment at the feasts of the rich and, of course, at the kings court is also described several times, often with a note of reproach. Amos denunciations against the external pomp of the cult centers of the northern tribes which the prophet rattled against the roaring of song and the playing of LYRES.

For many of the terms of musical instruments, a precise archaeological equivalent can already be proposed. Others still await future excavations.

The Bell

In the Bible, the BELL (Pa'amon, Heb)F5 is mentioned as a distinctive feature, along with the pomegranate ornament, of the High Priest; the trappings served as a ritual accessory. The BELL was also used on secular occasions, up to the Byzantine period - as evidenced by finds of different shapes and metals in various archeological sites. Most BELLS found in Palestine are small and are made of bronze with an iron clapper. "And Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances." (Exodus 15:20-21). In the original Hebrew text the name of the instrument is TOF - drum. The TOF (membranophone) is an instrument which produces sound by means of vibration of a tightly strained framed membrane which in turn causes the air to vibrate.

The TOF

The TOF may be single-frame drums (timbrels); or double-membrane drums that have membranes on each end (both types are still in use in many countries).

Friction TOF can be of varying shapes and materials. They are rubbed by hands or set into vibration by a friction chord or stick.

The Tabor

The TABOR as mentioned in Psalms 81:2 is a small drum used to accompanied oneself to the playing of a pipe or flute. "...you are commanded, when you hear the sound of horn, pipe, zither, triangle, dulcimer, music and singing of all kind... (Daniel 3:5) Daniel in this passage describes the orchestra of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. The HORN might be a double-pipe wind instrument made up of one melody pipe and one drone pipe. The PIPE is a wind instrument (aerophones) such as pan-pipes, whistles or skin bagpipes. 

The Zither

The ZITHER, in the ancient past, was a musical instrument made of various materials, which produce sound by themselves. There were a diversity of types and in a variety of materials - wood xylophones; musical glasses; stones chipped to give a graded scale; natural materials such a reeds, nut shells, sea shells; metals such as upturned metal bowls.

The Triangle

The TRIANGLE is a small musical percussion instrument that consists of a steel triangle, open at one corner, that is struck with a steel rod. (still in use today). Whereas the DULCIMER is an instrument which produced sound by means of vibration of tightly-stretched chords or strings; struck by a small metal or wooden sticks (hammers). The revolt against the Romans in CE 70 and the catastrophe that followed put an end to the Temple-centered music of the Jewish people, and opened a new period in which the synagogue became the focal point of creativity in the musical form and tone.F6 The sounds of the musical notes of the ancient past are lost. Yet the study of comparative Near-Eastern tradition may be able to point to a certain melodic and formal elements as 'very old' that may be a connection to the ancient past. Yet, their attribution to Biblical or early post-Biblical can never be proved or confirmed.

"you who pluck the strings of the lute and invent musical instruments like David.." (Amos 6:5.)


F1The Talmud - collection of Jewish Law and Tradition consisting of the commentaries of the Mishnah and Gemara. The Sectarians of Qumran seemed to have abstained from the use of instruments holding "the fruit of the mouth" singing, as the pure expression of devotion (some of the hymns are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls).

F2After the return from exile in Babylon, music as a sacred art and an artistic sacred act was gradually given its place in the organization of the Temple services.

F3The 'MEZZILLOT, of the horses mentioned in Zechariah 14:20, "On that day, not a bell on the war horse.." are probably the same metal ball trappings depicted on Assyrian reliefs.

F4The SHOFAR is capable of producing only a few sounds of undefined pitch: "Tekia" - a long sound with a broken ending. "Shevarim" - alternations between basic and over tones. "Teruah" - three sounds on rising fifths.

F5BELLS came into use in the Near East only in seventh century BC. Thus, the mention of BELLS in Exodus could only mean metal platelets. 

F6The use of musical instruments in the synagogue service was prohibited (except for the sound of the SHOFAR), leaving music a strictly vocal art. PSALMODY, melodic reading of Bible texts, and prayer chants were made to fulfill a function in collective Jewish worship.


Photography by Advanced Photo and Graphic Service, Afula, Israel. Emil Gal, manager.


Page last edited: 02/07/09 08:46 PM


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